Just about every business feels pressure to publish content that boosts its presence on search engines — and thus get potential customers through the door — but there are still some misconceptions around what SEO content marketing actually is and how it differs from regular old content marketing.
Put simply, SEO content marketing refers to the production of content (articles, blogs, whitepapers) geared toward terms and topics being searched online, with the ultimate goal of promoting the business that published it.
Companies of all kinds can benefit from SEO content marketing. They just need to know where to start.
What Is SEO Content Marketing?
SEO content marketing focuses on producing keyword-targeted content that drives qualified traffic from Google to a company’s website. Qualified traffic refers to visitors who are likely to find the content useful and relevant to their situation. In some cases, it may mean the visitors are ready to buy the company’s product or service.
What Is SEO Content Marketing?
To better understand what SEO content marketing is, first consider the purposes both SEO and content marketing serve.
What Is Seo?
SEO is the process of improving a webpage’s organic (non-paid) traffic from search engines. It is done through applying techniques both technical (making sure the site can be crawled and indexed by Google) and content related (making the page useful and reader friendly). These techniques increase the chances Google will surface the page for users who might find it helpful and relevant, based on their search query.
What Is Content Marketing?
Content marketing is a form of marketing in which companies create content for a target audience. It builds brand loyalty by educating consumers on a product, service or relevant topic. Content marketing encompasses blogs, social media, email and video.
How SEO and Content Marketing Work Together
While it’s certainly possible for content marketing strategies to prioritize other distribution channels — like social media or email marketing — most will have at least some focus on search. Many prioritize it heavily.
“I don’t think it’s possible to be a good [content marketer] and not concern yourself with search,” said Mordy Oberstein, head of communications at Semrush. “There’s an intrinsic relationship between your website and search engines.”
“The way modern digital consumption occurs — people go to search to consume things,” said Adam Tanguay, head of SEO and content at Jordan Digital Marketing.
Content marketing and SEO increasingly go hand in hand. Even so, it’s important to remember that SEO-focused content only really works when the brand or publisher creates content about topics related to its expertise and that pinpoints keywords that its target audience is searching for online.
Carol Lyden, the director of search content at Search Engine Land, published by Third Door Media, recalls a time when a client wanted to rank high on Google for the phrase “glass shower doors.” The client manufactured glass shower doors and sold them to architects by the hundreds.
Lyden had to tell the client the tough news: It would be pointless to invest in creating content they hoped would rank for that keyword. That’s because the typical person typing “glass shower doors” into Google is someone who wants to shop for one at Home Depot or Lowe’s, not an architect buying in bulk. Creating search engine optimized content about glass shower doors would fail to achieve what the client really wanted — more traffic and leads.
Indeed, SEO content marketing is all about meeting your brand audience’s search intent and sticking to specific topic areas of interest.
Even if businesses aren’t trying to acquire new users through non-branded search terms — say, “glass shower doors” — consumers still often search for brand names on Google instead of typing out a website. So from a reputation management perspective, it’s important for brands to at least be aware of what shows up when someone searches for their name.
At the most basic level, what makes content SEO-friendly is that it provides people using Google the best user experience, said Lyden.
Google wants people’s searches to yield helpful results, she explained. That way, people will keep coming back to use it. And enough of them will click on the ads listed atop the search engine results, which is how Google makes money. So Google is incentivized to deliver content that best matches the query intent.
Content marketing that is good for people using Google search is typically content that is easily understood, answers people’s questions comprehensively and speaks to them in understandable language free of jargon. It meets them where they are.
“You will be rewarded in Google for that type of content,” Lyden said.
How to Create an SEO Content Marketing Strategy
To develop and execute on a successful SEO content marketing strategy, businesses need to invest in both the technical and content-related aspects of SEO. (And perhaps hire a content marketer or two.)
That said, it’s first worth noting that not all companies need to engage heavily in SEO content marketing. Local brick-and-mortar businesses, for example, probably just need to make sure their websites work, their Google My Business information (address, phone number, hours of operation) is up to date and their online reviews are being engaged with. Trying to rank for “best pepperoni pizza recipe” should not be where a neighborhood pizza place invests its efforts, because that’s not how it will get customers.
