This post is a little different from my usual posts…
But often, when I read comments and emails from my readers, I see a big problem with their mentality.
It boils down to a question such as:
Should I focus more on SEO or content marketing?
And I get where that’s coming from, but it’s the wrong question.
You’ve seen the stats:
- 77% of marketers will increase their content production in 2015
- 91% of B2B marketers use content marketing
- 46% of marketers will increase their spending on SEO and SEM in 2015
- 54% of marketers think that use of SEO will continue to grow in 2015
And these numbers can, of course, lead to some confusion.
If both SEO and content marketing are useful for a business, then which one is better for you?
The answer is both.
Although content marketing and SEO share some similarities, they are two different things that can be used at the same time to benefit a business.
And while most of my posts talk about one or the other, this one is going to focus on how you should connect your use of content marketing and SEO in your business.
Where SEO and content marketing overlap
The reason why so many people have trouble connecting SEO and content marketing is because they don’t have a clear picture of what each represents.
We can fix that with a few quick definitions:
SEO: Anything that is done to increase your organic search engine traffic.
Content marketing: Creating and spreading content to attract traffic.
Although you can get more precise with the descriptions, those simple definitions are all you need to understand both concepts.
They have a lot in common: Although they are separate types of traffic strategies, both content marketing and SEO often overlap…
…starting with content.
For SEO, content is a must. And for content marketing, well…it’s in the name.
In the past, they required different types of content.
You could get away with thin, 500-word articles around your target keyword for SEO.
I’m not saying that you can’t rank 500-word articles, but it’s much harder to rank the same junk that you could rank before.
In the past few years, the content needed for SEO started to resemble the content needed for content marketing.
Quality and value are the top priorities for this content.
When you use your content effectively (and optimize it for different channels), you can easily double or triple your resulting traffic.
But there are differences: It’s naive to think that content marketing is exactly the same as SEO even though some over-optimistic marketers seem to think that way.
SEO certainly fits well into most on-page and off-page aspects of content marketing. However, technical SEO is pretty far removed from content marketing.
Some parts of technical SEO will affect your search engine rankings (such as optimizing your crawl rate) but won’t have any affect on your content marketing results.
So, although they share a lot of similarities, know that there’s more to SEO than just the basic on-page keyword targeting.
They can also benefit each other in big ways: One thing that most don’t realize at first is how much SEO and content marketing complement each other.
Here’s a list of basic SEO tasks you might do:
- optimize page load speed
- make content responsive
- fix dead links and bad redirects
- ensure that your content has a clear hierarchy (i.e., heading tags)
All of those things can help your content marketing efforts.
A faster page load speed is good for the user experience no matter where they’re coming from. Same goes for responsive content.
By fixing dead links or bad redirects, you improve the reader’s experience as well as keep them on your site reading your other content (a very good thing).
Finally, a clear content hierarchy improves the readability of your content.
Content marketing is all about the user experience, and SEO has been heading in that direction for the past while, which is why they complement each other now.
1. Which one goes first?
Although both SEO and content marketing are compatible with each other, they are different in a few key ways.
For example, if you created a great guide, you’d still want to include certain keywords in the most important places.
So, do you find the keywords first and then build the content around them?
Or do you create the content first and then find appropriate keywords to use within it?
The answer is that either way can work, but they both have their own strengths.
The case for content marketing first: With this process, you’d focus on coming up with ideas for content that your target audience is interested in.
Once you create the content, you do some keyword research around that specific topic to find some keywords you think you could rank for. You add them mainly to your headings.
Finally, you find a way to get that content in front of as many people as you could.
There are two big benefits of this option.
First, if gives you a lot of flexibility.
If you choose the keyword first, you create the content around that specific keyword, so you don’t have much choice later on.
Here, if you’re having a tough time ranking for your keyword(s), you can just choose a longer tail keyword that will be easier to rank for.
Second, search volume doesn’t equal value to a reader.
This is actually really important.
That’s because depending on which approach you take, you generate content ideas in different ways:
- content marketing first – you learn about your target audience and figure out what their problems are. You create content to solve those problems.
- SEO first – you do keyword research and go after the highest volume keywords.
