Is Content Really King when it Comes to SEO for Small Businesses?

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Is content really king for SMB SEO?

“Content is king” is a phrase that’s gained prominence (then derision, then a backlash to the backlash, like many online marketing trends) but creating useful content is difficult for most businesses.

Anyone that has been involved in digital marketing over the last several years will tell you that, when it comes to driving traffic to your website, content is incredibly important. That’s how “content is king” became a cliché’.

As almighty Google becomes smarter and smarter, the tricks that SEO experts have used in the past have become obsolete. A few years back, search engine optimization could be broadly categorized into two complementary segments:

First, we would perform “On site” SEO activities, used to structure your website such that search engines understand what it is you’re all about. This includes the tried-and-true “SEO 101” tactics like proper page titles, header tags, and meta-tags. This also includes intelligent structuring of content to appropriately weight pages within the site hierarchy.

Next, “Off site” SEO activities would be used to convince those search engines that your site was a credible source for that information. Using any and every means possible, SEO teams would work with their clients get links to your content from as many sites as possible.  The volume, and more importantly, respectability, of these sources was widely accepted to have a trickle-down effect on the relevance bestowed upon your own site. The more relevant the site appeared, the higher the site rises in the SERPs (search engine result pages).

As competition for valuable search traffic increased, digital marketing experts sought out every opportunity to get an edge on their competition. Link building techniques ranged from legitimate-yet-somewhat-artificial “white hat” tactics – such as directory and online press release submissions, to shadier, overtly manipulative “black hat” techniques including link farms, sham URLs, and low-cost laborers creating links and clicks through brute force.

The job of any respectable search engine is to deliver the best possible results to the user. Of course, they do so in order to sell their own ads more effectively. So, Google and others have had plenty of motivation to wizen up their algorithms to these techniques as quickly as the wizards of search engine optimization conjure them up.

A decade-plus into this cat and mouse game, what has resulted is an amazingly smart set of search algorithms. This is fantastic for greater good of humanity in our quest to have the right information at our fingertips, but not-so-fantastic for companies looking to find ways to get and edge in the SERPS. Manufactured credibility is rapidly becoming a thing of the past… so now what?

That brings us back to the cliché with which I started this post. Content is king. The most effective way to convince Google that you are a credible source for information is to generate signals that you are, in fact, useful and credible. We have reached the tipping point where, as digital marketers, we need to tell our clients that it’s no longer about playing the game to best fit the algorithm. That’s a losing proposition. It’s about creating and curating content that truly engages your intended audience. It’s about aligning your goals with those sitting behind the controls of the algorithm Google (or Bing, or other fantastically less relevant search engine). Deliver good content that helps them sell advertising and helps get visitors find you.

So now for the cold hard reality… This is much more difficult than the SEO games of the past. As a digital marketer, this means that a successful strategy requires more than understanding a few target keywords. We will never know as much about our client’s business as they do, so how can this engaging, relevant content be generated?

One very common approach of the search engine marketer is to directly enlist their clients as the primary authors in the content generation strategy. I have been a party to several engagements where the digital marketing experts sit down with the business and map out a series of blog posts and other content pieces, and carefully create a content calendar. The results in most (thought not all) of these cases were abysmal.

It’s not that companies cannot write their own content. When they do, their expertise is obvious and the voice is authentic. It’s very often the purest, best content. It’s that more often than not, the employees or stakeholders with the knowledge and writing ability just don’t have the time. These are typically members of the same core team that are juggling many other aspects of the day-to-day business.  Whether it’s on day one or six months into a content marketing plan, other very real priorities inevitably trump writing blogs, posts, tweets, and white papers.

This leaves digital marketing professionals in a bit of a pickle. Clients want more than consultative advice on what they should do, they need a team to take the work off of their plate and execute. At the same time, marketing experts are left knowing what their clients should do (that is, build content that’s as viral as that mysteriously colored dress or the mysterious words of a fox), but without the business knowledge to make it happen without more of their time than they have to spare.

That’s enough lamenting the challenges of modern-day search engine optimization. So what can your small business do about it?

If you have the time, resources, and expertise to create and promote great content internally that’s a great way to drive relevant traffic that will help grow your business.

Most SMBs don’t have these resources, however. So how can you think about executing on content creation and promotion if you don’t have this capacity and expertise in-house?

Here’s a 10-step plan we propose to overcoming the traditional challenges of content development.

  1. Define the interests of the target audience based on an initial understanding of the business. Use past sales and marketing data, current analytics, keyword research, and social listening techniques to take a “best first guess” at the content with which the target customer will be most likely to engage.
  1. Ensure that websites, social media accounts, and other digital assets are correctly configured to track everything that can be tracked.
  1. Test assumptions without wasting too much time on generating in-house content. Curate content from external sources through influencers or paid sources, and leverage this content on site and across social platforms. Use quick-hit paid search and paid social platforms to buy enough engagement to refine the “best first guess” into a prioritized list of keyword and topic opportunities. A few dollars for clicks is far less expensive than a few hours of the client’s time.
  1. Perform independent research on the target topics for content. Don’t rely on the client to educate or provide background that is readily available in the public domain.
  1. Create a list of questions to be asked of the client’s appropriate subject matter expert(s). The list should be no more than 5-10 questions. This keeps things focused, respects the expert’s time, and should provide more than enough material for a long-form piece of content.
  1. Schedule and conduct an interview with the client. Record the session if possible. Our mantra is to treat the client’s time as gold – and asking them to repeat or clarify what they’ve said because we did not take good notes is not acceptable.
  1. Author long-form content (such as blog posts or content pages) with the knowledge gained from the interview, augmented with additional research. Optimize the content using traditional “on site” SEO tactics.
  1. Provide the content to the expert for review, offering (but not requiring) a time to discuss any requested changes.
  1. Publish the long form content – and mine it aggressively as a source for any number of shorter posts, tweets, or other content items.
  1. Promote the content aggressively. Social media, social boosting, influencer outreach, and paid search are just a few ways to push content in front of the consumer. Viral content can be like a fire – it can spread rapidly on it’s own, but it can’t start without a creating that first spark, which can be the hardest part.

After following these 10 steps, measure results, rinse and repeat as required.

As the transition from traditional SEO towards content marketing continues, strategies like these will become increasingly important to an effective digital marketing program. We would love to hear how others are overcoming the challenge of developing and leveraging high-quality and search-friendly original content.

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