By Barry Feldman published June 13, 2013

Content Marketing vs. SEO: The Truth Behind A Ridiculous Debate

content marketing-seoThe headlines read…

Content marketing usurps SEO…

Content marketing has killed SEO…

Content marketing overtakes SEO…

The word “versus” often appears between these two purported rivals.

Shoot me now.

Or, wait just a minute and shoot me after you’ve read (and have disagreed with) my strong point of view on the hyper-hyped topic du jour that’s come to be a showdown between content marketing and SEO. 

From where I sit, it’s a ridiculous argument.

Though the topic is often (and shamefully) broached by writers who actually understand marketing strategy, it seems little more than a gimmick to get readers to click on a blog post. At best, what they get from the read is another lesson on the power of content marketing.

If this is an unpopular opinion, I have two things to say:

  • So be it.
  • Having an unpopular opinion is a powerful way to polarize the audience and win favor with those in your camp.

Content marketing and SEO do not compete with each other

The “Content marketing vs. SEO” battle opportunists are so eager to pit the two against each other. They want you to pick a side.

The implication seems to be that, to be smart about your digital marketing spend, you need to choose to hire one type of specialist over the other. Maybe you have $3,000 to allocate per month. The dilemma: Do you put it into content marketing or into SEO?

I can only make sense of this if the SEO effort in contention here is of the black hat variety. In other words, if SEO wins your dollars, it would go into hiring a shop to go on a voracious back-link-building mission. This was indeed a booming, yet questionable, business for years. Today, it’s unethical and ineffective — dangerous even. Search engines penalize the practitioners they find guilty of these crimes.

Let’s cast aside the shady practice of building links by exchanging dollars (or favors, or link farming, or any other nonsense that will no longer fly, thanks to Google’s Penguin initiatives and the like). You’re left with no competition. There are no rivals here, and there’s nothing left to debate.

True online marketing professionals will recognize that both content marketing and SEO are star players in an enterprise-focused marketing strategy. If your team has a void in one area or the other (or both), you need to fill it — end of story. SEO experts need not fear the extinction of their craft. Their roles will remain vital to brand marketing because they know better than anyone that effective and ethical SEO can’t happen without content to be optimized.

You could make the case that SEO is content marketing

We create content to support our marketing objectives. If we’re doing this wisely, a vital part of our execution strategies should be focused on optimizations that will increase the probability that our content will be discovered via search.

As I see it, saying SEO and content are two separate marketing tactics is akin to saying headlines and copy are foes. How preposterous is that? You write headlines to get people to read copy. You then optimize your online content to get people to discover it.

In my opinion, SEO, or search engine optimization, is a misnomer anyway. It seems to suggest you optimize the search engine. Clearly, you cannot and do not. You optimize online content.

“Content” optimization — now there’s a term I could live with. Seems like a happy and harmonious marriage of the two marketing disciplines.

It’s time to think holistically

InThe Mindset that Makes Online Marketing Work,” from MarketingLand, Copyblogger’s Brian Clark writes:

“The struggle many face with online marketing is a misguided impulse to put various tactics into separate boxes instead of seeing each as an aspect of one overarching strategic process.”

Brian adds:

“To this day, I see people referring to content marketing, social media marketing, and search engine optimization as three different things — as if each is a tactic that can get you there alone.

“The smart way to practice effective online marketing is to treat social media and search engine results as aspects of a holistic strategy that centers around compelling content.”

You can’t cast a vote for content that succeeds in a vacuum. You can create and publish content across multiple, strategic platforms. You can repurpose it from materials created by other functional disciplines within your organization. You can share it via numerous social media channels…

And if you want to maximize its marketing power and potential benefit to your business, you damn well better optimize it.

For more guidance on how to do this, check out the following CMI posts:

Looking to learn even more about the emerging roles that content marketing plays in the digital landscape? Don’t miss out on the groundbreaking discussions that will take place at Content Marketing World 2013. 

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Barry Feldman

Barry Feldman is a freelance copywriter, creative director, and content marketing creator and consultant. He specializes in persuasion and engagement. If you would like a piece of his mind, visit Feldman Creative and his blog, The Point. Feldman Creative has also recently published an eBook, Strike A Chord: Lessons for Making Your Web Content Resonate, where you'll find many more examples of engaging teaching tactics. You can follow Barry on Twitter @FeldmanCreative.

