Content Marketing vs SEO Illustration

Gavin Hirst - Thursday 17th September 2020

What came first, the content or the SEO?

Google has had a major impact on the approach of many marketers to content and SEO.

Many marketers believe that high-quality content leads to great rankings because Google places such a big emphasis on quality.

However, answer me this – do you always find the highest quality content ranking at the top of the search results?

I thought not.

Sure, great content does often appear at the top of the search results; however, you will also find a fair amount of what appears to be fairly mediocre content ranking up there too.

So, how does mediocre content end up at the top and why do so many high-quality content pages fail to crack the first page?

The simple answer: better SEO.

How did we get to thinking it’s all about quality content?

Let’s rewind a little here.

At what point did we start to believe that high-quality content was the gateway to high rankings?

It probably started as far back as 2011 when Google introduced the Panda algorithm update that put such a big focus on quality whilst trying to stamp out keyword stuffing.

Since then, there have been a number of updates that have re-emphasised a shift towards quality including:

  • Knowledge Graph – introduced in 2012, the Knowledge Graph changed the way Google handles searches relating to people, places, art, and more.
  • Hummingbird – introduced in 2013 to deal with long and conversational voice searches, allowing Google to concentrate on meaning or intent of queries rather than just the literal phrase.
  • RankBrain – introduced in 2015, RankBrain is a machine-learning algorithm that explores the meaning of searches based on previous queries and searcher intent. Companies can now rank on Google for keywords that are not even included on their page.
  • E-A-T – today, Google’s focus on quality can be seen in the search quality rater guidelines where their emphasis on E-A-T (Expertise, Authority, and Trust) signifies a continued focus on the quality.

So, we can see that Google places a high emphasis on quality, however, does Google always reward you for following these updates and guidelines? Not always.

There are plenty of poorly written content pieces ranking on page one and even the most basic text can rank well.

So why should we continue to focus on high-quality content when even low-quality content can be rewarded?

Let’s take a closer look.

Why you should continue to create high-quality content

Whilst we do see some mediocre content rewarded with high rankings, there are a number of reasons why you should persist with a strategy of creating high-quality content including:

  • Increase audience retention – the more engaging the content piece, the longer the retention. As dwell time is considered a ranking factor, high quality, engaging content can help improve your rankings.
  • Establish trust with your audience – whilst lower quality content can rank well, is that really the way you want your brand to be represented? High-quality content leads to more trust from your audience which will, in turn, lead to more sales and better rankings.
  • Generate leads – whilst a visitor may come from the great content piece, they will hopefully stay for the product/service. Strong CTAs throughout your high-quality content pieces can drive high-quality sales leads.
  • Earn backlinks – one of the backbones of high-ranking pages is the quality of backlinks. Which content piece do you think other sites are more likely to link back to? The high-quality piece or the mediocre piece? If your strategy is to earn backlinks, you must focus on high-quality content.
  • Improve conversions – research is such a huge part of the decision-making process online these days and with so much information available, it’s important to stand out. High-quality content can help you to connect with your audience and give them the information they need to make an informed purchase.

There are plenty of reasons for you to persist with a strategy of creating high-quality content. The big thing to ensure is that you also make SEO an equally important part of that strategy.

Where does SEO fit in?

In the title of this article, we asked what came first, the content or the SEO? Well, seeing as content has been around since the days of the cavemen, we would have to go with that, however taking a more modern-day stance, we always like to put our SEO caps on before our content caps.

As we have already discussed and seen, creating high-quality content is important. However, what’s more important is creating high-quality content that people are actually searching for.

Without carrying out keyword research, how will you ever know which are the most important keywords and phrases to target that are most relevant to your audience?

In a really great example of this, the Content Marketing Institute highlights Allstate’s blog ‘Tips for maintaining your sump’. Whilst the post is a high-quality piece of content which ranks well for some highly relevant terms, it doesn’t rank as well as it should for the most relevant keywords.

“Sure, it’s No. 1 for ‘sump pump inspection’, but that phrase only averages 110 monthly searches. What about ‘sump pump maintenance’? The article only ranks 11th for that phrase, which is searched an average 1,300 times a month – almost 12 times more than ‘sump pump inspection’.”

The post goes on to suggest a very simple change which could make a huge difference to the amount of monthly traffic that is driven from that post – simply changing the Title Tag from “Tips for Maintaining Your Sump Pump” to “Sump Pump Maintenance Tips”. They also suggest testing the following Title Tag – “Sump Pump Maintenance and Inspection Tips*”.

Whilst the quality of the content is important, the keywords you use and optimise for are equally if not more important and these will determine the traffic you are likely to drive to your site if you achieve top three rankings.

* The Content Marketing Institute post was published on 8 September 2020 and at the time of writing (17 September 2020), the page title and headings have all been updated in accordance with the advice in the post.

Get the SEO basics right

SEO is a complex beast. There are many facets to the work we carry out as SEOs, trying to match the work we do with the most important ranking factors (without ever knowing what those are exactly!).

There are, however, some SEO basics that have stood the test of time and continue to have a positive impact on your ability to rank for the keywords you identify through your research. These include:

  1. Relevancy – the first part of any content strategy is ensuring the keywords you are targeting are relevant to your audience. That’s where your keyword research comes in. Before you even think about typing that headline to your high-quality content piece, make sure you know exactly what your potential audience is searching for and understand all the ways they are searching for that information.
  2. Title Tags – yep, title tags are still super important. Make sure you include the primary keyword you have identified from your research – the one that you most want to rank for. Also, make it compelling enough that searchers actually want to click on it to find out more.
  3. Headers and sub-headers – the use of these is two-fold; 1) it helps to structure your content in a way that makes it easy for a visitor to skim to the section of content they are most interested in and 2) it allows you to include secondary keywords you identified in your research in these important on-page elements.
  4. Meta description – there are conflicting opinions when it comes to meta descriptions as they don’t have a direct impact on rankings (they are not considered a ranking factor). They do, however, impact on the click-through rate (CTR) from search results which indirectly has an impact on rankings so we always recommend you create a compelling description which is a short sales pitch into your piece of content and should include the primary keyword you are targeting.
  5. Images – the use of images can really help to break up your content but also help to bring it to life. Whilst they are great for humans, search engines can sometimes struggle to make sense of them. To help Google (and other search engines) understand your images, you should use the alt tag to describe and explain them. This also presents another opportunity to insert some of your target keywords as they are likely to be relevant to the images you are using.

These are five areas that can have a huge impact on your content’s ability to rank for the most relevant keywords.

Of course, there are hundreds of other elements we haven’t covered here – especially the more technical side of things like page speed, schema, mobile-friendliness, and internal linking. We have covered many of these things in more detail in other posts, so this post is really just about the importance of combining on-page SEO basics and high-quality content.


Whilst it’s easy to march to the beat of Google’s drum when it comes to pushing out high-quality content, make sure you retain a constant focus on SEO.

Writing great content that no one reads doesn’t help you or your business to grow. Sure, it might help to build out your own portfolio of quality posts, however, if they aren’t reaching the right people, or aren’t reaching anyone at all, then they are not helping your business.

SEO should be at the foundation of all your content work and that means conducting detailed keyword research, carrying out on-page optimising, and making sure your content is accessible (technical SEO aspects).

A final element that is equally as important is recording and reporting on the key metrics and making changes where necessary. Understanding what you rank well for and what you don’t rank as well for is the key to making changes that can ultimately help you to drive more traffic to your website. That way when you make adjustments, you can see if those tweaks will help get your content found more frequently.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *