SEO and Content Marketing 101
Compressed learnings from turning content into a sustainable growth mechanism
My previous company Levity hired me because of one of my articles that (accidentally) got them a big traffic spike. That was before they had any serious marketing going on. Upon joining them, we made a big investment into building their content strategy. With a bit of distance, I thought that it was time to share our secret sauce.
This is Part 1 of 3 on Content & SEO. My goal is to share the lessons I wish I had known back when I first got into the subject. In this overview, I will briefly discuss content strategy, then move to basic setup, tools, and a few more gotchas when you are just getting started. If you want to dig deeper, I am also sharing how to build a content machine. Third part will follow soon!
Strategy: Why invest in content?
Most companies decide to go into content because it can lead to sustainable growth. In the typical customer journey of a company that sells a particular product, content usually serves as a vehicle for user acquisition or conversion1.
Of course, you can also do both at the same time but I recommend being conscious of what purpose a specific piece of content should serve. An SEO piece often looks different from a purely informative article.
A typical case for acquisition: If your product is something people search the internet for, your content can become a compounding source for growth. In that case, your focus needs to be on SEO. You need to have a plan to cover potential search terms that are specific and adjacent to what you are offering. And you need to decide if you want to go all-in on Google or other sites as well.
A typical case for conversion: If you acquire your users through paid ads and know that visitors want to inform themselves about the product, your content needs to support conversion. In that case, forget about keyword research and SEO and put yourself into the visitor’s shoes – what do they need to know at any given point?
Basic content & SEO setup
Before you go on writing amazing content, there are a few things you should have and do:
Tracking & analytics
Don’t go overboard until you know what you are missing. Google Analytics and Search Console usually work fine for starters.
Ensure that you know what content you already have – website, blog, help center, other content channels.
Use a SEO analytics tool like Ahrefs to check your backlink profile, broken links, orphan pages, internal links & page depth, page speed, meta tags, etc.
All of this may sound dry but you want to ensure that every word you write starts on a good foundation. It can be done in less than a week. Now to the fun part:
Create & align on content strategy
Most businesses are budget constrained so you should decide which type of content you are placing your bet on first (the most common ones are editorial content (blog), landing pages, images, and video), how you are going to distribute it, and how you can get high-quality backlinks.
Build a content backlog
In line with your content strategy, start building the foundation of your content loop. I recommend setting up a board view on something like Notion or Airtable. If you want to dive deeper into this, check this.
Get writers & illustrators
Few marketers are trained writers, let alone naturally talented writers. You can get to around 70% through this 3 minute crash course with Dilbert but learning how to write well takes a long time. Therefore you should prepare to work with professionals. An article will cost about $250. If you get quoted less, you can expect to rewrite the whole thing and, unfortunately, the reverse isn’t true.
I already mentioned a few tools en passant. Here are the two checklists you have been waiting for:
Content hosting: Most websites already have a built-in blog; alternatively, you can publish on Substack or Medium or any other of the hundreds of tools.
Search Console & Webmaster Tools: Lesser known but these are crucial pieces to getting your site listed on Google and Bing in the first place.
Grammarly or similar: Don’t publish junk if you can avoid it.
Dr. Link Check: Shows you broken links. Free and no longer needed once you get a proper SEO tool.
Ahrefs or similar: State-of-the-art SEO tools start at $100 per month and are generally worth the investment as they provide great insights for your audits and content brainstorms. Also, they tell you a lot about your competitors.
Clearscope: For the rich kids or those in super competitive search environments, this is really useful to get the last percentage points out of a SEO piece. According to my data, getting another insightful piece out usually moves the needle more.
Amplitude or similar: Yes, Google Analytics is limited in what it can do and better analytics are generally better. But as with Clearscope, ask yourself whether you really need to spend developer days to get a different setup up and running or invest that budget into, say, another content audit?