Other posts by Barry Feldman

  • Pontus Staunstrup

    Hi Barry, great read and an important point well made. Especially considering this post from the CMI a couple of days ago: http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2013/06/seo-irrelevant-b2b-thought-leadership/, which I was quite astonished to read in this day and age.
    Thanks, Pontus

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Hi Pontus,

      I understand your comment, but if you read through the comments on the post that you reference, I think there is a commonality here. As Carl mentions in one of his comments: “Yes, it’s good to make your content search-friendly, but it doesn’t have to be the focus in all circumstances.”

      Should SEO and content play together? Absolutely. But, the degree to which it is important — and the priority you place on it — may vary depending on your goals and industry.

      • Pontus Staunstrup

        Hi Michelle, I did read through the comments, and especially the follow-up by Carl surprised me. He mentioned Marcus Sheridan and seemed to believe that SEO is mainly relevant in B2C. My point then, and the one I am trying to make now, concurs with Lee Odden in the same feed: Making sure that your content is optimized for search and social is important in B2B complex sales as well. It may not be your main focus, but why would you not include it?

        • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

          I’m going to reach out to Carl to get his perspective. My take is that SEO and content should work together whenever it is feasible. But, it does not always need to be your priority. I think we’re saying similar things.

          To your original point, I can see how the timing of these two posts seems a bit odd. In retrospect, it would have been smart of us to spread them out.

          • Pontus Staunstrup

            Hi Michelle, thanks for responding. I think it would be great to get Carl’s input, especially since the main point he was trying to make on thought leadership was really good.
            Just to clarify, I actually wasn’t commenting on the timing. You’re doing a great job providing all this excellent content for us. I just felt that Barry’s piece was addressing an important point and I wanted to connect it with Carl’s post.
            Thanks, Pontus

          • Carlos Abler

            Yes. The “versus” and “competition” terms are totally absurd as a premise for discussion. Except in cases where the focus is on “competition for resources in an organization or on a project”. But then the subject would be about project budgeting, operations, or some other resource allocation topic. Not a foundational, or even a facet topic about the roles of SEO and Content Marketing.

            “Versus” and “competition” have no role as a topical premise in initiating analysis of how these methodologies blend. It’s as absurd as “salt versus pepper” in a meal. “It’s not really about salt anymore”. “Pepper is dead”. I could gouge my eyes out with a spoon every time I see these types of blog titles, even if they do a good job at attracting attention. It’s cheap kabuki.

            As the finer details of most of these comments make obvious, these are terms for various methodologies that need to be applied in right proportion to their maximum benefit, to meet the needs of any specific project. Underneath many of the topics initiated with these sub-optimized premises, is usually something pointing to an imbalance or reductionism; e.g., (sticking with the salt/pepper analogy) when too much salt is used, or when they forget the pepper all together. Whether this happens because they cooks are under-trained, there is no Chef de Cuisine, or they ran out of pepper, or there is a frothing slat fanatic in the kitchen, has nothing whatsoever to do with the methodological strengths or weaknesses of the disciplines.

          • http://www.toprankmarketing.com/ Lee Odden

            Great points Carlos. I think a reaction to threatened resource allocation is the primary motivator for those advocating sides in this discussion. Realistic assessment can really only be measured from application and first hand observation/experience. Not the tempting pontification that blogging and commenting affords. :)

          • Carlos Abler

            Amen. Yes resource allocation and overspecialization. The painful thing about the rapid evolution of all things digital is the ever emerging flood of one or two-trick ponies, from a skill-set perspective. And they blog.

          • Pontus Staunstrup

            Carlos, excellent points. Threatened resources or internal politics are certainly big factors in organizations. But I really think you nailed it with your observation on attention grabbing headlines. Of course headline should stand out and grab your attention, but the “something vs the other” variety often does more harm than good. Thanks!

          • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

            My take: I found Carl’s post a bit circular, if you will. But I suppose it is indeed a counterpoint when I say I believe every profession benefits from content marketing, however specialized. A really eclectic professional services provider may depend more on content beyond than what’s published on his/her site or social media, but he could very well be discovered there—and he definitely will be researched there before a buying decision is made.

          • Pontus Staunstrup

            Barry, this is exactly it. The research takes place well before we become aware of the customer in a traditional scenario. Thanks (and thanks for your original post. The fake SEO vs Content marketing debate is really tiresome. Cheers!

  • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

    Great post, Barry. Marketers really do need to think about SEO and content marketing as complementary activities. If the only driving force behind content creation is SEO, the content will be lousy, no decent site will publish it, and therefore no decent back links will be created. On the other hand, if content marketers ignore SEO, their content won’t be found and read, as you so accurately point out. A lot of creative effort will be wasted.

  • Brendan Cournoyer

    “Content marketing and SEO do not compete with each other” << EXACTLY. Well said, Barry. This is easily one of the most annoying trends in online marketing, that SEO has somehow become irrelevant, and content marketing has replaced it. That's like saying pizza has replaced peperoni – it makes no sense.

    As long as people need to type in words in search fields, SEO and keyword optimization will be important. SEO hasn't been "replaced" by anything; it's just evolved, and it's still an important part of content marketing. The two don't work against each other. And while Google certainly puts a premium on quality, credible content these days, the idea that before you only had to focus on keywords and not quality is ridiculous.

  • nate352

    Why in the world would anyone think the two are exclusive? Seems to me that you can’t have one without another. As a copywriter/content marketer, I really have no idea (except basic understandings) of how you get that article or landing page into the search results. Company’s should definitely not look at the respective areas (SEO, design, social, content) as their own “silos” but holistically as you say. If there’s a firm out there who tells them otherwise, then they’re either being dishonest or woefully ignorant of how all this stuff works. http://www.seo-e.com/copywriting-seo-content-development/its-not-really-seo-that-you-hate.htm

  • Richard Hussey

    Nothing controversial for me here. One of the risks I see, though, is that people start to see content as a substitute for SEO tactics that no longer work. Content matters in its own right and is not just for generating traffic. But why would anybody not optimise content for searches (B2B or B2C), unless they don’t want to be found for some reason.

  • Maryrose

    Thanks for this. Perhaps because I can claim “newbie” but as I continue to educate myself on SEO, content marketing, social media, etc. I too have found it all one in the same.

    Someone who’s been in the speech analytics industry where key words and phrases were important; it became clear that understanding cultural behavior is much more important than anything else.

    And now as I venture into social business; I’m finding it to be the same as well. Ultimately, it’s a combination of good writing that appeal and reflect that of the target audience; as well as ability to socialize the content out there and engage with others.

    “Can’t we all just get along?” :D

  • Cindy Woudenberg

    Great article Barry….it comes down to the WHOLE picture …. social media/content/seo should all be wrapped up together! Thanks for the great article!

  • http://www.inaregee.com/ Ian Dixon

    Au contraire because content marketing and SEO do compete with each other. They also compete with the people in traditional marketing, the IT people, the networking people, the financial people and the logistics people.
    The thing is that all those are, or at least should be, the components of an overall business project which is working to achieve a certain level of profit at the end of the campaign.
    Now within the project there will be competition for resources because people often gravitate towards spending money to find a solution rather than using their brain. Never good for the overall health of a project though because the goal should always be to bring it in on time and under budget. Helps if it is profitable too of course :)
    So there is competition but that is healthy when it helps to achieve progress towards the final result
    Just my 2 penny worth

  • Amber Daley

    Excellent article, Barry. I agree that SEO doesn’t negate the need for great content, and vice versa. The two aren’t mutually exclusive! As a matter of fact, at my company, I work closely with our SEO analyst to create and optimize content, and it makes for an exciting parlay as we work together. Thanks again for sharing your insights.

  • http://www.balihoo.com/ Amber Daley

    Excellent article, Barry. I agree that SEO doesn’t negate the need for great content, and vice versa. The two aren’t mutually exclusive! As a matter of fact, at my company, I work closely with our SEO analyst to create and optimize content, and it makes for an exciting parlay as we work together. Thanks again for sharing your insights.

  • Andy Crestodina

    Loved this post. Here’s a simple way to look at it. Content marketers do three things: create, promote, measure. And the promotion piece consists of three things: SEO, social media, email marketing.

    In other words, I agree with every word of this post. SEO is part of content marketing. You can do content marketing without SEO, but you can’t do SEO without content…

    • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

      Ooh. Wish I had written that last bit. Good stuff Andy.

      • Andy Crestodina

        Yes, one is a subset of the other. It makes sense, right? If you DM me an address, I’ll send you a copy of the book. It’s structured the same way…

  • Kathleen_Booth

    Great post Barry! And I couldn’t agree more… Interestingly, I think your point about content marketing, SEO, social media etc needing to be parts of a holistic strategy is exactly the thinking behind the term “inbound marketing”. I’m a big fan of HubSpot (and its worth disclosing that I am a VAR), and I really like their very simple approach of “attract, convert, close, delight”. Seems to me that SEO is “attract”, content marketing is “convert”, sales is “close” and customer service is “delight.” And really, aren’t these all critical pieces for any effective marketing strategy?

    Thanks for posting!

    Kathleen Booth
    Quintain Marketing
    http://www.quintainmarketing.com

  • http://www.reactorr.com/blog/ Mark Nicholson

    SEO overlaps in many areas. Tech, PR, communications, social, even design to some extent. SEO has an annual death knell, which is usually someone’s new angle of a link bait approach. Content marketing is simply another tool or means of generating links, traffic, awareness and all that goes with it. There is no Content marketing vs. SEO battle. It’s just another SEO attempt to spin a topic for obvious reasons. Good article. The comments from Brian Clark are worth noting.

  • http://www.toprankmarketing.com/ Lee Odden

    Despite books, hundreds of blog posts, articles, presentations, and most importantly – successful implementations of content marketing optimization efforts, many people still think of content as “more” and SEO as “keywords”.

    The thing that matters is the implementation, measurement and refinement cycle that optimization brings to improving content marketing performance. Once people get over that hurdle, it’s amazing what can happen.

    If you want to get beyond the hype, Arnie Kuenn and I wrote entire books specifically about the integration of SEO and Content. Me: “Optimize”, Arnie: “Accelerate!”. Andy Crestodina’s “Content Chemistry” is also a great resource.

    • Arnie Kuenn

      Thank for the shout out Lee. This whole debate is almost to a laughable state in my view.

      • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

        Yes. What they said. Thanks Lee and Arnie.

    • http://www.seobooklab.com/ Ram Babu SEO

      thanks odden sir for suggesting such.

  • Scott Frangos

    Instead of “… SEO IS Content Marketing”, I think it’s actually a sub-discipline of Content Marketing which itself is a sub focus of Marketing Communications. This position is pretty much in line with Rand Fishkin, of SEOmoz’s musing that he didn’t realize for a number of years that what he was doing in SEO was actually marketing. For example, branding strategy and execution are within the realm of marketing strategy, but not in the focus area for SEO pros.

  • disqus_W4KjfaOksA

    Thanks for the post, Barry. I guess I agree with you, though out of content, social media and SEO, I’d give SEO the lowest priority. Am I wrong? To me SEO is manipulation, even the ethical kind.

    • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

      Again, think holistic. Seems to me you’re falling into the segregation trap.

  • Arnie Kuenn

    Bravo. That is all.

  • http://www.jamesbull.com.au/ James Bull

    I like the suggestion of ‘content optimisation’ (sorry, I can’t bring myself to use US spelling) as an alternative to the stupid term ‘search engine optimisation’, which as you correctly point out has nothing to do with optimising search engines. Another alternative is ‘website optimisation’.

    • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

      We’re onto something here Jamez. Sorry, we like Z’s more than y’all.

  • http://www.fabianlinge.com/ Fabian Linge

    Great post Barry,

    I think most people start to get the concept of an more holistic approach. I guess the “old school” type of so called SEOs probably have the hardest time to get their head around it as they were used to just blast thousands of links to a site with the right anchor text. But I’m sure they are catching up and start focusing more on creating value in the long term through content.

    The biggest problem that I see at the moment is educating clients / potential clients. Lots of local small businesses just want to pay someone to do SEO or social media marketing for them.

