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SEO and the Dirty White Lie About Content Strategy

by Kristina Halvorson on January 11th, 2011

Last month, just before the holidays, an article appeared on the enormously popular Top Rank Online Marketing Blog.

The article is called “Content Strategy and the Dirty White Lie About SEO.”

Its author, renowned SEO expert Lee Odden (CEO, TopRank Online Marketing), asserts that content strategists have “inherent biases” against SEO as a valid practice, and that “most consultants” (read: content strategists) lack “holistic perspectives.” He writes that, if you-the-client listen to content strategists—specifically, those who recommend “slicing website content in half") for the sake of having less content—you will often end up with recommendations that are “a gross disservice to clients.”

Here’s context:

The reality is, that the “less is more” argument with content strategy works great when you don’t have to worry about where the traffic to the great content will come from.  This is part of the “dirty lie about SEO”:  That great content attracts its own audience and that SEO ruins content.

I really struggled with whether or not to write a response to this post. It’s full of generalizations and misinformation. For example, to say that content strategy as a discipline unilaterally teaches that “great content attracts its own audience and that SEO ruins content” is, well, weird.

But, if you know me, you know how I go off the rails when an industry thought leader writes something that marginalizes or misrepresents content strategy.

In reality, if you, the online marketing professional, are committed to doing great work—work that’s results-oriented, measurable, sustainable, and well-integrated with the rest of your organization’s content initiatives—then the content strategist should be your best friend.

What does a good content strategist really care about?

A content strategist’s primary role in any project or organization is to create and maintain a “holistic perspective” of current and future content states.

A content strategist knows that, in the research and discovery phase of projects that involve marketing content, current marketing initiatives—including SEO, social media, and the like—must be considered prior to making recommendations.

A content strategist counts on content audits to understand content location, ownership, and purpose (e.g., “raise visibility in search results") prior to making recommendations.

In fact, there’s a section of my book (p.72-73) called “Search Engine Optimization: The Missing Link.” (Ironically, it follows a section called “Source Content: You Have to Start Somewhere,” which encourages readers to make the most of the content they already have, not slice it in half). In it, I write,

If there are SEO or other search-related efforts underway, be sure to capture them in your analysis document. They’ll play an important role in informing your content strategy recommendations.

Eh?

But, yeah. Some content strategists think SEO is dumb.

I should say here that I can’t argue with all of Lee’s comments regarding content strategists: I, myself, know many CSes who are suspicious and, yes, even dismissive of SEO as an important part of content planning and creation—let alone as an actual practice. These folks either have had bad experiences with bad SEO practitioners, or they loathe the kind of content that is so keyword-packed it’s unreadable. (Good SEO practitioners loathe that, too.)

However. That reality does not warrant Lee’s accusation that content strategists don’t recognize “the importance of attracting readers to the content and being accountable to the marketing performance of that content.” It’s simply not true.

Whether the content strategy is focusing on marketing content, internal communications, in-the-cloud content, or any other kind of content, our work is driven by business results, every time. If it’s not, then it’s not content strategy; it’s a pointless exercise in content planning and execution, no matter where you sit in an organization.

Debate is good, except when it’s bad.

The generalizations Lee makes about content strategists in his post are only serving to set fire to the bridge content strategists are working so hard to build between themselves and marketers (and UXers, and technologists, and so on). His post ends up being a rallying cry for SEO, social media, and content marketing professionals to ban together and defeat the content strategists who are spreading “dirty white lies” about their professions.

Listen. We don’t need to live in separate clubhouses with our own secret handshakes, here. I think everyone agrees that doing better business online is our shared goal, no matter who you are or how you’re contributing. And just as the “best content marketers [Lee] knows” are capable of incorporating SEO best practices within a content strategy, all smart content strategists are not just capable but committed to collaborating with those content marketers to ensure their shared efforts are well-integrated and successful.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: debating the question, “What matters more, SEO/social media/UX/IT/content strategy/etc.?” is a stupid waste of time. Instead, let’s ask, “How can we collaborate across our practices to make our businesses more successful, to make the Web a better place for our customers?”

Those answers will help inform actual work. Because it’s the results of that work that matters most of all.

Talk back to me.

What are your experiences collaborating across disciplines? If you were successful, why? If not, what would you have changed? (No generalizations, attacks, or condescension, please.)

