You Can Build a Better Racetrack Without Chasing SEO

You Can Build a Better Racetrack Without Chasing SEO

Let’s talk about SEO.

More than a month after a source gave thousands of pages of internal Google documentation to SparkToro co-founder Rand Fishkin, the importance of this leak is still being debated.

Rand and others continue to dissect the findings for search optimization hints based on what the documents show about how Google ranks content for search.

It’s an admirable effort. Still, I stick by my early assessment, which is that SEOs and marketers may have learned Coke’s secret recipe, but it lacks the quantities of each ingredient.

And it may be a big bucket of nothing. Search algorithms will continue to change, and the recipe may be outdated by the time you optimize your content based on these “secrets.”

Here’s an SEO lesson you can take away: Your content programs are in a race for position No. 1. But in this race, your program isn’t the car (Google and other search options are). It isn’t the driver (the searcher). It’s the racetrack.

And you’re competing to be the first choice for every car and driver who wants the most reliable or most enjoyable way to get from one place to another.

And that’s why you shouldn’t make SEO the focus of your content strategy.

Watch out for SEO strategy potholes

Many businesses start content marketing programs because they believe it will help them rank higher for organic search results. When their target audiences search for potential solutions (the thinking goes), they’ll find the brand’s array of content and decide it’s the one that provides the most value.

But when you depend on being found in search, you have to focus on content that chases attention instead of trustworthiness. And that creates an inherent pressure to produce content designed to rank rather than content intended to lead, entertain, or inform.

Meanwhile, optimizing content for organic search traffic has become more complex over the last decade. The quality of competition, the sheer quantity of content, the growth of paid search advertising, and the introduction of AI Overviews have made page-one real estate more expensive to acquire and harder to maintain.

Now-retired SEO expert Arnie Kuenn used to joke, “The best place to hide a dead body is the second page of Google results. Nobody goes there.” And that remains true.

Research from the continuous-scroll era showed that 88% of clicks go to the top three positions — and only 4% of clicks come after result six.   

Yet I still see organizations use the classic SEO-first approach when building a case for a content marketing program. For example, two of my clients recently shared their frustrations about where they were in launching their new content marketing program.

Each had asked their digital agency to identify the best way to bring their content marketing program to life. In each case, the consultants returned a 30-slide deck, making the business case for content marketing by talking about search terms, keywords, and “snackable” content to answer every question they could think of.

Yeah, 2010 called and wants its strategy back.

To be clear, I know there are digital agencies that do work that goes well beyond my pay grade.

But these slide decks illustrate the problems with this all-too-common argument for launching a content marketing program. First, SEO has arguably never been a good foundation for a content marketing platform. Second, changes in content discovery fundamentally alter the content marketing equation.

Lesson 1: Google doesn’t care

Spoiler alert: Google isn’t (and has never been) interested in helping you build an audience for your brand. Quite the contrary — it always has been interested in you helping it build an audience. That’s why Google designed Search to create enough commoditization in results to make advertising that features what the searcher seeks more attractive.

Remember this lesson as AI answers show up in more search results.

If you think Google wants to surface the most trustworthy response to a query, think again. The search giant wants to surface the answer that can be monetized.

What that looks like is pretty vague right now. But know this: Google will happily use your content to train its AI — and then monetize the output in ways that don’t serve your interests.

AI Overviews and standard search results share that similarity. Neither solution is built to return the highest-quality answer. They’re built to summarize (or prioritize) the highest average of answers. And both are designed to generate more and more searches. 

As I’ve said, if you focus on thought leadership and trust as a differentiator, you won’t spend time creating content about frequently asked questions (FAQs). Instead, you’ll focus on providing what I call the rarely given answers (RGAs).

For example, if we’d used search volume in 2009 to decide whether to launch a platform about “content marketing,” we probably would have decided against it. (Spoiler: We didn’t look at the search volume.)

Look what we would have missed. As the chart shows, interest in the term “content marketing” was at 9 in 2009. By 2017, it had grown to 71.

The chart shows that interest in the term “content marketing” was at 9 in 2009. By 2017, it had grown to 71.

You should know more about your audience than Google does. When formulating a new content marketing platform, you should realize that Google Search has been (and is) helpful for understanding the zeitgeist of popular topics and terms. But it’s not as useful in understanding what your audiences will be interested in tomorrow.

Lesson 2: Google still isn’t here for you

Content discovery is changing the way audiences interact with digital content. Google doesn’t want that to happen on any channel other than Google.

If you feel like search results are getting progressively worse over time, it’s not just you. Recent research has shown that Google Search results have become less useful. And AI Overviews haven’t fared well in their debut, handing out untrustworthy advice about eating rocks and putting glue on pizza.

These degraded results don’t mean that Google is getting “dumber.” The company has to balance the quality of the data/content it chooses to push to the top of SERPs for the best experience with content that can be monetized most effectively.

If Google only had to optimize against one of those things, the results would be much better.

The sheer quantity of digital content means broad informational searches are less efficient and helpful. That’s why search platforms, social media, and other big content providers are leaning into content discovery.

Think of content discovery as “content recommendations without asking for the recommendation.” The discovered or recommended content is delivered without an explicit request.

Think of the TikTok phenomenon — the algorithm quickly learns what you spend time on. That way, it can deliver value (and videos) based on your behavior rather than what you explicitly ask for.

Content suggestions based on a customer’s intent, demographics, and other first-party data are growing in thought leadership resource centers, websites, and e-commerce platforms.

Content discovery in search means that answers appear on the results page. Searchers don’t need to click through to your content, as you’ve surely noticed. They just get the answers directly on the SERP.

That content may be wrong today. Tomorrow, it will be better. And next week, it may be better than yours.

Remember, Google isn’t trying to help you build an audience for your brand. It will use your content to help its brand.

Content marketing starts by focusing on being the best racetrack

Here’s the bottom line: If you’re looking to launch or change a content marketing program, don’t build your case on attracting an audience through search. Those days are gone (if they ever really existed).

Yes, you still need to learn about SEO and understand how the evolution of search into content discovery will affect your content distribution. And I’m not suggesting you stop employing SEO best practices, especially as they evolve for content discovery.

But remember, your content program isn’t the race car or the driver. It’s the track.

Don’t get caught up in a battle for the best, longest, or even most keyword-rich answer to a frequently asked question. Instead, aim for connected content experiences that answer the questions and address the reason behind the question.

For example, the query for an enterprise software search may evolve from “What is the best CRM system?” to “Show me a demonstration of what a great CRM system can do.” The query for a restaurant will evolve from “What are the best Mexican restaurants near me?” to “Tell me the availability at the best Mexican restaurants for two people on Monday night.”

The aim of future content-driven experiences isn’t to answer simple questions. It will be to provide answers and solutions before the questions get asked.

And don’t take that just from me. Google co-founder Sergey Brin affirmed more than a decade ago: “My vision was that information would come to you as you need it. You wouldn’t have to search query at all.”

Put simply: The future of search will remove the need to search.

Put another way: You won’t develop a better racetrack by looking at the engineering of cars. Instead, look to the drivers (your audience and customers). Then, build the roads that lead them to the finish line.

Updated from a November 2022 article.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute  


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