When you do typical SEO research, you find keywords searched for by the highest number of people. That means that it’s a common query.
However, that doesn’t always translate into value.
For example, a new business owner is likely to Google something like:
What is SEO?
Not surprisingly, that phrase is searched for a decent amount, about 10,000 times a month.
But all they’re really looking for is a simple definition in most cases.
No matter how good your content is, it’s not going to have a huge impact on their lives (they won’t value it highly).
But after they learn a bit about what SEO is, they have a bigger problem: “How do I actually do SEO?”
So, they search for:
SEO plan for a small business
or something along those lines. They find a really detailed guide that shapes their SEO work for years to come. This is an example of something that is truly valuable to a reader.
But guess what? That search phrase (and other similar ones) gets a negligible amount of search volume.
If you only create content based on highly popular terms, you’ll often miss creating content that solves your target audience’s biggest problems.
This is a big deal for two reasons:
- You have a limited usefulness – When someone comes to Quick Sprout, I want them to find everything they need about marketing. If they can’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll go to another site. I want to be the expert they come to for content, and later for business.
- High value converts higher – If your content solves a big problem for your readers, they’re going to remember it. That’s how you get loyal subscribers, who later turn into customers. Getting hundreds of thousands of visitors is nice, but it’s not if none of them turn into customers because they’re coming for low value content.
That being said, low volume searches aren’t necessarily high value problems, and high volume searches aren’t necessarily low value problems. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis.
The main takeaway from this is that if you rely on a keyword tool—like most SEO-first marketers do—you’ll miss some big problems and interests of your target audience.
Missing those will significantly lower the potential results of your marketing efforts (i.e., sales).
The case for SEO first: After reading the first case, you might be all set on focusing on content marketing first, but there are a few advantages of going with the keyword-first method.
First, it can improve your content.
When you create your content first, you do everything you can to make it as good as possible for the reader.
If you have to add a keyword for SEO purposes, you’re detracting from the optimal phrasing that you originally had. It won’t necessarily be awkward, but your new version of a title might not be as intriguing as the original was.
But if you know your keyword from the start, you’ll always keep it in mind, which will likely change the overall message you create (compared to content first).
The second main benefit is that you do find out what the common problems might be, but they might not be as valuable to solve.
If you only get topic ideas from observing or talking with your target audience, you’ll typically hear from them when they’re having a big problem (a high value situation).
You won’t hear them express small problems very often because they’ll simply try to find an easy solution by searching for it.
By creating content around keywords, you ensure that you find all of the medium to high volume keywords, regardless of the value they hold for your target audience. Ranking for these terms is still a good thing even if those visitors don’t directly convert as highly.
If you’re smart, you can direct those initial visitors to other more valuable content that you’ve created after you’ve solved their first problem.
How about a hybrid? To me, it’s clear that both approaches have their own strengths and weaknesses.
The obvious solution is an effective one: use both methods.
You should spend time researching good keywords to create content around.
You should also spend time researching your target audience to find out what their biggest problems are. Then, create content to solve those problems and add keywords after.
2. Focus on evergreen content for the best of both worlds
Although SEO and content marketing both aim to raise your website traffic, they typically do so in different time frames.
When you create a new great post, you typically promote it hard right away. This includes emailing your list and doing a lot of email outreach to other site owners in your niche.
This results in a few quick bursts of traffic to that post, and then it’ll die down.
On the other hand, you’ll likely get no (or very little) search engine traffic right away unless your domain is very authoritative.
Over time, as you promote it and it accumulates backlinks, you’ll notice that the search engine traffic continues to increase.
However, that only happens for certain posts.
On others, that are news-related, you’re more likely to get some search traffic right away, but it’ll quickly drop down to near zero as your content becomes irrelevant.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a huge fan of spending the time and resources to create a great piece of content only to have it attract traffic for a short period of time.
I want it to continue to be seen for years after I create it. That’s how you get an overall traffic graph that keeps growing. Your content essentially builds on itself.
To make sure this happens, you should focus most of your effort on evergreen content.
There are some exceptions, but for the most part, it’s your best option.
Maximizing traffic with evergreen content: Evergreen content refers to any content that will be just as useful in the foreseeable future as it is today.
