In the last few years, content marketing has become one of the most popular ways to reach your target audience online. It’s easy to learn, it doesn’t require big investments and its payoffs can be monumental. When done right, content marketing can establish your brand as an authority in your niche. Authority, of course, can be leveraged into influencing the buying decisions of your prospects to favor your products and services.
Thing is, the magic of content marketing only happens if you can drive enough traffic to the pages that hold your content. If you’re not getting eyeballs in front of your assets, you can bet you won’t make money off of them either.
This is why it’s crucial to lay a solid SEO foundation for your content marketing efforts. Planning and executing content marketing with SEO ion mind sets the stage for ranking prominence as you build your content library and gain authority signals.
Does SEO Boost Content Marketing or Does Content Marketing Boost SEO?
It’s a question that I’ve been asked several times and I usually give this cliché for a response:
The chicken or the egg?
In this age of advanced Google algorithms, it’s in your best interest to do both and allow each one to complement the other. SEO and content marketing are not the same thing, but they’re bound by layers of synergy. SEO helps search engines find, understand and valuate your content more easily while content marketing adds valuable content, quality and authority signals that your SEO campaign needs to gain favorable rankings. Both are mutually exclusive but both will benefit from work done on either end.
But how exactly?
It starts by establishing the all-important on-site SEO groundwork even before you get started with content marketing. Here’s how I do it for clients that GDI handles in content marketing engagements.
Developing Content that Search Engines Love
Web content is text, sound and visual information that’s put on a webpage as part of the author’s intended experience for the users. Matching search queries with results that point to the most relevant webpages is the goal of every search engine. In that regard, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that your content has to be good for it to rank well in searches. But what constitutes “good content” as far as search algorithms are concerned?
In GDI’s book, quality content is text, video or audio that’s uniquely useful. It’s easy enough to write unique content and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to put together useful “how-to” guides. Each one of our competitors can come up with that, so we need to separate our content by making it as comprehensive, informative and personable as possible. This allows us to distinguish our brand’s content from everyone else’s, which positions us for SEO-boosting brand mentions and links later on.
We come up with uniquely useful content by taking the following steps:
- Fully understand the website’s identity – A review of the client site’s commercial history, brand identity, revenue model, business goals and the challenges that keep it from reaching those goals is the all-important first step towards creating great content. This allows us to get up to speed on the site’s state of affairs, enabling us to set the tone for the content that we’ll produce and the style in which we’ll promote it.
- Profile the target audience – Creating a persona of your prototypical target audience member is crucial when you’re trying to figure out what kind of content will garner the most interest. Identify the target audience’s needs, pleasures, pain points, location, age range, gender (if relevant to product), spending capability and other details that will enable you to deduce his mindset. The business owner, product managers and ecommerce data collected in past transactions are your best friends when you’re trying to paint a vivid picture of what your target audience members are like.
- Perform Keyword Research and Siloing – Your content could be good, but if it doesn’t use the words that your target audience uses, they might have a tough time finding it. Performing keyword research is the neutralizer to this risk. By using tools such as Google Keyword Planner, Wordstream or SEMRush, you can check which search terms make the most sense for your content strategy. Fervil Von Tripoli had a killer keyword research presentation in the GDI SEO Training Camp a few weeks back. If you don’t have a firm grasp on how to find the best keywords for your campaign, I suggest you check it out.
Keyword research should go far beyond identifying terms related to your business with the highest search volumes. It should also reveal how keywords interrelate to form contextual silos that interrelate with each other. Topic silos allow search engines to determine the content theme of your website, giving it a better chance to be regarded as an important information source in its niche.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of SEO silos, I highly recommend reading this classic post from Bruce Clay.
- Identifying Content Gaps – Unless you’re running a monopoly, there’s bound to be a lot of content existing on the web about your body of knowledge. If you’re selling men’s shoes, there’s an immense number of articles, blog posts, videos, podcasts, images and whitepapers that provide useful information surrounding your product line. This makes it tough for content creators to come up with considerably unique material that allows us to stand out from the rest of the content herd.
When confronted with a situation like this, GDI’s team uses a practice called content gap identification. This is a process of identifying which topics have been sufficiently discussed online and which ones demand more knowledge.
