Take Two: Following Up on "Content Strategy" and the "New" SEO

01/09/2013 12:36 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2013

One of the best things about the Internet is the fact that amidst all the noise, meaningful discussions and insights regularly surface. A few weeks ago, my article on the importance and benefits of an effective content strategy evoked somewhat strong reactions from people who practice search engine optimization at various levels.

The comments that followed the post were important not merely because they came from a set of genuine SEO players who have an overall understanding of the philosophy behind search optimization, but because they inspired me to respond with a clarification.

Defining "Content Strategy" Better

In the article, I wrote, "A content strategist thinks about producing valuable content and distributing it across various channels; the rest of the equation completes itself."

In response, commenter DocSheldon said, "... from your description, I get the impression that you don't really understand what content strategy is. I assure you, it's a LOT more than simply 'produce and distribute' content."

I do admit that my phrasing of what I had in mind was off the mark. As someone who pursues a content strategy that is much more than merely producing and distributing content, what I had intended was to highlight the fact that content strategists think about producing valuable content and helping users find them, as opposed to merely trying to think about numbers pertaining to links, traffic, and SERPs.

This involves a range of activities, of which production of valuable content and sensible distribution form two important parts. By no means did I intend to limit the reader to the notion that content strategy is merely "producing and distributing" content, but the way I put it certainly could have lead to that interpretation.

Content, by traditional definition, is often associated with articles that appear in directories, blog posts, websites, magazines, etc. By extension, content also comprises images, video, and audio in the form of graphics on websites, video content on such sites as YouTube, and audio content like podcasts.

I believe that on the Internet, content is anything that has value, provides information, and is worthy of a reader/viewer/listener's time. In that sense, even a simple Facebook status that reveals groundbreaking information would be valuable content; a tweet that circulates a particularly useful piece of information is also content.

After the initial stage of producing valuable content, my understanding of "content strategy" includes the way it is used to "engage users" -- one that should result in click-throughs and desired actions. The way it is used to trigger social reactions (which are related to social signals), the way it can lead to a viral effect (if and when possible), and the way it builds credible and authoritative links all form a part of SEO.

In essence, all of this is content strategy; in hindsight, it's SEO as well. Sure, there are other technical details involved in optimization (more on that below), but a large and important part of SEO is content strategy.

This was true during the first days of search engines, when websites were created solely for information. But techniques emerged later that lead to a complex but necessary level of sophistication; exploitation of elements like "meta tags," "keyword density," "anchor tags," "directory submissions," and "web 2.0" has -- thankfully -- resulted in most search engine optimization returning to the basics of providing valuable, reliable, relevant, and totally useful information:

It's a bit like going back to square one. Remember when websites were designed to deliver information and the links between blogs were 'natural' and valuable? With the numerous recent algorithm updates, it's become clear that Google is trying to force people to 'be natural' with whatever they do to improve their website's visibility in Google's search results.

Until You're Blue in the Face: Content Is King

DocSheldon points out, "... content is critical -- it always has been and always will be. But it is just ONE of the many facets of an effective SEO process. It's no more the new SEO than tires are the new car."

Another commenter, schachin, says, "Content has been a predominant player in SEO for as long as I have been in SEO and that has been since 2004."

If there's anything that will remain undeniable about search optimization efforts for the rest of our lives, it is that content will remain the predominant player in SEO. Nothing, as far as I can see, can be closer to the core of what we do.

Yet a large section of this industry often gets sidetracked. We saw that happen recently with the Penguin update, when the focus shifted from building even better quality to link issues. It's good to know that there are people like schachin who understand the basic underlying and eternal principle of SEO: good, useful content. But at the same time, I see an unhealthy chunk of the SEO crowd regularly loses sight of this essential principle. And it is those very people who end up causing harm to decent measures of relevance (for search engines to rank) if observed faithfully.

The reason I choose to emphasize content "strategy" (and not just content production/distribution) is best described in this phrase: "some stories are meant to be retold several times."

Everyone acknowledges that good content forms one of the strongest pillars of SEO, but how many are really applying that to their SEO efforts? My emphasis is intended to motivate people who are willing to do some real and genuine SEO and not exploit a time-sensitive method to gain ranking.

I Am 15 Years Late

Evan Weber says, "You're about five years late with this article..."

Actually, by that measure, I am 15 years late. Optimization, as a recognized process, was coined sometime in 1997. I have reason to believe that a little while before that, "optimizers" began focusing a little less on publishing information and value, and a little more on understanding the basic algorithm behind the ranking process instead. It was around that time that techniques began to surface in earnest, resulting -- much later -- in over-use and exploitation of techniques that once used to be a part of search engine metrics.

We're turning toward this phase again: a time to produce real value... and I am merely part of the group that rates value and quality above everything else. That includes search engine optimization "techniques."

But schachin made another important observation related to SEO techniques:

There is nothing new, but what is happening -- and very unfortunately for the novice or non-SEO -- is the idea that you don't need links, or technical SEO, or the million other things that go into an SEO strategy. Guess what -- you do!

This is something I agree with totally, and if my article sounded as if I was saying the opposite, I wish to clarify that. The importance of certain mandatory techniques is enormous (though perhaps overrated at times). For instance, take AuthorRank, which has emerged as a very real and relevant metric.

To set up AuthorRank correctly involves understanding and applying techniques that qualify as a direct method of boosting your rankings. This is just one simple example, and there are countless other techniques that play a similarly vital role.

In conclusion:

  1. Definitions of terms are, strictly speaking, relative. By content strategy, I mean a generic and expansive list of activities that consist of much more than producing and distributing content.
  2. Content will always remain "the king," but as new terminologies and techniques and algorithms emerge, people too often get sidetracked. Then it becomes a necessary but pardonable act to reiterate the slogan until one is blue in the face.
  3. Techniques are quite important in SEO. However, these are the impermanent aspects of SEO: they can change once in a while. That doesn't mean I disregard them; as an SEO myself, I use techniques that are genuinely useful and relevant to current search engine patterns and algorithms.