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by Stephen Logan on 22nd October 2012
Nobody can accuse the online marketing industry of being predictable or linear. Every year or so, there appears to a seismic shift in the techniques and methodologies for promoting businesses. After all, once upon a time it was perfectly permissible to use hidden on-page text and build thousands of reciprocal links; now, any such antics would be considered laughable. First there was SEO, then social, then local, and today it would appear the flavour of the month is finally Content Marketing.
As the resident yarnsmith it is incumbent upon me to plot out this narrative in a bizarre, unwieldy manner. So, to explain my point, I’m going to take you on a brief history of my career so far.
Seven years ago I was (briefly) living in Romania and needed a source of income to sustain my meagre existence. Having just finished University, I was pretty low on money, experience and skills. Fortunately, in the same small Transylvanian town there was an English Web Developer. Not being able to say more than a few pleasantries in Romanian and struggling with Pidgin German, it was refreshing to be able to hold a conversation with someone without pointing or having to abandon mid-flow due to mutual confusion. Anyway, I digress.
It was here that I first had my eyes opened to Copywriting as a potential source of income. He pointed me towards a number of freelance sites where jobs would be posted by people looking for heavily optimised text. Just for context, in those days, it wasn’t rare to see people demanding that content include a keyword density of >15%. Anyway, I wrote about Forex, created a travel guide to Paris and even got snapped up by an ‘adult’ site to write salacious content – all good fun.
Fast forward a few months and….
As you can probably guess, I was soon home in the UK and starting at the bottom of the ladder in a completely different line of work – looking after all print projects at a pensions communication company if you must know. But all the while, I remained intrigued by the opportunities out there on the Internet.
At this stage, content was still very much a peripheral figure though. It was all on-page and keyword-heavy, with links – gained by any means – very much at the top of the SEO agenda. Despite this, there were clear shoots of growth and potential for the future (beyond Ezine articles). Businesses were investing in blogs and sites were adopting landing pages, all because content could provide rankings in search engines – as long as it was attached to a strong domain.
Things began to change though. When I took the plunge and became a trainee copywriter a little over five years ago, it was clear that some people were taking content a lot more seriously. Sure, most of my duties were pretty one dimensional, but the notion of using copy off-site, rather than as part of product descriptions or buyer’s guides, was emerging.
Since July 2007, a lot has changed. Back then, Gordon Brown had just ‘swept’ into power, people in the UK were beginning to acquaint themselves with a new social network – Facebook – and Google had just decided to start integrating new features within SERPs following the Universal Search Update. Now, Facebook has a billion users around the world, Google might as well be a different search engine and Gordon Brown…well.
The perception of content has also shifted markedly.
Now, the point of this rambling soliloquy isn’t simply to highlight my own chequered past, nor indeed is it a form of self-therapy. It’s only through acknowledging the changing landscape and watching as it shifts (albeit, in my case, from a late to mid-way point) that it’s possible to get some level of perspective on what is happening currently.
If you’re still doing all the same things that you were in the middle of 2007, then you’ve got pretty serious problems. Indeed the same could be said for 2008, 2009 and 2010 – maybe even 2011. Content is no longer a second class citizen, walking in the shadow of Search Engine Optimisation. It’s on the main stage, in the headline slot, front and centre.
As I alluded to earlier, it’s not just the wider perception of content that has changed. The techniques, usage and theories have shifted immeasurably. Seven years ago I was writing ‘Paris Hotels’ once in every other sentence to get the keyword count up. I needed the money and didn’t know any better, but, more importantly, it actually worked. If I did the same now, I’d probably be looking for a new job. That’s not just a minor change in thinking, it’s a completely different approach.
Then, content was seen as just another tool for gaming the system. Quality wasn’t necessarily a priority (as I ably demonstrated), neither was distribution particularly. Almost all copy would feature on the pages of a user-owned site, not attracting links or generating interest, just picking up search engine rankings.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule; even back then in the mists of time, when questionable techniques were many and ethics few, there were some who were putting content to better use. Just because its stock has risen markedly in recent times, it doesn’t mean that content marketing hasn’t always been kicking about in some capacity. Article directories and guest slots on blogs were being used long before I got involved in the copywriting game. The power of links coupled with the ‘rankability’ of content proved a heady concoction for SEOs, but finding a way to combine these effectively always appeared puzzlingly elusive.
