SEO (Mostly) Doesn’t Matter. Focus on the Audience Instead (Part I)
There are plenty of misconceptions about SEO, and they distract from what really matters in content marketing. Focus on a good content strategy instead, delight your audience, and you will get high search engine rankings as a bonus.
What is SEO?
Common SEO-techniques include:
- adding a sitemap to a site so that search engines can find and index its contents easily,
- adapting and structuring copy to make it easier for search engines to interpret,
- adding metadata to a site to improve how web pages are rendered on search engine results pages.
What is the problem with SEO?
The problem is that SEO has largely become a distraction. People spend too much time and money on it, based on obsolete ideas about how search engines work.
If I ask people in marketing and product development what they believe makes content rank well in search engines, I commonly hear things like (my comments between brackets):
- You must use a correct hierarchy of header elements like H1 and H2. (False.)
- Ranking is proportional to the number of inbound links. (False.)
- Your domain needs to have a high “domain authority”. (False.)
- Putting the keywords that you want the article to rank on in the document title. (Depends on if the keywords are relevant.)
- You should stuff the article with as many keywords as possible. (False and actually harmful.)
- An article needs to have 2,000-3,000 words. (It depends.)
- Pretty URLs like
https://mysite.com/food/all-about-potatoes/rank better than generic ones like
- You need a
meta descriptiontag. (False.)
Some of these beliefs used to be true. In the 90s for instance, the AltaVista search engine would rank webpages based on how often a keyword appeared it. Unscrupulous webmasters would hijack search results on AltaVista simply by stuffing web pages with valuable keywords.
Google, in their early days, were not prone to keyword stuffing, as they were counting and evaluating inbound links instead. The more hyperlinks would point to a web page, the higher it would rank on Google. Once the unscrupulous webmasters had figured that out, they set up link farms: thousands and thousands of web sites containing long lists of hyperlinks, with the sole purpose of making the linked web sites rank favourably.
Nowadays, search engines have become very smart, and cannot be influenced that easily anymore. Keyword stuffing and link farms no longer work. Modern search engines care about relevant, high-quality articles and a good user experience.
This is a game changer. Playing the referee is no longer working. The authors are in charge again - as they should be. In addition, the new game allows newcomers to compete with large, established brands — with better, more relevant, or better-designed articles.
This all means that SEO is not as important as it once was.
Why is focusing on the search engine bad strategy?
Now that search engines no longer count keywords or inbound links, but instead focus on something as elusive as intrinsic quality, their inner workings have become quite opaque. They use algorithms that nobody really understands, and that change several times a day.
So if you try and optimise your articles for a modern search engine, you are always behind the facts.
Optimising text for search engines is great business for SEO experts, because search engine algorithms are a moving target, and optimisation never ends. If you hire an SEO expert, you sign up for an ongoing, expensive guessing game.
You’ll probably be wasting your money. Deciding on a strategy and writing great articles will likely yield better results.
Why is focusing on the needs of the audience better?
Even if we can’t tell how search engine algorithms work, do we perhaps know their purpose?
Fortunately we do, because services like Google and Bing are quite open about it: to understand the needs of the user, and to provide them with the most relevant and valuable resources on the topic.
Now this gives us something to work with! If you focus on helping people with great articles, and search engines do the same thing, your goals are perfectly aligned. The more you help your audience, the higher you will rank. You can stop worrying about algorithm changes, because those are designed to help you.
All we need to do is decide on a viable strategy, focus on high-quality text and a great user experience, and you’ll be rewarded with high search engine rankings.
That is all for part I!
In part II we get into the details of deciding on a strategy and how to write good articles.