It’s Content and It’s Links – Are We Making SEO Too Complicated?
Content and links — to successfully leverage search as a marketing channel you need useful content and relevant links.
In fact, a Google employee straight up told us that content and links are two of the three (the other being RankBrain) most important ranking factors in its search algorithm.
So why do we seem to overcomplicate SEO by chasing new trends and tactics, overreacting to fluctuations in rankings, and obsessing over the length of our title tags? SEO is simple — it’s content and it’s links.
Now, this is a simple concept, but it is much more nuanced and complex to execute well. However, I believe that by getting back to basics and focusing on these two pillars of SEO we can all spend more time doing the work that will be most impactful, creating a better, more connected web, and elevating SEO as a practice within the marketing realm.
To support this movement, I want to provide you with strategic, actionable takeaways that you can leverage in your own content marketing and link building campaigns. So, without further ado, let’s look at how you can be successful in search with content and links.
Building the right content
As the Wu-Tang Clan famously said, “Content rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M,” …well, it was something like that. The point is, everything in SEO begins and ends with content. Whether it’s a blog post, infographic, video, in-depth guide, interactive tool, or something else, content truly rules everything around us online.
Content attracts and engages visitors, building positive associations with your brand and inspiring them to take desired actions. Content also helps search engines better understand what your website is about and how they should rank your pages within their search results.
So where do you start with something as wide-reaching and important as a content strategy? Well, if everything in SEO begins and ends with content, then everything in content strategy begins and ends with keyword research.
Proper keyword research is the difference between a targeted content strategy that drives organic visibility and simply creating content for the sake of creating content. But don’t just take my word for it — check out this client project where keyword research was executed after a year of publishing content that wasn’t backed by keyword analysis:
(Note: Each line represents content published within a given year, not total organic sessions of the site.)
In 2018, we started creating content based on keyword opportunities. The performance of that content has quickly surpassed (in terms of organic sessions) the older pages that were created without strategic research.
Start with keyword research
The concept of keyword research is straightforward — find the key terms and phrases that your audience uses to find information related to your business online. However, the execution of keyword research can be a bit more nuanced, and simply starting is often the most difficult part.
The best place to start is with the keywords that are already bringing people to your site, which you can find within Google Search Console.
Beyond the keywords that already bring people to your website, a baseline list of seed keywords can help you expand your keyword reach.
Seed keywords are the foundational terms that are related to your business and brand.
As a running example, let’s use Quip, a brand that sells oral care products. Quip’s seed keywords would be:
- [toothbrush set]
- [electric toothbrush]
- [electric toothbrush set]
- [toothbrush subscription]
These are some of the most basic head terms related to Quip’s products and services. From here, the list could be expanded, using keyword tools such as Moz’s Keyword Explorer, to find granular long-tail keywords and other related terms.
Expanded keyword research and analysis
The first step in keyword research and expanding your organic reach is to identify current rankings that can and should be improved.
Here are some examples of terms Moz’s Keyword Explorer reports Quip has top 50 rankings for:
- [teeth whitening]
- [sensitive teeth]
- [whiten teeth]
- [automatic toothbrush]
- [tooth sensitivity]
- [how often should you change your toothbrush]
These keywords represent “near-miss” opportunities for Quip, where it ranks on page two or three. Optimization and updates to existing pages could help Quip earn page one rankings and substantially more traffic.
For example, here are the first page results for [how often should you change your toothbrush]:
As expected, the results here are hyper-focused on answering the question how often a toothbrush needs to be changed, and there is a rich snippet that answers the question directly.
Now, look at Quip’s page where we can see there is room for improvement in answering searcher intent:
The title of the page isn’t optimized for the main query, and a simple title change could help this page earn more visibility. Moz reports 1.7k–2.9k monthly search volume for [how often should you change your toothbrush]:
This is a stark contrast to the volume reported by Moz for [why is a fresh brush head so important] which is “no data” (which usually means very small):
Quip’s page is already ranking on page two for [how often should you change your toothbrush], so optimizing the title could help the page crack the top ten.
Furthermore, the content on the page is not optimized either:
Rather than answering the question of how often to change a toothbrush concisely (like the page that has earned the rich snippet), the content is closer to ad copy. Putting a direct, clear answer to this question at the beginning of the content could help this page rank better.
And that’s just one query and one page!
Keyword research should uncover these types of opportunities, and with Moz’s Keyword Explorer you can also find ideas for new content through “Keyword Suggestions.”
Using Quip as an example again, we can plug in their seed keyword [toothbrush] and get multiple suggestions (MSV = monthly search volume):
- [toothbrush holder] – MSV: 6.5k–9.3k
- [how to properly brush your teeth] – MSV: 851–1.7k
- [toothbrush cover] – MSV: 851–1.7k
- [toothbrush for braces] – MSV: 501–850
- [electric toothbrush holder] – MSV: 501–850
- [toothbrush timer] – MSV: 501–850
- [soft vs medium toothbrush] – MSV: 201–500
- [electric toothbrush for braces] – MSV: 201–500
- [electric toothbrush head holder] – MSV: 101–200
- [toothbrush delivery] – MSV: 101–200
Using this method, we can extrapolate one seed keyword into ten more granular and related long-tail keywords — each of which may require a new page.
This handful of terms generates a wealth of content ideas and different ways Quip could address pain points and reach its audience.
Another source for keyword opportunities and inspiration are your competitors. For Quip, one of its strongest competitors is Colgate, a household name brand. Moz demonstrates the difference in market position with its “Competitor Overlap” tool:
Although many of Colgate’s keywords aren’t relevant to Quip, there are still opportunities to be gleaned here for Quip. One such example is [sensitive teeth], where Colgate is ranking top five, but Quip is on page two:
While many of the other keywords show Quip is ranking outside of the top 50, this is an opportunity that Quip could potentially capitalize on.
To analyze this opportunity, let’s look at the actual search results first.
It’s immediately clear that the intent here is informational — something to note when we examine Quip’s page. Also, scrolling down we can see that Colgate has two pages ranking on page one:
One of these pages is from a separate domain for hygienists and other dental professionals, but it still carries the Colgate brand and further demonstrates Colgate’s investment into this query, signaling this is a quality opportunity.
The next step for investigating this opportunity is to examine Colgate’s ranking page and check if it’s realistic for Quip to beat what they have. Here is Colgate’s page:
This page is essentially a blog post:
If this page is ranking, it’s reasonable to believe that Quip could craft something that would be at least as good of a result for the query, and there is room for improvement in terms of design and formatting.
One thing to note, that is likely helping this page rank is the clear definition of “tooth sensitivity” and signs and symptoms listed on the sidebar:
Now, let’s look at Quip’s page:
This appears to be a blog-esque page as well.
This page offers solid information on sensitive teeth, which matches the queries intent and is likely why the pages ranks on page two. However, the page appears to be targeted at [tooth sensitivity]:
This is another great keyword opportunity for Quip:
However, this should be a secondary opportunity to [sensitive teeth] and should be mixed in to the copy on the page, but not the focal point. Also, the page one results for [tooth sensitivity] are largely the same as those for [sensitive teeth], including Colgate’s page:
So, one optimization Quip could make to the page could be to change some of these headers to include “sensitive teeth” (also, these are all H3s, and the page has no H2s, which isn’t optimal). Quip could draw inspiration from the questions that Google lists in the “People also ask” section of the SERP:
Also, a quick takeaway I had was that Quip’s page does not lead off with a definition of sensitive teeth or tooth sensitivity. We learned from Colgate’s page that quickly defining the term (sensitive teeth) and the associated symptoms could help the page rank better.
These are just a few of the options available to Quip to optimize its page, and as mentioned before, an investment into a sleek, easy to digest design could separate its page from the pack.
If Quip were able to move its page onto the first page of search results for [sensitive teeth], the increase in organic traffic could be significant. And [sensitive teeth] is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg — there is a wealth of opportunity with associated keywords, that Quip would rank well for also:
Executing well on these content opportunities and repeating the process over and over for relevant keywords is how you scale keyword-focused content that will perform well in search and bring more organic visitors.
At Page One Power, we’ve leveraged this strategy and seen great results for clients. Here is an example of a client that is primarily focused on content creation and their corresponding growth in organic sessions:
These pages (15) were all published in January, and you can see that roughly one month after publishing, these pages started taking off in terms of organic traffic. This is because these pages are backed by keyword research and optimized so well that even with few external backlinks, they can rank on or near page one for multiple queries.
However, this doesn’t mean you should ignore backlinks and link acquisition. While the above pages rank well without many links, the domain they’re on has a substantial backlink profile cultivated through strategic link building. Securing relevant, worthwhile links is still a major part of a successful SEO campaign.
Earning real links and credibility
The other half of this complicated “it’s content and it’s links” equation is… links, and while it seems straightforward, successful execution is rather difficult — particularly when it comes to link acquisition.
While there are tools and processes that can increase organization and efficiency, at the end of the day link building takes a lot of time and a lot of work — you must manually email real website owners to earn real links. As Matt Cutts famously said (we miss you, Matt!), “Link building is sweat, plus creativity.”
However, you can greatly improve your chances for success with link acquisition if you identify which pages (existing or need to be created) on your site are link-worthy and promote them for links.
Spoiler alert: these are not your “money pages.”
Converting pages certainly have a function on your website, but they typically have limited opportunities when it comes to link acquisition. Instead, you can support these pages — and other content on your site — through internal linking from more linkable pages.
So how do you identify linkable assets? Well, there are some general characteristics that directly correlate with link-worthiness:
- Usefulness — concept explanation, step-by-step guide, collection of resources and advice, etc.
- Uniqueness — a new or fresh perspective on an established topic, original research or data, prevailing coverage of a newsworthy event, etc.
- Entertaining — novel game or quiz, humorous take on a typically serious subject, interactive tool, etc.
Along with these characteristics, you also need to consider the size of your potential linking audience. The further you move down your marketing funnel, the smaller the linking audience size; converting pages are traditionally difficult to earn links to because they serve a small audience of people looking to buy.
Instead, focus on assets that exist at the top of your marketing funnel and serve large audiences looking for information. The keywords associated with these pages are typically head terms that may prove difficult to rank for, but if your content is strong you can still earn links through targeted, manual outreach to relevant sites.
Ironically, your most linkable pages aren’t always the pages that will rank well for you in search, since larger audiences also mean more competition. However, using linkable assets to secure worthwhile links will help grow the authority and credibility of your brand and domain, supporting rankings for your keyword-focused and converting pages.
Going back to our Quip example, we see a page on their site that has the potential to be a linkable asset:
Currently, this page is geared more towards conversions which hurts linkability. However, Quip could easily move conversion-focused elements to another page and internally link from this page to maintain a pathway to conversion while improving link-worthiness.
To truly make this page a linkable asset, Quip would need add depth on the topic of how to brush your teeth and hone in on a more specific audience. As the page currently stands, it is targeted at everybody who brushes, but to make the page more linkable Quip could focus on a specific age group (toddlers, young children, elderly, etc.) or perhaps a profession or group who works odd hours or travels frequently and doesn’t have the convenience of brushing at home. An increased focus on audience will help with linkability, making this page one that shares useful information in a way that is unique and entertaining.
It also happens that [how to properly brush your teeth] was one of the opportunities we identified earlier in our (light) keyword research, so this could be a great opportunity to earn keyword rankings and links!
Putting it all together and simplifying our message
Now before we put it all together and solve SEO once and for all, you might be thinking, “What about technical and on-page SEO?!?”
And to that, I say, well those are just makeu…just kidding!
Technical and on-page elements play a major role in successful SEO and getting these elements wrong can derail the success of any content you create and undermine the equity of the links you secure.
Let’s be clear: if Google can’t crawl your site, you’re not showing up in its search results.
However, I categorize these optimizations under the umbrella of “content” within our content and links formula. If you’re not considering how search engines consume your content, along with human readers, then your content likely won’t perform well in the results of said search engines.
Rather than dive into the deep and complex world of technical and on-page SEO in this post, I recommend reading some of the great resources here on Moz to ensure your content is set up for success from a technical standpoint.
But to review the strategy I’ve laid out here, to be successful in search you need to:
- Research your keywords and niche – Having the right content for your audience is critical to earning search visibility and business. Before you start creating content or updating existing pages, make sure you take the time to research your keywords and niche to better understand your current rankings and position in the search marketplace.
- Analyze and expand keyword opportunities – Beyond understanding your current rankings, you also need to identify and prioritize available keyword opportunities. Using tools like Moz you can uncover hidden opportunities with long-tail and related key terms, ensuring your content strategy is targeting your best opportunities.
- Craft strategic content that serves your search goals – Using keyword analysis to inform content creation, you can build content that addresses underserved queries and helpful guides that attract links. An essential aspect of a successful content plan is balancing keyword-focused content with broader, more linkable content and ensuring you’re addressing both SEO goals.
- Promote your pages for relevant links – Billions of new pages go live each day, and without proper promotion, even the best pages will be buried in the sea of content online. Strategic promotion of your pages will net you powerful backlinks and extra visibility from your audience.
Again, these concepts seem simple but are quite difficult to execute well. However, by drilling down to the two main factors for search visibility — content and links — you can avoid being overwhelmed or focusing on the wrong priorities and instead put all your efforts into the strategies that will provide the most SEO impact.
However, along with refocusing our own efforts, as SEOs we also need to simplify our message to the uninitiated (or as they’re also known, the other 99% of the population). I know from personal experience how quickly the eyes start to glaze over when I get into the nitty-gritty of SEO, so I typically pivot to focus on the most basic concepts: content and links.
People can wrap their minds around the simple process of creating good pages that answer a specific set of questions and then promoting those pages to acquire endorsements (backlinks). I suggest we embrace this same approach, on a broader scale, as an industry.
When we talk to potential and existing clients, colleagues, executives, etc., let’s keep things simple. If we focus on the two concepts that are the easiest to explain we will get better understanding and more buy-in for the work we do (it also happens that these two factors are the biggest drivers of success).
So go out, shout it from the rooftops — CONTENT AND LINKS — and let’s continue to do the work that will drive positive results for our websites and help secure SEOs rightful seat at the marketing table.