  • Shawn Shell

    Kristina:

    I’m not sure I read Lee’s article the same way you did, but he clearly tried to find relatively extreme cases to illustrate a his points.

    In the end, I totally agree that all disciplines need to collaborate to produce a quality site (in every sense of the word).

    Shawn

  • http://www.rideboldly.org/ Julie K

    The issue tends to be not one of goals, but one of specialists who cannot collaborate. This ranges from CSes who are dismissive of SEOs, crummy SEOs who create keyword-stuffed horrors straight out of 2004, and designers who consider content a hindrance to art.

    I think everyone has a story about working with a specialist who holds their discipline as the ‘master’ discipline in web development/design/marketing, when truly successful projects require openness to the specialized expertise of others.

  • hrustar

    Too often the root of the problem is conflicting objectives. The SEO specialist is interested in delivering the best SEO results. The content specialist is out to deliver the best content. And both sides forget that they should be out to create the best site experience centered around the user. In other words a site that is easily found, easily navigated and easily comprehended/utilized.

  • http://www.mvarmazis.com Maria Varmazis

    I have to admit I’m really surprised – SEO has always been key in any content strategy discussion I’ve ever been it. I had no idea some in the field discount this in their practice. Certainly keyword-spamming in any content is bad practice and is rightly rejected, as you’ve noted. Seems like it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater to use that poor practice as a justification to discount SEO entirely in content strategy!

  • http://twitter.com/gigigriffis Gigi Griffis

    Wow, has he ever even met–ever talked to–a content strategist?

    I’ve always thought that content strategy as a discipline was about taking a holistic approach and bringing together other teams involved somehow in content planning, creation, implementation, maintenance or expiration (including the SEOs, the UXers, the technical team, etc.)–not separating them. It’s one of the reasons I love it so much–one of the reasons I’ve adopted the title.

    For years, I’ve been immersed in every process that touches the content of the site–including SEO–but didn’t have a title to stick onto what I do. I felt that the collaboration between departments to create great content (meaning also findable, also user-friendly, also ADA-friendly — all things which Google and other search engines eat up) came together for me in content strategy.

    Glad you addressed his article–it sounds needlessly divisive. Content strategy is about bringing things together, not tearing them apart.

    *Dismayed*

  • http://twitter.com/pray4surfnturf n. strate

    Neither discipline exists in a vacuum, and the two will have an increasingly symbiotic relationship as search engine algorithms continue to reward relevance and quality.

  • http://twitter.com/GarrettFrench GarrettFrench

    I personally see little discussion in the content-strategy space on actual content promotion, and how to “move the needle” on specific marketing/business/sales metrics with content… Of course by “space” here I mean your twitter feed so I’m definitely not content strategy literate. I DO have your book, though I’m only on page 51 and haven’t dug into the Delivery chapter yet. Also, full disclosure, I’ve worked in the SEO space since 2001.

    In my opinion a more interesting discussion – and a real collaboration across disciplines – would be your thoughts (please oh please?) on how and where does Content Strategy as a practice intersect with Lee’s model for Content Marketing Optimization, which he mentions at the end of his article.
    http://www.toprankblog.com/2010/08/content-marketing-optimization/

    Thanks for starting the conversation – I appreciate your bridges to SEO and work from my little corner of the internet to point them out to others.

  • http://twitter.com/jaredroy jared roy

    This would be a great panel. I look forward to the announcement.

  • Josh D.

    I think this discussion is a microcosm of a broader issue. Call them specialists… boutiques… guru’s. At the end of the day someone is brilliant at what they know, sufficient in some connecting fields and usually ignorant in many others. I totally agree with Julie (and others as well) that every marketing strategy/tactic/campaign impacts and is impacted by multiple disciplines. That is why every “specialist” needs to have great contacts in complimentary fields to keep them in check and think about the big picture in order to stay relevant. That is why every “boutique” agency needs partners who can help wrap tactics in broader web, marketing or business strategy, etc. in order to not be one of the 20% of agencies who fail next year. The hardest part of my job is telling a client that my specific area (online marketing) is not the best use of their dollar, but it is client results that matter more than any ego or agency profit center. Thought provoking article Lee… great response Kristina.

  • http://twitter.com/tubes Sean Tubridy

    Who slices content in half just for the sake of doing it? Isn’t copy reduced because the same message can be said with fewer words? What’s wrong with that?

