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SEO ESSENTIALS FOR THE CONTENT STRATEGIST

Before we start, please note that this post is NOT called "Every $%$#% thing a content strategist may ever need to know about SEO". This is designed to help someone who with a novice to possibly intermediate level of SEO knowledge understand key aspects of SEO. It's the 101 course, with a few extra tasty bites.

I recently came across a blog post shared by @ronellsmith - a content strategist at Advice Interactive Group - that took an interesting look at the Hummingbird update. I've read extensively and written on the topic of Hummingbird and semantic search over the past few months, but most of what I personally had read was written by SEO's or those covering SEO news.

The article shared by Ronell is an interview with another content strategist named James Gunter who recently spoke at Confab Central on Hummingbird for the Content Strategist. While I was not able to see the presentation, the interview provided plenty of insight into James's take on the situation as well as a clear disconnect between (quality) SEO and content strategy.

What follows is my guide and recommended SEO essentials for a content strategist. If you don't know me, you're probably wondering why my opinion on the subject is worth much. Here are my credentials, you decide:

  • 6+ years of SEO experience working at top agencies - AudetteMedia and RKG (AudetteMedia was originally started by Adam Audette - @audette - before becoming part of RKG).
  • 2+ years of experience working with a content strategist and social experts while developing a content-driven strategic approach to link building for Fortune 1,000 companies
  • 6+ years of experience working on analyzing penalties and algo updates, handling technical SEO issues and all other areas of SEO for business ranging from startups to fortune 500 companies.
  • Engaged in speaking events such as the RKG summit and OMMA Social Data panels
  • Masters in Business Admin from APU

But most of all, I understand that marketing is about helping people connect with the value a product or service creates at the right time, in the right place, with the right messaging. To do this, you need content, and to get this done right, you need a content strategist to help you properly plan and execute.

I understand that organic search is simply a channel no matter which framework for marketing you choose to approach it with.

Key Definitions

Before we get too deep, it's important to make sure we are on the same page with a few items:

  • What is Content Strategy? (from Wikipedia...)
    • "Content strategy refers to the planning, development, and management of content — written or in other media."
  • What is a Content Strategist/What do They Do? Ronell Smith helped me out with this...thanks again Ronell!This is based off of a description of his activities and a small amount of my own color:
    • Engage in strategic activities that touch Social Media, Paid Media, Organic Reach, Competitive Analysis, CRO, etc. (this is probably somewhat specific to his role)
    • makes adjustments to client content
    • strategically plans for the creation, execution, and management of content (my input)
    • performs content assessments/audits (my input)
    • helps connect content efforts across multiple channels to specific business objectives 
    • This post has more good insight that I think is fair and may help round out a content strategists possible duties/touch points

  • What is SEO? (from Wikipedia...)
    • "Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine's "natural" or un-paid ("organic") search results."

  • What Does an SEO Do? This depends on who you talk to, and how good they are at what they're doing :). Most of the time, an SEO's job will include some mix of the following:
    • identification of technical issues on a website that may hinder crawling and indexation
    • adjust written content to include keywords, include specific text levels, include certain links, etc.,
    • manage meta tags and other elements that exist for search engines but may not be visible to humans outside of search engine result pages (SERPs)
    • work to connect with different departments to coordinate off-site activities such as link building, or manually do this themselves
    • perform analytical analysis to identify keywords, evaluate trends, and find opportunities for improvement in organic search results

Why a content strategist should care about SEO

  • An SEO is going to want to be all-up-in-your-goodies (watch all fo it..).
  • There is helpful data that an SEO and/or data analyst can pull that will give you insights into what's working, what's not, as well as what opportunities may exist around new subject matter. They can also help you see other forms of value tied to your content from a search perspective that you may not consider.
  • Organic search is a powerful channel. If you bake the basics of SEO into your content process, you can be naturally prepared for organic success, reduce friction between internal teams, and capitalize on a major channel almost all users utilize at some point in their buying process.

What you (content strategist) need to know

Down to business. The following are the crucial elements that I believe a content strategist should understand about SEO, broken out based on a typical SEO framework:

  • crawling
  • indexation
  • ranking
Section I - Crawling:

What it is: Crawling refers to the process that search engines use to index content around the web. Search engines utilize "spiders" or "bots" to access the content on a website. They utilize links to move from one page to another. This includes across root domains and subdomains as well as internal pages on a site.

