Marketers who tell you they’re not concerned about Panda, Penguin or Hummingbird — Google’s algorithm updates — may see their content marketing efforts fall short.

When I first started in content marketing, I was one of those marketers. 

Back then, I focused solely on creating valuable content for my target audience. I didn’t think about Google’s algorithm updates or optimizing my content for search engines.

While my goal of creating valuable content remains, I now spend 20 percent of my time factoring SEO into my content marketing. Perhaps it should be even more. 

Let’s look at how other content marketers approach SEO.

When SEO Meets Content Planning 

When I plan new content, I choose the topic and develop the content from the perspective of my target reader. Keywords, while important, come secondary to satisfying the reader. So for me, it’s readers first, search engines second.

Brad Shorr (@bradshorr), director of content strategy at Straight North, takes a similar approach. If real estate value is all about “location, location, location,” Shorr equates content’s value to SEO as “quality, quality, quality.”

According to Shorr, “The ultimate purpose of an off-site or on-site blog post is to generate links. To make content linkable, it must be relevant, useful and interesting.” Shorr notes that keywords are a consideration, but finds a straightforward way to incorporate them into his content.

“A blog post can be optimized easily for a few keyword phrases. Just one or two mentions of the exact phrase or related phrases is sufficient,” noted Shorr.

Anne Murphy (@amurphias), the director of content marketing at Kapost, makes keywords central to her content planning. “I have a defined keyword and I write with that keyword in mind. Planning for SEO starts well before many of our blog posts are in production. We also share keywords with all of our freelancers.”

Matt Wesson (@mattbwesson), content marketing manager at Kahuna, takes the middle ground. While he still uses tools to assess keyword volume and trends, Wesson has moved away from his extensive keyword focus of days past. “My main focus when I write a blog post now is ‘What questions are my audience searching for?’ and ‘Does this piece answer those questions?’ From there, I make sure keywords in the article align with the keywords my audience would ask in their search.”

How Content Marketers Track SEO Impact

Numerous metrics are available to track SEO impact: quantity of inbound links, quality of inbound links, rank for particular search terms, etc. But if you could only track one metric, what would it be?

According to Shorr, “Validated sales leads. We go to great lengths to track phone and form conversions from our content. When our content is generating sales leads for the agency or clients, we are doing our job.”

Wesson looks at both organic traffic (i.e., traffic from search engines) and revenue. “Organic traffic from search engines is the most effective measure of SEO. That being said, this is a metric I look at less frequently. When tools like marketing automation and CRM can provide real revenue numbers from content, traffic numbers just don't have the same significance.”

If I had to track a single metric, it would be organic traffic. Murphy takes a similar approach: “We focus on organic traffic growth. And through our SEO-focused efforts, we've watched this metric improve immensely over the past year.”

How Google’s Algorithm Updates Impact Content Marketing

Keeping up with every nuance of Google’s algorithm updates could turn into a full time job. Thankfully Google shares a common goal with content marketers: to provide useful and relevant information to searchers.

Google’s Panda update, which targeted and penalized low quality websites, was a win for content marketers who create high quality content. According to Shorr, “Google’s algorithm updates have combined to reward quality and punish assembly line content that is not relevant, useful or interesting.”

Wesson elaborated, “The stated intention of Panda was to punish content mills, keyword stuffing, and any sort of SEO gamesmanship. That's a pretty direct focus on content marketers. I think most Google updates are helpful to content marketers, but you always have to be wary of any changes Google makes.”

Murphy’s goal at Kapost is to focus on valuable and well-written content: “We never sacrifice quality for SEO; instead, we make sure the two support one another. And this seems to be the way search engines are continuing to evolve, so that will remain our strategy until we learn that's no longer the case.”

How Will SEO Impact Content Marketing Going Forward?

As we learned with the algorithm updates, Google’s primary interest is in serving the searcher. This means that as search habits and preferences evolve, Google will tune its algorithm. Content marketers will need to adapt accordingly.

According to Murphy, “As long as people are searching for information online, SEO will be an important element of content marketing. And I believe they will remain closely aligned.”

Shorr has an interesting take on where SEO and content marketing are headed: “Google will reward publishers for creating less, rather than more, content. Google will look for publishers that are selective in what they choose to publish. Content marketers may have to spend time on content reclamation: updating the quality of existing content and even taking lower quality content offline.”

Wesson looks to news sites and sees as the vanguard of “explainer journalism.” According to Wesson, traditional news sites focus on the who, what, when and where. Vox, however, focuses on the why and how. Wesson draws parallels to B2B content and the preference of search engines.

“Readers have shifted their preferences towards a deeper understanding, not just clickbait-style news. Google is optimizing along the same lines. Content marketers need to start taking a similar approach to answering important questions, providing insight and facilitating understanding,” said Wesson.

Meeting Quality Standards 

Search engines get smarter by the day. Google Hummingbird introduced semantic search, which attempts to decipher searchers’ intent and provide them with the most relevant content. Keyword coverage took a backseat to content quality. If a user searched for “baseball gloves” and you referenced “mitts,” Google would still surface your content if it was relevant and of high quality. 

With RankBrain, Google is using machine learning to become even more adept at deciphering search intent. I think keywords will continue to decline in importance, while the bar for quality will grow higher. So the question is how can we, as content marketers, exceed the quality standards of both readers and search engines?

Title image by Roman Mager