    And what’s more damaging? Fewer eyes on your (good) content or a lot more eyes on your bloated, SEO-stuffed copy?

    There has to be a happy middle ground. And I think it happens when knowledgeable professionals from both disciplines understand and respect each other and work together.

    *Happy Rainbow*

  • Anonymous

    You are right to call people out for sowing divisiveness. It’s good linkbait but doesn’t reflect our shared goals or the reality of how we work.

    I’m a UX/IA/CS overlap type, so maybe I’m inherently multi-disciplinary, but I’ve never had a problem with ethical SEO. In fact, I like it: it’s real-time user research telling you what people want from a site.

    And, all the SEO people I’ve worked with LOVE content strategy. They need good content, we want good content, users respond to good content. End of faux conflict.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    Thanks for your comment, Shawn. It can be tough to have these conversations when we all have our biases, but I think the thing is always to be informed and open to discussion!

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    OMG, totally. What’s exciting to me about content strategy, though, is that the *entire point* of doing it is to pull all of these different disciplines and make them work together in the most efficient, most productive (and profitable!) way.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    I agree. And it’s a very cute little baby.

  • Amy

    I would agree with Shawn. I hopped over to Lee’s article, and to me he seemed to be indicating that it’s important to have a content strategist. The way I read the article, the “dirty lie” appears to actually be the idea that SEO simply ruins content.

    …and this article is coming from the position of the “dirty lie” being that SEO ruins content.

    So…aren’t you both arguing the same point?

  • http://www.rideboldly.org/ Julie K

    My feeling is that content strategy is starting to run into the same issues as exist in SEO and UI/UX – there are some excellent practitioners, and there are some (really obnoxiously loud) pretenders. And often businesses who NEED the expertise don’t have the expertise to tell the difference, resulting in bad experiences for many team members that become professional prejudice later.

  • Jmath

    Good post Kristina. As the proponent of search-first content strategy, Lee’s post was, well, confusing. Thanks for shining a light on it and helping to make it less confusing. The more I do content strategy, the more the holistic approach becomes necessary. Content fragmentation is the biggest challenge we face at IBM, and it’s something I’m working hard to solve, using search behavior as a guiding light.

    The other challenge we face is, frankly, too much damn content. It is a challenge for our UX, IA, design, and infrastructure. But it is a much bigger challenge for search and social media. How can we entice our audience to engage with relevant content from search engines when we have 10 pages that appear to be about the same stuff and do the same things? How can we entice users to share and comment on our content when they don’t know which of the dozen apparent duplicates is definitive? So his comment about reducing content inventory as opposed to SEO makes no sense to me. It is the most important part of SEO–not treating pages in isolation but as a system of systems.

    I’m still not sre I get his post. But I do get what you’re saying, and I feel more secure in search-first content strategy than ever before.

    Kind regards,

    James Mathewson

  • Intercommsa

    Everyone is touting for business the best way they can, and in the tradition of American politics they do it by running down other services that might steal “their” portion of the budget. The objective is to carve a niche for his or her own services – and actually the end result for the client isn’t important except for those who’s ongoing income is measured by results. And that is often the SEO guys. Strategy and copywriting quality can’t be “measured” easily.

    My skills and background cover marketing strategy, SEO and copywriting and I use all three in creating websites. And do you know what actually works – Google AdWords. Not the adverts – Google puts you on page 1 if you buy Google adwords. You can have a rubbish, 1/2 page website with a giant flash menu, and you’ll still end up on page one. You can have 100 pages of useful articles and perfect content, and you’ll end up on page 2 or 3 if you don’t also have AdWords.

    Google is a “for-profit” corporation and they take care of their clients. Sad, but not unreasonable.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    Hm, I can appreciate where you’re coming from. I don’t really see where he says it’s important to have a content strategist, though; really the message that kept coming through to me is that content strategists don’t care about SEO and you should watch out for them. I’ve also tried to express my concerns about how the practice is being represented, here, which is from a very narrow vantage point.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    You know, I would agree with that, and I think it’s inevitable. But I think that’s why it’s important to keep stating and restating what a good content strategist *really* does, which means getting involved in conversations like this one. …Do you really think there are “UX pretenders”? I see a lot more hustling on the online marketing side.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Garrett. Joe Pulizzi and I did an interview about this very topic last year: http://j.mp/aSBLWn … we’re in complete alignment about how CM needs CS, and how CS needs to consider and integrate any CM initiatives.