Compare that to a story about Google’s latest algorithm change, which will be interesting for a few months at the most and then become useless.
Think about all of those link building guides from five years ago. Almost all of them are irrelevant in today’s SEO world.
The idea behind evergreen content is that you can get the short-term traffic boost from content marketing as well as the steady, long-term traffic from search engines.
In fact, the work you do to get traffic initially will speed up the time it takes to get search engine traffic.
Identifying evergreen topics: In most cases, you can spot evergreen topics with a bit of common sense.
Think about what you plan to write about:
Will it still be useful a month from now? A year from now? Five years from now?
Hopefully, the answers to all those questions are yes or, at the very least, maybe.
You can also search for a keyword and see how old the results are. If you see multiple posts that are years old, it’s likely an evergreen topic.
Some topics are more evergreen than others: I just said that an acceptable answer to those questions is maybe.
That’s because in some niches, you’ll never be able to find enough topics to write a definitive guide on that will stay relevant forever.
Many topics evolve over time. So, just because you can’t guarantee that a post will be useful in a couple of years from now doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth writing.
A great example of this is Brian Dean’s complete list of ranking factors. As long as SEO continues to change, ranking signals will also change.
But instead of creating a one-time post and then letting it fall into obscurity, Brian continuously updates all his guides:
Most of his content is evergreen because he doesn’t need to change it radically. Instead, he continues to make small updates on a regular basis to ensure that it stays relevant over time.
3. Pick metrics that represent both sides of the coin
Some marketers don’t know if their content marketing or SEO efforts are actually working.
If you want to be successful, you can’t just say, “I think this is going well.”
Instead, you need to pick metrics to track. These metrics should reflect the results of your work and tell you what’s worth doing.
If you don’t see that they are improving over time, you need to rethink your strategy.
When it comes to both content marketing and SEO, you can choose metrics that correspond to each part separately and both of them together.
Although you can choose whichever metrics make the most sense for your business, let’s go over a few of the most common.
Metric #1 – Traffic (SEO and content marketing): One of your main goals for both SEO and content marketing work is to increase the amount of traffic you’re getting to your website.
Quality of that traffic is also important, but in most cases, getting more traffic usually leads to more profit.
It’s important to look at your traffic over a fairly long time. Everyone is going to have spikes and dips depending on the day of the week and month.
Record your traffic data in a spreadsheet for each month. Then, compare it not only to the previous months but also to the same month in previous years.
You’ll want to start by recording your overall traffic numbers, which you can get from your Audience Overview in Google Analytics:
But that doesn’t tell you very much about the results of your individual work.
That’s why you should also record both your organic search traffic as well as your referral traffic.
To find these numbers, just go to your acquisitions tab in Google Analytics, and select “by source”.
Of course, some of your SEO work (like building links) may result in direct or referral traffic, but these are the best metrics you have. They don’t have to be perfect, just indicative of your success.
Metric #2 – Keyword rankings (SEO): In addition to being important for tracking your overall search engine traffic, keyword rankings are the most important thing to track from an SEO perspective.
If you’re doing good work, you will see rankings rise over time.
It doesn’t really matter which tool you use—just find one that lets you look at your rankings over a long time frame.
Metric #3 – Subscribers (mainly content marketing): In order to judge the quality of your traffic, you want to see how many of your visitors turn into subscribers or customers.
But your subscriber rate is also indicative of how valuable and persuasive your content and call to action are, which makes this a good overall metric for content marketing.
Or you can just look directly at reports provided by your email marketing service provider:
Metric #4 – Engagement (mainly content marketing): Subscriber rate isn’t the only way to measure how valuable your visitors find your content.
You can also track other engagement metrics to help complete the picture.
Obviously “engagement” isn’t a metric you can track, but I’m referring to any metric that reflects engagement on your website:
- Average time on page
- Pages per visit
- Visitor recency (how often people return to your site)
You want to track most of these over time, just like the other metrics. Measure them once or twice a month, and record the data (you should have an average for each time period).
After you collect data for at least three months, you can start to see if your engagement is increasing as expected.
