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Is SEO a Dirty White Lie?

January 16, 2011

Recently, two of my favorite Minnesotans had a very public disagreement about the topic of our book, and it rocked my world. Lee Odden wrote a provocative blog post on his Top Rank blog: Content Strategy and the Dirty Lie about SEO, to which Kristina Halvorson strongly disagreed, both in the comments to Lee’s post and in her own post. I commented on both posts, but I didn’t want to dominate those conversations. Yet, I have so much more to say about the topic that I need to write a blog post of my own.

From Lee’s post:

Who to blame for SEO ruining content? No doubt, there’s  too much content created purely for SEO. You could blame SEOs for that. You could also blame Google for ranking it so high and you could also consider the companies that hire SEOs who want higher rankings – fast.

Lee was responding to a critique of SEO as it is currently practiced. Right now, a lot of agencies convince their clients to build a content strategy around SEO, meaning, you build pages for the purposes of driving traffic from search engines to offers and not for any other purpose. The pages are just keyword-stuffed garbage that is not relevant to the audience. I have found a lot more of this of late: I type a long-tail keyword and Google serves a bunch of stuff to me that isn’t even close to what I was looking for. It’s reminiscent of the old days with Alta Vista. Marketers treat their content strategy like their paid search strategy, hoping to get 1% conversions on this traffic. It’s disgusting.

The knee-jerk response is to build a “pure” content experiences that produce all and only the content that is relevant to the target audience and let the SEO chips fall where they may. Lee doesn’t think this is a viable alternative. If most people find content through Google (with all of its current faults), you have to create content with Google in mind if you expect your target audience to find it. Here’s what Lee says:

The reality is, that the “less is more” argument with content strategy works great when you don’t have to worry about where the traffic to the great content will come from.  This is part of the “dirty lie about SEO”:  That great content attracts its own audience and that SEO ruins content.

This is what Kristina objects to. A lot of what she proposes in her book Content Strategy for the Web is about building more elegant websites, free of the clutter and apparent duplication that tends to occur when corporate content efforts are left unattended. When a content strategist consults with such a company, the first thing she will suggest is to cut the content inventory by at least a third and create a more elegant experience for her clients’ users. Kristina’s main objection is that Lee paints content strategists as folks who reject SEO and expect content to attract its own audience.

Kristina rightly cites her book when defending content strategists against Lee’s straw man:

In fact, there’s a section of my book (p.72-73) called “Search Engine Optimization: The Missing Link.” (Ironically, it follows a section called “Source Content: You Have to Start Somewhere,” which encourages readers to make the most of the content they already have, not slice it in half). In it, I write,

“If there are SEO or other search-related efforts underway, be sure to capture them in your analysis           document. They’ll play an important role in informing your content strategy recommendations.”

OK, that’s the set-up. Somehow content strategists and SEO consultants are seen as adversaries who tell clients diametrically opposite things. This is a myth that I want to attack in this blog post. If you’re interested in my take, please read on.

Search-first content strategy

I have laid out my take on search first content strategy often this past year. Does this mean I side with the marketers, and propose that people develop keyword stuffed pages? No. It means that users come to your site for content. Your first job is to create great content for your users. Keyword stuffing and other tricks are abominations because they’re exactly the opposite kind of experience your users want. But if you want your audience to find your content in the first place, you have to optimize it for search engines. It’s a huge waste of time and effort to create content that no one ever finds.

The book is a thorough-going explanation of the search-first content strategy. A couple of assets might help to further convince you it’s worth the investment. The first is an Inform IT article called Search is Not Just a Tactic. In it, I dispel the myth that all SEO is either black hat or gray hat. There is such a thing as white-hat SEO: search strategy that places user experience at the center. This article does a pretty good job of saying that content strategy vs. SEO is a false dichotomy.  The second is a recent developerWorks podcast with Scott Laningham, in which I explain in the simplest terms how a search-first content strategy works.

Where it all began

I once edited over 11,000 pages of thought leadership white papers in one year (about 285 white papers at about 40 pages a piece). At the end of the year, we looked at traffic statistics on these white papers. Our total traffic for the year was just over 1000 downloads. Most of the papers, which I had so painstakingly edited, got fewer than five downloads in a year. Some of the best work our department of experts produced got no traffic at all. When we dug into the problem, we found out that none of them were optimized for search. I assumed somebody else did this downstream from me, but no one had. So we embarked on a project to optimize the PDFs for search. It took about an hour per paper. After a month, we had the whole collection optimized. At the end of that year, we looked at the statistics again and found over 150,000 downloads on the same white papers–many of them were downloaded 100 times a day.

Shortly after that experience, I become editor in chief of I began to see this problem over and over in IBM. We were dedicating some of the top experts in the company to writing white papers and other collateral and we weren’t bothering to optimize it for search. And the same problem was in our product pages, our landing pages, our documentation and our support pages. The content strategy seemed to assume that all our users navigated from the home page. But the statistics suggested that about a quarter of our audience came directly to interior pages from search. And of the total audience for our site, 20% used the masthead search function after trying to navigate to the content they needed. We were not catering to these folks.

I vowed to educate the whole company on the importance of search for our top content. As we worked content team to content team, department to department, we saw huge improvements in traffic and engagement from simple SEO best practices. My goal was always to bake SEO into the content process so that our content was optimized for search as soon as it went live. This is the project that led to my MS thesis and ultimately to our book. It is ongoing. The efforts have increased search usage on and off the site. Now 40-50% of our traffic comes from external search engines and 30% uses the  masthead.

