SEO and content marketing have finally converged. This has been developing for years, and anyone with a good view of both practices has seen it coming.

People have been using search engines to find good content since Google launched in 1998. Marketers have been creating content to be found by those same people, mostly via search engines, since 1998.

The convergence of these two tactics is just evolution. When we started out, all backlinks had pretty much the same value. Keywords were static things you stuffed into text until you got a nice high keyword density.

Now a backlink’s value varies from precious to destructive. Keyword terms like “latent semantic indexing” and “proof terms” attempt to quantify the way real people swap words around when they write, especially when they’re writing for other people.

All these evolutions revolve around one thing: the user. From a content marketer’s point of view, the content “consumer” is who we design content for. It’s who we’ve always designed content for, long before anyone called it content marketing.

SEOs have had a murkier time identifying who they serve. There was an argument in the search world a few years ago about whether to optimize for people or for search engines. Some SEOs maintained you had to optimize for search engines first, otherwise the human readers would never find you. The best SEOs ignored that advice. They built content for real people, though, they also hedged their bets with basic technical optimizations.

The “write for people” SEOs won out. The Google Panda algorithm change in 2011 proved this bluntly. All the guys spinning articles like it was Linkapalooza got their comeuppance from the Google Penguin update in 2014.

How did this happen? Basically, the SEOs who decided to chase the search algorithm at the expense of their readers got stung. This stings even more when you realize the people who created the search algorithms were trying to serve the real user all along. That was the purpose of the algorithms in the first place.

It’s all about the user–it always has been

Every change to Google and Bing has been to serve up more useful, relevant content to real people; it’s just that the search engines can only read certain signals, namely user behaviors.

You don’t have to look far to see examples of how user behaviors shape SEO. Instead of worrying about link counts and keyword density, now we focus on metrics like bounce rate, time on site, and click-through rate.

For more proof of how user behaviors shape SEO, check the 2015 Searchmetrics Ranking Factors Analysis. The report is clear: “User signals are essential for your content and rankings. The reaction of users offers search engines direct feedback about user satisfaction with your content.”

There’s an awful lot about content in the Searchmetrics’ report, both for formatting and for user signals. Here are just a few of the content formatting attributes Searchmetrics says affect rankings:

  • Text length.
  • Presence of images; there are 10 images in the average top ten ranking page.
  • Flesch reading score.
  • Font size.
  • Bullet lists.
  • Interactive content.
  • H1 and H2 tags.

It almost reads like a style guide.

Here’s what the report has to say about keywords and backlinks:

  • “Stop thinking in keywords. Users’ searches are diverse, although they may have similar intentions.”
  • “… the relevance of links will decline in favor of other factors in future. Even now links should be viewed in the context of social signals, a ranking signal but also to some degree more a consequence of good rankings instead of their cause.”

SEO metrics in content marketing goals

So that’s what SEOs will be aiming for. Let’s take a look at this from the other side of the aisle, at content marketers’ goals.

Here are the results of the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs’ 2015 B2B and B2C content marketing surveys. The metric charts from those two separate reports are merged into the graphic below. The colors of the bars have been changed to more easily compare the results.

Metrics for content marketing

Both B2B and B2C content marketers are using several traditional SEO metrics to measure content marketing success.

Half of the metrics listed for content marketing success are traditional SEO metrics:

  • Website traffic
  • SEO ranking
  • Time spent on website
  • Inbound links

Do we need any more evidence that content marketing and SEO are basically two sides of the same coin? They both revolve around the same things: Content and the user. They use the same metrics and goals.

Companies that get SEO and content marketing are two sides of the same coin

You don’t have to look far to find companies that have successfully used content marketing to boost SEO metrics and vice versa.

The UK firm SuperOffice increased its organic traffic by 97 percent and organic leads by 43 percent in just one year through careful keyword research that targeted long-tail keywords.

SuperOffice’s marketing staff was only two people, so they couldn’t compete on high volume keywords. But there was plenty of business to be had from lower volume, long-tail keywords–the three and four keyword phrases that are very specific to what they were selling.

Example of long tail keywords

UK CRM Software vendor SuperOffice found a way to compete against better-funded competitors by creating content based on long-tail keywords.

The two staffers set to finding highly relevant keywords that didn’t have good content. Then they built SEO-optimized, high-quality content around those terms in a way that complemented their company’s products. Their content was usually blog posts and whitepapers but was later repurposed into social media updates and email newsletters.

Using keyword intent to create the content audiences crave

Keyword intent is often more important than even the keywords themselves. You have to know your audience–not only the keywords they use to describe things–and why they are searching for those keywords in the first place.

If you’re having trouble finding keywords, try just answering common questions. To be even more strategic about it, answer the questions customers or prospects have at important decision points.

This worked brilliantly for Marcus Sheridan (aka “The Sales Lion”) and River Pools. Sheridan’s pool blog is often credited as being the genesis of content marketing. The company’s marketing strategy was just to answer every common question about pools in the most detailed, clear and helpful way.

This approach has worked for many other companies, including Yale Appliance. Yale has tripled its traffic and increased online sales by 40 percent since it launched a blended content marketing and SEO approach. It’s done especially well by incorporating videos into the content marketing mix, often embedding them in blog posts.

Good content creates good links

There’s another natural result of creating content that answers your audience’s questions particularly well: you start to get good links. You can get lots of little links from niche sources by answering questions, or you can do some original research and gets lots of links that way.

We used that approach to generate inbound links for Wasp Barcode Technologies. Our 2015 State of Small Business Report asked more than 1,000 small business owners key questions about their businesses. The resulting report has been reviewed on Fox Business News and generated dozens of inbound links for us.

Search engine technology will continue to get smarter, and the difference between what content consumers want and what search engines want will continue to get smaller. However it changes, don’t be the SEO chasing the algorithm. Serve your audience first. The search algorithms will eventually catch up.

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