    Honestly? I have two primary motivations, here. First is to help agencies and businesses understand that their fundamental challenges with any online initiative are likely rooted in the way they’re planning for, creating, delivering, and taking care of their content (or not). Second is to help those same audiences understand why and how content strategy can help solve those challenges, not just for a launch but for the entire, ongoing content lifecycle.

    I struggle with the marketing community’s tendency to always be on the lookout for that silver bullet. It’s never that easy. Social media initiatives fail because there isn’t a real plan for post-launch, or no one realized how much work it would be. Content marketing, while a huge opportunity, is a serious commitment to businesses of any size. Content strategy can help ensure efforts are directly tied to business results, and it can prevent organizations from overcommitting to efforts that are, ultimately, unsustainable.

    Like I said… BFF.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    I’m kinda doing this at SXSW: http://j.mp/9WUUo7 !

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    What she said.

  • http://www.rideboldly.org/ Julie K

    It’s not necessarily a BAD thing that you have some pretenders. It means the discipline has gained enough attention that agencies or others have said, “Hey, this is apparently important. Go figure out what it is so we can claim to do it.” Some of the people roped into a discipline via such means can end up getting immersed and good at it. Some lack the organizational support or personal interest to do more than make the claim.

    And I’ve definitely encountered a few designers who claimed to do UI/UX who really couldn’t. Again, somewhat inevitable, and hard to say if it was a result of them overpitching themselves to their employers, or their employers declaring them such.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    Thanks for the peek behind the Google curtain. Ah, commerce. Always getting in the way of what people really need. ;)

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    James, your comments give such great context to this entire discussion. I especially love this: “How can we entice our audience to engage with relevant content from search engines when we have 10 pages that appear to be about the same stuff and do the same things?” I very much appreciate the perspective from which you’re tackling such overwhelming challenges. Can’t wait to hear more about them at SXSW on our panel.

  • Clare

    Gosh, I think Mr Odden must’ve been bitten hard by some misguided CS practitioner and decided never to talk to another. For our part, we consider search (or findability, as we coach our clients) to be a fundamental part – indeed objective – of their content strategy. We argue this strongly in our Language Pathways paper (http://www.webwordsworking.co.uk/research/online_language_pathways.htm) and spend considerable time with our clients’ SEOs / search marketing agencies etc to make sure we’re all headed in the right direction. In fact I’m working on a project right now where I’m headlining search because making sure that we have content that people want to find will achieve the client’s business objectives: to sell more. To be honest, I find far too much early demarkation in this business. We’re all interconnected and need to be cross-disciplined or at least totally open-minded. No-one knows enough yet, or will do for a long time to come, to start disregarding anything other than outstanding, obviously poor practice. Thanks Kristina for a well argued response (not, thankfully, retort)… sorry if I repeated anyone else’s comments but I haven’t had time to read them (so many)… Clare (in haste)

  • http://www.toprankmarketing.com leeodden

    Your authoritative insights on Content Strategy are always a good read Kristina. Prompting discussion and sharing of opinion is an objective of our blog and there’s quite a mix here.

    You’re a great writer and I find the artful excerpts and of my post to present your perspective very interesting. One that missed the cut was the conclusion:

    “Great SEO, social media and content marketing (added: that includes content strategy) is a win for all. Poorly executed SEO isn’t any more helpful to customers than amazing content that no one can find except via advertising. A combination of quality SEO and Social Media Marketing can drive substantial attention to quality content.”

    The subsequent comments reflect this sentiment as well. That’s not as generalized or as much of an indictment of content strategy as your post would suggest, but it is my true and published opinion.

  • Ahava

    SO true!!! There are so many times that I have to educate my clients about what SEO really means, and then they come back and tell me their SEO firms disagree with me. That’s why best practices and case studies are so important–stop talking about your freaking theory and show me proof! Then we’ll talk. Because at the end of the day users who can’t find content are unhappy and users who can’t read content are also unhappy. Isn’t our job to make everyone happy?

  • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

    “…its about doing better business online…” sure sounds like an objective ripe for collaborative, sustained efforts to me. The marketplace can’t support fractured efforts and closed ranks. Departmentalism is what was wrong with business15 years ago.

