This is not another “SEO is dead” hit piece. Nor is it an “SEO isn’t dead, it’s changing” sidestep of the same topic.
This is the most obvious SEO hack of all time: You need quality content to rank today, so make your creative team part of your SEO strategy.
SEO is alive and well, particularly technical SEO, given the importance of mobile first and site speed. However, on-page SEO is no longer the difference-maker it used to be.
These days, everyone has a solid SEO strategy. That, combined with advances in search engines, has diminished the impact of some SEO tactics.
In many respects, that’s the ultimate goal. Google’s endgame has always been to develop a search engine that’s akin to a trusted librarian that answers your every question with a curated list of amazing resources.
Though that’s still a ways off, recent algorithm advances that place a premium on user experience have made search exponentially more human.
In the last few years, there’s been a shift:
We’ve finally reached a point where it’s not only OK to create content for people rather than algorithms, but you’ll be rewarded for it. With billions of pieces of content created each year, it’s harder than ever to rank. Your content needs to cut through the noise and stand out.
So is killer creative the key to a successful SEO strategy? And is having a creative content team with the skill to craft unique and engaging assets your best bet for driving traffic and earning customers?
Invariably, any discussion about SEO strategy in the last 10 years has hit upon the same touchstones:
Those same terms have been part of nearly every digital marketing conversation for over a decade, yet they remain a mystery to most marketers and content creators. To make things worse, in the last couple of years, SEO has grown to include even more arcane terms:
How do you make SEO even more inaccessible to the masses? That’s right, add a dose of analytics.
On the surface, it seems as though SEO has gone from some mystical dark art run by specialists whispering about black hat tactics, to metrics-obsessed data heads muttering about analytics only they understand.
It would seem what was once confusing has now become confounding, with an additional layer of complexity thrown in for good measure.
In reality, though, the opposite is true.
While it’s true that search engines are evolving at breakneck speed, incorporating AI and machine learning, it could be argued that those advances are actually making SEO easier for the common folk.
The better Google becomes at understanding content, assessing its quality and measuring user experience, the less important traditional on-page SEO tactics become. At the same time, though, the quality of your content becomes exponentially more important.
Think of SEO, or at least its birth, as one part necessity and one part opportunity. From the beginning, search engines (especially Google) have stated that their goal is to recommend great content that answers user questions.
The challenge for search engines, especially early on, was understanding content. How does a machine know what a web page is about, let alone whether the content is good? SEO (search engine optimization) helped solve that problem.
Keywords helped search engines classify topics. If the word “camping” is in the title and used frequently in the body copy, search engines were able to identify the blog post as being about camping.
As for quality, it’s subjective. Beyond recommending pages with the keyword “best,” search engines couldn’t truly recommend the best anything. But people can. So Google began using backlinks as a ranking factor, a signal that other people found the content valuable and a means by which to measure quality.
Admittedly, this is somewhat reductive. I purposely cherry-picked these two examples because they’re easy illustrations of how SEO helped people find quality answers in the sea of content available on the web. Both also serve as prime examples of how people gamed SEO and, in the process, lowered the bar for digital content.
Let’s face it, for many years any content you got offline was of a higher quality than what was being suggested in search results. Why? Because as soon as people realized organic rankings affect web traffic, they started creating content for search engines rather than people.
Up until very recently, the guidelines for writing web copy were:
An oft-repeated claim was that people won’t read long content online. It was a lie then, and it’s a lie now. Those guidelines were established to make nice with search engines and increase the likelihood of getting on page one.
Nobody cared whether the user actually got anything of value out of the 300-word blog that repeated “wart removal” over and over and over and…
Nobody, that is, except Google.
Again, Google has ALWAYS been up front about its goal to deliver the best possible content to users (this is the second time in this blog!). It just hasn’t always had the technology to deliver on it.
But as Google has evolved, it has routinely emphasized that mission by penalizing behavior that diminishes user experience. It started penalizing sites that keyword stuff or use spammy backlinks.
Even more notable is that many of its recent algorithm updates have rewarded sites that create great content that users love to engage with.
It’s not necessary to dig into Google’s Hummingbird, Penguin or Panda updates (or any of the countless unnamed updates that are regularly rolled out). What you should know is that a few years back Google started using AI to better understand content and how users interact with it.
Two of the known AI systems Google has incorporated into its algorithm are:
1) RankBrain: In use since 2016, RankBrain helps Google connect pages to concepts and recommend relevant pages even when they don’t include the exact term being searched.
Previously, if you queried “online marketing,” “internet marketing” and “digital marketing,” you’d get discrete results for each. Now, Google knows you probably would want info on all three since they are closely related.
The user isn’t left doing endless searches to find the best content, and content creators aren’t stuck trying to target infinite keywords that are closely related.
2) Neural matching: In use since late 2018, neural matching helps Google find “super synonyms” by identifying how words are related to concepts.
The example they give is that someone who searches “what’s wrong with the picture on my TV?” will get results for articles on “the soap opera effect.”
Think about that – the link between the query and the result is a concept, not a keyword. It’s like asking your friend, “What’s-his-face with the whiskers?” and he intuitively knows you mean his neighbor John.
In addition to using AI to sharpen its search results and provide better recommendations, Google started measuring user engagement to gain insight into content quality. It uses bounce rate, time on page, pages per session and other metrics to determine if users find content worthwhile.
To be clear, SEO still matters. But whether you’re talking about keywords, backlinks or meta descriptions, they don’t have the same impact on SERPs they once did.
In a recent forum, Google’s John Mueller was asked why sites that use spammy backlinks still rank well. His distilled response was that sometimes even sites that do things badly get other important things rights.
“For example, it might be that one site uses keyword stuffing in a really terrible way but actually their business is fantastic and people really love going there, they love finding it in search and we have lots of really good signals for that site.
So we might still show them at number one, even though we recognize they’re doing keyword stuffing.”
That statement speaks volumes about the decreased emphasis of keywords and backlinks in the Google universe, and the elevated value of the user experience.
Google’s focus on user experience has resulted in a sea change in organic rankings. Gone are all those short hit-and-run blogs, replaced by long-form pillar pages with mixed media – GIFs, infographics, videos and interactive elements – designed to better engage and inform users.
Increasingly, we’re finding that people will read long-form content. In fact, research shows blogs over 1,000 words perform better than their shorter counterparts. That’s reflected in rankings, where longer content routinely sits atop SERPs.
Predictably, the past year has seen a proliferation of highly designed 3,000-word “ultimate guides” meant to keep users on the page. But that type of content isn’t easily created. It requires a huge investment of time and resources to create a piece that can cut through the noise, grab the attention of your audience and keep it.
It also requires skilled creatives.
More tools than ever allow you to assume control of your own marketing efforts. Most CMS platforms allow you to easily write your own content. Plenty of plug-and-play tools give you the ability to design assets and edit videos. But it’s a huge leap from being able to do something and being able to do it well.
With the amount of digital content choking up the web, it’s becoming more important to produce exceptional content that stands out from the crowd. And good enough simply isn’t good enough.
And it’s not enough to have your SEO fundamentals locked down. These days, everyone does. You need to make creative a part of your SEO strategy.
SEO is changing. Many of the tactics we’ve come to rely on are no longer as effective as they once were. That’s not a bad thing. Improvements made by Google and other search engines are leading to better user experience and encouraging the creation of high-quality content.
SEO isn’t dead. However, the need to incorporate strong creative work into an effective SEO strategy means the field must evolve.
In the same way recent algorithm changes forced SEOs to become more adept at analytics, the emphasis on quality content will force SEOs to become more involved with content strategy and optimization.