‘Content is king,’ said everyone in SEO in 2017…and 2016…and 2015.
I imagine that the vast majority of the SEO community has taken this mantra on board and incorporated it into their strategies. This is a good thing.
Except when it’s not.
The problem is that, while everyone in SEO is producing content, not everyone is producing good content. That means our sites, our clients’ sites, our newsfeeds and Google’s SERPs are filling up with stuff that no one really wants to read.
If we want to shake the persisting misconception that SEO is a bit shady and weird, let’s start by putting content out there that’s actually useful for people.
Why content is important
I’m taking it as a given that content is important. I think most people reading this will assume that as well, but I’ll briefly say why I’m making this assumption. Understanding why content is important is crucial if we want to understand how to make it good.
Google Panda was the big wake-up call for SEO. The impact of this seismic shift in Google’s algorithm can still be felt in 2018. This update was Google’s statement to the world that content has to be of a certain standard – pumping out ‘thin’ content (more on this in the next section) to target every keyword you can think of wasn’t going to cut the mustard anymore.
Panda is one of many updates that exists to make search better for humans. Think of it like this: Google wants search results to reflect the results that you would choose to put in the top 10 if you had the time to sift through Google’s index. Content is a big part of that. The guiding principle behind Panda – and now all the content we produce – is that the internet and all its content exists for human consumption.
Why bad content still exists
Google’s dream to make search as human-friendly as possible doesn’t mean they’ve achieved their Utopia of SERPs full of good content. Instead, what I see more and more is bad content disguised as good.
Content can still be bad even if it looks appealing to Google. You can nail keyword density, TF;IDF (term frequency; inverse document frequency) and a good word count and still produce content that adds 0 value to the life of a human reader.
While the copy on a category or product page doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, copy produced for blog posts and guest posts should be of a high standard. Informational content needs to actually inform the reader.
Take off your SEO hat for a second and put on your human hat. Imagine you’re searching for ‘how to fix a leaking pipe’, which has about 100 searches a month, according to Ahrefs.
What you want to see is expert advice informed by professional experience that is jargon-free and easy to follow. What you don’t want to see is vague, empty words that are impeccably optimised but useless in every practical way.
This type of content is everywhere. There are millions of ‘guides’ that do nothing more than regurgitate quality content into a well-optimised, half-understood package.
So we return to the question in the heading of this section: why does it exist? I believe that it exists because it’s the fastest way to create content that’ll rank well. Why spend 3 hours talking through a subject with a client and writing up their ideas when you could cut the research time and bash out something generic in an hour or less that’ll rank just as well?
The case for good content
My case for good content is made up of three arguments: current data; future trends; and an appeal to your humanity (or at least, your desire to see good content when you’re reading stuff online). I hope you’ll find at least one of them compelling.
Current trends: the importance of user engagement
In a talk at the end of 2017, Rand Fishkin mentioned something that interests me a great deal: rankings are being personalised not just by location (as we’ve all seen) but increasingly by things like your search history and browsing behaviour.
I’ve seen this myself by comparing the results that I get for keywords that I’ve searched a lot in the past (normally because they’re a focus for a client) with the results that a colleague who doesn’t work on that client sees. Our location is the same, it’s only our behaviour data that changes. My results were very different to his.
SERPs now seem to be affected by the pages that we’ve spent a lot of time on, with preferential treatment given to sites we’ve previously engaged with. If this trend becomes more pronounced, SEOs will need to do everything we can too attract visitors and keep them on the site. The best way to do this is good content.
Not content that users click on, send a hit to Google Analytics and leave straightaway, but content that causes them to spend more time on the site and maybe click around a bit or bookmark it for the future. Long form blog posts, practical how-tos, good video, and interactive content are all valid ways of achieving this. A 500 post full of fluff won’t do you any favours.
Planning for the future
The most sustainable approaches in SEO are future-proof. Buying links by the hundred in 2004 might have worked for a while, but ultimately the value disappeared (or worse, your site got slapped with a penalty) and you had to start again from scratch. Similarly, I believe that Google will keep getting better at recognising good, useful content, which will lead to value-less content losing its impact (regardless of how on point your keyword targeting is).
I’m confident that this will happen in the future because the trend has been clear up to now. Every major update has been about making Google harder to manipulate and better for humans. As the search giant incorporates more human signals into its ranking algorithms and RankBrain gets better at working out what individual searchers are looking for.
Here’s the crux: bad content might and probably will bring less value in the future. Good content – content that matches users’ intent, meets users’ needs and engages users – is never going to be punished.
An appeal to your humanity (and common sense) – there’s enough rubbish out there already
If you haven’t been convinced by proper marketing arguments, then take off that SEO hat again and stick your human hat back on. Think about the content publishers that you follow on Facebook and Twitter – the ones whose content you actually enjoy. It’s that kind of content that the internet needs more of, not rubbish produced to fool Google. And who’s in the perfect position to improve content online? You are.
The bottom line is that SEO is not just about rankings. Rankings are simply the means to an end, which is the ultimate goal of more conversions and loyal customers. Bad content might help rankings but it does nothing to promote the goals that provide the actual ROI. Good content, on the other hand, can be a powerful tool in this regard.
How to write good content
If you’re still with me, thank you! It’s taken me over 1000 words just to get this far, so I’m not going to tack a whole writing masterclass onto the end of this article. Instead, I’m going to finish with 3 principles for good content that anyone can put into practice, whether you consider yourself a good writer or not:
- Write about interesting topics
- Find a new angle
- Speak to the experts
Write about interesting topics
This is the first, and most important step, that should be considered for every blog article, guest post or content marketing piece you create in the future. Write something that your audience wants to read about. And just matching a title to a long tail keyword doesn’t count.
By all means, use keyword research to choose the broad focus, but make sure your article is actually interesting to consumers. If you optimise all the metadata but the article is terrible, congratulations! You’ve just written clickbait. Your starting point should be working out what your target audience wants to read. Keyword research is a part of this, but it’s not enough to carry good content.
Find a new angle
A surefire way to make content valuable to human readers is to say something new. You don’t have to come up with an argument or idea that no one’s thought of before, but what you should be looking for is a new take on a topic or a new way of presenting information that communicates something valuable to a reader.
Rand’s talk, linked to above, is a great analogy for this. The data and many of the ideas in the talk weren’t new, but by presenting them in the way he did and adding insights that came from personal experience, he made a piece of content that was interesting, compelling and unique. We can’t all go on stage and speak like Rand, but we can create written or visual content that achieves the same thing within whatever topic area we’re concerned with.
Speak to the experts
Expert opinions and comments can turn a written article from generic fluff to genuinely useful insight. The good news is that if you’re working in-house or with clients (if not, where are you working?) you have industry experts around the corner or at the other end of an email conversation.
There’s a reason that news shows get experts on for interviews – their comments add weight to pretty much any relevant story. If you’re struggling to think of what to say on a topic, this is the perfect course of action. When working for an agency, engaging clients in this way can have the additional benefit of getting them more interested in the work you’re doing and giving them a degree of ownership over the finished product.
I want to finish on a positive note, so now I’m going to ask you for examples of content being done well. Are any brands out there producing high quality stuff, either on- or off-site? If so, show us in the comments!