With that caveat out of the way, if you’re looking to create an SEO content marketing strategy from scratch, the steps below will help you get started.
How to Create an SEO Content Marketing Strategy
- Define your target audience.
- Pinpoint content topic areas.
- Correct technical SEO and website issues.
- Create helpful, engaging content.
- Optimize your content’s page structure and layout.
- Treat your content like a resource library.
- Diversify your content distribution.
1. Define Your Target Audience
It’s important to start with understanding your target audience. That’s who you’re creating the content for.
You are trying to empathize with their context, their situation, asking questions like: Where are they in their user journey? What problems do they have? What questions do they need answered? Try to put yourself in the audience’s shoes. With some intuition, you should start to notice what topics — and questions within topics — are relevant to them.
2. Pinpoint Content Topic Areas
There are SEO tools — such as Semrush and Moz — that can help you figure out what keywords within topics to target.
Google these keywords. See what is ranking at the top and pay attention to how it’s presented, what thematic patterns emerge. That will help clue you in to what Google thinks users want to know about those keywords. It tells you what people want. You can use these findings to build out an editorial calendar.
As a general rule, businesses should not try to rank for keywords that are outside of their niche or expertise. Just because you make software that helps people buy baseball tickets does not mean you should be trying to rank high on Google for baseball terms. Because even if you succeed in ranking high for that, the vast majority of your traffic won’t be qualified — it won’t be people interested in using your software. It will amount to empty traffic.
It’s important to understand that topical authority is built over time. It takes a little while to start ranking for competitive keywords, especially if you’re starting your SEO content marketing program from scratch.
Because of this, Oberstein suggests thinking of SEO content marketing as dating.
“You wouldn’t ask someone to marry you after the first date,” he said. “You create one page, Google’s not going to rank you for the next page automatically. Google needs to understand who you are, what you are about, what kind of content you write about, what kind of audience [you have], how authoritative you are, how reliable you are, how consistent you are. Google needs to have an understanding to feel comfortable with you in order to rank you.”
From a purely SEO point of view, Oberstein suggests brands consider starting with one niche topic and writing toward specific keywords within it, and working out more broadly from there.
“If you’re writing about heart attacks, don’t go after the keyword ‘heart attacks,’ you’re not going to rank for that,” Oberstein said. “Go after something really specific — ‘Does drinking more X combined with eating Y contribute to heart disease?’”
You’ll have an easier time ranking for that. And over time, Google — like a reader — will come to understand you have some authority and expertise to write about (in this case) heart health.
3. Correct Technical SEO and Website Issues
It doesn’t matter how good your content is if it can’t be found on Google or if your site takes forever to load. So taking care of the basic behind-the-scenes work of technical SEO should be the starting point for any search-focused content strategy. That way, Google can actually crawl your site and show your content on its search results.
“That’s heavy upfront,” Tanguay said. “And then it’s basically managing it over time [and] putting that into the core of the web development process for the company.”
4. Create Helpful, Engaging Content
Good content matches the intent of the user. What information do they need? How do they need it? Write toward that.
“When Covid hit, Google came out and said, ‘If you’re going to write content about Covid, you don’t necessarily want to make it hyper-complicated,” Oberstein said. “That’s not good for the user. Your average person needs to be able to walk away and understand what the hell you’re actually talking about.”
A common temptation within SEO content marketing is to get too fixated on the keyword for which you’re trying to rank. Too often, that leads to content that’s not all that useful.
That’s why Tanguay doesn’t want content producers on his team to think about keywords during the writing process. Even if they are writing SEO-focused content.
“I try to tell writers [to] spend the time thinking about the persona and the audience and writing something unique,” he said. “This is the competitive advantage: Being able to write something that is exceptionally better than the other things that are being delivered when someone searches for that query.”
“This is the competitive advantage: Being able to write something that is exceptionally better than the other things that are being delivered when someone searches for that query.”
With a topic in mind, Tanguay says to focus on making the first draft on any piece of content “the best piece of content and the unique voice for that persona and for that brand.”