Here’s an example: we have a client that offers guided tours to Americans visiting Italy. While all our competitors continuously blog about historical landmarks, art and churches (the usual stuff that’s been written about to death), we decided to write a post called “The Seven Best Places to Bike in Italy.” From keyword trend analysis, we saw that biking is an increasingly popular tourist activity in the country and we used our team’s knowledge of the land to recommend the best locations to get on two wheels. To date, that post is one of our most viewed blog entries and it got us some really good backlinks too. Best of all, we got an opportunity to guest blog in an authoritative bike enthusiast website whom we now have a very good relationship with.
- Developing a content theme – When your team conducts a brainstorming sessions to generate content ideas, agree on a central theme that lines up directly with your business objectives. Use the theme to come up with smaller chunks of content ideas that can be used for textual, video and audio content. If you draw all the ideas from one content theme, they will all end up being interrelated and easy to link to each other. This makes it easy for you to feed your audience each asset while teasing them about the other ones.
Having theme-driven content marketing campaigns also helps search engines understand your content more easily, racking up the perceived degree of relevance between your pages and their target keywords.
In 2012, I had a client who sold sport fishing gear online. Three months before bass fishing season started, we planted the seeds for a content marketing campaign that was intended to build up his mailing list. For this effort, we developed a whitepaper called Seven Secrets to Reel in Big Bass. We knew we could get opt-ins for it with the traditional lightbox-landing page combo, but we wanted to maximize the asset’s reach so we can get even more leads.
So for the three-month period that we put up the whitepaper for download, we published blog posts, videos and SlideShare decks that focused on topics like the best places to catch bass, the best fishing rods to use, improving your casting technique, etc. Every asset ended with a call to action that invited users to check out our whitepaper. When everything was said and done, we had 855 new email subscribers, countless more bass caught and one happy client.
- Create an editorial calendar – When it comes to content creation, it’s all just talk until you have it down in writing. If you’re running a content marketing campaign, you have to have a clear roadmap on what needs to be created, who’s responsible for it, when it’s supposed to go live and where it’s supposed to appear. An editorial calendar is supposed to lay all of that out for you and keep track of it as you go forward. It can be as simple or as robust as you’d like it to be. My recommendation is to start something simple and easy to digest for everyone.
All the great content marketers use editorial calendars to make sure they keep their campaigns streamlined. Of course, an editorial calendar is meant to serve as a chronological guide and tracker for your campaign. You still have to actually follow it and log your progress in it.
Hubspot has a nice guide on how to create a free editorial calendar. It’s the template that I personally use because it’s handy and it keeps me honest.
- Content production – When all the planning and pre-work is done, it’s time to get into content production. In GDI, I made it a point to hire excellent writers when I formed my core team. All of them have been editors in the past and each one has a secondary skill to complement his or her writing ability. This allows us to develop text-based content, images, videos and audio assets with a very small team. None of them started out as content marketers and SEOs: they just picked up those skills along the way.
When we develop content, we use the aforementioned content gap identification process to make sure our content is fresh and original. When a niche is really mature and there are very few content gaps to exploit, we write about popular topics using angles that nobody else has used before.
One problem I’ve encountered with managing a very talented team is that they tend to be hardline perfectionists with their work. Sometimes, tasks take more time than they should because content creators don’t feel that their work is good enough when it really is just fine.
The solution? I always remind them that the most important part of content production is “shipping” the material. It doesn’t have to be perfect every time – very good will do. In online marketing, outworking and outproducing your competitor often yields more ROI than releasing perfect work. Ten very good cheeseburgers will often beat a perfect fillet mignon.
- Content performance assessment – On a weekly basis, we want to monitor whether our content marketing campaign is turning out to be a massive success or a massive failure. Sessions, unique users, social shares, bounce rates and conversion stats are the prime numbers that we look at. Depending on what the KPIs show us, we can make adjustments to things like titles, calls to action, promotional approaches and other elements.
- Bonus: F*ck Word Count and F*ck Keyword Density – When we develop content, we allow our writers to do it as they see editorially fit. We don’t impose minimum and maximum word counts. We believe articles and copy should be as lengthy as they have to and as short as possible. Neither do we impose mandatory keyword density guidelines. Doing that kills writer creativity and damages the reader experience because it makes our work look robotic.
