In the world of advertising, search engine optimization (SEO) is sometimes dismissed as an uncreative hack. Follow the right formula, goes the received wisdom, and hey presto your web page rises to the top of Google rankings.
In fact, the technical aspects of SEO are less important than ever before. These days SEO is about optimizing for humans, with the most useful content being rewarded. For brands that recognize the power of SEO and, more generally, inbound marketing, this is a great opportunity. (Most brands do understand the power of SEO. According to HubSpot, 70% of marketers are actively investing in content marketing.)
The importance of technical SEO is declining
Technical SEO means, basically, making your website faster and easier for search engines to understand. This is the part that advertising snobs consider website skullduggery.
Why is the technical side of SEO becoming less effective? Because in order to maintain its 90% market share, Google is working hard to reward the pages that are most useful for customers, regardless of the technical tweaks you apply to them.
Google is doing this by developing ever-more sophisticated algorithms. In 2015, for example, Google unveiled RankBrain: an algorithm powered by machine learning that understands the intent behind your search queries and rewards the pages that respond best to that intent. The 2020 core updates made high-quality content even more important, actually removing the ranking gains of some non-content related metrics. More on the significance of that later.
Are you invisible online?
Digital advertising is increasingly showing up its above-the-line elders because in many cases it works better. The traditional approach to advertising is essentially shouting and hoping someone who’s interested hears you. SEO and inbound marketing are about creating content that gets you invited into your customer’s world. You’re not selling directly but starting conversations and giving answers. It’s a relationship that’s fundamentally different from the outset.
Having a website and paying no heed to SEO is like building a shop on a backstreet and not telling anyone you’ve opened. Maybe your products or services are exceptional and people will go out of their way to find them. Like a medieval craftsman whose lutes are so exquisite, jesters flock from all corners of the kingdom. If that’s you, fine. But I mean, really?
Assuming you are thinking about SEO, this is how things have changed. Thanks to recent algorithm upgrades (like RankBrain I mentioned before), Google has got seriously good at recognizing the human intent behind search queries.
Before when you searched for coconut oil you might see content as varied as articles about farms or posts from travel blogs. Now Google knows that someone typing in ‘coconut oil’ wants to buy a product, read recipes or find nutritional information. Google understands the goals that motivate people to use certain terms. If you want to rank, you need to as well.
To create content that pleases both Google and readers, you need to really think about your audience. What do they need or want? What will inspire them? Clue: not an interview with your CEO.
For some brands, their purpose is an obvious focus for their content. If your company has a social mission, a fascinating backstory or a remarkable tale of craftsmanship and quality, those are rich seams to mine. Sharpen your pick.
Here are some examples of great mission-focused marketing:
- How could we change the world if we all went Beyond Meat?
- What did people use before toilet paper? Who Gives A Crap.
At this point, you throw your hands up in despair and cry “But we sell insurance/printers/ management consultancy. How can we compete with that?” It’s true B2B content might not be as overtly emotive as the B2C variety, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be downright useful.
Here are a few examples to inspire you:
- Simply Business produces a veritable landslide of useful content for business owners.
- Velcro created a whole campaign around the fact that using their brand name is illegal.
- Tecan, a lab instrument company, has a comprehensive series of blog articles designed to help customers understand the best practices in everything from liquid handling to genomics.
How to get started with human SEO
Creating content that people want involves not just keyword research but actual conversations too. This is the part that a surprising number of companies skip. When marketers allow their assumptions to guide content strategy, they shouldn’t be shocked when the response is disappointing. Spend some time asking questions and listening to the replies and the experience will be far more fruitful.
Before you head out into the street with a clipboard, start by quizzing yourself. What passion drives your company? What aspect of your products do you care most about? How do you help your customers? How do you want to change the world? You can’t fake these things, customers will smell a rat.
Purpose is the reason your brand exists.
Mission is how you make a change in the world.
Promote your mission, not your products
Having a clear mission brings coherence and focus to your content. You should only, or at least mainly, publish content that’s aligned with your mission. It could be something really simple like helping people choose the best insurance policy. Over time, your focus on helping people attracts attention. People are more likely to read, share, comment on and link to content they find useful.
This activity gives Google the signals it’s after to boost your rankings. The quality of your content, as we’ve discussed, is hugely important here. But so is the strength of your branding and the authority of your website (this means its relevance for your subject or industry and is based largely on the number of other websites that link to it).
Gaining backlinks and growing the authority of your website involves paying attention to another group of humans: influencers in your sector and people who run respected websites with a link to your area of expertise. Help them advance their agendas and you get backlinks in return. This means creating things like:
- Policy papers
- Opinion pieces
Don't ignore SEO
SEO is impossible to ignore. Marketers who bury their heads in the sand may not survive the relentless economic upheaval of the 21st century. Thankfully, with the way Google is changing, SEO is a great opportunity to make more and better connections based on your company’s expertise and understanding of your customers.
The machines are rising but humans still come first. So, optimize for people, not search engines.
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