The second draft is the time to tweak the language so that it reflects the keywords used in relevant search queries, Tanguay added.
Along those lines, keyword placement is important when you’re trying to rank for a certain one. Naturally, when you’re trying to explain a topic, you will want to include the keyword in the headline and the opening paragraph. That’s not keyword stuffing, that’s just intuitive writing.
“Back in the day, when Google was just getting started, [and] you had a shoe website, you were stuffing in … ‘shoes shoe shoes’ over and over again,” Oberstein said. “You weren’t offering the user the best experience. You were writing for a search engine.”
That’s changed since then. Google has improved in its understanding of what is and what isn’t quality content. So writers shouldn’t think they’re writing for a machine. They should write for humans.
5. Optimize Page Structure and Layout
Reader-friendly page structure is helpful for readers (obviously) but it’s helpful for Google too.
Put yourself in the user’s shoes. When they type something into a search bar, they’re not looking for a dissertation. And while they may want to read something that’s comprehensive, they certainly don’t want to read something that’s difficult to understand and a strain on the eye.
For this reason, SEO specialists recommend content marketers use plenty of headers (H2s and H3s) and paragraph breaks to make for clear, digestible reading. Bulleted lists and tables and images can often help as well. The exact presentation depends on the topic and what state of mind the user is likely in. There’s no silver-bullet format.
You also want to include links to other relevant pages on your site. That helps users — and Google, by extension — understand, topically, where other pages fit in and how different pieces of content connect together.
6. Treat Your Content Like a Resource Library
Unless you’re a news publisher, you should think of your SEO content marketing efforts as building a library of evergreen resources.
“People, for the most part, are not saying, ‘I can’t wait to see what the next update is from this brand,’” Tanguay said. “They’re like, ‘I’m trying to learn about this topic,’ and so they enter the library, trying to find that piece of information ... from your blog.”
That means you should probably focus less on what your blog homepage looks like, Tanguay said. Instead, focus more on what your individual article pages look like — and how they naturally nudge people toward reading the next article or signing up for your newsletter or downloading some tool or resource.
“Those are the important moments to think about with content marketing,” he said.
7. Diversify Your Content Distribution
Pages tend to rank higher on Google when other people read them and link to them on their own websites. So content marketers should consider including additional distribution methods into their content strategy. That way, the content finds a larger audience outside of search (which may, in turn, help it find a larger audience on search).
“A lot of people think link-building is like stupid and it’s from 1990 and you don’t need to do it,” Tanguay said. But he thinks that baking additional distribution methods into the content process can go a long way toward giving pieces of content the boosts they need.
That could mean partnering with other publishers for alternative distribution channels or including content collaborators on the project who can eventually share the final product with their networks.
“A lot of people dismiss or actually don’t do it,” Tanguay said. “I think that’s the biggest mistake people make.”
Track Your SEO Content Marketing Success
SEO content marketing is not a “set it and forget it” operation. It requires ongoing web analytics monitoring, testing and iteration — both to see if your SEO content marketing strategy actually works, and to find ways to replicate and improve upon your successes.
Monitor Traffic and Keyword Rankings
Track the organic search traffic and search engine rankings of your content marketing pages after publication. You can do this using tools like Google Analytics, Ahrefs, Semrush and plenty others.
If it’s important to your business that readers click-through a content marketing page to get to a product page, for example, you’ll also want to track conversion rates. That way, you can see what percentage of organic search visitors perform the actions you ultimately want them to take.
Optimize Your Content
See where your content marketing is lacking in traffic and search rankings, and try to pinpoint the reasons for their poor performance. Maybe the keywords aren’t used in the meta title and headline. Or perhaps the content was written as a long-winded explanation and all the top-ranking articles for the same keyword are tactical how-to guides. Whatever the case, it’s important to make your best bet and tweak the content. After that, continue to monitor the performance and see if traffic and rankings improve.
On the flip side, it’s equally important to pay attention to the successful pieces of content you publish. What do they do (editorially, structurally, etc.) that makes readers — and by extension, search engines — find them relevant and useful to their queries? Identify those takeaways and fold them back into your content marketing strategy.