By Michele Linn published June 27, 2014

The Basics of SEO for Successful Content Marketing

seo drawing-detective-magnifying glassIn the content marketing world, there is a lot of talk about SEO, and for good reason. As Lee Odden recently explained:

Think of SEO this way: If a customer-focused content marketing program is the sandwich, then SEO is the mayonnaise. It touches nearly everything and enhances the overall flavor of the sandwich, but on its own, it’s not very appetizing.

In this fifth installment of our Back to Basics content marketing series, we tackle the basics of SEO — the core principles and key considerations you should be aware of in order to produce the most successful content marketing possible.

Creating for people always comes first

You are likely already familiar with the content marketing vs. SEO debate. My take is that these two disciplines can — and should — work very well together. There is no downside to optimizing your content for SEO, but it should not be your primary consideration when you create and deliver content.

In light of what your customers likely look for in the content they choose to consume — not to mention Google’s ever-changing algorithms that aim to keep online content relevant and of a high quality — you can’t go wrong if you follow this golden rule: Write compelling content about the things your target audience would be most interested in.

SEO is only one piece of the puzzle

While you likely receive a substantial amount of website traffic from search, other traffic sources, such as email and social media, should feature prominently in your optimization efforts, as well.

If you are wondering how much of your traffic is coming from search (and, thus, how much of your content optimization efforts should be focused on SEO), open Google Analytics and go to Acquisition > Overview. Here you’ll see a breakdown of how much of your traffic is coming from each of the seven key sources:

  • Organic search
  • Email
  • Direct (people getting to your site via a bookmark or by typing a URL directly)
  • Referral (viewers who come from any site that links to your content)
  • Social media
  • Paid search
  • Other (i.e., traffic that can’t be attributed to any of the above) 

Even Matt Cutts asserts:

I firmly support the idea that people should have a diversified way of reaching their audience. So if you rely only on Google, that might not be as strong of an approach compared to having a wide variety of different avenues by which you can reach people and drive them to your website or whatever your objective is.

Social impacts SEO

Ever since Google’s Hummingbird update, social signals are having a greater impact on search results than ever before. As a result, it’s important for content marketers to have a strong social strategy in place that takes SEO considerations into account.

For more details on how to build social media into your content marketing processes, take a look at last week’s Back to Basics post, from Cathy McPhillips. And Andy Crestodina offers a fantastic Social Media and SEO Smackdown! Infographic that is worth a look, as well.

SEO is a long-tail strategy

When you are getting started with content marketing, it’s not realistic to expect traffic from search to grow quickly (which is another good reason to incorporate social into your distribution strategy). However, once you do start to see improvements in traffic due to your search efforts, the benefits can be long-lasting. I can’t tell you how many times older articles on CMI experience a resurgence in popularity due to search — in fact, many of our contributors have told me they get requests on their posts years after they’ve been published.

Keywords still matter

While obsessing over keywords is certainly not a recommended strategy for successful content marketing, you do want to make sure your efforts are ranking for the terms that are most meaningful to your brand and your customers. As such, it’s useful to do a bit of basic research and then build a list of relevant keywords you will target through your content. For some additional insight on this process, take a look at Mike Murray’s post, 12 Tips for Keyword Selection to Guide Your Content Marketing SEO.

Get technical

SEO optimization involves some pretty technical components, like making sure your content pages are being indexed correctly by search engines and ensuring that you have 301 redirect pages set up to make sure visitors always reach their intended destination on your content pages. To do this, you need to know what content you have, and where it’s located — which you can determine and document by conducting an audit of your content. This post by Amanda DiSilvestro can help you get started with the SEO content audit process.

An example from CMI

At CMI, search is just one of the traffic sources we evaluate and optimize. How do we decide what should be optimized for search versus what should be optimized for social?

Search is a great way to support long-tail and evergreen content; but we’ve found that topics that are more forward-looking (i.e., those that people aren’t necessarily searching for, specifically) are usually better supported by social media techniques.

Another difference between search and social optimization lies in the approach used. When thinking about search, we consider the terms people are searching for — and those we have the best potential for top rankings on. For example, it’s often not in our best interest to go after phrases that have huge search volumes — i.e., those where there’s a lot of competition for the top spots. In comparison, when thinking about social media, we place a greater emphasis on the terms people are monitoring — even if they are common or broad.