Why it's important: As things stand now, if a spider/bot can't access the content on a page, it can't index that content, which means there's no way for it to be shown in organic search results.

Why it matters to content strategists: You don't need to understand all the technical issues tied up here, but you do need to understand that you may need to connect with members of your IT/development/SEO team to understand if your grand content development plans are going to be crawlable/indexable by search engines. It is possible (but I'd argue not likely) depending on the business objective you are attempting to meet that this may not be important, but if you are expecting what you are creating to be found by people using search engines, you need to pay attention to how that content is developed.

Example: You know that video is a very effective medium for communicating product features, establishing trust, and increasing conversions for your products. You understand that your target audience loves consuming video across multiple stages of their buying process, and as a result, you want to utilize video to portray your content and meet your target markets needs/interests. 

However, you need to be aware of the limitations with video, including the fact that search engine spiders currently can't crawl video (no surprise). If you are expecting your video results to be found in organic search, you'll need to study the basics of video optimization which include utilizing descriptive/keyword rich titles, potentially transcribing the video on the page where it's displayed, and utilizing proper file naming conventions (descriptive, keywords, etc.).

In general, if the content you want developed is going to be:

  • heavily graphical (infographics, etc.)
  • video
  • utilizing javascript EDIT** This is changing rapidly, but the jury is still out to some degree...just be aware of potential issues
  • utilizing flash/other animation techniques

then you need to check in with a developer and SEO to make sure how you are planning to deliver your content will also match up with your expectations for its organic search visibility. Again, as a content strategist, simply understanding the limitations of crawlers and how search engines gather information about a site should allow you to spot potential problems and bake in the necessary people/tasks into your process to avoid problems.

Further reading:

Section II - Indexation:

What it is: Indexation refers to analyzing how well the content on a website is indexed in search engines. When you come across SEO's discussing (xml and other) sitemaps, architecture, and related topics, their usually addressing crawlability and indexation. 

Why it's important: Monitoring a site's indexation is very important. It can help identify problems, improve exposure in organic results, and grow understanding around content that Google is finding valuable and treating well, compared to items that seem to have an issue.

Why it matters to content strategists: It's not crucial to grasp. Mostly, you just need to understand that an SEO may have tools available to them to help you diagnose potential issues with poor performing content. If you find that you're not getting the organic traffic that you're expecting (or any at all...) to key pieces of content or groups, you may have an indexation problem. 

In general, indexation issues arise because:

  • The page isn't accessible for some reason or there's another technical problem with the site
  • There aren't enough signals (links (internal and external), social shares, interactions, depth, etc.) tied to the page for a search engine to view it as valuable

Further reading:

Section III - Ranking:

For this section, we need to take a little different approach. This is a HUGE topic, and most of the time this is where an SEO and a content strategist are going to run into each other. For our purposes, the ranking section is going to cover anything that could affect the placement of an individual URL in organic results. This includes when the result is shown (relevance) and how highly it's shown (positioning).

Important note: I do not attempt to cover every possible ranking signal or factor in this section. Not only is that impossible, but it would be more confusing than anything. The following information is designed to cover key areas where an SEO and a Content Strategist are likely to overlap. A little understanding here can go a long way.

Introduction to Ranking

Search engines utilize over 200 different signals determine results and ranking order of those results. Any SEO that tells you they know all of them or that they can gurantee rank is full of shit. End of story.

For content strategists, I believe it's important to understand a few concepts we believe are connected to ranking that drive the tactical efforts of most SEO's. The sad thing is, this is the "theory" behind SEO that most "SEO's" don't understand at all. They simply follow "best practices" blindly.

In the following sections, I attempt to tie key points of SEO theory to individual tactics. My belief is that by doing this, a content strategist can build an SEO framework without having to know all the details, and as a result, more effectively integrate SEO tactics/thinking into their strategies and processes. If done well, this should help alleviate tension between SEO's and content strategists.

