- The typical advice around merely improving on the content already ranking at the top of the SERP is fundamentally flawed.
- SEOs often limit their content possibilities by thinking of SEO content from purely acquisitional point of view.
- Thinking of content from a branding perspective leads to differentiation and aligns with Google’s focus on topical expertise and authority.
- Emerging AI writing technology may not be symmetrical with Google’s evolving algorithm.
I have a bone to pick with the way our industry thinks about content. In general, I think we often don’t appreciate what good content really is. Nor do I think we consider what should go into creating great content. Here, in specific, I want to challenge the notion that all content is “acquisition” content.
I don’t just mean landing pages, but blog posts as well. That’s right, not all content should be created with the objective of getting more conversions or even more traffic to your site.
Does that sound outlandish? Perhaps. But by the time you finish reading this, you might agree with me. (Although let’s be honest, you probably won’t).
SEO from a branding perspective
I often think of SEO from a branding perspective. I know, you’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s a crazy statement right there!”. Outlandish as it might sound, thinking of SEO in terms of branding will greatly impact how you see “SEO content”. Why? Because in terms of mindset, content creation and branding are very similar.
Let’s substitute “your brand” with “your site” because your site is your brand to both users and search engines.
Think of your site as your brand. Just like you think about your brand’s identity and perception–that’s how you should think about your site because that’s how it’s seen by Google.
We, as SEOs, might refer to this as your site’s “trust” and “authority.” When you break those concepts down fundamentally, what you’re really talking about is how your site is being perceived based on what it’s meant to be doing (that is, its identity).
In other words, what would the fundamental problem be with a site that offered cancer treatment advice while peddling payday loans? It would be the perception that the health advice is, at best, “tainted”. Even if the site wasn’t “seedy” and offered cancer treatment advice as well as investment advice, there would be a severe lack of identity.
In many fundamental ways, things like E-A-T and brand identity (and subsequently, perception) are the same thing.
So let’s ask, if you wanted your brand to be perceived as trustworthy and authoritative how would you go about writing your content? What would your content look and sound like?
That kind of content would have to be substantial, nuanced and detailed. Most importantly, it would have to be unique. Having brand identity that is borrowed from another brand is entirely antithetical to having your own brand identity. This would apply to everything from an in-depth blog post to a product image or description. Brand identity and differentiation go hand in hand. Differentiation and nuance go hand in hand. Do you see where I’m going here?
Does your “SEO content” sound like this? Are we hyper-focused on differentiation?
Quite the opposite. A lot of the basic advice you hear about writing “good SEO content” is about replicating what the top-ranking sites are doing already.
The typical “content for SEO” is irksome
The typical advice about creating “SEO content” flies in the face of content that has a unique identity and brand value. Namely, it often calls on folks to see what’s ranking on the top of the SERP and make sure the topics that the top-ranking sites cover make their way to your content as well. Differentiation is damned.
Worse, this advice is often directed to new SEOs and it’s presented without a hint that there’s more to the story here.
Obviously, surveying the top-ranking pages and taking some ideas away is a fine thing to do. However, it does not create unique value. Skyscraper content, as it’s often called, doesn’t help you differentiate your content in any substantial way.
For those of you who adhere to the notion of simply improving upon what currently ranks let me ask you, would you take the same approach with your brand?
Would you be happy with a brand identity that was simply a take on another brand’s identity? That kind of feels a bit cheap and it isn’t a truly effective branding strategy.
Why is your content any different?
Is regurgitating what’s already out there going to help your content stand out or be memorable? (The answer is no in case you were really wondering)
By the way, there is a fundamental flaw in this approach. Namely, it rests on the assumption that what is there already is the best that it can possibly be. But, isn’t it entirely possible that Google would prefer content that took the topic from a totally different angle? Isn’t it possible that the content already ranking isn’t the best, but is simply the best Google has at the moment? What if you were to take a new approach or introduce new relevant subtopics that other pages don’t? Isn’t there a chance that you would rank and not those other pages?
However, if you only look at content that’s already ranking, you won’t think about the content that people really want and need, that doesn’t exist yet. That’s potentially a huge opportunity that you’d be missing out on.
So, why is this tolerated? Why do we spread the idea that all it takes is a wee bit of keyword research and some surveying of the ranking sites?
I believe it comes down to mindset. We generally think of content as acquisitional and that’s a bit problematic.
The problem with thinking about content as purely acquisitional
When you think of content as being purely acquisitional, you become blinded by the drug that is acquisition. When your sole goal is acquisition you’re not thinking about things like:
- What’s genuinely good for the user?
- How do I differentiate my content?
- What does my content say about my brand?
The idea of content being acquisitional is not intrinsically problematic. Content should bring in new users, it should generate traffic, it should result in sales…but it should also do more.
Content should help give identity to your site. It should create relationships with users. It should lend an air of authority and expertise to your site. (We’re right back at the whole E-A-T thing again because branding and E-A-T are two peas in a pod)
However, we don’t live in a world of identity, relationships, and authority. Our world consists of clicks, traffic, conversions, sales, and so forth. In turn, we distort content, which in this author’s opinion is not fundamentally about acquisition, into only being about acquisition.