While we don’t expect every post to be an ideal candidate for SEO, we do pay particular attention to what we publish in terms of the following components (we use Yoast’s SEO plugin for WordPress to do this):

  • The post title or headline: We rely on our SEO editor, Tracy Gold, to finalize the titles of all of our posts. Tracy keeps an eye on ensuring that our headlines will attract readers, from a readability standpoint, but she also keeps our target keywords in mind, as appropriate.
  • The meta-description: We write a short description for every post that includes our target keyword for that post. This meta-description is what appears in the search engine results page (SERP) to describe why the post is relevant to a reader’s search.
  • Title tags: Similar to how we treat headlines, we also include a custom title tag for every piece of content we publish. The title tag is what search engines use to determine what a piece of content is about — including images, videos, infographics, and other pieces of content that don’t necessarily have a traditional “headline.”
  • The category: While this content component is not specific to SEO, we categorize every post as a way to help us organize our content around key topic areas. 

We also work with a dedicated SEO consultant (Mike Murray), who provides monthly reports on search, offers suggestions for content that can benefit our readers, and helps us better understand all the search implications of our content. For a small team like ours, it has been invaluable to have someone helping us stay on top of this rapidly changing field.

I’d love to hear from you: How do you handle search considerations as part of your content marketing processes?

For more guidance on leveraging SEO best practices for more successful content marketing, join Mike Murray as he presents on Planning, Refining, and Measuring SEO at Content Marketing World 2014. 

Cover image by Andrew Moir

Author: Michele Linn

Michele Linn is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Mantis Research, a consultancy focused on helping brands create and amplify original research they can use in their marketing. Before starting Mantis, Michele was head of editorial at Content Marketing Institute, where she led the company's strategic editorial direction, co-developed its annual research studies, wrote hundreds of articles, spoke at industry events and was instrumental in building the platform to 200,000 subscribers. In 2015, she was named one of Folio's Top Women in Media (Corporate Visionary). You can follow her on Twitter at @michelelinn.

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  • Vince Luk

    great post Michele! I especially liked your approach with how “SEO is only a part of the puzzle”. I have too many clients who demand SEO and think it is all and only about keywords. Thanks very much!

  • xen chia

    Thanks for sharing. Agree with you that SEO is a long tail strategy. Some times it is hard to get client to understand the ongoing process for SEO over a one-time exercise to improve page rank.

  • Sylvia Parker

    It’s so true that content writing and SEO need to work together. If you have amazing content that nobody can find, then it’s worthless, but the same goes for awesome keywords that are nothing but garbage when someone comes along to actually read them. Great post!

  • Greg DiVilbiss

    I love the idea of the importance of content and the use of SEO as a strategy. I view marketing as an umbrella, All of the ribs have to be in place for the umbrella to function correctly SEO being one rib, Social Media, content, PPC, traditional media others.

    A holistic approach is what I feel works the best and you have captured that idea well in your posts.

  • Ron VanPeursem

    Great article, Michele. Keeping SEO and Content Marketing “married” is the only way to go. I think most understand this now, but not everyone! I just referenced your article on my blog here:
    Keep up the good work!

  • Alex Bisset

    This is a great article and very helpful . I completely agree that SEO is only one part of the process but I find it is a important piece. Companies like Opentopic can be very helpful with that piece of the puzzle. Opentopic for example is a content marketing platform that makes it easy for brands to find meaningful content to engage their audience and publish it directly to blogs, social media feeds, or newsletters. Then once the content is live, Opentopic’s content analytics capabilities will help you evaluate and monitor engagement and performance to make content marketing work for you.

  • Ranjeet Singh

    Enjoy the articles. I will try to implement these points on my website

  • Nana Daugaard

    Great article, thanks for sharing. It is exactly what I do, combining seo and content writing. I’d like if you could elaborate on the social impact seo wise? I don’t see any gaining by having a social media strategy when it comes to seo?

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  • Raphenom Promotions

    Great article…I think SEO is very important for the first step in our sales funnel which begins with traffic.

  • parkerwills

    Good one !! I just loved getting through your article thanks @michele

  • Akash Agarwal

    Very useful and informative article. There is a lot of things to learn from this article. Thanks for sharing.

  • Akash Agarwal

    In SEO content is the king. Google always considers great content. So, fresh, unique and quality content always best for SEO.

  • Martin Zhel

    Great post, Michele! It’s good that you state that SEO is only 1 of the benefits of developing quality content. It also spreads through email, social, referrals, etc. Content helps you with conversion and customers retention as well.

    I think it’s really important to add to the article that Google now understand semantic and contextual meaning. It also ranks the quality of the content by itself: searching for things like formatting, readability, semantic words, if you’re using enough images or videos, etc.

    All these factors affect search ranking at the moment. Not to mention the quality of the content is the main reason why someone would decide to link to it.

    You can learn more about how quality content affects SEO by reading this ebook:

  • Renu Bisht

    To succeed in content marketing, the SEO basics are really useful.

  • Rosser

    “SEO is only one piece of the puzzle.” – This is a good point because everyone thinks SEO is what you only have to do for marketing, which is really not.

  • beehiep

    Content is king

    Just do it , make much useful content and helpful .It the best!