    Explaining the long term benefits of content marketing and the holistic approach mentioned by Brian Clark sometimes gives me a hard time.

    How do you guys go about this? What do you say to someone calling for an “SEO professional”?

    Would be keen to know how everyone else here is handling this…

    Thanks guys!

    • stracy

      Fabian you’re right
      The biggest problem we face is educating clients. Most of them mix up advertising and search marketing, and it is challenging to explain it to clients who are used to buying ad space.
      Now, they have to provide us with a minimum of content about what they do wich gives them worke to do. Writing out a check to buy ad space is so much easier :)

      Actually, some of my best clients are those who followed my seo training course. After two days of training they start to get the whole picure of what it takes and end up by saying “Ok, we’ll provide the conetent and we’ll let you optimise and shareit”

      And posts like this one also really help to educate clients

  • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

    Carl: Thanks for your thoughtful response. This was stuck in Disqus for some reason, but it’s now public.

  • Bobby Ray Burns

    I’m with you on this one, Barry. I figure if I produce crap for content, why would anyone want to read it once they’ve found it? And why would they ever come back? It’s somewhat akin to successfully leveraging all the best distribution channels for my product and putting out a crap product.

    On the other hand, I would rather – if I had to – produce great content and trust the magic of sharing to do the work. Fortunately, an intelligent combination of “Content Optimization” would be the ideal.

  • Pontus Staunstrup

    Carl, thanks for taking the time to clarify and elaborate on your thinking. It’s been very interesting to learn more about thought leadership.

  • Inspiring Citizen Sareena

    Great post Barry!!! I agree with every word you have written here. I believe content marketing and SEO go hand in hand. It is important to write quality content that is useful to the readers as well important to optimize the content for the search engines to find them.

    For our blog too we first write the content first for the readers and then optimize it for the search engines.

    Ultimately, what you said is right…it is “Content Optimization”.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful thoughts.

  • http://cashwithatrueconscience.com/rbblog Ryan Biddulph

    The funny thing about competition Barry is that it does not exist. Nothing can go against anything in an abundant world. Great post!

    By writing helpful, usable content and adding a dash of SEO you can have the best of both world. Creativity. Use it!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Ryan

  • aboer

    Nice piece Barry. I think you are right..content marketing and SEO are closely related. SEO is probably just a subset of the always growing field of content marketing.

    However, Paid Content Amplification (ie. Outbrain) and Search Engine Marketing (ie. Google AdSense) are not the same…and that is where the real competition is going to happen, because that is where the money is. You would think that content amplification would effectively cannibalize brand and display dollars, but I think the real vs. is going to be PCA vs. SEM.

  • http://www.katiewagnersocialmedia.com/ Stephen Wagner

    Right on! There is so much that needs to be optimized – Optimizing your website, your blog posts, white papers, videos… even social media posts now needs to be optimized because of things like Edgerank.

  • John Waghorn

    Nice piece, I think there are crossovers from both areas, as well as the third – social media. When these combine coherently with a sense of direction, your marketing campaigns are more likely to succeed.

    I think it depends on the background of where you have come from with regards to which side you stand on, but there’s no argument in my mind. Essentially, you need both elements in order to create an optimised website that can convey a strong and positive message to your audience through the content you create.

  • Chris

    The most accurate thing in this post is
    You could make the case that SEO is content marketing
    Of course it is and always has been. People are talking about the “new” SEO where quality over-trumps quantity when it comes to content and link building.

    It has always been the right way to do it. But many companies and service providers wanted cheaper shortcuts and used them. Now that the cheaper shortcuts don’t work as well, it’s suddenly the “new” SEO and the need to “fix” what was done before is good for business.

    Then SEO now stands for “Shortcut Elimination Operation”

    • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

      “SEO now stands for “Shortcut Elimination Operation”"

      I love this!

  • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

    I can’t actually click ‘like’ on this enough. Absolutely it isn’t an either/or, ‘versus’ scenario. However, it is about knowing which is the cart and which is the horse.

    Attracting more traffic with SEO isn’t the reason to produce content. Attracting an audience to your great content is the reason to use SEO.

  • http://www.awaionline.com/ AWAI

    Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing
    relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly
    defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving
    profitable customer action…Nice post..!!