Finally, I want to note here that SEO's can't do their jobs without content. Without that, there's nothing to rank. At this point in the SEO process, it's obvious that there is going to be a great deal of cross-over between the interests of a content strategists and the interests of an SEO.

I also need to say this. If you work in a silo'd organization, or you consult for one, you have to overcome this. Your success will greatly be limited from an SEO and I believe also a content perspective if you can't get teams functioning together. I've seen it create massive amounts of wasted opportunity and poor decision making.

Key Ranking Concept 1 - Context
I've used this image before in my post on personas and semantic search (which I recommend reading if you get into these concepts), as it so clearly showcases how context can play a role in search results

This image showcases how many SEO's believe search engines understand queries, and utilize different pieces of information to better identify a result set for any given query. Clearly, they (search engines) can infer more about the users intent based upon the fact that the person is where they are and is using the device type they are. If you let your mind wander, you'll likely see how the future of wearable technology is going to generate some very interesting potential in searches/marketing.

How this affects an SEO: A skilled SEO will evaluate queries and can much more naturally infer intent than a search engine can. They will likely be able to identify how context is going to affect the results of the query. This will lead them to make strategic decisions about how to best target that term through keyword usage, content type, delivery method, etc. 

Stop. Worlds just collided.

The SEO (if they are good) is now going to want to mess with content, content types, etc. They want to make sure that they show up for that query (if it's valauble) and they'll do as much as they can to make that happen. 

Frankly, this instance right here is why I believe the role of "SEO" is likely to go away at some point, or at least be so limited that it bares little resemblance to what the role means now.

Let's discuss the situation above a little more. A content strategist using persona data is likely going to meet the SEO over this keyword/subject matter. They'll understand their target market (or one of them) is going to be searching in the situation described above, and they'll prepare their content to meet that need - whatever they determine that to be. The SEO, knowing specific phrases people are using to search will be arriving at the some point from a different direction, with some added knowledge. 

So what do you do and who drives direction? They may both be after the same goal, but how they would go about accomplishing it may be different. Fortunately, this is becoming less of an issue as search engines improve, but it can still cause consternation.

There are huge issues connected to this situation tied to organizational structure that are beyond the scope of this article. Do not ignore them, and think carefully through them. The main thing to know is who has the authority, and what the decision making process is going to be. Are you a business objective/user driven company that executes utilizing content, or are you a company that is not content-driven, and as a result, may have power distributed evenly among various teams that are likely silo'd? 

Why this matters to content strategists: The SEO is going to try to change your content to include certain terms to help the article show up in search results. They may want you to do certain things to make the content attract more links. They may want you to adjust the layout of the article, adjust the meta description and adjust the title tag. They are doing this because they are solely focused on getting the content displaying in search results. In the past, this was more of an issue than it is today, as arguably the most effective way to accomplish this goal was not necessarily what was best for users.

Luckily, that's changing as search engines mature (this is where Hummingbird comes in..) and can understand the meaning behind things, as well as what "things" are and their associated properties. Essentially, they are less reliant on string matching (matching the words in a users query to those on a page) to determine results.

Key things an SEO may want to change because of issues related to query context:

  • Your content to include specific keywords, or discuss specific subjects, or contain specific mediums
  • Your page structure to include specific heading tags, a specific meta description, a specific title tag/title, etc.

Important note: IF YOUR SEO IS OBSESSED WITH TITLE TAGS, KEYWORD INTEGRATION, HEADING TAGs, AND OTHER ON-PAGE ELEMENTS TO THE POINT THAT THEY SACRIFICE USER EXPERIENCE/BUSINESS OBJECTIVES, THEY ARE OUT OF DATE

Remember too, context is a powerful concept and it may disrupt (even more) how users search in the very near future.

Key Ranking Concept 2 - Relevance
Relavance in search is a tough concept as it overlaps with context. Context may influence relevance. Generally, a good definition to use is:

Relevance refers to how well the subject matter of a page or piece of content aligns with a users query. 

SEO's care a great deal about relevance, since other elements we believe are tied to the ranking algorithm are useless if our results aren't even considered relevant. 

