If you listen to discussions about penguins, hummingbirds, pandas, and knowledge bots, you might get the impression that search engine optimization is starting to converge with the discipline of content strategy. The SEO industry sounds enlightened when they talk about the importance of content quality, and the value of semantics in positioning content. But it would be a mistake to assume that the SEO industry is now on the same page as content strategy. SEO consultants continue to view content through the wrong end of the telescope, and believe that demystifying Google is the key to content success. They still don’t understand that Google is not the audience for your content. The more you worry about Google, the more likely your content won’t meet the needs of your real audience, because you’ve diverted your attention from important goals, and squandered limited resources.
Why Fear Google?
No one knows exactly how big the SEO industry is — or even how to define it. According to some estimates, global SEO spending accounts for several billion dollars each year. Unlike search engine marketing, SEO is supposed to be cost-free; yet counterintuitively, firms spend billions of dollars on it. Brands seem to hire SEO consultants for two main reasons: the fear of making a costly mistake, and the fear they don’t understand what exactly Google is doing that might impact them. Google is a formidable (and secretive) $60 billion company. The software industry is full of consultants who exist to explain the proprietary products of big vendors. Microsoft and SAP have their third party explainers who decipher the products for customers, and help them implement them. Marketers have the SEO industry to take the fear out of Google. And since Google keeps changing things, the SEO consultants carry on explaining the supposed implications of the latest changes.
Change and Denial
On nearly every front, content discovery is experiencing massive changes. Search is declining as a source of referral traffic, as social media (Facebook in particular) becomes more important. Referral traffic is harder to track, as more traffic comes from offline and encrypted referrers. Digital ad revenues — the raison d’être for Google’s search business — are under pressure, due to the lack of mobile cookies, audience cross channel hopping, and ad oversupply. In the face of these pressures, Google has iteratively increased the sophistication of its search. It has transformed search ranking from being a set of practices that could be partially reverse engineered, to a complex data structure that is not knowable to outside parties.
SEO consultants comment on these changes profusely, while maintaining that the key to success is to continue following the same advice they’ve always given. Good SEO advice is timeless, they’d have you believe. I have yet to read any SEO consultant admit they’ve changed their mind about what’s effective. Tactics go out of fashion when Google publicly belittles them, changes priorities, or chooses to make an example out of a party that audaciously believes it can crack the system. The consultants tend to deny, when pressed, that they ever advocated now unfashionable tactics such as link building or keyword stuffing. But the power of keywords remains a core belief of the SEO industry.
Old Formulas are Broken
I was recently at a content strategy conference that featured a speaker who is an SEO specialist. I wasn’t previously familiar with her, but judging from her social media profile she’s well known with a large following. She provided a standard menu of recommendations about content:
- Research keywords you can use in your content
- Write content using your keywords
- Get a bigger audience.
Most of the talk focused on researching keywords. There are numerous tools trying to estimate or simulate what is happening in the web universe, and slice this data in various ways to provide insights. I admire the inventiveness of the data brokers in offering information that — on the surface at least — looks like it should be valuable. Who wouldn’t want to know which keywords are popular, or what ad words competitors are bidding for? Tools proliferate to provide pieces of data you don’t know. But rarely do SEO consultants debate how important it is to know these things, or how accurate the data is. Most of the data simply isn’t relevant.
SEO is driven by the herd instinct. What are other people doing? Let’s do what other people are doing! The practice of SEO is the practice of mimicry. Follow trends, rather than pursue one’s own goals or be by guided by one’s own results. When Google activity acts as the North Star guiding decisions, then the interests of brands and audiences consequently become a secondary priority.
Brands hope that if they rank high in a search by finding the perfect combination of popular but underutilized keywords, that audiences will want to engage with them. Brands can blame low engagement on poor search rank visibility due to a few poor keyword choices. With an SEO focus, the underlying quality of the content is never questioned.
SEO has been described, with justification, as the practice of “writing for Google.” Writing for Google is not the same as writing for audiences. It’s dangerous to assume that Google keywords reflect the content needs of audiences you want to reach.
Let’s imagine a small craft beer company. They take pride in the fine ingredients they use, and the attention they give to their beer making. But an SEO consultant tells them they are missing out on valuable web traffic. His research indicates that people online are searching for beer in combination with the topic of the beach. Moreover, one of big beer companies is running a beach themed marketing campaign relating to their beer. So the craft brewer develops some beach themed content featuring games with people in swimsuits, and does find that web traffic increases. But sales don’t improve: actually some core fans are turned off by the beach stuff. Turns out that the new web visitors are largely 14 year olds. By the time they can legally purchase the product, they will consider the brand too juvenile for their tastes.
This parable illustrates the two core fallacies of SEO.
SEO fallacy #1: Treating All Page Views as Equally Valuable
The logic of SEO is beguilingly simple: Better performing search terms result in higher rankings that result in more page views. This narrative is PowerPoint and Excel friendly. It’s easy to digest, because it avoids discussion of a messy variable called people.
