Greg Jarboe speaking at session on Delivering Great Content at SES New York 2011

How do content marketing and SEO work together in 2021?

Since you’re visiting the SEO-PR website, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that we provide a broad spectrum of quality SEO services, as well as some of the best SEO training courses in the world. I’ve taught SEO workshops and master classes in person and online in Canada, India, the Philippines, Singapore, the UAE, the UK, and the US for more than 18 years.

But, you might not expect to discover that our agency also offers content marketing services and training. Hey, SEO-PR has been a hyphenated company from the day we were co-founded in early 2003. And our background and experience in PR enabled us to master content marketing strategy and tactics sooner than most other agencies when this discipline took off a decade ago.

Now, this puts us in a relatively unique position to spot some emerging industry trends much sooner than many others who are more narrowly focused.

For example, I recently taught an online content marketing course at the New Media Academy (NMA) in the UAE. And I used the latest research from the Content Marketing Institute to show that enterprise organizations from around the globe with 1,000+ employees had made many changes in response to the global pandemic.

After surveying content marketers at top-performing enterprises, the research found:

  • 68% changed their targeting/messaging strategy.
  • 66% adjusted their editorial calendars.
  • 60% changed their content distribution/promotion strategy.
  • 44% put more resources towards social media/online communities.
  • 37% changed their website.
  • 29% re-examined the customer journey.
  • 23% adjusted their key performance indicators (KPIs).
  • 21% increase the time spent talking with customers.
  • 16% revisited customer/buyer personas.
  • 12% changed their content marketing metrics (e.g. set up new analytics/dashboards).

I told the business and marketing professionals who were taking my online content marketing course that they should increase the time spent talking with customers and/or conduct their own market research to discover how their customers’ lives are changing before they set about changing their targeting/messaging strategy and/or adjusting their editorial calendar.

As Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”

And I let the cohort taking my online class know that only a third of enterprise marketers rated their organization’s overall level of content marketing success in the last 12 months as extremely or very successful. So, I told the participants in NMA’s program they should re-examine their customer’s journey, revisit their customer/buyer personas, adjust their KPIs, and change their content marketing metrics as well as doing what everyone else seemed to be doing last year.

And I showed them how to use free tools like Google’s Market Finder to identify new potential markets and discover new customers around the world before changing their content distribution/promotion strategies.

SEO and content marketing courses

Meanwhile, I recently created an online SEO course for UNIQUESKILLS Asia in Singapore. And I used the SEO Periodic Table from Search Engine Land published in 2019 to help budding search professionals understand the elements that are essential to design a winning SEO strategy.

Now, Search Engine Land’s has been publishing the Periodic Table of SEO since 2011, but they hadn’t updated it since 2019. So, I was looking forward to using the new version to help my students learn the latest best practices.

However, I was initially underwhelmed by what I saw. At first glance, it appeared as if two-thirds of the content hadn’t changed at all and the third that brand new was confined to three niches.

But, as I dug deeper into the latest SEO periodic table, I discovered that there were subtle updates and revisions within most of the old elements as well as the obvious addition of new ones for 2021.

What initially appeared to be stable was the main table, which consists of seven groups:

  • Content.
  • Architecture.
  • HTML.
  • Reputation.
  • Links.
  • User.
  • Toxins.

And what initially appeared to be brand new was the addition of three niches:

  • Local.
  • News.
  • Ecommerce.

But the old elements used weightings that ranged from 1 to 3, while the new elements use weightings that range from 1 to 5. Plus, there are now new elements in old groups and a couple of the old ones are gone (or have been renamed).

For example, Parity, which means that your site should offer the same user experience regardless of what device a searcher or website user is on, has been added to the Architecture group.

And, since Google has dropped the AMP requirement, that element been removed from the HTML group. But, two new ones have been added to the HTML group:

  • ALT text for images improves accessibility and image SEO. Screen readers use ALT text to help those with visual disabilities understand the images on the page. Alt text for images can also help with image search — surfacing your site in image search results.
  • Content Shift focuses on the elements of visual stability. Cumulative Layout Shift, which is part of the Core Web Vitals and overall page experience update, refers to unexpected changes in a page’s layout as it loads — it’s annoying for users at a minimum and can cause real damage depending on the severity of the shift and content of the page.

In the Reputation group, Engagement and Reputation have been replaced by Expertise and Trust. That makes perfect sense – and makes it clear that Reputation is about E-A-T, Expertise, Authority, and Trust.

In the Links group, Value and Backlinks have been replaced by (or renamed) Link Quality and Quantity.

In the User group, History has been replaced by Engagement, which is all about making sure that you meet that user intent and not requiring searchers to go back to SERPs to find what they were actually looking for.

In the Toxins group, Bad Content and Malicious Behavior have been added to the new periodic table. Why? Because google punishes automated/generated content, scraped content, and doorway pages. And, Malicious Behavior like phishing, trojans, malware, and hacking will get you kicked out of the index.

Finally, the new periodic table adds new groups for three Niches. Why? Because some SEO factors are different or completely separate based on the niche they serve. Search engines have different signals for these niches than are important to the overall practice of SEO. These niches are: Local SEO, publishing, and ecommerce.

In other words, the best practices in SEO have changed just as dramatically in the past two years as the best practices in content marketing.

So, how do content marketing and SEO work together in 2021?

Well, the obvious overlap can be seen in the Content group in the SEO periodic table.

