Last decade the disciplines of SEO and content marketing had very little in common and few would have said they did. Content marketing was just beginning to emerge as a viable organic digital marketing strategy and enterprise SEO departments were being built at companies around the world. While each had similar macro-goals, their tactical approach to digital marketing success was often much different and their KPIs reflected such.
Fast forward to today – some would argue the two disciplines are damn-near homogenous. The tactics of yesterday just don’t quite work to drive organic search traffic like they once did. For many, in its place arose data informed content or inbound marketing. Much of the forward-thinking thought leadership of the time predicted this change, too.
With the #MozCon hashtag still hot from this summer’s event, and the #INBOUND15 and #CMWorld hashtags getting ready to spin up; we’re faced with a new generation of thought leadership in the digital space. And we’ve just begun to get a taste of it.
The prevailing attitude for most of last decade was that content was a necessary evil. It didn’t matter if it made much sense to the reader. What mattered was that Google served it up for the keyword phrases intended.
It didn’t matter if the content was spam left on the comments section of a blog for a link, a keyword stuffed blog post, or if it was left justified in a website’s HTML by 25,000 pixels; the content most SEOs were producing was strictly for the search engines. And guess what? It worked.
Some SEO practitioners may deny that content was simply a necessary evil and that it wasn’t exclusively for search engines. Those were sales and SEO blog talking points at the time, but all it did was mask what was really going on – algorithm manipulation for rankings and NOT delivering helpful or entertaining content for consumers.
The tactical differences between SEO and content marketing were very significant at the time.
Content marketing, in its digital form, was pioneered by brands like Moz and HubSpot. Rand Fishkin started blogging proficiently in 2004. I doubt at the time he would have considered what he was doing SEO, but rather, simply participating in and helping a burgeoning community. By early accounts, he just chalked up what he was doing as blogging, and left it at that.
A couple years later, HubSpot emerged on the scene taking a similar approach to blogging as Rand. Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah had a name for it though – inbound marketing. Shortly thereafter both Rand and Dharmesh started to realize that simply creating content that people loved, and a lot of it, could also deliver the organic search traffic SEOs were working so hard to secure.
In 2010 my own analytics, and the analytics of my clients, started to show major signs of this too. It was also at this time when I realized that it was getting easier to execute content marketing for SEO results than it was to attempt to manipulate the algorithm. After collecting enough data to prove my hypothesis I published this deck and presented it virtually.
Around the same time Rand began to publicly point at inbound marketing as the future of SEO and HubSpot’s own studies pointed to the same conclusion. While all this was going on Joe Pulizzi’s Content Marketing Institute (CMI) was beginning to develop major influence in the industry. CMI didn’t necessarily espouse and focus on the SEO benefits of content marketing at the time. However, it was a powerful voice in amplifying the plethora of other benefits content marketing provides.
The thought leadership from this era spawned the quantity versus quality content debate that still rears its head occasionally today.
Today, SEOmoz is called just plain Moz, and for the most part, SEOs and content marketers are both creating and publishing content for prospective customers, not search engines exclusively. What used to be spammy link building looks more like comprehensive digital PR, media outreach and influencer marketing.
Architecture audits, keyword research, competitor analysis and on-page conventions still play a major role in SEO. However, much of that doesn’t have a profitable search impact without a substantive content marketing layer above it for many brands.
SEO and content marketing are still not one and the same. However, they’re much more similar to each other today than what they were last decade. For much of this decade the search algorithms allowed for a “build it and they will come” environment for content marketers. In some ways, social media networks did, too. Both HubSpot and Moz reaped the benefits of this over the years. This made content marketers feel like SEOs and SEOs that created content for real consumers feel like content marketers.
Over the last five years the cat’s been let out of the bag. It’s no longer a secret that content marketing can drive copious amounts of traffic to a brand’s website. That’s one of the major reasons why the amount of content on the Internet is supposed to grow by 500% in the year 2020.
A lot of that growth in content can likely be attributed to the thought leadership of brands like Moz, HubSpot and CMI. However, in an era of 500% more content it becomes much more difficult for content to stand out, regardless of the channel (search, social, email, etc.).
Add to that, social media networks and search engines aren’t built to serve up that much content today. With social algorithms purposefully reducing organic visibility and only 10 organic positions on the first page of most search engines, how are brands supposed to stand out? The age of “build it and they will come” is over for many major industry verticals. This conundrum has further pushed the two circles in the Venn diagram above further together.
Since 2014 or so, the idea of “converged media” to address this problem has been popularized – building a comprehensive content promotion strategy utilizing earned, paid and owned media. These concepts are presented in the deck below.
