SEO is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Like many marketing channels, there are different forms of SEO. Both technical SEO and content SEO will help you garner more organic traffic, but that does not necessarily mean you need to invest in both at this moment. Depending where your brand is, how many resources you have and what your goals are, one SEO pillar is likely more lucrative than the other.
Fortunately, there are some easy answers that can help you determine if technical SEO or content marketing SEO will provide a bigger bang for your buck. Here’s how.
What Is Content Marketing and Content SEO?
What’s good for the user is good for SEO. If you keep this in mind as you produce content across your site, you’ll be fine.
The Goal of Content Marketing and Content SEO
More specifically, content SEO primarily focuses on content both the user and Googlebot see. It’s the content Google uses to help rank your pages over your competitors. Of course, there is likely a lot of content on your site, so which content applies to content marketing? The answer is all of it!
Nonetheless, SEO content writing usually revolves around a few key elements, all of which Google uses to determine your ranking. Those are:
- URLs: This is how a user or Googlebot finds your page. Try to keep it short and always use human-readable URLs with descriptive keywords — like the one for this article.
- Title Tags: This is the text a user sees when they hover over the tab of your page. It’s also usually the big blue text users see in Google. Use phrases, include descriptive keywords, target between 60 and 80 characters with spaces and always write unique title tags for each page.
- Meta Descriptions: Users only see the meta description in Google’s results and not on your page. Therefore, the goal is to convince the user to click on your result. Use sentence structure, target between 150 and 200 characters with spaces and always write unique meta descriptions per page.
- Headlines (H1s): This is the title of your page and the primary headline the user will see on the page. The H1 is usually not shown on Google. Make sure all H1s across your site are unique, but always try to tie the user in.
- Other Headers (H2s and H3s): Use H2s and H3s to break up your content. Users like to skim, so don’t run one long story with no paragraphs or headers on the page. In addition, Google factors H2s and H3s into its ranking decisions.
- Body Content: Your actual article must inform and engage the user better than your competitors’. Again, SEO content writing is all about providing the right content in the right form to the right user at the right time.
- Hyperlinks and Anchor Text: Google and users use hyperlinks within pages to discover new content. Anchor text is what we call the actual words you choose to hyperlink. When you hyperlink out to other pages on or off your site, use the anchor text to inform the user where they’re going. The anchor text should give a user and Googlebot a clue as to what page they’re about to visit.
- Page Layout: Finally, make sure your page flows well. Again, do not just put 1,000 words on a page with no headers, no paragraphs and no hyperlinks. Whether on mobile or desktop, the design of your page should be clean and easy to use.
What Is Technical SEO?
Technical SEO is made up of website and server practices that are intended to maximize site usability, search crawling and indexing. In other words, technical SEO helps Googlebot discover and understand your pages. Technical SEO is the behind-the-scenes work that ensures a website is functioning correctly and that Google can actually take the content and show it on its search engine results pages (SERP).
There are hundreds of technical SEO projects — many of which fall within our 2021 SEO trends — but some of the most common are:
- Robots.txt: Every site has a robots.txt file, and you can see yours by going to your homepage and then adding /robots.txt at the end of the URL. This file is like a map for Googlebot. Googlebot will always come to this map and see which pages it can and can’t crawl. If you want your pages to show up in Google, make sure they’re not blocked or disallowed via your robots.txt file.
- XML Sitemaps: Larger sites with a ton of URLs should utilize XML sitemaps to help Googlebot find all relevant URLs. XML sitemaps are larger maps that show Google all relevant URLs on a domain or subdomain. If you’re running a smaller site with good internal links, XML sitemaps are overrated and won’t provide much ROI.
- Crawling: Once Google reads the files above, it then makes its way around the site. Googlebot uses internal links and the XML sitemaps to find pages on your site. Googlebot must be able to crawl a URL in order to index and rank that page. Crawling always happens before indexing and ranking.
- Indexing: Beyond the robots.txt file, you can always use the robots tag at the page level to tell Google to not index that page. For example, you may release a new page on your site to see if the design helps with conversion. However, you only want to test it on a subset of users. To ensure no other user sees the page before it’s finalized, you can apply a noindex robots tag on the page. This tells Google to keep it out of its index.
- Site Performance and Speed: Site speed is vital. If your site is slow, users are unlikely to wait around. In addition, this year, Google is finally including page experience and their Core Web Vitals into their ranking algorithm. In others words, if your site is slow, Google may lower your rankings. You can’t put off site speed work anymore.
- Canonicals: Many sites have URLs with tracking parameters or multiple pages with similar content. In either scenario, utilize the rel-canonical tag to tell Google where to send the SEO juice. Simply put, if two URLs have very similar content on them, Google won’t know which one to rank on similar queries. Canonical tags clear that up and send all SEO juice and signals to the most relevant URL.
- Structured Data: Structured data helps Google understand the context of a page. Google also rewards certain types of structured data on the SERP, but this list is expanding fast. If you have any pages that fall into these Schema.org types, I would consider adding them in your code.
- Rendering: Finally, you can render your website content server-side or client-side. Both have their pros and cons, but more often than not, SEOs prefer server-side rendering to ensure Googlebot can see all your content as fast as possible.
How to Determine Which SEO Pillar You Need
Now that you know the basics of both content marketing SEO and technical SEO, you have to decide which to invest in. Of course, the first answer is both. Any website that is serious about SEO needs to dedicate resources to each pillar. Sadly, most of us don’t have an endless marketing budget and many brands have to decide one or the other. If you fall into this bucket, the following analysis will help you determine which SEO pillar will provide a better ROI:
- Compare competitor content.