For example, you can look at the number of comments your newest posts are getting:
And compare that to your older posts:
Since your topic will influence most engagement metrics, it’s important to look at averages over a period of time to even things out.
4. The best links for SEO are also the best links for content marketing
When you create a great piece of content (for your content marketing), what’s your goal for promoting it?
It should be to get large audiences to see it.
This might be in the form of direct traffic (like if you send it to your email list) or in the form of links on other web pages, which is even better.
Obviously, the best links are the ones that send the most traffic.
As it turns out, exactly the same links are some of the best links for SEO purposes (increasing authority and therefore rankings).
Type #1 – Guest-post links: One use of content marketing is to drive traffic back to your site by posting on other sites, i.e., using a guest post.
In these posts, you usually get one or two links back to your website in an author bio.
As long as you’re guest-posting on highly authoritative sites (the ones with a lot of traffic), these links will not only send direct traffic but also improve keyword rankings.
In addition, sometimes you can add extra links to other content you’ve created in the body of the guest post.
Type #2 – Contextual links: When it comes to SEO, nothing beats the value of a contextual link on an authoritative page.
These links are a part of a sentence and are as natural as they can be:
The better your content marketing is, the more of these links you will get, which will not only send you traffic but also improve search traffic over time.
5. Internal links serve two purposes
Most people include internal links in their content just because bloggers tell them to.
But it’s important to understand how they affect both your content marketing and SEO results.
Also, don’t forget that internal links include any link not only in your content but also in navigation elements on your site. They all affect your results.
In particular, they have two main benefits.
Benefit #1 – Send link juice to other content to help SEO: If your site doesn’t have much authority yet, it won’t have a big effect, but internal links can still help you rank better.
They help you do this in two ways:
- Adding relevance – Google looks at the anchor text of the internal link, as well as surrounding content, to try to understand what your page is about in order to rank it for any queries.
- Passing through authority (“link juice”) – Many SEOs focus all their energy on ranking a page by getting external links (from pages on other websites). If you have a strong domain, you can often rank quickly for easy keywords with new content by adding a handful of internal links to that page.
It’s a good idea to schedule a bit of time each time you publish a post to add a few internal links to your new page from older (relevant) posts on the site:
It only takes a few minutes to do and will help your rankings significantly.
Don’t use the same anchor text for all the internal links to the same post—use a variety of fitting anchor text.
To find those old relevant posts, use this search string:
(topic of new article) site:(your site name)
For example, if I wrote a new article about writing funny email subject lines, I would search for:
Writing funny email lines site:quicksprout.com
This will show you the posts that Google thinks are the most relevant to your new one.
Benefit #2 – Expose your audience to more of your content: Remember those engagement metrics from before?
Two of them are probably more important than the others:
- Pages per visit
- Visitor recency (how often people return to your site)
The reason why they are more important and useful than the others is that if you’re creating great content, they should both go up over time.
They are also less subject to large variations like comments (which depend a lot on the topic) and time on page (which depends a lot on the length of content) are.
Often, when reading a particular post, a portion of your readers will want more information. A well-placed link can get a click-through rate of 1-5%.
Considering that you can have several internal links in a single piece of content, you can almost guarantee that most readers who like your content will find more topics to read about on your site.
The more useful your internal links are, the more time visitors will spend on your site (if they like your content).
Additionally, if they run out of time before they can consume all of your content because they find so much of it through internal links, they will come back to keep reading.
Finally, other than the 5-10 posts on your home page, how many posts do your new readers see?
In most cases, it’s not many.
Which isn’t ideal, especially if you’ve created hundreds of posts. You want them to find as much relevant to their situation content as possible now. In order to do that, they need to find older posts.
The perfect way to show them those older posts is through internal links.
Both SEO and content marketing are highly effective ways to drive traffic, conversions, and profit for the vast majority of online businesses.
But you don’t need to pick one or the other. You can get the full benefits of both at the same time.
In fact, focusing on one will often increase the results of the other.
I’ve gone through five main areas that either affect or are affected by your SEO and content marketing.
If you understand all five concepts, you should be prepared to handle both sides in your future marketing.
Some of those concepts are more difficult to understand than others.
So, if you have any questions, leave them in the comments below.