The boundaries of content
There are only so many ways in which you can produce and market content. We are all limited by our own imaginations, as well as the tools we have available to us, meaning that we regularly find ourselves in creative cul-de-sacs wondering which step to take next. Words, pictures, graphics and videos; they’ve all been used to market products and businesses. Invariably, some are more successful than others. In recent years though, people have been far more willing to take a chance – hiring writers, outsourcing design tasks, or creating their own marketing videos.
In the past, any such activity would probably be seen as a luxury – one that many could ill-afford to take. Sure, people were making videos or creating sharable graphics, but it was still a select few who had the technology or resources to do so effectively. In short, it was by no means the ‘norm’.
As marketers, we are predisposed with doing what works in the here and now. That’s why I’ve evolved through keyword crunching, through article distribution and all the way to what we do today. While it is perhaps a little galling to think that a few years of my life were spent writing content that is now likely to do more harm than good, those days have gone – finally.
When Google started cracking the whip with content a year ago, people took notice. Some saw it as a time to abandon ship entirely, while others decided that this was the excuse needed to up the ante. When Penguin decimated the link building practices that many had come to know and love, those who stuck with content were rewarded.
Google are never going to punish someone for creating high quality content that is distributed in accordance with their rules – i.e. not on risqué sites or multiple times. However, the same isn’t necessarily true of all links. Sure, article directories aren’t likely to pass on much authority or link value, but even these are unlikely to see your site taking penalty pain in the long-run. But if you thought it would be more prudent to invest your budget in buying links on a blog network (or anywhere else for that matter), then you might be in a spot of bother.
As it turns out, content has always been the safest investment. Sure, I’ve been banging that drum since I became a full-time copywriter five years ago, but supporting voices were few and far between. Today, though, things are markedly different.
Even the smallest businesses are seeing the biggest benefit from creating and marketing content online. Marketers are now talking about community, not links in isolation. To build communities you need to communicate. Online, the best way to communicate is through content. This all sounds like pretty basic stuff, but it’s something that many ignored, and some continue to do so to this day.
When it comes to great content, two things are required; expertise and creativity. Sure, it helps if you can string a sentence together or have exceptional design skills, but ultimately you need to know what you’re talking about, as well as understanding what an audience is looking for. Aimlessly writing an article or producing a video will often result in an equally uninspiring end result.
But this isn’t an insider secret, nor is it the sole reserve of hard-edged marketing types. The point of content marketing is that it gives experts a chance to have their voice heard – regardless of whether you’re proficient online. Google doesn’t want to promote endless articles that have been optimised to within an inch of their life. It wants the very best information so the SERPs deliver for all users.
That’s why we’re all content marketers now…
With the shift in focus from pure link building to quality, developing authorship and brand identity, content is at the forefront of most marketers’ minds. Even journalists and creative folk are getting leverage out of the content they’re producing without necessarily considering the marketing potential.
It plays a part in SEO, social, branding, even PPC (think landing pages). Content is not peripheral, as it was when I began, it is pivotal. Social campaigns are built around promoting it, optimisers use it for linking and ultimately content is what people are searching for. Whether it’s an informational video or a news piece, everything has a purpose online.
Content still isn’t the easiest sell. There are plenty of businesses and even marketers that don’t fully understand how a sheet of words or a dynamic diagram can really deliver the benefits they need. This is probably still an issue of perception, as well as the baggage that is attached with the practice. So not only does content need to be marketed to an audience, it also needs the hard sell to site owners and online businesses.
Let’s talk in real-terms
If I was dropped here from a Mad Men era marketing agency, I’d probably wonder what all the fuss was about. Back then, copywriters would bash out the type for advertising campaigns, create slogans and piece together both long and short copy. For some reason we’ve segmented this online and lost touch with just how valuable it can be.
