Let’s play a game. A kind of online marketing “Would you rather…?” If you had to have good content with bad SEO, or bad content with good SEO, which would you take? “Both,” you’re already saying. “Good content and good SEO… I want both.” And so you should. They’re not mutually exclusive, and both important to online success. But in rolling out website content, many organizations – out of neglect or necessity – prioritize or otherwise limit their options: they focus their efforts on optimization techniques without researching the needs of their customers, or blog relentlessly without a direction on positioning themselves in terms of SEO. So what are we talking about here?
Good vs. Bad SEO
In looking at what makes for good SEO we can we can focus on on-page best practices with properly optimized elements, including:
- Page Title (don’t forget about the recent title tag changes)
- Meta Description
- H1 Tag
- Image filenames & attributes
- Minimal sufficient word count
These elements should all utilize relevant keywords within reason. Bad SEO, on the other hand, can mean anything from unnecessary, over or under-optimized, or even missing site elements. These are the pages that have multiple H1 tags because the web developer used it as a design element instead of a semantic markup; the pages with 200-word content or URLs like www.domain.com/index.jsp?categoryId=4815&page=162342.
Good vs. Bad Content
So what makes for “good” content? SEO aside, it’s content that is correct, relevant, and – this is important – useful. It’s the product page with user reviews and a video demo of the product in use. It’s an article that delivers on the promise of its title without making you jump through the hoops of a 30-image slider navigation. It’s a page that exists because it has a really good answer to your question, not just a really good keyword. And you know bad content pages – the ones where on first blush you struggle to discern the content from the advertising; where instead of a concise, purposeful answer you’re offered a fever dream of strung-together tangents; where the content very well may have been constructed by IBM’s Watson instead of a human being. So which is better – good content or good SEO? It’s important to consider the benefits of each.
What Good SEO Gets You
You’re speaking Google’s language here. Search engines seem to love these several things, so focus on those several things to get them recommending your content. Users are conditioned to browse the top-shelf search engine recommendations, so if you can optimize your way to the top of the search results you can ride to success on the backs of those unwilling to click deeper. And it may work. Content that is well-optimized, fresh and on a relatively authoritative domain may get some love in the search results. But will it stay there? Many brands have relied on early search success to carry their content marketing weaknesses, but the balance is shifting on what Google and other search engines are considering a good recommendation – not to mention users on social media and other content sharing platforms.
The downside is that if your content is flat, ineffectual and unappealing, it may not last long in search (if it even got traction at all). Once Google recommends a site, it pays close attention to how that recommendation does. User behavior like pogo-sticking can send signals that users aren’t satisfied with the answers provided on that page. Here’s the thing: once you’re on a page, you typically don’t see the SEO. Titles are obscured in wee tabs in your overstuffed browser. Metadata is all in the code. Once a user is on a page, it has to thrive on its own merits. If it has relied on SEO jujitsu over being an authoritative and useful resource, then the site visitor is likely to be unimpressed. That’s content that doesn’t get social shares. That’s content that doesn’t get linked to as a useful resource. That’s the content that, over time, doesn’t last.
What Good Content Gives You
So you’ve got a really handy page with some poor optimization. Is that better than a primed site of little utility but strong optimization? Let’s look at the positives. First, quality content results are likely to get discovered because they’re more likely to get love on social platforms. The major social media platforms now serve in large part as content discovery engines: means for trusted resources to share inroads to relevant content with the likeminded. Similarly, user social engagement is an ever-increasing consideration in whether a given content page is worth recommending in search results. And just as poor user engagement – e.g. pogo-sticking – can be a red flag to search engines, high user time on site and other “I found what I needed” indicators can be a strong signal that elevates newer content in search results as well as social platforms. Links remain a bellwether of quality content, but links are increasingly driven (and weighted) by clearly genuine user signals over other, looks-good-on-paper offsite SEO tactics.
The downside of content with bad SEO can vary. Assuming for the moment that we’re not talking about egregiously spammy SEO horror, a major issue can simply be confusion. Certainly for search engines, muddled or missing onsite optimization can send mixed signals about what your content pertains to. That may be offset some by success in social media and other traffic referrers, but search is still a primary driver for those looking for quality content. So between two pages with solid, engaging content, Google will certainly lean toward the one that also provides clear signals about its topic and intent. And even from a user perspective, poor SEO minimizes the chance that relevant information about your content will appear in search engine results, as that information is often drawn from titles, meta descriptions and semantic markup (which helps produce rich snippets).
At its best, SEO is really just a leveling of the playing field, and if everyone did it correctly there would be little functional advantage for anyone. SEO doesn’t “go to 11,” so there is only so much that you can do to optimize a given page. That fact has been offset by the user engagement and other positive signals that follow quality content. While those engagement metrics are evolving, they certainly strike at the heart of what Google and the other search engines feel are quality recommendations. When in doubt, trust people over robots. If your online success is built primarily on gaming an algorithm with SEO, then that success already has an expiration date. That’s why good content helps bad SEO more than good SEO helps bad content: people know what is useful to them, and the search algorithms are increasingly able to listen to that. Content providers that are more focused on meta descriptions than being a meaningful content resource will continue to see their online success decline. Those that use smart SEO to supplement quality content (as well they should) will see their content marketing performance grow over time as user contentment drives retention, reach and, ultimately, ROI.