SEO to Content Marketing – Why the Shift?
Content strategy, and indeed content marketing, has taken a little while longer to permeate in the minds of digital marketers in the UK than it did in the United States. The seminal Content Strategy for the Web was published in 2009, while Rebecca Leib points out in Content Marketing: Think Like a Publisher, content marketing has been around much longer than the Internet.
We’re certainly coming around to it. 2012 was an important year in shifting attitudes, particularly at search agencies. One of my old SEO employers removed ‘search’ from its URL and switched it with the holistic ‘digital’; post the Panda and Penguin Google updates, SEO blogs are getting filled up around the need to invest in good content, while more journalists are appearing at conferences. But why has this shift really come about?
SEO in a Silo
Pre 2007, when social media as it stands now didn’t really exist, SEO could exist in a silo. A company could outsource an audit and link building to a search agency, and link building was really rather easy. The most prevalent technique I came across to build links was to ‘rent’ space on third party websites with high pagerank and link to clients within placed articles. While Google shunned direct paid links (which happened anyway), this was a rather more undetectable system that meant agencies could build away, so long as the cashflow was good.
Social Media as a Catalyst
The catalyst to change this model was social media, which enjoyed accelerated growth from 2007, becoming a widely adopted business tool in 2009/2010. Not only did the new networking tools mean that there was another method of ‘signing up’ to a brand, but transparency became far more important.
As people grew fluent with the tools, it became easier to prospect for links and build relationships (read Gary Vaynerchuck’s The Thank You Economy, or Crush It!: Why Now is the Time to Cash in on Your Passion for more on that) but also to call out manipulative practices by rivals. In effect, while manipulative link building could largely continue in the new web publishing front, many more transparent SEO agencies began to invest in content that could be socially syndicated and worthy of a link from partners.
But the new age of information supply wasn’t without its pitfalls. Andrew Keen writes an interesting although not entirely correct opposition to the new gatekeepers in The Cult of the Amateur, and it was effectively amateurs that led the content explosion which fed Search Engine Ranking Positions. Businesses like Demand Media, eHow and HubPages built platforms that allowed audiences to produce content en-mass. In effect, this was long tail SEO that would bring in millions of visits for an incredibly broad range of queries. Indeed, it would be difficult for any long tail informational query to be made without at least one of these websites appearing, because they had created such huge reams of content en-mass. With that mass, they began to earn their ad dollars. It wasn’t always quality, but it filled Google’s rankings.
Furthermore was the development of the SEO band wagon. By the turn of 2012, we had over 100 UK SEO agencies, with econsultancy reporting that the industry is worth some £500m. With all these companies networking and building links on behalf of clients, we almost certainly entered into something of a bubble – links became a currency and spam networks even began to employ people.
The Key Algorithm Changes
As people became wiser to SEO, content and link spamming of search engines was rapidly inflating and Google looked to improve its algorithm. The first great ‘spam flush’ really came at the beginning of 2011 with the Panda algorithm update, which hammered numerous sites with reams of content written by the anonymous and the amateur. Demand Media’s profitable as hell model didn’t look quite so good anymore. Panda favoured authoritative publishing brands where it appeared that the content had been created by a professional. It sought to de-rank sites where content had been created enmass by their audience, or where site build pushed thin or effectively duplicate content. To see a full list of criteria see Google’s More Guidelines on Building High Quality Sites. It would appear that The Guardian, was one of the key benefactors here – after all, it currently ranks number one for ‘fashion’!
The second major update to counter the work of overzealous SEO was Penguin, which arrived in the Spring of 2012. This was effectively Google’s reaction against link spam, and made some of the more manipulative link building practices redundant. Warning notices about manipulative link building were sent to Webmasters, high use of anchor text in link building was downgraded and entire link networks were de-indexed.
Google+ and Authorship
Alongside this, Google brought out its own social network Google+ in June 2011, and also pushed the concept of ‘author rank’ via an authentication system on the network. Author ranking is effectively the measurement of a credibility of an author on a web document. While links and share metrics of a web page remain important – the credibility of an author is also brought into the equation. Effectively it is another move towards the professional and away from the amateur. While a patent for this authentication system had been in existence from as early as 2007, it is not yet clear what degree it really has on rankings, or to what degree it will be taken up. However, its logic is sound, and it seems very likely that this will be an important part of ranking algorithms in the future.
Content Marketing, or Inbound?
With all of these changes, the real emphasis was on creating quality content, by using authenticated authors who knew what they were talking about. SERPs look very different in now to what they did before the rise of social media, and Google is taking more aggressive steps to phase out manipulative spamming practices – particularly from thin and low quality content linked to from dubious sources.
Thus in the UK at least, SEO has shifted from being about the ranking, to a more holistic mix that has an emphasis on content, user accessibility and the propensity of users to share that content – thus content marketing has become more important. In the US, led by HubSpot, the leading nomenclature is now ‘Inbound Marketing’ – an umbrella for all of the digital marketing practices that do not require media spend. Unfortunately, this term forces a divide between itself and so called ‘outbound practices’, and within social conversations, there appears to be a peculiar haughtiness around how it is always a better return on investment than ‘wasteful’ media spend. Of course effective marketing depends on context, so it would be fallacy to follow always follow this thinking.
For the best part, the UK SEO industry seems keen to reject inbound and push for a new era of content marketing. Exactly what that entails will be the focus of the next post.