Converged media content promotion does help solve many of the SEO and content marketing challenges of the foreseeable future. However, both search engines and social media channels are evolving to address and monetize a future filled with much more content. How they evolve could bring content marketing and SEO closer together or move them apart.
The first half of this decade has seen the proliferation of the online mobile environment and major technological advancements in search algorithms, machine learning and big data. These are the seeds of today’s vision of what tomorrow will look like.
Many SEO thought leaders are starting to opine on a mobile-first future powered by the user experience. This future won’t likely rely as heavily on the link graph and off-page signals to deliver the intelligence the search engines need to serve up the most prudent content tomorrow. The data search engines can gather about consumers, brands and content in a desktop environment can be very limited when compared to a mobile environment.
If a search engine like Google owns the operating system, web browser and the wireless network a consumer is on; virtually every data point created can be captured and used. The amount of direct traffic being reported by its analytics products would decrease considerably. The user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) data collected would be multiples greater than what it is today.
Some suggest future search success will be predominantly controlled by the UI/UX environment of the webpages served, due to the rapid adoption and use of smart phones and tablets. In this future the content itself may not necessarily be the driving force behind organic search success. However, how the content is presented and consumed would be.
This way of thinking didn’t just grow out of thin air. Google has hinted at this for a while now and is building an infrastructure to support it. Rand Fishkin himself has conducted experiments that hint some of this might be happening today
In today’s environment Google is already tracking bounce rates and time on site as predictors of “friction” for content consumers. The more friction, the less deserving a webpage is to rank. The prevailing thinking is that higher bounce rates and lower time on site equals more friction; which is primarily driven by content quality, appropriate context and length.
Add to that the plethora of other UI/UX indicators produced by owning the wireless network and operating system and it’s easy to see a potential future where off-page indicators (driven by well-produced content) like links are far less important for ranking.
With the adoption of new and more robust friction indicators by search algorithms, SEOs may not need to use content marketing like they do today. If this is indeed what the future of SEO looks like it will likely start to pull the math men and mad men back apart, diverging both content marketing and SEO once again.
Content marketing in its purest form, creating content people want to consume, is unlikely to change much. However, the platforms for publishing, the format the content takes, and means of promotion are likely to evolve.
Out of all three promotion channels (earned, paid and owned), paid media is the most likely to evolve and grow in adoption. Much of the current paid promotion landscape (display advertising, PPC) isn’t too friendly to content marketers looking to distribute top-funnel content at scale. Sure, there are players like NewsLauncher, Revcontent, Adblade, Taboola and Outbrain innovating in this space, but they’re likely just scratching the surface.
Many of the major social networks have gone full-fledged native with paid distribution. Since moving in this direction there’s been a whole third-party ecosystem of big data-driven, machine learning technology tapping into these paid-social APIs in order to drive down costs while pushing up performance for brands.
Google’s highly anticipated AdSense-styled native platform is currently in private beta. When launched it has the potential of being the biggest disrupter and cause of competitive innovation in content marketing for the foreseeable future.
There’s over $100 billion being spent annually on traditional paid channels. These channels weren’t built to distribute large quantities of top-funnel content at scale affordably. Not to mention, their click-through rates are so low you’re more likely to survive a plane crash than purposefully click on one.
Last decade, traditional online paid channels were almost exclusively used to distribute mid to bottom-funnel content. Sparse engagement at the middle to bottom of the funnel can be highly profitable for both the networks and the brands that used them.
However, it’s become evident that content marketing at the top of the funnel, which didn’t become popularized until this decade, does not bode well on last decade’s distribution infrastructure. Cost per clicks for top-funnel content should always be lower than middle or bottom-funnel content.
Otherwise, there’s little incentive for brands to use paid channels for anything other than mid to bottom-funnel content distribution – remember, it takes additional investments to move content consumers from the top to the bottom of the funnel. This realization is one of several reasons we’re beginning to see a blurring of the lines between media, brands, agencies, search engines and social media networks.
The below presentation goes more in depth and hints as to what the future of content marketing may look like.
We won’t know for sure if the search algorithms will mostly rely on “friction” indicators or not for some time to come. They may or they may not. If they do it’s likely we’ll see a new generation of SEO practitioners appear to take on that challenge. If so, will they leave content up to the content marketers and stick to UI/UX? That’s yet to be seen, but it’s quite possible.
What’s more likely is that friction indicators will continue to take a seat next to the link graph and on-page content as factors. In this future we’ll likely see the continued convergence of the mad men and math men Venn diagram. However, until then, I think I’m going to start reading more mobile UI/UX blogs.