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October 4, 2016
SEO  |  11 min read

Content Marketing vs. SEO: Do Small Business Owners Need Both?

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Ben Snedeker

In the race to create great content marketing, a debate has emerged. The terms of the debate really hit small businesses hardest because the success of their content marketing strategy hinges on getting it right.

The debate boils down to one basic question: Does great content marketing work so well on its own that it makes investing in technical SEO unnecessary?

Given that nearly half (47 percent) of small business owners handle marketing efforts on their own, you don’t have any room for unnecessary work. Neither can you risk cutting corners.

So, what’s the answer? Should you invest in SEO or content marketing?

Here comes the answer no one really likes: “both/and.” They are two sides of the same coin with the coin being a successful content marketing program.

Neil Patel and others have muddied the waters with posts like, “Why Content Marketing is the New SEO.” Their argument isn’t without merit: If you do content marketing the right way, you’ll naturally line up with the fundamental purpose that search engines exist.

The mission for search engines is to match each search request with the best, most relevant results. Ergo, if you provide the best, most relevant content, you’ll get found. If it’s good stuff, people will share it and link to it, and it will take on a life of its own without artificially propping it up for search engine algorithms.

Unfortunately, that’s only part of the truth.

The other important part has to do with being  found in search. The search results have limited space, and the competition is huge. With nearly 60,000 Google searches happening each and every second, it’s important that your content performs well with search engines—which means you have to actively optimize your content for search engines: search engine optimization...SEO...get it?

Lots of marketers lean to one side of the debate, mostly out of convenience: SEO is technical and can feel complicated. So, if experts suggest that you can succeed at content marketing without SEO, then you’re good to go, right? You can save time and money by leaving out the SEO work.

Sure, it’s tempting to believe that, but if you turn out to be wrong, you’ll have a lot of catching up to do.

Here’s how content marketing can boost search rankings on its own

If you do content marketing the right way, you’ll actually be doing some key aspects of SEO just by virtue of the fact that you’re producing quality content. Here are a few ways this can happen:

  • Relevant content has value to your existing followers. The people who follow you on social, who subscribe to your newsletter, your podcast, and your RSS feed, all of them will be attracted to good content, and some of them will share that content with their own networks. This is an organic phenomenon, and SEO plays a small part in that process.

    The bigger your set of followers, the more powerfully this will work for you. Of course, if you want to grow your follower base, you’re going to need traffic to your site, which means your back to search.

  • Paid advertisements can go a long way to drive traffic to your pages. You can certainly pay to get your content found, and a good online marketing strategy includes paid advertising. (You still have to optimize your ads, which follows some of the same rules as SEO.)

  • Search engines work for humans. If your content is relevant to a human audience, it will get found in search. There’s truth to this. Search engine algorithms are just trying to understand the fundamental connection between what humans ask for (in search) and what they expect to get. Therefore, if you make your content relevant to humans, it will inherently line up with some the factors search engines use to understand relevance. You’ll naturally use keywords; you’ll have useful titles; you’ll link to other content that helps reinforce your message. The things that demonstrate relevance will naturally be present in good content.

  • Fresh content matters. Great content marketing strategies tend to put out lots of great content. Whether it’s regular blog posting, updated product pages, or new customer stories, there’s always something new to make in order to share and promote. Guess what? It turns out that search engines look at sites that are constantly producing new content and rank their pages higher. The logic is that if you’re making great stuff and keeping up to date, there’s a good chance that what you have to offer is what people really need.

All this is great, but it’s not quite enough.

The SEO best practices you need to do to be successful at content marketing

Google tracks at least 200 factors to help determine result relevance to search queries. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be optimized for all of those factors, but you should optimize for some of the most important ones.

Like anything, there’s SEO that everyone can understand and do, and then there’s the stuff reserved for ninjas. Here’s the stuff everyone should pay attention to:

  • Keyword research: Search phrases, also known as keywords, are the foundation of search. Searchers input a phrase and then select the best result. If they don’t like the results, they refine their search with a new phrase. You can use search data to gain a better understanding of what people need or want, and you can then target content that matches those searches.

  • Keyword focus: The follow-on concept to keyword research is keyword focus. The “focus” keyword is the main search phrase that you most want to target. That keyword should appear in your metadata, your title tag, and naturally within your body text. When you know what keyword you’re targeting, you have a better chance of providing great content to the people who are actually looking for it.

    Important caveat: keyword focus doesn’t mean “keyword stuffing,” which is when you load up a web page with your focus keyword in a way that is unnatural. Always write your content for humans first. If humans would actually feel put off by your tactic, then don’t do it.

  • Title tags: First and foremost, the title tag serves to tell search engines what your overall page is truly about, so it’s very important that it accurately represent the content. Most often for blog posts, it will match the headline of the post. Otherwise, it will serve as a kind of title.

    While it’s important to search engines, it serves a human purpose, too. When the page appears in the search results, the title tag text is what shows for the link that takes you to the site. Obviously, you want humans to click on your page in the results, so it should be meaningful for humans, giving them a clear sense of what to expect on the page.

  • Meta description: Meta descriptions appear in a few locations on web pages, and you should be certain to follow best practices when you update each of them. The main meta descriptor summarizes the basic essence of the page, itself. The meta description text actually appears in the search results as the description of the page. Obviously, this should be written for the humans who will be looking at the search results.

    Other metadata is used to describe images and video. Because search engines can’t see or watch images and video the way we do, it has to match text search queries with the text that describes them. Guess what? They also help visually impaired humans explore the web, so these should be written with humans in mind as well. (getting the picture on the human v. search engine thing? They have almost the same objectives…)

  • Links: One of the most powerful signs that search engines can use to determine a page has value is links to the page. It’s pretty sound logic: If people are linking to a page, it must have value. Link building is a bit of a hybrid concept: It’s a tactic that gets used for SEO purposes, but it’s also a powerful way to expand the reach of your content.

  • Content relaunch: Get more life out of older blog posts by leveraging your existing juice. Relaunching updated content could be one of the biggest ways you can make use of SEO tactics to revitalize content, get it circulating through social again, and boost its rankings in the search results. You can get all the benefits of good SEO without having to create new content ideas!  

  • This list is by no means exhaustive: These are some of the most fundamental bases to cover with SEO. If you ignore them, your content will suffer. If you want to go deeper, check out our e-book, “SEO Basics for Small Businesses.”

BOTH Content Marketing AND SEO go hand in hand

The long and the short of it: If you don’t focus on SEO as part of your content marketing strategy, you’ll be doing much more harm than good. Content marketing strategy and SEO actually go hand in hand.

First and foremost, the content you create must actually be relevant (read useful, entertaining, helpful, valuable) to your audience if it’s ever going to be link-worthy or share-worthy, or even click-thru-worthy (if that wasn’t a thing, it is now). Nevermind your call to action. And you have to follow that up by ensuring your distribution channels are in full swing. This is why there’s so much emphasis on great content marketing. It’s foundational.

But search engine optimization should never be an afterthought any more than turning on the oven is an afterthought when baking a cake. You can have all the ingredients, but they won’t be much value until they’re fully baked.

Search engine optimization isn’t just for search engines. It’s for your audience, too. And you can’t ignore them.

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