Why this matters to content strategists: As SEO's attempt to capture more organic search, they'll often want to create content, or modify existing content, in order to improve it's relevance for a specific query, set of queries, or subject matter. This isn't necessarily bad, but again, it's an area where the worlds of a Content Strategist and SEO are likely to collide.

If the SEO is attempting to adjust content to improve relevance, they'll likely want to tweak the same things I mentioned above tied to context. The fact is, they only have so many tools in their toolbox to deal with these issues:

  • Page titles
  • Meta descriptions
  • Heading tags
  • Alt tags (for images and video)
  • On-page content (keyword integration, adjusting of subject matter discussed, internal links, etc.)
  • Schema/Structured Data Markup

Important note/reminder: I've included an appendix below that covers some key definitions/attributes of the elements I listed above and others. You can also read more about these things in some of the resources I've listed. This post was intended to provide a high-level framework of SEO so that a content strategist can better integrate an SEO/SEO into their approach. 

Key Ranking Concept 3 - Authority 
In this section I take a look at a few important aspects of how search engines likely determine authority, and how they can result in a collision of content strategists and SEO's

Links
Most of you have probably read about the importance of links for SEO. SEO's always want links. For a long time, they wanted links because they were a key part of proving authority/importance for a page and website. While I'm not going to go deep into link theory and patents, it's important to understand the basic concepts.

At this point in time, links are still important, but the signals they pass and how search engines utilize the link graph is likely very, very different than even 3-5 years ago. Their reliance on the link graph and links as signals to determine relevance and authority appears to have lessened. None the less, they still matter, and you'll have a hard time ranking without them in most cases. The final word is the right ones help, a lot, I'd wager that only about 10-20% of most sites' backlink profiles are actually factoring in to their rankings.

For an SEO, this means you pretty much do whatever you have to (for some that might mean shady things) in order to get links. (partially) Because Google and other engines have been working hard at closing the loop holes around link building, SEO's are all clammering to get on board the new marketing train - content marketing. If they can't game the system efficiently, then we'll just have to get links the "natural" way which is what search engines have always wanted. 

Why this matters to content strategists: An SEO will attempt to change your content to attract links, suggest other ideas for content that will attract links or some how aid in the process, or do whatever else they think might work to get links. Some SEO's have made this transition better than others, but many just aren't that good at marketing (to be perfectly honest) and the results are..well..not good.

The other element here, is that a smart SEO trying to do their job is going to be connecting with multiple departments and in an attempt to get "in the know" on what's going on, in order to spot opportunities to earn links. Again, this quickly goes down the road of organizational structure with many issues tied to it, but it also means an SEO is going to be jamming themselves into the workflow and processes you've potentially laid out to get the right content in the right place at the right time. 

Issues with this can be avoided if you consider organic search at the right time in your process. Think about the business objectives and understand the role that organic search plays in accomplishing those objectives through content. Bring in the SEO to help you earlier rather than later. A talented SEO will be right in step with your thinking and will compliment your approach. A backward SEO/someone living in the past will cause you headaches. Watch for this and be prepared to handle it. Remember, a good SEO will focus on the user first and clearly understand the role search is playing in accomplishing the business objective.

Authorship
Google+ is an identity network, not a Facebook competitor. It allows Google to extend the semantic web to include more individuals. It allows them to connect individuals to their behavior, demographics, and their works online. It helps organic search, and it helps them advertise better.

Authorship markup refers to the code that allows authors to connect themselves to their content. This new form of identification could be part of a new system to help determine authority, and as a result, rank order for search results. Astute SEO's are pushing hard to get authorship integrated and running for their clients in hopes of making these connections. Authorship and it's cousin Author/Agent Rank (the theorized algorithm that establishes authority for an author based on a variety of factors) may also be part of determining relevance.

Why this matters to Content Strategists: As you plan for content creation and delivery, think about the author of the content. If possible, utilize people with established authority or who are establishing authority in the subject matter the content is about to develop it. Understand how this may affect what you produce and who produces at various stages in the purchase cycle of a consumer/target market.

A Word on Semantic Search

Many of the items I described above have been long-time parts of the SEO process. The fact is, the SEO process is changing right now, but most SEO's don't know to what. So, many of them are continuing to practice the same-ol things in hopes that they get some mix that helps them achieve success. Many dabble in new things, but they are untested and unproven, so it's much harder to get organizational buy-in. 

