Sunday, November 12, 2023

Why SEO is Still Important for Content Marketing in 2024

Creating content without an eye for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is like having a brochure printed and leaving it in the stationary cupboard. Customers don’t read cold marketing emails, they go to a search engine when they have a genuine need. As we careen towards 2024, the relevance of SEO continues to be a vital part of the content marketing stack.

Apologies in advance, this is probably going to be a long one. Google will hate it. It hates my unoptimized Blogger blog anyway, which is ironic as Blogger is a Google service.

I started my digital career in SEO, back at the turn of the millennium. However, the modern digital world is in a state of perpetual disruption, and SEO practices are no exception. The algorithms that determine search engine rankings are becoming mind-bogglingly sophisticated, embracing the latest in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and this evolution calls for a more dynamic approach. Sympathetic table layout and getting a client on DMOZ just won’t cut it anymore. 


As a content marketer, it’s common sense for me to stay abreast of the latest trends and updates in search engine algorithms to maintain and improve online visibility for the sites I manage. While I work with a splendid agency (Bay Leaf Digital) specifically for SEO optimization and the bulk of link-building, it’s still a big part of my remit to get us seen and incorporate their research and on-page recommendations into my work. However, The focus has shifted from traditional keyword-centric strategies to a more holistic approach that prioritizes a solid user experience, mobile optimization, and (thankfully for my bank balance and mental health) high-quality content that addresses user intent. 


We need up-to-date strategies. Adapting to these changes is fundamental for organizations to be sure their online presence remains strong and that they continue to reach their target audience. In 2024, staying informed and agile in SEO strategy isn’t just beneficial; it's going to be essential for the win.


I’d grab a coffee if I were you. Here we go.


Understanding User Intent 


Stuff keyword stuffing. We need a much more nuanced understanding of what people actually want. 

Loading webpages with a bunch of relevant keywords was a common tactic to boost search rankings – and, shamefully, one I’ve used myself. Sure, we still need our keywords, but search engines have become more sophisticated, now “prioritizing the ‘relevance’ and ‘value’ of content to the user's search intent.” 

This means that effective SEO needs an understanding of what users (our customer personas) are searching for – their needs, questions, and the type of content they’ll find of actual value. This creates more engaging, useful, and informative content (Hurrah!) that resonates with an audience. It improves search engine rankings, sure, but it also enriches the overall user experience - hopefully leading to higher engagement, trust, and loyalty. This is a good thing. Understanding and catering to user intent is a clear commitment to providing value and relevance to an audience – of which I’ve always been an advocate.


Quality Content is Thankfully Still King 


The old adage 'content is king' holds more truth than ever, especially for SEO. Engaging, valuable content is totally essential for achieving and maintaining decent rankings. 

E-E-A-T: Google's ranking system leverages a ton of factors to rank high-quality content, loving content that's the most useful, as indicated by experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-E-A-T). Trust is the cornerstone, with the other elements enhancing it, though not all are required for content to be considered valuable. For instance, content may be deemed helpful due to the author's experience or the expertise presented. 


While E-E-A-T is one of those annoyingly nebulous ’indirect’ ranking factors, it does “guide the system,” especially for the critical "Your Money or Your Life" (YMYL) topics affecting health, finances, (online) safety, or societal welfare.


I’m a big fan of creating assets that thoroughly answer user queries. This involves delving deep into topics, providing detailed explanations, and covering all the aspects and nuances that users might be interested in. I utilize keyword research to understand what our target audience is searching for and attempt to address those topics with depth and clarity. I also do my research and dive into the forums and specialist sites where our target audience is talking. You can also use the likes of ChatGPT to get some inspiration about your audience's biggest concerns. Knowledge is power.

I run the whole gamut of content formats, like blog copy, explainer videos, infographics, solution brief resources, and even podcasts, in an ongoing (but strategic) attempt to enhance engagement and cater to user preferences. Try our resources page for some examples. Content marketing is only dull if you’re doing it wrong.

I also update and tweak existing content fairly regularly to keep it current and relevant. Going back and cross-linking to newer posts to promote trawling, etc. Producing rich, informative assets that genuinely satisfy user queries and updating them with new info., adds to thought leadership creds and goes a long way to establishing any website as a trusted resource.


Video Content for Enhanced Engagement 


The growing power of video in SEO is a testament to changing user preferences and the engaging nature of visual content. 


Videos increase the time visitors spend on our website, known as ‘Page Dwell Time,’ but they also provide a dynamic way to present information and tell stories, which can be another boost to search engine rankings. To increase dwell time from a content perspective, in the past I’ve used audio recordings of the copy so visitors could play them without having to wade through posts that went beyond the fold. Page dwell time is accompanied by a new metric in GA4 called ‘engagement rate,’ which is essentially a bounce rate flipped on its head. It also factors in other shenanigans like the percentage of the page scrolled. This is all achievable with content, but a proper run-down would need to be a whole other blog post.


To optimize video content for search engines, I focus on metadata, including relevant keywords in the video title, description, and tags to improve its ‘discoverability.’ I usually repurpose any script to provide a transcript, as it generally makes the content more accessible to search engine crawlers, thereby improving the chances of ranking for those relevant keywords. 


By hosting videos on platforms like Vimeo and YouTube, and then embedding them on our site, we leverage YouTube or Vimeo’s high domain authority to boost visibility. They also appear on their own in Google search results.

Mobile-First Indexing 


With the majority of internet users accessing the web via mobile devices, some 60.73% in July 2022, it's now standard practice for websites to be optimized for mobile browsing to maintain and improve their search engine rankings. 


