The 5 Most Powerful Modern SEO Priorities for Content (Hint: This Goes Beyond Keywords)

Working with SEO means reverse-engineering the algorithm—and as the algorithm has changed, so have the priorities for optimizing search. Here are five key factors to hit when working with SEO.

SEO content marketing search results
Move over keywords. When it comes to SEO, quality content is king.

In four out of five sales calls, the marketers, digital agencies, and founders that contact us ask:

Can you help us with our SEO?

The answer is always yes. From its inception, SEO (search engine optimization) has remained largely a content play. So in the realm of digital publication, any content agency (such as MarketSmiths) is implicitly an SEO company, too—helping marketing departments and SEO strategists win the race to rank one, page one.

But the question that inevitably follows is a bit more troubling:

Can you use SEO keywords in your content writing?

Our response here is swift and unchanging:

Of course. But keywords are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more that goes into effective SEO.

To anyone that’s studied SEO, it’s clear that Google’s ultimate journey as a search engine is to recognize and reward the most valuable content. (Remember: Google’s original company mission was to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” After two decades and a company shift, that still rings true.)

And how is value defined? Certainly not by keywords, which serve an indexing function (and one that’s steadily decreasing in importance, thanks to a few factors we’ll discuss).

Instead, Google looks to human behavior—e.g. how readers seek, prioritize, and process information—to identify “earmarks” of value, which it then adds to an incredibly complex search algorithm that notices and ranks, well, everything.

Of course, no one—save for the wizards behind the scenes—can be fully sure of what’s in the algorithm: we can only reverse hack it, running extensive searches and analyzing the results.

So that’s what the SEO gurus do. And yet, what’s in the algorithm (which changes 1.5 times a day, according to Neil Patel), is almost beside the point.

Sure, chasing the algorithm might result in short-term ranking gains. But in the long-term, quality content will be the only thing worth publishing. It’ll be the most sustainable content around. And the higher Google raises the quality standards, the higher content publishers will need to raise theirs.

And that, in a nutshell, is why 1) keywords don’t get you very far in the search game, and 2) quality content is king, forever.

As a quality-obsessed content agency, here’s how MarketSmiths thinks of SEO—and why keywords are rapidly losing relevance.

SEO Factor 1: For years, volume and keywords have provided two clear and simple guidelines for SEO.

As such, these two factors have served as a focal point for many a strategy. To the detriment of newer, more important things.

On volume, it’s an accepted best practice to post often and post long. How long? In 2016, Backlink found that out of 1 million search results, the average first page result contains 1,890 words. Depending on font size and page length, that’s either one scrolling mega page…or 3-4 shorter web pages, minus pictures. In Google docs or Word, it’s 7 single-spaced pages: long and meaty.

As for keywords, sources like Moz believe that keyword research is still important. But Hummingbird, the reigning search algorithm since 2013, bestowed Google with the ability to recognize natural language and semantics—and it’s getting more clever with every subsequent improvement.

Right off the bat, Hummingbird meant three things for content marketers:

  • Google can now “read” topics and context. If the previous algorithm was like pre-K, Hummingbird is the fourth grade.
  • Because of this, it’s become unnecessary to replicate any given keyword phrase in an exact sequence, or using specific words. So a shop selling “homemade ice cream” can wax poetic about “hand-churned frozen treats,” and Google still gets it.
  • The overuse of literal keywords—as a pretty darn unnatural way to speak—is not only obsolete, it’s punished. That means lower rankings—and fewer eyes ever finding your content.

But like I said, volume and keywords are only the tip of the iceberg. In reality, there are four other content-related factors that govern SEO success.  

SEO Factor 2: Relevance is crucial to SEO—and the standard for satisfying it is getting harder and harder to hit.

From a topic standpoint, we can look at relevance both internally and externally.

First, Google has been shown to reward websites that offer internal relevance to a larger topic. Thus, a roofing company gets a boost for describing different fixes for leaky asphalt. Then, it posts a fun piece about cats, resulting in a boost for its relevance to the topic of cats (not roofing). In a similar vein, the MarketSmiths blog talks about quality content and copy, and—except for a few sporadic ramblings about music or Donald Trump—we stay pretty on-topic. Google sees that, and rewards us handsomely for consistency and topic breadth.

