If you’ve been around the search space for any period of time you’ll have heard one of these sayings at some point or another: “Content is King”, “Write for people not search engines”, “Create good content”. AJ Kohn points to a recent Matt Cutts video where Matt talks about content and whether Google will penalize a site for having good content but poorly implemented SEO practices. There are two main points I take away from this, the first is much of what Matt says can quickly be taken out of context to the point where others are saying “you don’t need SEO only good content”, and the second is “what is good content?” I think the first statement is inaccurate and hope to prove some of the value SEO has, while the second needs some clarification.
What Makes Good Content?
To the second point “what is good content?” I feel there are two answers. The first is Google’s definition of good content. The second is our opinion of good content. The “ours” being yours, mine and everyone else’s opinion. These two points of view can differ significantly and while Google may point to the algorithm and say it decides what is good, some people may feel otherwise (which is why Google always has someone complaining about how they no longer rank on something.)
The challenge is that most people trust Google’s results. There are a number of search studies that tell us that very few people click beyond the first page, and even fewer beyond the second. Most clicks usually happen in the top 3 organic rankings. This actually means that our opinion of “good content” doesn’t really matter all that much, only Google’s opinion matters, and that the users either trusts Google implicitly in the results they don’t click further or users are lazy (which is a totally different topic). The fact is good is what Google says is good.
Ultimately this means if we want our “good content” to be discovered or read we in fact do have to write not for people but for the search engine. This means formatting your content to capitalize on this as much as possible, which can be enabled with smart SEO tactics.
My approach to content is to use think of the traditional Brief Essay Framework which has the following structure:
- The Topic
- The Body
- The Conclusion
The body should include or illustrate several points to the main topic, with the conclusion illustrating the value or wrapping everything up nicely. It’s a simple approach, but it prevents you from trying to take on too much, and makes web pages that are easily digestible. This approach applies to almost any site, be it products (the topic is the product, the body is its features, the conclusion is its proposed value) to blogs, to corporate sites.
This approach to content can also be leveraged to tap into important keywords or phrases for your website. The topic should represent your most important keywords or phrases and the theme should carry throughout your page. Your next challenge is to identify the theme to the search engine.
Connecting Content to Cues
Well thought out content is a great start. However you need to connect with users first and this happens in the search results based off of content from your page. Ideally your page title (hopefully your page title aligns to your topic) and meta description will be used by Google in the search results. I say ideally because they may decide to rewrite your page title or description as they see fit, so again it’s not what we think is relevant it’s what Google thinks is relevant.
Fortunately when users get to your site Google doesn’t rewrite that (yet). The problem is you have literally milliseconds to connect with users. Regardless of how big the impact of page load time is on SEO, the speed at which your page loads, and more importantly the speed at which people identify relevant content becomes critical, and this all begins in the search results which have setup their expectations.
To deliver on this, you need to make key content pop. This can be done in a number of ways the first of which is put you’re your topic in the first H1 tag, and make sure you style it so it is highly visible. Then make sure your topic is re-enforced with content that is emphasizes in the page by either bolding or underlining critical text, or use imagery to re-enforce the topic. However you do it, use the one second rule. If someone saw your page for one second what one thing would they remember?
Be a Popcorn Film
Google would have us believe that great content is well linked and shared, but by that logic then every blockbuster movie would also be an Oscar contender (think of ticket sales like inbound links), unfortunately Google doesn’t care for great dramatic stories, Google thrives on popcorn films, and so that is the world we have to play in. This also means you have to decide if you are trying to be a blockbuster or a smart art house film. This is also why we see many brands rank well, and very few scholar papers rank on terms like “shoes” or “cars”. Brands drive links, and conversation more than scholarly papers do. This also unfortunately is the biggest driving factor for what ranks today in search engines. The popular kids get picked first, and so you need to focus on building content equity, and more importantly market your content so it gets noticed. See this is the part where the SEO stuff kicks in, and these are the rules Google has set in place.
Bring it all together
Ultimately if we strip out all the other factors that impact great content, we end up with a Michael Bay film that should have the English Patient at its heart. Begin your content with a clear topic, develop engaging cues, and then exploit the hell out of it (I mean go out and apply every ounce of SEO you know to optimize the content).
I believe a well-developed SEO strategy around good content will always outperform great content with a poorly thought out SEO strategy. The difference is someone who understands SEO knows how to squeeze out every possible value from their content while someone who focuses solely on content is just kind of hoping something happens in the search results without really understanding what could happen. If you plan to have people find your website; then content without an SEO strategy is like having a sniper rifle without any bullets you can take aim but you may not fire. If however you don’t care about being found then I suggest you go out write a bunch of content, hope for the best, and have a good day.