This experience has convinced me that you can’t talk about content strategy without talking about SEO and vice versa. We knew going into writing the book that individual content teams needed to learn this stuff. But what we have learned since it was published  is that the whole enterprise needs a holistic approach to search-first content strategy. Because, left to their own devices, individual content teams inadvertently compete with each other for positions on the SERP for the words their audience cares about.

Another symptom of a fragmented content enterprise is content gaps. For example, we might have great thought leadership content and we might have great demand generation pages, but we might fail to connect the two with the kind of consideration experiences our users need to make intelligent decisions. Recognizing this, we have embarked on a program to identify all our user tasks and to map content to them. One keyword might have eight pieces of content mapped to it because the content asks users to do different tasks with content about the same topics. I explain this project in another recent InformIT article: Content Marketing, the New ROI is All About Engagement.

(Incidentally, a lot of the problems people find with Google are related to this. If there are no good pages available to Google on a given task and topic, it will rank these garbage SEO pages highly in its SERP.)

Content consolidation, optimization and governance

We have quantified the affects of fragmented content management and governance on our site. It results in millions of dollars in lost revenues every year. It also results in millions of dollars in hosting and maintenance cots, not to mention needless content creation. So I am embarking on a project that purports to do exactly what Lee objects to: Drastically reduce content inventory, restructure the site, and create a new grass-roots governance system to ensure we don’t become so fragmented in the future.

What puzzles me about Lee’s claim is that he thinks such a project will hurt our SEO efforts. By our estimation, the chief benefit is improved SEO. When we have better search traffic and engagement, we have better conversions of leads into the pipeline, and we sell a lot more of our offerings. For each 1% improvement in search relevance, we have a 1% improvement in leads. Needless content duplication, stale, out-of-spec content, and other symptoms of content fragmentation are a drain on relevance. Content is only as valuable as its context, expressed by the relevant links and other experiences users can perform on it. Bad content drags down the value of the good content by association. Get rid of the bad content and the good content will become more valuable and relevant.

This is how I explained it in BrainTraffic’s comment section:

The other challenge we face is, frankly, too much damn content. It is a challenge for our UX, IA, design, and infrastructure. But it is a much bigger challenge for search and social media. How can we entice our audience to engage with relevant content from search engines when we have 10 pages that appear to be about the same stuff and do the same things? How can we entice users to share and comment on our content when they don’t know which of the dozen apparent duplicates is definitive? So [Lee’s] comment about reducing content inventory as opposed to SEO makes no sense to me. It is the most important part of SEO–not treating pages in isolation but as a system of systems.

So you see. SEO is not antithetical to content strategy, it’s an integral part of content strategy. How do we create a Web that provides relevant experiences for our target audience? Search. Can’t we all just get along and start doing it?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2011 1:42 pm

    Totally agree James, as with everything it’s all about artful combining the disciplines… always putting the user experience first.

    I’ve never really bought the idea that a site needs to be stuffed with terrible content pages to do well in search – provide your target audience with the content they’re looking for, in the terms they recognise, and you’ll do fine.

  2. Dan Haley permalink
    January 18, 2011 7:07 pm

    Thanks for the great article, James. I have the good fortune to work on a website with a lot of good content at its disposal. We’re in the beginning stages of doing exactly this: optimizing the existing content (and new content we’re developing) for search, better usability, etc. Among other things, a taxonomy is central to this effort, so we can start delivering more accurate related content.

    I have to say, though, that the process you describe is much easier if you have a great archive of good content to lean on, like A “more is more” approach is more easily sold to stakeholders with little to no good content.

    This stakeholder knows s/he needs more content to be competitive, and may be more easily sold on a bulk content marketing plan.

    So, to this client/stakeholder, I guess we say: “Be patient. Good content, traffic, and user experiences take time”?

  3. January 18, 2011 8:15 pm

    I have to emphatically agree that “SEO is not antithetical to content strategy, it’s an integral part of content strategy”.

  4. January 20, 2011 1:45 pm

    “The content strategy seemed to assume that all our users navigated from the home page. But the statistics suggested that about a quarter of our audience came directly to interior pages from search.” This is where good content strategy and SEO can meet, not only finding great content away from the homepage but that content being recognized and then shared in the social ecosystem. Would love to hear more about the white paper project James.

  5. January 21, 2011 2:54 pm

    PDFs are pretty easy to optimize.

    1. The “Document Properties” dialogue is where you put all the metadata: Title, keywords abstract (which becomes the shot description in the SERP). Unlike web page metadata, Google looks in here to determine relevance.

    2. File names are important. A lot of teams use auto-generated file names based on database logic such as SQL. This is not meaningful to the crawler. So if you name the file with the title of the document, it will improve relevance.

    3. Acrobat will enable you to create a TOC, which is akin to a site map for the crawler. This is another oportunity to demonstrate relevance with keywords.

    4. Link anchor text within the document is really important. Write the document to include the title of the landing page or subsection to which the link refers. And make all the sections in the TOC clickable.

    5. Acrobat Distiller lets you specify the reading order. If you don’t do this, it will scan down the left column of the document first and might place footnotes or disclaimers ahead of more important content in the document summary. If you have time, it’s worth at least checking the reading order before you go live. You can change it to follow the reading order you intend. This is especially important if you use any advanced design with graphics and other nontextual elements.

    The whole collection of tactics takes about and hour per document. Once you have updated existing documents, you can set your content process to do a lot of it automatically.



  6. December 3, 2014 2:02 pm

    Good piece here, James. We know there are a lot of content out there aimed at improving in the search rankings but I definitely agree that the rankings should be more content than SEO-related. Of course, the content should be optimized for SEO but it all should be taken into the light of the context, that we write for people and not for the algorithms Google created.

  7. December 19, 2014 2:23 pm

    I don’t think seo is a dirty white lie.


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