Second, Google appears to prioritize sites that offer fresh insights into these larger topics. In this way, Google is actively working to de-value the ordinary, outdated, and not especially helpful—and elevate the extraordinary. Only, because of the sheer onslaught of content, what’s extraordinary is getting trickier and more elusive.    

“There’s a glut of mid-quality articles on the internet,” said Daniel DiGriz, owner of MadPipe and MarketSmiths’ external marketing director. A mid-quality article might refer to a tepid—however useful and articulate—piece about an oft-Googled topic, created primarily for SEO purposes by a company that doesn’t want to get left behind.

Taking a common topic like acne, each of the following posts might show up on dozens (or even hundreds) of sites:

  • 10 Ways to Fight Acne
  • 10 Ways to Vanquish Your Blackheads
  • 10 At-Home Treatments for Acne-Prone Skin

Because each sub-topic has been deeply rehashed, with minor variations, these posts don’t really have a chance of standing out, unless one or more of the following is true:

  1. It’s published in a high-traffic publication, like Vogue.
  2. It’s effectively publicized or widely shared, say through a strong ad, powerful backlinks, or energetic social media.
  3. It boasts an attention-grabbing title, magnificent visuals, unusual insights, cheeky writing, or some/all of the above—and is thus inherently more capable of gaining and accelerating publicity and shares.

If none of these factors come into play, your post, however well-written, is liable to fall into the abyss: (mostly) unclicked, (sadly) unread, and (ultimately) unrewarded.

To a fine ghostwriter, this gap is incredibly exciting. It means that your posts and pages have the opportunity to rise high above other pieces, to be read and shared by thousands. If they do, you’ll find yourself on the bountiful receiving end of a generous and mostly (still) egalitarian internet.

If they don’t, you may be left behind, despite your best efforts.

Correspondingly, the field of effective digital content writers is primed to get smaller and smaller, until only the very best are left.

SEO Factor 3: In lieu of being able to read like a person, Google ranks quality through a few notable earmarks.

Google search rankings content marketing
User-friendliness and search bot happiness go hand in hand.

Google can’t definitively tell if a piece is actually high quality… yet.

But it can tell if it’s got the earmarks of a comprehensive, in-depth topic treatment. Here are a few of the factors it notes:

  • Is the article structured in a way that matches the substance of the topic? A longer (2,000-word piece) might have an image, a relevant headline, sub-headings, and boldfaced or italicized terms (e.g. core concepts).
  • Are the sub-headings specific and informative? The more specific a sub-heading is, the more scannable the piece, assisting users to read quickly and jump around.
    • BAD: There Are Many Ways to Solve the Problems We All Care About
    • GOOD: Big Data Can Diagnose A Company’s Workforce Issues—and Help You Hire Better
  • Are you linking to a high-authority source (vs. many low-authority sources)?
  • Does the page offer a strong user experience? Writing that flows logically and delivers valuable insights is much more likely to encourage the user to stick around than a spammy page filled with airy, over-laundered fluff.

Essentially, if your content looks like it was written by someone with a crisp understanding of the topic and a desire to impart useful knowledge in an engaging way, you’ll win favor with the Google bots. On the other hand, if it looks like it was churned out in 15 minutes or reads like it was written by a robot, it might win favor with your mom.

SEO Factor 4: Engagement includes delivering on the promise of a piece in ways that are objective and measurable.

Is your post finding its audience? Are people reading it—and finding it valuable enough to share? Are they staying in your post because it meets a core need, or are they bouncing off, maybe because they feel duped by a misleading title, or are disappointed in the actual content?

Are readers sharing the post? Are they saving and bookmarking it? Google Chrome can see this, and you bet it’s watching.

Careful! Here’s where companies may find themselves paying $8,000 a month to lower their SEO.

Say you create glossy, pithy ads that brag about an unbelievably simple new weight loss trick.

But then, users click on the piece, and it’s got nothing to do with losing weight—it’s just a generic listicle about diet and exercise or, worse, a blatant shill for a vitamin that doesn’t even mention weight loss.

So they click off quickly, causing Google to index the bounce and to devalue your SEO. If the user goes back to their search after clicking on your site, you’re basically telling Google that your content isn’t relevant to whatever that person searched for. And Google is going to remember that.

While the jury is still out about the ultimate value of clickbait titles, if you’re going to use them, it’s vital that they’re true. Promising something disingenuous? Even if it does trick a few more people into clicking on your site, they’re going to leave fast and unsatisfied. You’ve lost their trust and Google’s.