The fact is, search engines are getting better at understanding the meaning behind our words. They are getting better at understanding intent. This means they are less relient on the words we input to determine results. Because of this, getting the right keyword in your content in just the right place just doesn't matter like it used to in many situations. 

In my opinion, this means that how an organization approaches SEO should fundamentally change. Optimizing for a search engine should now be baked in to all areas of digital marketing, which should be driven by a content strategy. Aside from the technical part of SEO, search engines are quickly closing the gap between "seo signals" and what users want and do. Meaning, they are far better at determing the right result based on actual human behavior and interaction than they ever have been.

To win in search:

  • Make your site crawlable and make sure your content is indexed (technical SEO is the only "SEO" left) - We can help with this :)
  • Win the mind of your target markets through content and relationship development - make them (unkowingly) tell Google what to rank based on their behvior. Remember a target market may include influencers in the space/the media..not always just a purchaser.

How an SEO can help YOU

So now you know why an SEO is going to get in your way, and hopefuly you can figure out how to pre-empt that by building proper processes and organizational structure.

If you've followed all of my thinking, you may be wondering what value an SEO has. Well, SEO's have been deep in a world of data that can:

  • help build personas
  • help understand user intent
  • help evaluate the success of content
  • help define branding elements and tone
  • help drive traffic to your content/increase exposure
  • even more

Keyword Research
Most of us who have run across SEO before are fimiliar with keyword research. While the way keywords are utilized I believe is changing, they still provide insight into what users are actually searching for, and how Google is seeing connections between words and concepts. Understanding how to dive into this world can be helpful as content strategists work to implement tone guidlines, develop topic and individual post ideas, and understand how users are actually talking about certain subjects. A good SEO should be very astute at pulling together useful insights for these things from keyword research.

Keyword research can also help those working in content better understand target markets and user intent, allowing for better messaging and segmentation.

Typical SEO KPI's
SEO's are also used to reviewing a variety of metrics to determine the value of the traffic they bring to the site. This used to be done to understand the value of a keyword, but now, it's much more relevant to utilize analytics programs and analytical skills to understand the effectiveness of a URL and it's content. Good SEO's will have a strong knowledege of KPI's that would matter to a content strategist, as well as how to properly interpret the data. They aren't a replacement for a data analyst, but they can certainly be valuable here. Many will also know of useful tools that may help you streamline your processes and get access to more data.

Competitive Analysis
SEO's also tend to be skilled web users and competitive analysts - used to digging for opportunities and information in an efficient fashion. They can often quickly identify pieces of content on competitor sites that have earned proof of value (social shares, links, etc.), as well as identify pieces of content that don't seem to be working. They're excellent diggers capable of quickly pulling information from search engines using advanced queries that can help identify places for content distribution, important indivudals, and subject matter + mediums that you may have overlooked. A good SEO will be able to slice and dice a SERP and a competitors site in ways few others can.

Further Reading

Appendix

  • Title Tag - refers to the HTML title tag element visible in a webpage's source code. This element is often used to display the title of a search result and is believed to help search engines determine relevance for a page.

  • Meta Description - refers to the HTML meta description element visible in a webpage's source code. This element is often used by search engines in SERPs to help a user understand what a result is about.

  • Heading Tags - Common HTML elements that are often utilized to help create structure on a page. For a long time it was believed that heading tags helped search engines determine relevance and potentially rank

  • On-page Optimizations - simply referrs to the optimization of a webpage for a specific query or subject matter. This usually includes adjusting the items above as well as the content on the page.

  • Schema/Structured Data - refers to special markup utilized in the code of a webpage to help search engines better understanding the meaning and attributes of certain referenced people, places, and things on a page. This markup also enhances search results with richsnippets.

  • Alt tags - part of the HTML code that is utilized to help disabled individuals and those with browser limitations understand images, video, and other content on a page. For a long time integrating keywords into alt tags or descriptive phrasing was utilized to help images and video rank in search results. They were also believed to potentially help search engines make decisions around relevancy.

  • Canonical (URL) - The preferred/authoritative version (URL) of a set of content.





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