- Compare SEO rankings.
- Analyze Google Search Console (GSC) and indexing report.
- Analyze site speed.
- Evaluate log files.
- Evaluate resources.
Compare Competitor Content
Anyone in marketing should be able to look at a similar webpage and tell which content is more effective. Whether it’s a superior design, more creative writing, more informed research or better internal linking, it’s usually clear which page will do better in the long term. This is where you should start.
Gather your top five competitors and then choose your 10 most important pages on your site. Chances are, you competitors will have similar pages. Go through each one by one and see how your pages stack up. Who has more content? Who answers more questions your users will have? Which pages offer a better conversion path? Which pages provide easy access to similar content? If the answers to all these questions are not you, then you need to invest in SEO content.
Compare SEO Rankings
Next, look at your Google rankings compared to your competitors’. Most likely, the answers to your analysis above will be the same, but you should also check your official rankings. You can do this via GSC or rankings tools such as SEMRush, Moz and a swarm of others. If you’re newer to SEO, I highly recommend SEMrush. It’s a very easy tool to grasp and can help you immensely with content planning.
As you compare yourself to your competitors, go back to your answer above. If your content is better than your competitors’, but your rankings are lower, I would invest in technical SEO, as something beyond the content may be at play. However, if your content is worse and your rankings are lower, I would first invest in content SEO. After that is settled (which is never-ending, really), you should move into technical SEO as well.
Analyze Google Search Console and the Indexing Report
GSC is Google’s way of messaging you directly about your website. It has a host of stats ranging from traffic, click-through rate, Core Web Vitals (speed), sitemaps and much more. However, a key report is the coverage section. This report tells you which pages Google is indexing or not indexing. In this section, GSC highlights four fields:
- Valid With Warnings
The names are pretty self-explanatory, but you should focus on your “Excluded” section. These are the pages Google can not or is choosing to not index for various reasons. Over the four fields, if more than 20 percent of your total sites’ URLs are “Excluded,” I highly recommend investing in technical SEO. While some of the excluded reasons may be due to thin content or duplicate content, the majority of the issues usually fall within the technical SEO arena. If less than 20 percent of your total URLs are in the “Excluded” or “Errors” fields, stay focused on content SEO.
Analyze Your Site Speed
Site performance will be an official ranking factor in 2021 (even though I think it already is). Google gave webmasters ample time to get their sites in tip-top shape, and that usually means this ranking change will be a big deal. As such, make sure your site is as fast as possible.
To analyze your site speed, first look at the Core Web Vitals report in GSC. Google will tell you which pages are poor, which ones need improvement and which ones are in good shape. Focus on the “Poor” URLs and get those pages in the “Good” condition. As you audit your Core Web Vitals, you’ll have to focus on these three metrics:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): Measures the speed at which a page’s main content is loaded. It needs to load under 2.5 seconds.
- First Input Delay (FID): Measures the speed at which users are able to interact with a page after landing on it. This needs to occur within 100 milliseconds.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): Measures how often users experience unexpected layout shifts. CLS needs to be less than 0.1.
Beyond this report, you can also use Google PageSpeed Insights to look at URLs at an individual level and get a bit more data than GSC. It’s a bit more manual, but if you’re doing a whole website audit, I highly recommend you look at both tools.
If you have any speed issues (e.g. GSC URLs are poor or Google PageSpeed scores under 60), focus on technical SEO and immediately move site performance up your SEO roadmap.
Evaluate Your Log Files
Log files tell you where bots crawl your site. Earlier, I mentioned robots.txt and XML sitemaps. While you can tell Google where to go on your site, that does not mean it will visit those URLs as often as you wish. To confirm how often, you need to check your log files.
Log files are likely under lock and key by your CTO or other developers. Their formatting can be a bit technical, so you’ll likely need assistance. Once you get it, determine how often Google is crawling every section of your website. If it’s crawling nearly as often as the content is updated, you’re good. If not, there is likely a technical SEO issue, but there could also be an internal linking issue. Therefore, if you find a problem with your log files, I would first invest in technical SEO. If that does not fix the issue, go back and concentrate on internal linking.
Examine Your Resources
After you’ve done all above, sit back and evaluate the resources at your company. How many developers are at your disposal? What is their bandwidth like? Where does SEO sit in the pecking order? How is the company doing right now? What major projects or issues are the tech teams focusing on?
All these questions will help you determine whether or not you can invest in technical SEO. A successful technical SEO roadmap requires careful prioritization, but if no one can work on even your most important tasks, what’s the point of wasting your time? Yes, it’s always worth bringing up major concerns (such as robots.txt issues, a large drop in traffic, lots of pages excluded, etc.) — but if the development team can’t get to a majority of your asks, focus on the areas you can update on your own like content SEO.
On the other hand, if the company is providing more resources to SEO, marketing and growth, don’t let it go to waste. Get your technical SEO work completed!
Start Your Content and Technical SEO Roadmap
Hopefully, this exercise has made it clear which SEO pillar will be more lucrative for your specific business. If not...
How to Evaluate Which SEO Strategy to Invest In
- Content SEO: If resources are tight and you believe your competitors are producing superior content, focus on content marketing and content SEO.
- Technical SEO: If resources are not tight and you have crawling, indexing or speed issues — or if you’ve invested heavily in content SEO over the years — focus on technical SEO.
Once you’ve decided which pillar to target, get to work! Before you know it, your content and technical SEO issues will vanish and your competitors will be chasing you up the Google ranks.