Is SEO dead?
Let me start by making one thing clear: no.
(Don’t worry, there’s also a “but”).
SEO is not dead—even though people have been saying that “search is dead” since the 90s. This trope comes back every year, and is so predictable that one SEO guy bought the domain seoisdead.net.
Go to the site, all you see is a short article and a picture of a kicking skeleton. The first sentence automatically updates its date to your current day.
The proclamations that “SEO is dead” have become so widespread that they’ve spawned a list of related—but much weirder—keywords and questions. When I sat down to do keyword research for this article, I came across some strange suggestions:
- Is SEO corpse
- SEO corpse
- Is SEO dying
- SEO dying
- Is SEO killed
- SEO decapitated
- SEO lifeless body
- Is SEO lifeless body
- SEO wounded
- Content nosebleed
Um…yikes. SEO isn’t dead, it isn’t dying, and your website isn’t going to trip over its “lifeless body.”
Can you feel the “but” coming? It’s almost here.
I can see why a lot of people would declare the death of SEO. Because even though search engine optimization is still very much alive and kicking (skeleton kicks notwithstanding), it’s also changed a lot.
Some things that used to work have stopped working—and there are new things to try.
This is the point where people who like to read about SEO sigh. Yeah, Google has changed its algorithm. Google’s Panda and Penguin and Hummingbird updates made it so that keyword stuffing and spammy link building don’t work anymore.
That’s not news. And that’s also not what I want to talk about here.
It’s true that the old black hat SEO tactics don’t work anymore, but that’s not what’s interesting about SEO today.
Knowing that spammy link building and keyword stuffing don’t work doesn’t actually help you, right? I’m sure you could come up with a huge list of things that you shouldn’t be doing—but that doesn’t help you understand what you should actually do.
I want to ask much more interesting and productive questions. Questions like:
- Search engine results pages are full of content (when was the last time you Googled something and got no results). Does that mean I can’t rank in search?
- As so many more businesses start doing content marketing and SEO, how can you find keywords that are easier to rank on?
- How can a smaller website rank in Google when it’s competing with the giants in its industry?
So many small businesses try to do SEO and struggle. Why?
As the internet gets more crowded, everyone is competing for the same search traffic.
Sorry for shouting, but I needed to make sure you heard that. It’s why small businesses conclude that SEO is dead—because they’re having trouble ranking in a crowded space.
That’s what this article is about—in a noisy internet, how can a small website compete?
I’m not going to talk about why SEO is important—it’s easy to understand that showing up in Google is useful.
I’m also not going to veer off on a tangent to ask “what is SEO,” the way every history teacher I ever had used to say “what is history” on the first day of class.
For our purposes, all you need to know is that it’s the practice of helping content and web pages appear in search results.
I will talk about:
- The state of SEO as it relates to content marketing—and why the competition is actually an opportunity
- How understanding the fundamentals of SEO, and how it’s changing, (without getting too technical) can help smaller websites show up in search results
- How you can go about writing search optimized content—without spending thousands of dollars on SEO tools and software
Let’s get started.
SEO and content marketing:
How content shock is changing SEO
SEO for content marketing has always been about the same thing: discovery.
The classic question of content marketing, and small business in general, is the same as it’s always been: how do you get people to find you?
Search engines are a powerful tool to get your business in front of people who care about you—especially because other methods of discovery are getting harder (more on this in a second).
There are a lot of advantages of organic search, but the few most important are:
- People who find you through search are actively looking for something (so give it to them!)
- Ranking in search brings in traffic passively, so it doesn’t take up a ton of your time (and, in some cases, scales really well)
- Traffic from organic search is free
And, of course, the audience for organic search is enormous. The exact number of people you can reach depends on a lot, but there are 40,000 Google searches every second.
Someone is out there searching for you. Help them find you.
Why is organic search changing? Part of it is that a lot of other tactics to get in front of people are becoming harder—especially the free ones.
On January 11th, 2018, Facebook announced that it would be de-emphasizing content from publishers and businesses in favor of “more posts from friends and family and updates that spark conversation.”
What that means for the News Feed algorithm isn’t clear, but it probably isn’t great for brands.
Of course, this isn’t exactly a new trend. Social media platforms have a massive incentive to keep people on their site (as opposed to clicking on a link to your company’s site).
Social media platforms make their money on ads.
That’s why native Facebook videos get way more engagement than shared YouTube videos. It’s why Instagram barely allows links at all. And it’s why—even though sharing is easy—social media is a really difficult channel for lead generation.
What about the other classic tactics of growing a business online?
Guest posting used to be a huge way to get website traffic—and it can still be a valuable part of your marketing.
But nowadays many bloggers don’t accept guest posts, or are hit with so many requests that it’s hard to stand out. Even when you do get a guest post, there’s no guarantee that it will come with a good link back to your site.
Being active in forums related to your business is still a great way to build a following and get traffic.
This includes traditional forums, subreddits, Facebook groups—even in-person meetups. If you can find communities to become a part of—and those communities allow some self-promotion—that can be a great tactic to get people to see your content.
If you have an email list, which is one of the best investments for any business, sending them your content is a must. But you need a way for people to find your list in the first place.
Of course, you can always pay for traffic. Facebook ads can be a great investment—I’ve worked with businesses that were saved by Facebook ads. The same goes for PPC (pay-per-click) ads that show up at the top of search results.
Both can be really good ways to reach your audience—but they cost money.
SEO isn’t the only way to generate traffic that turns into sales. But it is one of the most sustainable and cost effective ways to get discovered.