A better tactic? Using a genuinely interesting title—and making sure your content follows through.

SEO Factor 5: If you hit all of these points, then your site rises in overall authority.

Quality. Engagement. Relevance. Completeness.

Many search marketers treat the word “authority” as synonymous with backlinks and social sharing. We suspect this is grossly simplified. Whereas the details of how Google judges authority is (like everything else) hush-hush, we’ll take the word at its meaning.

So how can you gain authority? The answer is as true for website as it is in real life—by knowing things and sharing that knowledge with others. Thus, an authoritative piece of content is one that users will want to return to later and recommend to a friend in need, because it’s helpful. An authoritative website forms a comprehensive, self-contained volume of useful tidbits, clearly laid out and cleanly presented.

Say you run an interior design business, and your company blog contains a truly exceptional 12-part post series to help DIYers decorate a room—from choosing the right paint to knowing when it’s fully cured. By offering really valuable content that will remain useful over time, you’re encouraging readers to return to your page whenever they need it and click through to other relevant pages on your site—all while positioning yourself as a subject matter expert with heft.

You can still include a nifty call to action directing readers to hire your company if they don’t feel like doing it themselves. But your content is now so much more than just a forgettable commercial. Not only will Google recognize that you’re a trusted authority on home decorating, but your readers will remember you the next time they think their home deserves a fresh lick of paint.

Yes, you could post some vague fluff piece every single day in the hopes that you’ll catch Google’s eye from across the room. Or you can post four exceptional, authoritative, and reader-friendly pieces for three months. And the best thing about this type of content? It’s always valuable, meaning it will stand the test of time—even as Google refines its algorithm.

How A Content Agency Can Make Sure Your Company’s SEO Comes Out On Top

It sounds like a lot of work. And it is. But we probably don’t need to tell you how important it is for your business to be found in search—and when it comes to providing the highest quality content, we can help.

Partnering with a content agency takes the pressure off your team to generate consistent, SEO-friendly content. At MarketSmiths, we specialize in taking a deep dive into your business and industry to find out what will resonate most with your target audience—and catch Google’s attention. Here’s how we can help with each of the factors discussed above:

1. Volume. We build specialty content teams for all content clients. These teams contain rigorously talented writers and content strategists (primarily from our own staff) who have available bandwidth, can channel airtight consistency, and are excited to deliver on-brand and on-strategy, after the usual layer of Strategic Quality Control(™) designed to free up your time—and release you of any worry.

  • Because of our system, we can dish up four posts or 400, without you having to edit, manage freelancers, or fret about staying on-brand or above-par.

2. Relevance. Hire us, and your article won’t be vague and tepid. It’ll be a worthy contender.

  • Give us a fresh topic, and we’ll use it to gain real attention.
  • Give us an old topic, and we’ll give it a fresh spin.
  • Give us no topic, and we’ll generate one that shines through the noise.

3. Quality. Our motto is “copywriting for humans,” and that’s something we live and breathe. Your article won’t just be reader-friendly, but designed to engage and delight. And yes, it’ll be indexed in exactly the way Google loves, with authentic titles, scannable sub-headings, everything in its rightful place.  

4. Engagement. Value rules. Compelling (truthful) headlines that pop, solid (compelling) substance: all can coalesce into virality, and often have, in our hands. 

5. Authority. We’re not satisfied until we know your business and industry nearly as well as you do. Your articles will always be thoroughly researched and lovingly crafted—setting you up as a company with something powerful to say.

So can we help with your company’s SEO? Absolutely.

Do we weave in keywords? Sure. But using a content agency like MarketSmiths to do only that is like hiring a Harvard Ph.D. to teach your four year-old how to add.

Let’s get your business noticed, for good. For sustainable SEO, get in touch today.

Jean Tang

Jean Tang

A champion of high-end content, Jean is a living tribute to copywriting for humans. In 2012, at a TEDx talk, she declared her now widely viewed “War Against Bland.” The visionary founder of MarketSmiths, Jean leads her growing team to captivate, inspire, and motivate readers. She has helped thousands of global clients generate revenue from words (up to 12,000% ROI), and transformed the writing of hundreds of seminar attendees at the SXSW Interactive Festival (2014 and 2015), SXSW V2V (2014), the Small Business Summit (2014, NYC), and other venues.

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