    Silos and labels that keep professionals with a common overarching objective from learning from and influencing the outcomes of one another’s contributions. It takes all kinds of savvy folks to make the best magic happen, and a commonly held content strategy ensures all contributors are producing with a single vision.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    Thanks for commenting, Lee! Glad to see you in the mix.

    I very much appreciate that you have now added “content strategy” to the final call to action in your post. Originally, it read “SEO, social media, and content marketing”, which, in the context of the rest of the post, seemed to purposefully exclude content strategy (as you had previously called out content strategists’ biases as a possible threat to the effectiveness of online marketing initiatives).

    I think James’s comment above really synthesizes how online marketing and CS can and should work together: to preserve a stellar user experience while achieving tangible search results that both drive traffic and increase customer satisfaction. And there are myriad ways we can help each other do that.

    A terrific next step in this conversation would be to find ways to share concrete examples of how online marketers and content strategists have successfully collaborated to solve business problems. If you’re working with content strategists and have success stories to share, let’s talk!

  • Rick Yagodich

    Of late, I have been looking at the realm of SEO and trying to see how it fits within content strategy. (At least that was my starting premise.)

    But really, I think it all comes down to perception and semantics. We are all after the same thing. The difference is in which part of the process we started with.

    So-called SEO practitioners started from the perspective of on-page SEO and have branched out as it became clear that was not the whole picture.

    Content strategists – perhaps disillusioned by the old SEO paradigm – started from the business/big picture perspective… and any good one will soon enough have realised that old-style SEO is very much a part of the process.

    The information space is large enough for many different approaches. We will all find different aspects of it we are better at, and our egos will give us a name for our specialisation: “my detail is more important than all the rest; I am indispensable to the process.” It would be better if we all simply worked, leveraging each other’s strengths, to achieve the same end result: surpassing the clients’ goals and expectations.

  • Dale

    We use a combination of both. I think sometimes SEO is all too often looked with the ‘on page’ elements in mind. In actual fact, for the last 8 years its been far more about network mapping and analysis than Titles, H1′s, alt tags etc.

    The network is mapped not only based on type of content. We look at levels of engagement determined in part by the volume and influence of participants (Social Media) but it is always overlaid with an SEO link building audit.

    I suspect this debate is more about people carving out or protecting their niche when so many elements of online marketing are converging right now.

    IMO it is as essential to have both a grasp of where search engines are attributing authority as it is to know what type of content appeals to what type of audience. These are not mutually exclusive. In fact, anomalies represent opportunities for online marketers.

    Dale

  • http://lessworkmoreflow.blogspot.com B Noz Urbina

    I wish I could like this 50 times…

  • http://twitter.com/sheila_walsh sheila_walsh

    SEO is best left to content strategists and editorial staff, not to people who stuff keywords on a page. SEO, when done well and for a good cause, can be a public service. I work on health websites for very credible content providers who have no commercial interest and whose goal is to educate the public and improve health outcomes. Given the high percentage of people who search for health information online before they speak with a doctor (see PEW for data–it is indisputable), credible health websites need to place in the top 3 Google results in order to serve as first responders to public health needs. So when we create a website filled with medically reviewed health content, it would be a disservice not to ensure that the content can be found on the web. Alternately, the content strategist can use keyword research to gauge what kind of information the public is seeking and where are there information gaps online.

    In short, we’re not talking JC Penney duvet covers here.

  • Anonymous

    I think everyone will agree to do better business online is our common goal, no matter who you are or how to contribute. And as the marketing “best content.
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  • http://dbpmarketing.com/build-my-rank-review/ BuildMyRank

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    yes, user experience on the site must be enough important aspect if it doesn’t fulfill or impress them with it. . they might be losing their audience attention as well rather doing excellent in content strategy or SEO

  • http://twitter.com/SomotoInc Somoto

    I always viewed Content Strategy as one (important) aspect of the overall SEO of just about any website, Even if you’re not intentionally writing content for SEO purposes, it’s bound to help, especially if it’s good content that people will want to read/share etc. 

  • http://www.webdesign.org/ Vince Wicks

    Well, I am not exactly sure that my comment here will be too valuable but anyways. You need to decide what content and how to create it together with your SEO guys, because it’ll allow you to both attract natural traffic and SEO one. It’s a win-win. Hands down!

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