Where is the audience? They are hiding behind the search terms, and the page views. SEO consultants presume there is one mass audience that is typing search terms and one mass audience viewing pages, and that these audiences are one and the same. Then, in an even bigger leap of faith, they assume that the audience viewing a page is the same as the audience you are looking to attract because, after all, they clicked on your page.
Even if we assume SEO can deliver a larger audience, it doesn’t follow that it delivers the right audience. SEO lacks an effective concept of audience segmentation. It may be able to tell you what terms are being used in searches, but can’t tell you who is using these terms. Even ad words only offer crude segmentation data, and provide no real ability to parse how different audience segments use words in different ways. The terms that are most popular in a general sense aren’t necessarily the terms popular with your target audience.
The limitations of keywords are apparent when one starts from the end goal and works backwards. Suppose you produce an expensive ceiling fan that looks amazing and sells for several thousand dollars. You want to attract an audience prepared to spend that amount of money on a fan and appreciate it. What keywords do you use? Ideally you want to use the keywords that would be used by the real customers of your product. But the mass audience of SEO doesn’t help you pinpoint which keywords are right. You don’t know if high-end shoppers really search using such terms as “luxury” or “designer,” or if those are down-market terms used by people who aspire to products they believe are fancier than they really are. A flawed keyword focus might end up driving traffic to your website from people looking for a designer fan they saw at Walmart. You’ve won the page view sweepstakes, but haven’t succeeded attracting serious prospects. Rather than try to second guess search terms, it could be more effective to talk authentically about the product and rely on the content to provide the connections to search engines.
SEO Fallacy #2: Having Search Terms Drive Brand and Content Strategy
Chasing what’s popular means you are hostage to fads. Planning content around popular keywords is not strategic. Popularity changes. You may believe you “own” a keyword until a bigger competitor starts using it and wipes out your search position. Keywords are rarely decisive in determining search rank, which is heavily influenced by the general authority of the hosting website.
Your content should reflect consistent and enduring priorities for your brand and your content strategy. What ranks well on Google today may not rank well in six months, if keywords are the decisive reason. Google is changing its ranking algorithm continuously, and it is foolish to try to shape your content to fit it if you want your content to be valuable over the longer term.
With keyword-driven content, you surrender control over what you talk about. You start creating content because it is popular, not because it is relevant to your brand or to the specific audience you want to attract. You loose control of your brand voice and message, since keywords reflect a generic, lowest common denominator mode of expression, a modern form of caveman talk. People may use primitive vocabulary in a search box, but they don’t necessarily want the content they see to be as dumbed down as the search they have parsimoniously entered. Emphasizing the most popular keywords in your content can undermine your brand’s credibility with the audiences you most want to attract.
You Don’t Control Semantic Search
There are signs that some SEO consultants are starting to pivot on keywords. As Google search increasingly relies on identifying semantic and linguistic relationships, SEO consultants have turned their attention to unlocking how semantic search works.
Even though Google has redefined how they retrieve and rank search items, the idea that you can, and should, write for Google refuses to die in the SEO industry. What remains true is that the ability to gain a competitive advantage by writing for search engines is limited. Making search engines the priority of your writing is ultimately counterproductive. If you adopt some of the latest SEO thinking, you will make your content operations less efficient, and baffle your audience in the process.
Various SEO consultants in recent months have offered explanations of semantic search, making it sound fiendish. If fear of the unknown animated prior discussion of SEO mysteries, semantic search is presented as even more cryptic; SEO consultants seem eager to detail its complexities. But rather than admit they don’t know exactly how Google weights the numerous factors they use, SEO consultants imply the black box of Google search can still be reverse engineered. The advice being offered can border on comical. Instead of suggesting repetitively using keywords (the so-called keyword density tactic), SEO consultants now suggest using many synonyms in what you write about, since Google considers synonyms in its search results. The theory is that using lots of synonyms will make the content appear “less thin” to Google.
We find SEO consultants urging clients to develop topic modelling of their content so they can improve “on page optimization.” How toying with topic modelling (the computer modelling of thematically related words) is supposed to improve search ranking is never clear; presumably it is based on the idea that if the brand talks the same way that Google’s algorithms evaluate pages, then it will rank more highly. Like much other semantic SEO advice, its value is taken on faith. The advice is not actionable by authors, who have no practical means to implement it.
A writer on Moz asks: “What is this page about? As marketers, helping search engines answer that basic question is one of our most important tasks.” He recommends clients evaluate their “term frequency–inverse document frequency” to “help” Google. Here is another example of expropriating a technical concept from the science of information retrieval, and assuming that content authors can somehow usefully apply these insights to better serve audiences.
Much of the new wave of semantic SEO advice is warmed-over keyword stuffing. Instead of stuffing keywords, they urge clients to stuff “concepts.” Writers are supposed to add pointless words to their content to bulk up the number of explicit conceptual associations mentioned. Never mind if the audience finds this verbiage superfluous. The semantic SEO advice implies that all pages should look like Wikipedia: brimming with as many concrete nouns as possible so that they rank highly according to what they imagine Google’s semantic search is looking for.