Optimizely or similar: A/B-Testing becomes relevant if you test different versions of landing pages. Don’t waste your time on it if you primarily focus on editorial content.
Content & SEO are 80% execution
“Content is worthless until content it lands on one of our channels!”
I generally like to keep the setup above short as great ideas and plans don't impact search results – published content does. And to get a piece, you generally need to spend a lot of time building the content pipeline and calibrating the writers/illustrators such that a consistent stream of content leads to the desired effects.
You can achieve this in various ways and I encourage you to manage all of them carefully if you want to achieve scale:
Set up regular events in your calendar to check technical SEO aspects (Google site coverage, broken links, site metadata, page speed); much of this can be done with tools like Ahrefs or SEMRush as well as free tools
Reduce the time from idea to published article to a minimum (→ lean management calls this “throughput”)
Help everyone involved to independently do the right thing, e.g. by providing very detailed feedback to writers as opposed to rewriting the first draft yourself
You don’t need to set up sophisticated measures for any of the above. You know that you are improving when you see it.
SEO vs. cringe vs. sales vs. dull
When getting into content, particularly for SEO, I urge everyone to keep the reader in mind. The essence of the following may be summarized as “don’t overdo it”: Content is just a medium for your users to get one step further and whether that’s with you or someone else is up to them. By trying to write something good as seen through their eyes, you greatly enhance the chances that they pick pick whatever service you have to offer.
Let’s start with a gentle reminder for the SEO fanatics: Nobody really wants to read a 5000 words article packed with the keyword in dozens of places on something that can be said in a few sentences but many marketers still think “more is better”. It is not: If a visitor keeps searching after they read your article, Google knows that they weren’t satisfied with what they found.
A common problem with conversion-optimized material is that the authors think about making the customer buy the product while writing the article. Good blogs make a clear distinction between the actual subject and an action that a reader might take, like a button for signing up to a newsletter:
Hi, my name is Arne. I write to educate others and to clear my head. Click the button below to get new posts straight to your inbox – free of charge!
The above is a visual break in everything else and tells the reader “this is what you might want to do right now.” Conversely, in-text calls to action just take the whole quality of the content down because the reader starts to question what else is meant to influence them in a certain way.
Of course, the enemy of them all is being dull. This is hard to control and by the time you are reading this I might have lost you already. My personal principle has been to err on the boring side than crossing the line to cringe: Yes, it’s nice to have a conversation with a reader. But there is no need to write “engaging” content like this:
So you wanted to learn about this keyword and came to my page.
I know how that feels.
But what’s the solution?
Let me tell you about it.
I am so great and funny.
But first, I’ll post a meme and a meme GIF and then add 5 somewhat unrelated but funny-ish articles that increase time on my page.
The point I am trying to make is that focusing on a specific outcome often leads to the complete opposite. And you can test this on yourself: Remember a situation where you wanted people to laugh about a joke at a party? The same happens when you try to trigger a particular emotion in your audience or when you are trying to sell something subconsciously. If you need to get something off your chest, just say it already and then get back to being resourceful.
Fun and educating
The slight negative tone towards the end shouldn’t mislead the young, aspiring content marketer or SEO expert-to-be. Quite the contrary: All of this is a testament to great content! Almost everything I know is based on something that I read somewhere or saw on a tutorial video and I’m sure the same is true for you.
You can pay this gratitude forward by aiming to produce great content for your own readers. Great content takes the reader a few steps closer to why they clicked your link in the first place. Once they recognize your name, they are a tad bit more likely to click again. And more often than not, you will find pleasure in the process and even learn something about your competitors, a market, or even a technical aspect that you hadn’t considered as deeply so far.
Enjoy the ride!
If you want to dive into the details, I recommend you take a look at the framework we used to build a content machine:
Don’t be a stranger, let’s connect on Twitter: @_ajascha
Some companies also use their content for retention and monetization but unless your primary offering is the content itself, the product should do the heavy lifting after conversion.