A Tale of Two Strategies: Reconciling Content Strategy and SEO
Making content findable through search is important, but not as important as making it good.
I started this blog post as I often start blog posts, by writing the headline. And I regret it. I should have done that last. Because now I’m staring at said headline and asking myself distracting questions, instead of getting on with writing. Will it appeal to the audiences we want to reach? Will anyone want to click on it when they see it in the Viget newsletter? Does it have the right keywords? Is it too keyword-y? Is the repetition of “strategy” grating? Ah well, I’ll futz with it a bunch of times before hitting Publish. Let’s get down to business.
Why you need a content strategy
Deciding how to title a blog post is one of the many, many reasons why you need a content strategy — to help you gauge whether you are creating the right content for the right audiences at the right time. You need a yardstick against which to measure your content ideas and execution, rather than chasing after the next shiny thing. And you need rules and quality control protocols to make sure your headline is the right length, format, and style.
In other words, if you’re regularly publishing any kind of content on your website, then you need a content strategy. (Whether or not you should be regularly publishing any kind of content is a question for another day, but the short answer is “it depends.”) That content strategy should have its roots in your brand strategy, user insights, organizational goals, and understanding your market and competitors.
Why you need an SEO strategy
You also need to make sure the people who want to find your strategically-produced content can find it. Good UX design ensures findability through solid information architecture and on-page wayfinding techniques, such as calls to action and related content. These tactics are all well and good once your users are on your website, but we should also be thinking about how they’re getting there in the first place.
Search is usually an important factor — after all, 68% of all trackable traffic originates with organic and paid search — so some readers will likely find you via Google or Bing. But the degree to which you should be optimizing for search engines varies greatly. Not every website should subscribe to the idea that a deep and wide SEO strategy is necessary.
Why you might only need MVSEO
Sometimes, minimum viable SEO is appropriate. By minimum viable, I mean SEO efforts that focus mostly on technical aspects — such as a fast-loading site, standard mobile touch targets, URL structure, and appropriate header and structured data tags. MVSEO prioritizes engaging your target audience, rather than trying to gain a bigger audience. It ensures you’re not impeding search engines’ ability to discover and understand your website, even if it’s not going to catapult you up the rankings.
The minimal approach might be right for you if you intend your target audience to reach your content via channels other than search. These channels include email marketing or social media. Maybe you intend to pay for ads to raise awareness of your offering. Maybe a QR code will drive visitors to your site. If search is only a small part of your acquisition strategy, stick with MVSEO.
The minimal approach might also be appropriate if you’re writing about ultra-competitive keywords, where the chance of ranking in a top spot is low. In these cases, it simply isn’t worth putting finite resources toward SEO. Get your title tags and schema tags right by all means, but focus more attention on honing your content strategy — producing content that’s the best it can be — and support those efforts with basic SEO best practices.
Think about content strategy before keywords
Beyond the technical aspects lies more content-specific SEO. You’ll often hear SEO experts talking about researching keywords, which allows you to see the gaps in your competitors’ work. Keyword research helps you identify topics to potentially write about — you can then create content with those keywords in mind, which will ultimately make it more discoverable to search engines. (Not by stuffing them into the content, I hasten to add, but by placing them meaningfully where possible.)
This tactic has some value, although less so than in the past, as well as big downsides. Keyword research can be a distraction, leading you to write about topic areas that aren’t a great fit for your business goals, or to incorporate second or third tier keywords that sound unnatural. An example might be inserting “SEO tips for beginners” — a “long tail” keyword that isn’t quite relevant — into this article about content strategy and SEO. How meta.
Never jeopardize your content strategy for a quick SEO win
These pitfalls bring me back to my first point: you need a content strategy that you can use as a lens through which to make content decisions. Even if a keyword seems ripe for exploitation, if that topic isn’t in line with your content strategy, you should ignore it. In fact, if your goal is to produce informative content on a challenging issue in a friendly and accessible way, it might be vital to avoid keywords altogether. Your strategy might be to talk around the issue, which negates the use of the keywords that make it discoverable. In this case, having an acquisition strategy which focuses on alternative channels (such as social media or paid ads) is key to success.
In essence, if forced to choose between your content strategy and your SEO strategy, content should prevail. You’re writing your content for humans, not robots (i.e. the ones crawling for those keywords). You can review your content for opportunities to improve its SEO, but don’t sacrifice your brand voice or content goals for higher search rankings. Otherwise, you’ll drive people to your site who will be disappointed with what they find there — content that sounds optimized, or that isn’t what they care about, causing them to bounce.
A last word of warning
Search engine algorithms change often, and without explanation, so hitching content production to that wagon means you’ll often be adjusting course. It’s better to tweak your content strategy based on analytics data, subject-matter knowledge, and ongoing user research, and let that lead you — rather than have the vagaries of SEO dictate your content’s future path.
If you’re confident in your expertise and know your target audience well, keywords will occur organically. If your content is well-executed, relevant, and useful, anchored to a higher-level purpose, search engines will find it. But without that content strategy in place, policing what you produce, your search engine-optimized content isn’t going to find its audience and live up to its full potential.