If brands embrace this new talk about concept stuffing, it is only a matter of time before Google identifies and penalizes black hat semantic markup that is superfluous and not reflective of the genuine substance of an article.
It may be a shock to the SEO industry, but Google doesn’t need their help to understand what a page is about. Google is famous for developing a driverless car. They certainly don’t need back seat drivers directing their search engines. Google has been trying to shake off the influence of SEO consultants for some time. They’d rather collect ad money from brands directly, instead of having SEO consultants volunteer confusing guidance that makes brands wary of Google.
Google Doesn’t Care about Keywords, but Humans Do
For better or worse, Google search has entered a post-literal phase. In the past, one could type a phrase with a unique combination of words, and retrieve a document containing those search terms. The “Googlewhack” became a source of amusement and fascination, discovering what mysteries were hidden in the vast ocean of content. Today, Google will reinterpret your Googlewhack search and spoil any fun. So many factors influence search today that one is never sure what results will return highly when entering a search. The relationship between what a brand writes, and what a user types in a search box, has never been less clear.
This is not to imply that language doesn’t matter. It matters to people. Content professionals should be concerned about what words mean to people, instead of what they mean to search engines. According to its original meaning in corpus linguistics, keywords refer to the words a specific group of people use most frequently in their speech or writing relative to other groups. It is important to use the keywords of your audience: just don’t expect to find them from Google searches. Most people rely on a small set of words in daily conversation and writing. I have a handy dictionary on my iPhone called the Longman Keywords Dictionary that lists the 3000 most frequent words in spoken and written English. It also provides common collocations of words (words that tend to be used together). While intended for learners of English as a second language, it provides a white list of words you should be using if trying to reach a broad audience. These are the words people use and know without thinking twice. You can save more unique words for special situations or ideas where you want to bring attention to what you are discussing, and make people notice a less common word or phrase. The goal should be to focus audience attention on what’s novel and interesting, not to bludgeon them with repetition.
Don’t worry about how Google manages your content — worry about how you manage it
SEO consultants at times highlight interesting information from Google such as academic research and patent applications. Google is a clever and fascinating company, and people who use Google search are naturally curious about what the search giant is doing. But apart from a small quantity of Google-published materials, people who do not work at Google can’t possibly explain with any confidence what is happening inside an impenetrable, proprietary product. So instead we get speculation about what Google is doing, opinion surveys of consultants that rank order their opinions, and experimental tests that generally can’t be reproduced over time by different people.
While impressive, Google search is far from perfect. It will continue to evolve. Semantic search will continue to play a central role, but contextual data relating to personal behavior will probably become more prominent in future releases of Google search. Google search is a moving target: there’s little point trying to subdue it by orienting your content to suit its changing characteristics.
Rather than worry about how Google manages their content, brands should worry how they manage their content themselves. The needs of human audiences are straightforward compared with the ever-shifting priorities of Google search algorithms. Brands should focus on audience needs, and resist the distractions of fickle popularity of search rankings. They need to make a sustained effort understanding and serving the needs of core customers.
One benefit of all the chatter about semantic search is the growing awareness of semantic technologies. Many of the same technical approaches Google uses to index and evaluate content can be used by any brand for their own content operations. Such open source tools as Mallet, NLTK, Solr and elasticsearch offer amazing capabilities to improve the discoverability and distribution of content within the brand’s own content platforms. Critically, brands that make investments in their own platforms gain valuable knowledge of audiences from the data they generate, in stark contrast to the black box of Google.
SEO’s Value and Future
The primary value of SEO is promoting clean metadata. SEO consultants provide a service when they highlight the potential problems arising from lacking proper metadata. Due to the size of the SEO industry, they have become, through the twists of fate, the door-to-door sales force explaining the concept of metadata to ordinary marketers. Many organizations learn about metadata through their engagement of an SEO consultant.
Unfortunately, because SEO consultants talk selectively about metadata such as Schema.org, people who are not content professionals can erroneously assume that search engine metadata is the only metadata that matters. Most marketers mistakenly believe that Schema.org markup is useful only for search. They do not realize that it can be used in conjunction with APIs to make content available to resellers, or provide dynamic updates. Metadata can play a far larger role than supporting search. Metadata is essential to enable the effective utilization of content for many different purposes.
The future of SEO is uncertain. Google’s de-emphasis of links and keywords has rendered it largely irrelevant. It is becoming a side show to search marketing and other “in bound” marketing techniques. As a branch of marketing, the SEO industry is engulfed by the ethos of pay-to-play: to perform better than the competition requires spending more ad dollars.
For SEO consultants who are genuinely interested in the power of content quality to improve organic engagement, I hope they will apply their knowledge of metadata and analytics more broadly to the field of content strategy. Much SEO knowledge is highly transferrable, and is far more impactful when applied to all dimensions of content, not just search.
— Michael Andrews