It’s not hard to see how a mentality that revolves around seeing what already works and replicating it came to dominate our industry. Things like identity and consumer trust, well those are “marketing” concepts. What do they have to do with SEO? SEO is about traffic. Let’s create content that brings in that traffic, no?
Except, I would argue, SEO is not that at all. Search engines are looking at who your site is and what it claims to be (and if the content you have aligns with that). They are judging your expertise and authority. They want to match the user with helpful content that aligns to query intent.
Search engines don’t care about your traffic and conversions. They care about users, much the way that a more ‘brand-centric’ outlook on SEO would care about how a user perceives a website.
What should content be created for if not the acquisition of more sales or traffic?
So if you’re not writing content for acquisition then who and what are you writing content for? I don’t know, how about your audience or potential audience? (I’m referring to creating content for the user, so cliche, I know.)
There are various starting points when thinking about content that serves users. One of which is thinking about yourself and your site and how the content you create represents you. Because once you do, you sure are not going to want to put out anything that presents you the wrong way.
I don’t want to get into the whole “is keyword research dead” debate (it’s dead, it’s not really a debate). Do what you want with your keywords. I don’t care about your keywords, I care about your content.
Your content is you. The content you have on your site is who you are to the users who visit your site. Your content is branding. There isn’t a way around that. So while you’ve been focused on scraping every topic and subtopic you can from your competitors, your users (can we call them readers?) are asking why your content looks and feels like every other piece of content they’ve come across. Congratulations.
(By the way, I personally believe search engines are most likely saying the same thing. That is, what is the real value in ranking this page over what’s already there, if fundamentally, they are the same?)
Traffic and growth and conversions or however you want to frame this is not a linear equation. Driving more traffic or getting more conversions is a complex and messy endeavor. You can’t just think about what is immediately in front of you. How users feel about your site and perceive your brand over time is an important part of the equation. The content your readers consume, whether it be a product description or a blog post, define you and your brand. That can determine if they return to your site, recommend your site, link to your site, mention your site, and so forth.
Is this not part of SEO? Because if it is, that only happens when you do things like thinking about content from a “perception” or “branding” (or whatever you want to call it) point of view.
Moreover, thinking of your content and your site overall from a brand authority perspective naturally hones your topical focus. It forces you to create substantial content that reflects well on who you are. And as I mentioned earlier, that topical focus gives your site identity to both users (in the form of brand identity) and to search engines (in the form of, “hey, this site comprehensively tackles this topic over multiple posts, let’s rank them for this topic across the board”).
But this only happens if you step back from the acquisition mindset and think of your content from a wider and less strictly “traditional SEO” perspective. This only happens when you write content that’s differentiated, that focuses on quality, and that isn’t about making sure you cover certain topics for the sake of covering a certain topic.
What I am trying to say is that content is naturally closer to branding than it is to SEO (at least SEO as many of us know it). If you don’t look at your content from a branding/perception point of view you are fundamentally missing out on what content is.
That, in turn, means creating strong and quality content will be an uphill battle for you. And that means that ranking long term is also going to be an uphill battle for you, as Google continues to refine how it understands language and how it profiles sites.
Succinctly, instead of asking “how will this content get me more traffic?”, ask yourself, ‘“How will this content make me look to my users?”. That will put you on the path to writing unique, helpful content.
GPT-3, it’s a trap!
I could end the piece here, but I have one more “concern” that needs to be addressed. AI writers.
Do I think AI writers, namely GPT-3 will be good at writing a product description? Yes, I do. I think AI writers will ultimately do a wonderful job with something like a product description.
Do I think AI writers, namely GPT-3, will be good at writing something titled, “A Speculative Critique of Relativity from a Quantum Physics Perspective”? Absolutely not. Do you?
As this field rapidly develops I want to issue a warning: don’t fall into the trap. Don’t think that you can get away with using something like GPT-3 to write a deeply nuanced and differentiated article or blog post.
Yes, I do think people will try to do just that. Why? Because of the same acquisition mindset, I complained about earlier. When it comes to more substantial content, an AI writer just can’t deliver the nuance and quality that you need to make a difference.
As I see it the danger is that it’s easy to get caught up in emerging technology and go all-in on it. Just remember, Google is also an emerging technology, and a lot of what it’s doing in the algorithm stands in contradiction to the full-on adoption of AI written content.
While the emergence of AI writers might make it easier to create content, you could be creating the very content that Google does not want. And while something like GPT-3 would, all things being equal, work well on a landing page, the content it produces for a topic your blog handles may need more nuance and depth.
Of course, all of this hinges on thinking there is a world of content beyond acquisition fluff. (If you love fluff, go ahead GPT-3 yourself to death.)
Feel the perception pressure
How do users perceive your site? How do they feel about you after reading the content on your site or interacting with your site? Thinking about your site’s perception can be a pathway to creating content that is substantial and ultimately effective (and I mean from an SEO point of view).
The problem is when we get so caught up in linear metrics that we don’t even feel that pressure. When SEO content creation becomes a hustle to outrank whatever is currently at the top of the SERP it sacrifices perspective. That perspective can be the difference between being another piece of the same ol’ content versus being something both users and search engines value.
End the hustle.
Mordy Oberstein is Liaison to the SEO Community at Wix.
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