Why Effective SEO Isn’t Simply About Creating Great Content

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Amongst all the arguments and proclamations that SEO is dead or dying, the assertion that all that is required is great content has been a popular one.

To a certain extent, it has some value. At least, as far as the intention goes. I’d much prefer that sites concentrating on creating content that people want to read and achieving their goals by aiming valuable content at their target audiences.

Of course, the plethora of algorithm updates by Google has put content centre-stage, to the extent that what were previously ‘pure’ SEO agencies now offer content marketing services. However, I don’t buy the argument that it’s just about content.

As someone working in online publishing over the past decade, I’ve always found that SEO can give you an advantage over competitors, and that still stands now.

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Relatively basic SEO such as optimising headlines for search and using keywords intelligently in content still matter, while tactics such as effective internal linking can make a real difference to your site’s search visibility.

However, Google’s algorithm updates have made it necessary for sites to keep an eye on their link profiles, just in case they may get into trouble. The link profile is a general evaluation Google makes of the various sites which are linking to you. If it judges that some links are unnatural – perhaps the result of link building in the past – then it may penalise you.

Now, you may not have ever actively engaged in SEO, hired an agency or consultant, or had a bash at it yourself, but you may still fall foul of Google. You may have earned links from good sites which have since gone bad, and that puts you at risk.

Sites which have no control over who links to them and how may find themselves penalized by the big G. If you rely on search for sales or leads, this could be fatal to your business.

Then there’s the spectre of negative SEO. Rand Fishkin invited people to throw all they could at Moz a couple of years ago, with no impact. However, while a site with the authority that Moz has may be tricky to derail (or perhaps Google manually dealt with the ‘attacks’), it’s quite possible that smaller sites could suffer from this devious tactic.

All of which brings us to the conclusion that sites simply have to use SEO techniques now, if only to avoid the risk of Google penalties. Not the ‘basic’ SEO of headlines and keywords though, but the more technical tasks of analyzing backlinks to assess risk.

I’ve asked a number of SEO experts for their views on this point. The first question is:

Do sites now have to carry out SEO tasks, such as checking link profiles, thanks to Google?

Edward Cowell, Director of SEO at Mediacom:

Yes. It depends on the website, their legacy and who they are up against, but performing best practice SEO is still very important.

Perhaps when Google said “creating create great content is all that matters” they optimistically underestimated the ability of web development teams to make content inaccessible and undiscoverable; or weren’t aware of some of the risks marketing and PR teams run into daily by inadvertently breaching Google’s guidelines.

Great content is absolutely essential as it can differentiate brands, but the SEO team plays a valuable role ensuring content is discoverable, performs well, and increasingly we’re an insurance policy making sure that everything that happens is validated to not breach guidelines and is maximised to deliver SEO benefit.

Kevin Gibbons, MD at Blueglass and SEW contributor

Sadly, yes. I do agree with this. And the reason I think it’s a bad thing is that in an ideal world you’d focus on building a great brand and company and the rest should take care of itself.

I’m a strong believer that great customer service should be your biggest marketing activity, and I think this works very well in social media and word of mouth marketing. However it’s never quite that simple in SEO unfortunately.

I’ve seen a number of sites that, due to a lack of SEO knowledge, have suffered badly as a result in terms of organic performance. Recent examples include a poor URL migration (as in no redirects of old URLs!), javascript refreshes which means no unique content is indexed/cached and noindex tags mistakenly applied across a whole website!

This type of thing can be easy to miss and is very damaging,  especially for small businesses, when you really want to maximise the amount of natural traffic you can generate to help lower your acquisition costs.

Will Critchlow, Founder and CEO of Distilled:

I wouldn’t say that the average business (certainly the average small business) needs to actively disavow links that they didn’t proactively build themselves. However, Google is certainly more needy than other platforms and there are tasks that are “pure SEO” in the sense that they do nothing for the user directly.

Whether it’s hreflang for international, rel=canonical, meta noindex, XML sitemaps, or a million other things, it’s amazing how far Google has strayed from “just think of the users”. Of course there is also more than creating great content even if we ignore the “pure SEO” tasks – great content with no promotion plan is an expensive waste of time.

Julia Logan, SEO Consultant (aka Irish Wonder):

I am sure sites cannot rely on great content alone. No matter how great the content is, it still should be discoverable, indexable and accessible to potential visitors. Whether we (and Google) like it or not, links are still a great part of the ranking algorithm, and denying their role means not telling the whole story.  

Furthermore, regular audits of link profiles are important, as well as making sure the site is secure and has not been hacked and exploited for planting malware or parasite pages (which, in turn, can lead to bad links in the site’s link profile, among other problems). According to Google’s Webmaster guidelines, this is the sole responsibility of the website owners.

What should site owners be doing to avoid problems with Google?

Edward Cowell:

To seriously fall foul of Google you do have to do something pretty bad. That said site owns should definitely familiarise themselves with the Google Guidelines.

With the explosion of content marketing over the last couple of years, native advertising, influencer partnerships etc really keep an eye on what and how you are using and distributing your content as that is somewhere you can easily get caught out.

Julia Logan:

What site owners should really be doing if they truly care about their business’ online presence is creating additional sources of traffic outside of Google. Google’s algorithm keeps changing as part of their never-ending fight against spam, and many sites become collateral damage even if they do not deserve it.

However, if a site really stands for something of value, visitors will be looking for it and finding it via other means, such as social media, other referring sites, word of mouth and so on. If your visitors feel that your site is important for its vertical, Google will end up looking “broken” if it doesn’t rank it.

Kevin Gibbons:

Sign up for Google Search Console and make sure that there’s no critical errors; page issues, Google penalties etc. Duplicate title tags are also a good indicator to ensure you’re optimising each page for a unique term.

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Does this essentially mean that smaller businesses which may lack SEO expertise are at a disadvantage?

Edward Cowell:

The reality of business, is that any business that lacks the ability to market itself effectively, no matter whether it is on the web or any other marketing channel is always going to be at a disadvantage. This is a business problem not just a small business problem.

Organic search is a highly competitive environment, and if small businesses want to compete in highly commercialised spaces then they shouldn’t kid themselves that it will be easy, though does Google provide a wealth of opportunities for small businesses to access customers.

Kevin Gibbons:

In short, yes. Brands do have most of the power when it comes to ranking in Google, certainly when you’re looking at highly competitive/popular terms.

However, being small can have its own advantages too. For example, if you are looking to dominate a small/targeted niche, or a specific location. The bigger brands are unlikely to cover this in as much depth and this is where you can start to make an impact.

Julia Logan:

Smaller businesses which lack the SEO expertise are certainly at a disadvantage, but being a large business does not necessarily mean having the best expertise or the best SEO strategy, it just means possibly having a greater budget.

On the other hand, smaller business do have one important advantage and that is greater flexibility and faster decision making process. 

What do you think? Is SEO now a prerequisite for any online business? Or will great content see you through? Let me know below…

SEO is Dead image created by Shelli Walsh

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