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.”
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.
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.)