Google uses latent semantic indexing (LSI) to decipher relationships between words and phrases. That means it’s smart enough to figure out synonyms and variations in sentence constructions. You don’t have to keep mentioning a keyword or phrase just to make it clear what your content is about. If anything, that will get you into even more trouble because you’re stuffing keywords and killing user experience.
Bottom line, write naturally and have fun with it. Mention your main target keyword in the title and perhaps in the opening paragraph – that’s it. Write as you please the rest of the way and be as creative as you can.
If you want to dive deep into the content creation process that I use, I wrote a guest post on Kaiser the Sage a couple of months ago. It’s pretty comprehensive, so buckle up and get ready for a braindump.
Technical SEO Groundwork Setup for Content
Content production is only one part of improving the searchability of your content assets. How you publish them in the pages of your site matters a lot in getting them found. Crawlability, internal relevance signals, formatting, site health and structured data are prime on-site SEO factors in 2014.
Below is a checklist of the bases that you have to cover from a technical standpoint if you want to maximize the search engine success of your content marketing efforts:
- Site Speed – the amount of time it takes for your pages to load is an official ranking factor in Google. Faster load times indicate a more positive user experience. The magic number here is three seconds. If your pages fully load within 2.9 seconds, they’re faster than 50% of the webpages on the Web. Ideally, you’ll want load times to be 2 seconds or faster to give you a definite edge over most competitors.
Investing in fast hosting, keeping images light by using the JPEG format, avoid too many redirects and using CSS instead of images whenever possible are easy ways to dramatically improve site speed.
- Canonical URLs – Using URL slugs that are suggestive of the page’s content helps establish a stronger degree of page-to-keyword relevance. Instead of using URLs like www.example.com/p=19986907, use something like www.example.com/you-awesome-content. This can be done via your CMS. If you’re not sure how to generate custom or canonical URLs, het some help from your web developer.
- XML Sitemap Usage – XML sitemaps enable Google to quickly find and crawl new pages that you publish. Most CMS platforms have plugins that automatically generate these sitemaps, but if that’s not an option, you can ask your developer to write it manually. Just keep in mind that webpages can get found, indexed and ranked high by search engine even without XML sitemaps. These documents just make the process faster and easier. Submitting your sitemap to Google Webmaster Tools also gives you a better idea of how many pages in your site are being indexed and how many are being ignored by Google.
- Title Tag Optimization – The title tag is the most important on-page ranking factor. It’s where you’re supposed to write the document (webpage) title to give people and search engines a good idea on what its contents are. Make the title tag concise and direct. Use your main keyword and try to mention it as early in the title tag as possible. You may also include a secondary keyword, but make sure it’s a good semantic fit. Anything more than two keywords in a title tag is flirting with keyword stuffing.
- Headline Tag Optimization – Make sure that your H1 tag contains your primary keyword. This HTML tag is used to indicate the in-body title of the content, so search engines tend to give it more weight than the rest of the text on that particular page. Use the smaller H2, H3, etc. tags for sub-headlines and try to include secondary keywords in them if it’s editorially appropriate.
- In-body Keyword Usage – Mention your keywords in the body as long as it makes editorial sense. Again, there’s no need to worry about keyword density. It’s 2014: search engines can figure out word associations. Write your content as you would when you’re trying to please human readers. Keywords will naturally come out and you stand a better chance of earning links and social signals if your writing looks natural.
- Image Alt Text and Captions – Search engines are “blind.” They can read code but they can’t “see” what’s on the images that pages display. The alt text is the webmaster’s means of telling search engines what the image depicts. Write short and accurate descriptions of your image in the alt field. Use keywords whenever applicable. If you can, try to add captions next to the images because they help bolster the perceived relationship between the text and the image.
- Internal Link Optimization – Internal links help boost your SEO by helping bots find and crawl other pages within your domain. The more links there are that point to your pages, the higher their perceived importance becomes. Make it a habit to contextually link from one content asset to another. Make sure to do it in a natural, editorially sound way so you don’t risk triggering Panda filters. When creating links of any type, make the anchor text suggestive of the destination page’s content. Adding link titles (similar to alt text) also helps increase contextual relevance.
