…It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. -Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The search industry is booming. Competition for keywords – organic or paid – has never been higher. All forms of digital content multiply and prosper.
Underneath it all, however, tectonic plates are shifting. Slowly but surely, almost everything that used to constitute search engine optimization (SEO) has become ineffective, risky, or inappropriate for most brands.
SEO tactics are being taken off the table and a gap has begun to arise between what is needed – digital visibility – and the tactics, tools, and business processes needed to achieve it. Brands that learn how to evolve their approach to SEO and content to fit this new world will emerge on top.
Brands facing this challenge would do well to focus attention on the means and the ends. Brands want SEO as a means to achieve the ends of building a conversation, engaging customers, and driving sales.
Thinking with the ends in mind, it’s easier to step back and look at SEO as just one way that content can impact your business. The other ways?
- Social media/Web 2.0 sites
- Plain old web pages
- Guest posts
- Case studies
- Sharable presentation
- Conference presentations
And the list goes on.
The idea is to take an SEO perspective on content and merge it with content strategy, editorial, distribution, and planning. Sounds good in principle, but how does it work?
Know Your Keywords
The first step is to build a master keyword list – a large set of keywords that defines your strategic keyword universe. This list will change over time. Update it whenever you see a need for new content or you move into a new sector or business.
Build your list, be comprehensive, and don’t limit yourself to what’s currently out there and to the existing language of the customer. Think about what language you want to define and own.
You will be creating content, so you have a chance to shape the discussion and create new ideas (and potential keywords). Some of the best thought leadership and strategy firms have been using this approach successfully for years – they come up with a new concept or phrase, publicize it with original content, become the expert and own the discussion – at least for a while.
Check Your Current State and Competitive Position
Take the list, get your baseline rankings, and compare it against a broad set of competitors in the search engine results pages (SERPs). Now you know what keywords you care about, how well you're doing on them, and what competitors and ranking content looks like for each phrase.
So far, so good – traditional search keyword research. But what happens next is new.
Build a Search-Informed Content Plan
Review and prioritize your keywords and map each keyword to a content type, distribution channel (Facebook post, blog post, YouTube, etc.) and content type (video, article, etc.). Plot it out into a rough schedule to build the online of a keyword-driven content plan.
Now it’s time to get creative.
Take each of your keywords and turn them into the title of an article, video, or blog post that people might care about.
It isn't enough to write a post about the "best computer mouse". Instead, write about the "best computer mouse for shooters" or "best computer mouse for lefties".
Make your content interesting, at least to somebody, no matter how niche the audience. Why? So that they will talk about, link to the content, or drop a citation on their blog, Twitter, or Facebook.
For most brands attracting users isn't an aim in and of itself. The point is to drive users toward some desired action. Hence, for each piece on content on the editorial plan assign a destination URL – this is the page that will convert the traffic into your desired business outcome – be it a product page, a lead capture form, a registration form, or campaign messaging. Where possible include a link to the destination URL in the final content using appropriate anchor text.
This is an excerpt of a search-informed content plan for a computer retailer that includes target keyphrases, content types, destination URLs, anchor text, and promotion:
Creation, Publishing and Content Distribution
At this point, you start creating or repurposing content that aligns to your larger keyword strategy. Make the infographics, shoot the video, and start posting to Facebook.
Now traditional SEO comes back into play as you:
- Make sure that each piece of content has an optimized title tag, keyword-focused copy, strong meta description, and optimized inbound links from related content.
- Cross-link and cross promote each piece of content using the target keyword in anchor text on each platform and distribution network.
- Tweet and post a link on Facebook to your guest blog post.
- Include it in your RSS feed.
- Share the infographic and images on the web 2.0 sites like Slideshare, Good.is, and others.
- Reach out to relevant bloggers and let them know about your content.
Content Metrics, Reporting, and SEO
Assuming smooth sailing, you're on your way to becoming a keyword-driven, search-aware digital content powerhouse.
- You're shooting videos, writing interesting blog posts, and publishing content that is optimized, keyword-focused, and well-linked.
- Your Facebook page links directly to keyword-rich URLs with great anchor text.
- Your content is easily sharable to the usual properties and your press releases and guest posts link back to relevant deep content our your primary digital presence.
It’s a lot of work. It costs money and time. But where are the results?
How do you value, measure ROI, and focus on the best performing content strategies? Now we're at the nexus of web analytics and content marketing – call it content metrics.
A good analytics package will allow you to track referrals for each content piece. Couple this report with time-on-site metrics, pages viewed, and a traditional SEO ranking analysis that shows keywords and ranking URLs. If you can, track conversions and new customers that are generated from organic search landing pages.
If you see a piece of content that’s a winner – celebrate it! Give recognition to team members that create winning content and reward collaboration around keywords and SEO.
Once you have metrics flowing in, you can go back to your editorial plan and start dropping in performance numbers for each piece. If you really want to get fancy, include the number of inbound links to the content (it’s easy to get this from services like Majestic SEO and SEOmoz).
If a specific piece underperformed, try to find out why. If it really worked – gained citations, referrals, and generated page views – try to learn from what worked and apply it across the board.
No Longer Necessary to Staple Keyword Lists to People’s Heads
The great thing about this approach to content marketing is that it ensures automatically that content is search-aware and aligned directly to driving business needs. It’s not a matter of trying to force diverse stakeholders to get on the SEO bandwagon because the content and editorial plan is built from the ground up for search.
As content moves to center stage, it’s imperative that brands become master of this new art.
Consider this the final step in the evolution of search. SEO started as a bolt-on – something you paid for to get your site into the results. Over time it because a new business process or an internal stakeholder. Many firms seem to be stuck at this phase, getting better and better at traditional SEO just as it’s losing relevance.
What’s needed now is to make search and keywords a foundational part of an integrated content marketing strategy. It’s survival of the fittest in the search results, and only the strongest – and keyword-driven and link-worthy – content will survive.
Image Credit: anarchosyn/Flickr