Ever since February 2011, when Google’s Panda algorithm update took the search industry by storm and affected nearly 12% of U.S. results, SEOs have been on notice that content counts – and it counts a lot.

Industry observers (including me) said that Panda was Google’s way of weeding out “content farms” – groups of sites with thin content that was often even copied from other places. But, because the algorithm’s emphasis was on penalizing shallow and low-quality content, it meant that efforts to develop in-depth, high-quality content would be rewarded.

That, coincidentally, was when web search interest in the term, content marketing, too off, according to Google Trends. And that’s when I started teaching content marketing courses online at Market Motive and in-person at the Rutgers Center for Management Development.

In the Content element grouping, the periodic table identifies the facets of high-quality, in-depth content. It starts with tried-and-true methods like performing keyword Research to identify what users are looking for and then incorporating those Keywords into your content.

However, Quality in more important – which indicates how critical it is to have well-written pages that provide value to readers. Additionally, search engines reward Freshness, ranking sites higher if they’re frequently updated.

In addition, images and video – Multimedia – are important ways of delivering high-quality content with Depth, especially as the prevalence of higher-bandwidth connections makes it easier to consume these formats, even when users are browsing on their phones.

And, speaking of new ways to access content, the Answers element represents the value of explicitly answering users’ questions on your pages. If you do this well enough, then your page may be displayed as a featured snippet or returned as a voice search result on Google Assistant.

But, these are the obvious reasons why content marketers and SEOs should have been working together since the first Panda update back in February 2011.

They should be working together even more closely in 2021.

Why SEO is actually all about content marketing

Beyond the importance of Content to SEO, there are other less obvious reasons why SEO is actually all about content marketing in 2021.

Go back up to the Links group in the periodic table. We know quality links are important, and the quantity of links is important, too. So, how do you “build” links these days?

Well, since the Penguin update in April 2012, “link building” has become an oxymoron.

Google’s algorithms can distinguish natural links from unnatural links. Natural links to your site develop as part of the dynamic nature of the web when other sites find your content valuable and think it would be helpful for their visitors. Unnatural links to your site (such as link schemes and doorway pages) are placed there specifically to make your site look more popular to search engines. Only natural links are useful for the indexing and ranking of your site.

So, how do you “earn” natural links?

Well, according to Google, “The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”

In other words, you need to create unique, relevant, good, useful, and/or valuable content in order to “earn” natural links.

So, content is important in its own right and it is the key to earning links.

Plus, the Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T) of the people writing your content is the key to earning a good reputation.

In August 2019, Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Liaison for Search, wrote a post for the Google Search Central Blog entitled, “What site owners should know about Google’s core updates.” He said, “We understand those who do less well after a core update change may still feel they need to do something. We suggest focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”

He then shared a fresh set of questions to ask yourself about your content:

Content and quality questions:

  • Does the content provide original information, reporting, research or analysis?
  • Does the content provide a substantial, complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources and instead provide substantial additional value and originality?
  • Does the headline and/or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?
  • Does the headline and/or page title avoid being exaggerating or shocking in nature?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Would you expect to see this content in or referenced by a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?

Expertise questions:

  • Does the content present information in a way that makes you want to trust it, such as clear sourcing, evidence of the expertise involved, background about the author or the site that publishes it, such as through links to an author page or a site’s About page?
  • If you researched the site producing the content, would you come away with an impression that it is well-trusted or widely-recognized as an authority on its topic?
  • Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?
  • Is the content free from easily-verified factual errors?
  • Would you feel comfortable trusting this content for issues relating to your money or your life?

Presentation and production questions:

  • Is the content free from spelling or stylistic issues?
  • Was the content produced well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  • Does the content have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Does content display well for mobile devices when viewed on them?

Comparative questions:

  • Does the content provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • Does the content seem to be serving the genuine interests of visitors to the site or does it seem to exist solely by someone attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?

Now, Danny is a former analyst and journalist. I first met him in 2002 and he displays a high level of expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (E-A-T). So, when he uses the word “content” 20 times in his advice on what to do if your pages drop after a core update, I’ll take him at his word. That’s why SEO is actually all about content marketing these days.

How content marketing helps SEO

But, there are other ways that content marketing can help SEO in 2021. In fact, the OMCP requires cross-training in SEO, content marketing, and half a dozen other digital marketing disciplines. Why? Because the days of one-trick ponies is over. Conceptual knowledge across five of the top eight disciplines is unanimously required.

Go back to the beginning of this column and re-examine what content marketers in large enterprises around the globe changed in response to the global pandemic:

Content marketing context:

  • Re-examined the customer journey.
  • Revisited customer/buyer personas.

Content marketing strategy and planning:

  • Changed their targeting/messaging strategy.
  • Changed their content distribution/promotion strategy.

Content marketing channel management and implementation:

  • Adjusted their editorial calendars.
  • Put more resources towards social media/online communities.

Content marketing measurement and control:

  • Adjusted their key performance indicators (KPIs),
  • Changed their content marketing metrics.

At the same time, content marketers remained focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action. That, by the way, is the definition of content marketing.

Now, SEOs would also benefit from:

In short, there are a lot of people searching for SEO and content marketing courses. And others are starting to look for an SEO and content marketing agency. So, you should get cross-trained in both disciplines sooner rather than later to take advantage of these emerging industry trends in 2021 and beyond.

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