- Duplicate Content Cleanup – Content duplication is bad news. Every major search engine has algorithms that filter out redundancies in their search results because repetition leads to frustrating user experience. Most content marketers don’t intend to create internal content duplications but it happens from time to time due to CMS glitches and human error.
Make sure your site doesn’t have duplicate pages that can negatively impact the way your content assets perform in the SERPs. The easiest way to sniff out pages like this is by setting up Google Webmaster Tools for your site. Check out the Search Appearance section and go to HTML Improvements. You’ll see data on duplicating title tags and meta descriptions that could reveal absolute page duplications. If you see duplicate content, you can use canonical tags to tell Google which one you want it to treat as the “original.”
- Crawl Error and Broken Link Cleanup – Before content can deliver a great user experience, the page where it’s published has to load first. Search engines can detect 404 Not Found server responses from broken links and pages that are down. Having a lot of these errors is a sign of poor user experience that can translate into ranking demerits for a website.
To find crawl errors, use Google Webmaster Tools again and check out the Crawl section. Click on Crawl Errors and you’ll be shown different stats on pages that Google can’t access. You can download this data on spreadsheets, allowing you to sift through them and investigate more quickly.
If a 404 Not Found error URL is from a page that was deleted and has no replacement, you can either block bot access with robots.txt or 301 redirect it to the page that’s most contextually related to its subject. If a 404 Not Found URL is from a page that was taken down and replaced with another one, simply 301 redirect it to the new page.
Broken links can also create Not Found dead ends in your site. I personally use the Screaming Frog SEO Spider tool to find and address them. You can also use the classic XENU Link Sleuth tool to check the status of the links on your pages.
- Google Authorship Markup – Since 2005, Google has been trying to find ways to attribute the work of authors and publishers to their name regardless of the domain where their work is published. This proved difficult at the onset due to the fact that the search giant didn’t have the means to verify online “signatures” of content creators when they hopped from one website to another. Half a decade later, Google+ came along and changed the game with the realization of AuthorRank.
Google+ enables its users to “mark” their work with a simple <rel=author> link attribute that points to their Google+ profiles. The user can then close the markup loop by adding the URL of the sites where he contributes to in the About section of his Google+ profile.
The most tangible thing that you can see from setting up the Google Authorship markup is your byline in search results. It’s still unclear how AuthorRank works, but it’s widely theorized that the quality, quantity and engagement signals on the pages attributed to an author contributes to his overall perceived importance in Google’s eyes.
Be sure to create robust and well-maintained Google+ individual and publisher accounts. Tie them up with each piece of content you publish in your campaign and make your content socially shareable. Keep in mind that your content marketing campaign’s value is not limited to the traffic and leads you generate from it. Its AuthorRank and PageRank-boosting effects will pay dividends in terms of search engine visibility both for the short term and the long haul.
- Schema.org Markup – In 2011, Google, Bing and Yahoo collaborated to start the Schema initiative. The then-biggest search engines in the world wanted to come up with a universal way to mark up elements in webpages that can enhance the displays in their search results. Sparing you from technical details, we are experiencing more variety and richer details in search result pages thanks to structured data from the Schema movement.
Adding Schema.org markups gives your webpages a chance to be displayed with more details like dates, images and more. However, it does take some coding knowledge to properly mark-up schemas on your content pages. If you’re not code savvy, I recommend having your web developer take a look at the Schema.org for an introduction on what schemas are and how you can apply them to your site.
If you don’t have a developer and you don’t have time to learn to code either, all is not lost. There are ways to automatically add schema markups without having to do the legwork. If you’re using WordPress as your CMS, I highly suggest checking out the Genesis Framework which comes with Schema markups built in. Of course, you pay a premium price for this theme, but the time it saves you and the potential rewards are immense. I personally chose to go with Genesis for this very reason.
Obviously, you can get a lot more granular about building an on-site SEO foundation for content marketing than what this post can offer. We’ll get down and dirty with technical guides in future posts, but this entry should give you a high-level view for now. In my next post, I’ll discuss how you can gain traffic and engagement to your content even if you haven’t started ranking high for your target keywords yet. Watch out for that one.