Ok, so what’s this “content shock?”
Glad you asked. I’ve thrown out the term “content shock” a couple of times, but haven’t explained it yet.
The term “content shock” was coined by marketer Mark Schaeffer in his book The Content Code. It refers to the fact that more content is being produced than could ever possibly be consumed.
Source: Businesses Grow
Personally, I think the term “content shock” is a little aggressive—neither SEO nor content marketing is going to get electrocuted to death—but Schaeffer has a point.
More and more people are getting in on SEO. The SERPs (search engine results pages) are filled with content on any topic you can imagine.
There are fewer and fewer topics that people haven’t written about.
This is what people mean when they say “SEO is dead.” The SERPs are crowded. Content shock has hit. Time to pack up and go home.
Well, not quite.
Because even though it’s true that Google is ranking more content than ever, there’s a very important piece to this conversation that gets left out all the time.
Most content sucks!
Yeah, you can type into almost anything into Google and get a result. But that doesn’t mean the content you find is going to be worth reading.
Content that ranks in Google could be there for any number of reasons.
- Maybe it was some of the first content ever published on a subject, so it got a lot of links early on
- Maybe it was published on a huge site, which gives it edge over the other not-very-good content
- Maybe the keyword it targets isn’t very competitive, so whoever wrote it didn’t worry about creating something that’s massively valuable
A lot of bad content ranks because writing mediocre content used to be a great strategy. In the earlier days of Google, you could rank on a ton of different keywords just by publishing a huge amount of content—because there wasn’t much content to compete with.
Once upon a time, that brought in a ton of traffic. Today, that creates the illusion of competition.
Why there are new opportunities to rank in search results
Why do I say the “illusion” of competition? Isn’t it hard to rank in Google?
Some keywords definitely are really competitive. But in a lot of cases, small businesses have an opportunity to rank well for valuable keywords just by creating incredibly valuable content.
More and more, Google is getting better at figuring out which content is good—even if it’s on smaller sites.
As Google learns to read content on its own, without relying as much on the size of a website or number of links, there will be more opportunity to compete with large brands through outstanding content—which we’ll touch on how to do in a moment.
Content marketer and search expert Andy Crestodina likes to say that the goal of a content marketer is to “create the best page on the internet” for a given topic.
More and more, that’s what Google is rewarding.
Ranking higher with SEO fundamentals
Google’s ongoing updates reward content relevance and quality and can help you rank higher—by focusing on the fundamentals.
Google has hundreds of ranking factors, and there are thousands of things you can do to fully optimize your website.
But we aren’t going to talk about all of those. For right now, we don’t need to worry about XML sitemaps, follow vs. no-follow links, robots.txt files, site speed, site caching, redirects, rel=canonical tags, anchor text, or image alt tags.
We aren’t even going to talk about internal linking, keyword density, title tags, meta descriptions, or keyword research.
All of that can help, but as long as your site is getting indexed by Google, it’s less important that the approach you take to SEO and content creation.
For right now, I really just want to focus on two things:
- The links pointing to a page
- The quality of the content on a page
This was the ranking factor that first separated Google from the other early search engines.
The idea is that if you link to someone else’s website, that’s really you raising your hand and saying “hey. This page is worth visiting.”
It gets more complicated than that really quickly. You want to get links from reputable websites, and from websites that are relevant to what you’re saying.
But at a high level: links pointing to a specific page are an indicator that the page is high value, and can help its ranking in search results.
Note: Links are part of the reason a big website has an advantage over a small one (all else even). Websites with a lot of links have a lot of authority, which is why you’ll sometimes see a very large site like Forbes or The Huffington Post near the top of search results even if its content isn’t that good.
As google gets smarter and smarter, it gets better and better at figuring out what pages have high quality content.
This is interesting—because it gives smaller websites that don’t have a lot of links a chance to rank. By producing high quality, in-depth content, it’s often possible for a little site to punch above its weight class.
And by the way? Don’t worry about producing long content—it actually does better in search results. A 2016 study by Backlinko showed that the average first page search result had 1890 words—and I would bet that number is even higher today.
Take a look around the search results for a keyword you want to rank for. Don’t you think you could do better than some of that content? Don’t you think you could make something that answers more questions and solves more problems?
If you succeed in doing that, you actually have a pretty good chance at ranking.
Conclusion: How can a small business create content that ranks?
It can be difficult to get links to your content as a small business. But as Google puts more emphasis on content quality and relevance, small businesses have an opportunity to rank on keywords just by creating valuable content.
Doing keyword research is beyond the scope of this article (although you can listen to our podcast on the subject here).
Whether you use a tool like Moz (recommended, and you get 20 free searches per month), or try to cobble together keywords from other free tools and guesses, start by putting that keyword into Google.
You should get 10 links to 10 pieces of content.
Read them all.
Seriously—don’t skip this step. It doesn’t take that long.
Seeing what you’re competing with gives you a sense of what you need to write, and spurs new ideas. This is an underrated step that will give you an edge.
Then ask yourself: “can I do this better?”
Look at your competitor’s content and run through some questions:
- Is any point they make unclear? Are there places that are vague or need more explanation?
- Are there points that you think are important, but are missing entirely from the piece? Are there questions this content doesn’t answer?
- Is this content that you would absolutely love to find, because it gives you actionable steps to solve your problems?
For the vast, vast majority of keywords, I would bet that the top-ranking content could be improved.
If you can make that improvement—create what’s truly the best page on the internet for your topic—you’ll see that SEO is very much alive.