You don’t need to sacrifice quality and audience needs for search results.
Perhaps you’ve heard (or had) a spirited discussion like this one around search engine optimization, or SEO:
“Writing for SEO just makes for boring writing. The audience can tell it’s written for an algorithm.”
“Oh yeah? Well what good is your article if no one ever finds it?”
“Oh come on, SEO isn’t the only way to get traffic.”
“Of course not. But organic search? A captive audience with a specific need, looking for answers? Nothing even comes close.”
Maybe (probably) your own team members have different ideas about what writing for SEO really means. So let’s tackle this head on, shall we?
Two of the most common — and, it should be noted, polar opposite — positions are 1) “SEO is the No. 1 priority — everything else is secondary” and 2) “Content should consider the audience first — everything else is secondary.” The truth is, they’re both right. And wrong. It’s the same as debating whether the black or white is more important in the yin and yang. And the concept of yin and yang is exactly the way to think about this question: They’re complementary factors inherent in creating engaging content your audience can easily find.
Google is evolving to reward quality content.
One of Google’s top priorities when updating its algorithm is to improve the user experience. Google wants users’ queries to be understood, and wants to quickly serve up high-quality content that addresses their needs. The BERT rollout of 2019 implemented neural-network based processing to help the algorithm learn to think like a human. A neural network is a series of algorithms (modeled on the human brain) that train the computer to recognize connections and patterns in data, as well as factor-in context, to decipher meaning and intent. Google then launched the MUM update in June 2021 — built on a similar architecture as BERT, but 1,000x more powerful. So writing for your audience is exactly what you should be doing to rank higher, because Google is doing its best to think like your audience.
That evolution means “pure SEO” plays are increasingly risky.
Many of those hesitant to prioritize SEO are likely thinking of the old “black hat” and keyword-stuffing days, but SEO has long since moved on. With every update, as Google adjusts the algorithm’s dials and criteria, the rankings change. While some tactics, such as pillar pages or FAQs, have SEO front of mind, the content still must satisfy Google’s demands for content that is helpful to readers — yin and yang.
SEO is more than word choice and syntax.
In addition to “on-page SEO,” or the content of a single article or post, Google weighs a host of technical factors such as page loading speed, schema markup, sitemaps and the presence of “pop-ups.” So as a content writer and creator, don’t forget: SEO success or failure doesn’t rest solely with you. Domain authority — a score Google assigns your entire site based on perceived expertise and content quality — also heavily influences rankings. And domain authority is impossible to build overnight. SEO and content inherently require a holistic approach — a strategy adhered to over months is the only way to both rank well and meet your audience’s needs.
Writing for today’s SEO is putting the audience first.
Google processes more than 8.5 billion searches a day, 63% of them conducted on mobile devices. If your audience is a human who owns a mobile device, then they’re searching on Google every day. So how could you claim to create “audience-first” content without considering SEO? Today’s SEO requires knowing who your audience is, what they’re looking for, what they want, and what they need — all things that are also required to create effective content.
The next time you hear an argument around SEO optimization vs. quality content, you can calmly step in and enlighten the troubled souls: Understanding how to balance the two is the hallmark of great content writing. When you create content that resonates with your audience and ranks on Google — you’ve reached the realm of content marketing art.
Where is your content team at in their SEO efforts? What conversations are you having around what role SEO should play in your processes? We’d love to work with you! Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can find some time.