Social media is a natural extension of content marketing. You might only have 140 characters to play with, but it’s another medium for spreading awareness and promoting other products or campaigns. Elements of SEO (Meta, headlines, body copy) are the same, then there’s paid advertising with punchy messages designed to attract clicks. It’s all just content in various guises.
In terms of actual content marketing, the focus is on a single, unique piece that will be hosted in the digital ether. Not only do we need to promote that image, article or diagram, but we can then use it to market a product, business or idea. It’s a simplified version of the traditional advertising method, whereby you would use a single piece of content on a medium of choice to funnel visitors to a store to buy a product. Rather than invoking a physical reaction (picking up the phone, going to a shop), the Internet allows us to use a series of links for the same response.
Filling in the gaps
A website is a standalone entity. To discover it, users need an entry point. Every link, search engine entry and social share is a potential doorway into your site. Assuming only a very small percentage will ever click through, it’s vital that you do everything possible to increase the number of people who see your links.
Both relevance and quality are key. If you sell pet grooming products, there’s not a lot of point in ranking for keywords relating to global finance, nor should you be creating content that suggests any such affiliation – it’s illogical. Appear for the best terms in the highest positions on Google and you have a chance. Get featured on a popular industry blog or news site and another door will be opened.
If you’re serious about marketing, you have to ensure that all bases are covered. A ranking is worthless if nobody ever finds you through search engines, as is a profile on a social networking site without any followers. Content allows you to connect the elements and fill the gaps. While it can be a significant source of traffic in its own right, the SEO benefits and shareability of decent content help to make it a hugely valuable commodity.
It won’t disappear after a few weeks, months or even years. Content has the potential to provide you with visitors and link strength indefinitely. Sure, fresher articles and graphics are likely to yield higher returns; but once it has been published, it can sit in the background and continue to quietly go about helping your site and brand to grow.
It’s not just about links and keywords
Thanks to innovations like schema mark-up (rel=author being a prime example) and various algorithm updates that inflicted widespread damage on low quality sites and techniques, content is no longer a one-dimensional facet. Authoritative authors can attain rankings in their own right, regardless of whether an article is fully optimised.
The social revolution has also changed the landscape markedly. If you stumble across a funny image or an interesting editorial piece, it only takes a few clicks to share it with everyone you know. This has given rise to viral marketing and served to increase the stock of content even further. Overnight, a site that has never achieved more than 10 visits in a day can find a worldwide audience – all because of a few great blog posts, comic strips or photographs.
There is an element of luck involved; after all, you can’t force people to click on a link or visit a site. But to win the raffle you have to buy a ticket first. If you create content of a high enough quality and in a reasonable quantity, your chances of winning improve greatly. Make the effort to promote it yourself (the marketing element of ‘content marketing‘) and that can provide the catalyst for even more opportunities.
I’m often accused of being a little cynical and even disparaging about social media and search engines. This isn’t simply down to my copy-based bias, it’s because neither are polished entities. In ten years’ time we will be looking back and laughing at the techniques and platforms we use now – that can’t be avoided. Google, Facebook and Twitter have all been chasing their own tails, often taking two steps forward and one back; sadly, as online marketers, we have all had to follow.
The beauty of good content is that it is built on a solid basis. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been using imagery and the written word for millennia; sure, new innovations, including video, have come along in the interim, but the fundamentals remain the same. So while the platforms have changed, and continue to do so, it still comes down to pictures and the written word. It’s never going to go out of fashion or become redundant – the same can’t be said for most companies or tactics used today.
So it has longevity. It can convert visitors. It will build authority in time. So what isn’t to like about content?
People are coming around to this notion, albeit a little slower than I might personally prefer. Sure, there are still plenty out there who are doing it all wrong (spinning articles and distributing on low quality guest blogs) and others who ‘don’t get it’ – but they’re the same people who aren’t benefitting. To succeed online, you need content; that’s why we’re all content marketers now.