The Danger of SEO as “SEO”
In the content marketing biz, one tends to get a lot of questions about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Certainly, concerns about enhancing SEO make sense. After all, publishing content on a company blog site will not generate business growth if prospects can’t find that content when searching the web.
That said, I tend to avoid talking about SEO as “SEO”—not because I don’t see the value of the concept. To the contrary, I consider SEO among the most important aspects of content strategy. The thing is, I also happen to believe that quality content represents the best route to SEO. So, instead of talking about SEO, I prefer to talk about producing really great content.
In my experience, the danger of focusing too much on SEO strategy has more to do with misuse of “SEO”—the term, not the concept. Unfortunately, over-concern with “SEO” can occlude the core goal of producing quality content. Like missing the forest for the trees, misuse of “SEO” can devolve into a focus on process void of substance—a reductive set of shortcuts that overshadow the fundamental good of producing useful information in accessible and engaging terms.
Effective SEO cannot be reduced to instrumental scripts. Sure, content strategy benefits from some guidelines that enhance the visibility of quality content. But there are no hacks for getting fluff to rise to the top of a Google search.
SEO: Much More than “Keywords”
In my experience, the greatest misstep in SEO strategy involves the overuse of “keywords.” Since users enter keywords when searching for information on the internet, traditional SEO wisdom has long rested on the assumption that maximizing the use of keywords in a particular piece of content will lead to a higher spot in search rankings.
As a strategy, however, stuffing content with keywords leads to a bigger problem: Overusing a particular set of words and phrases can quickly turn content into a pretty dull bit of writing. Consider the overuse of “all-terrain tires” as a keyword:
Looking for some new all-terrain tires? We sell the best all-terrain tires. And our new line of all-terrain tires represents the latest innovations in all-terrain-tire design developed specifically for the demands placed on all-terrain tires. When purchasing an all-terrain tire best-suited to your all-terrain-tire needs, makes sure to check out our all-terrain tires.
The algorithms employed in search engines no longer rely on simple keyword counts. The rise of machine learning has profoundly complicated how Google and other search engines rank useful content. As a result, overuse of keywords can now lower your search rankings. Worse, it just makes for bad writing. When businesses confuse keyword counts with effective SEO, they risk exponential losses. The stakes go well beyond search rankings. Misuse of keywords can undermine client trust and the authority of a brand voice–all of which ultimately can quickly domino into long-term losses in sales.
SEO and Meta-Data
What is meta-data? “Meta” means “about.” (By the way, here’s a bit of parenthetical meta-commentary: I’ve loved the pre-fix “meta” since before it was cool, back when calling things “meta” just made you look like an egghead. Metanarrative, metafiction, metaphor, metamorphosis, metaphysics–I love all that stuff. Actually, relatively speaking, “meta-data” is a new one for me. But–dang!--“meta-data” is a great “meta” word (which, by the way, is different from a “meta-word”(just saying))! “Meta-data”–it’s got alliteration and everything.(Wow–did I just stuff this post with the keyword “meta-data”?))
Anyway, “Meta-data” means data about data. In addition to being an awesome-sounding word, it happens to serve as a very useful term for SEO strategy. Meta-data is the information about the information in a particular site or piece of content. To draw on a pre-digital example, think of books in a library: Each book contains data/information; library cards contain the meta-data used to categorize the book according to subject, author, publication date, etc. On the internet, data includes the information—the words, numbers, images, etc.—in a post. The meta-data is the “outside” or unseen information that search engines use to categorize your post.
Search engines scan the meta-data of a particular web page the same way people scan library cards. (Well, not the exactly the same way–at least not yet, anyway. (By the way, I love parentheses. I don’t use them nearly as often as I should. I’ve always been more of a dash man. Maybe it’s time I got a bit more parenthetical. (Then again, maybe not.))) Consequently, SEO involves, making sure to include the useful meta-data search-engines need to find and sort your content.
Meta-tags: A Great Place to Use those Keywords
As I have already mentioned, I am generally wary of any SEO practices that involve self-consciously stuffing keywords into content. Meta-tags, however, mark an exception to that rule. What is a meta-tag? In strictly literal (that is linguistically literal) terms, the word “meta-tag” means a tag about a tag. In more practical terms, a meta-tag is a form of meta-data that provides descriptions of your content. When optimizing your SEO (which is just a redundant way of saying “when optimizing your optimization”), include keywords in your meta-tags. Here’s how:
For a complete summary of meta-tags, check out this post at Search Engine Watch.
(By the way–and maybe it’s just me–but “meta-tag” also happens to stand out as yet another awesome “meta” word. (Then again, for my part, I think adding “meta” to just about any word tends to make it more awesome. (Just saying.)))
SEO Requires Quality–Original–Content
So what is quality content? That’s a big question. But, for starters, the best content is original. I don’t mean absolutely never-seen-before original. By “original,” I mean great content at least offers some kind of new take, even if the basic idea is familiar. Originality also involves avoiding “sameness”–that is, too much repetition, including the repetition of keywords.
Presenting information in a unique voice and style, for instance, makes a big difference in the quality of content. There are lots of blog posts on SEO. But how many of these posts have my cool knack for parenthentical asides? Just saying. Developing a unique voice and style personalizes your brand. It also avoids the kind of repetition that makes your blog sound like everyone else’s. Lacking a personal voice can also hurt your SEO. Too much repetition–as in the above example of the all-terrain tires–can actually hurt your search ranks. The more original your take on a topic, the more likely it will stand out in a Google search. At the very least, make sure to vary your word choices. Changing up your diction makes for more interesting reading. So try not to use the same words and phrases over and over again–at least not in close proximity.
Effective SEO Means Producing Content for Audiences, Not Algorithms
Google designs its search engine to provide audiences with the most useful and relevant information possible. Therein lies the whole mission behind Google’s regular revisions to its search algorithm. The problem is that many pursue SEO according to a backward logic: Instead of providing content audiences find most useful and interesting, many try to produce content for Google itself–and even Google doesn’t want like that kind of content! Google cares about user satisfaction. So, to optimize for Google, optimize for audiences.
SEO as UX Optimization
In addition to quality content, think about ways to improve your user’s experience with a site. Consider the following:
Visual Content and SEO
Yes—use lots of images and video. Why? As already mentioned, Google wants to provide users with search results that will provide the best information and overall experience. Remember this SEO mantra: If audiences like it, Google likes it too. And since images and video enhance the user’s experience, Google likes pages with images and video.
Hidden Details of SEO: The Importance of Links
In addition to the elements that make a page more user-friendly, make sure to attend to more “hidden” details such as the functionality of internal and external links. Here’s why:
Here are some signs of bad links:
Here are other details to avoid:
Beyond the Homepage
Dated external- and back- links will hurt your SEO ranking. Attention to hidden details also means attending to the “inner pages” of your website. Optimization does not end with your site’s homepage. However, many businesses make the mistake of optimizing their homepage and overlooking the substance within the site itself. Google doesn’t rank sites for every keyword they have on the homepage of their domain. In fact, the most valuable content on a site lies deeper within the pages of a blog. As a result, search results often point to inner, high-quality pages and bypass the homepage.
Try this experiment: Do a quick Google search of a relevant and somewhat specific topic in your industry—for example, I’ll just search “tire valve stem.” Take a look at the top 3 pages in the search. Most of the time, these top results will be inner pages that are effectively formatted. Google search scans for well-formatted, user-friendly presentations of information with multiple subheadings. Home pages are important but inner pages are where you have the advantages of developing serious potential for your business.
Your website is a garden.
It grows deeper and stronger over time. It also requires maintenance. Effective SEO ultimately involves a complicated process that includes
High SEO rankings and scores are the result of authentic viewer engagement, not keywords and hacks. While challenging, these steps are essential for success in an increasingly competitive digital marketing environment. For more on SEO, download our guide to 10 Myths of SEO. Or feel free to get in touch!
(I meant to revise this piece for grammar and ended up just adding a bunch of parenthetical asides! (Oh well.))