The big key to this optimization is responsive web design (RWD), which makes sure that any site is “visually and functionally compatible” across devices, giving a more seamless user experience whether on a smartphone, via tablet, or on our desktop. 


Page speed is a big one; mobile users invariably have less patience for slow-loading pages, I know I don’t, and search engines (like Google) factor load times into their rankings. It’s good practice to focus on optimizing images, leveraging browser caching, and minimizing code. Implementing Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) can also be a boon to load times, directly impacting a site's visibility and user engagement, which Google loves more than chocolate.


AI and Machine Learning 


The impact of AI and machine learning on SEO, particularly regarding Google's algorithms, has been somewhat transformative to say the least. It’s created a new playing field for search engine optimization and will be one to watch in 2024. 

Google's AI-driven algorithm, such as BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers), focuses on understanding the context and nuances of user queries, moving way beyond just keyword matching. This disruptive change means that SEO strategies have to adapt to prioritize content quality and relevance. 


In an active attempt to align with advanced algorithms, once again I focus on writing for users first, keeping content natural and informative, and answering key questions. Embracing semantic search principles by including related keywords and topics that provide a comprehensive view of the subject matter is now part of the process. This takes into account factors like the searcher's location, search history, word variations, synonyms, and the relationships between words to provide more accurate and relevant search results. Basically, “semantic search aims to understand the searcher's intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace, whether on a webpage or part of a user query,” to improve the accuracy of search results. This means a portion of my output must focus on creating content that answers questions and provides valuable information related to the topic rather than just the old-school targeting of specific keywords.


Try SEMrushAhrefsMoz ProMarketMuse, or Ubersuggest. I’m a big exponent of AI, and I believe that staying updated with the SEO tools that incorporate AI for keyword research and SEO analysis gives us something of a competitive edge. I’m also a fan of Yoast Pro, in Wordpress.


Local Search for Local People


Local SEO is fried-gold for businesses serving specific areas, meaning they can target their local audience. A big portion of searches have local intent, so having a presence in local search results is important. 

Businesses can make a start by optimizing their website for local keywords, and adding location-specific phrases that potential customers in the area are more likely to use. Claiming and optimizing a Google My Business (GMB) listing is standard. This involves providing accurate and updated business information, like the address, phone number, and hours of operation, as well as adding photos and responding to customer reviews. 

Encouraging customers to leave reviews, and then engaging with them afterward, can also be a plus. Finding local online directories and checking consistent NAP (Name, Address, Phone number) information across all listings will support any local visibility.


For more ideas, check out my post on How to use Google Shopping to get Local Sales.


Secure Websites Are a Must (HTTPS) 


A secure website is the new normal, serving as a foundation of trust between a user and any online presence. For visitors, a secure website - signified by HTTPS and a padlock icon in our address bar - signals a safe space where our data is encrypted and protected from interception or misuse. This level of security, usually provided by SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates, safeguards sensitive information and builds consumer confidence. 


Most search engines prioritize secure websites in their rankings, considering HTTPS as an important ranking signal. Implementing an SSL certificate, therefore, is a dual-faceted tool: it acts as “a guardian of data integrity and privacy” plus boosts search engine visibility. Website security is a necessity - trust me on this, I work in cybersecurity – to influence credibility, user experience, and search ranking. Go HTTPS or go home.


The Rise of Featured Snippets


Featured snippets have become a coveted feature in search result real estate, usually appearing at the very top of the page in the much sought-after "Position 0." These snippets give quick, direct answers to user queries and increase visibility and click-through rates. Happy days. Well, happy days if your customers are using desktop machines. This year, Google moved the goalpost once again and removed the ability to influence snippets on mobile using FAQ schema, so who knows where this is going in the future.


I don’t make every post optimized for snippets. When I do, in an attempt to increase the chances of our content being featured like this, I do so strategically. This includes directly answering questions in a clear, concise manner, ideally in the form of short paragraphs, bullet points, or numbered lists. 

Content that addresses common questions in a "how-to," "what is," or "why do" format seems particularly effective. I try to include a relevant question as a subheading, immediately following it up with a straightforward answer or definition. I also try to keep well-organized, using header tags (H1, H2, etc., still with relevant keywords) and adding custom-made (thank you MidJorney), 
consistently high-quality, and relevant images. I use clarity, brevity, and directness in my snippet copy, which so far appears to be working, but I do so sympathetically to the site and the content itself, and always consider where on the site that content is going to sit so it's still natural and doesn't come off like content spam. In my opinion, be it unofficial, overusing this tactic is a further kiss of SEO death.


Core Web Vitals and UX 


As a user, Google's introduction of Core Web Vitals as an SEO factor is a welcome shift towards prioritizing user experience as a part of the ranking process. Professionally, a bad UX makes my teeth itch. Core Web Vitals are a bunch of factors that Google considers important in a webpage's overall user experience, including loading performance, interactivity, and "visual stability." It’s basically good for everyone, especially the customer.


Step one, have a chat with your web developers to reduce load times - optimizing images, leveraging browser caching, minimizing JavaScript, etc. - improving server response times and reducing the impact of third-party scripts. 


Enhancing "visual stability" means making sure that elements on the page don’t shift around unexpectedly as the page loads – and honestly, that’s well above my pay grade. 


Regularly checking a website's performance with tools like Google's PageSpeed Insights and Lighthouse can give me some idea of how well our site is performing and insights to drop into Jira for those who know more than I do.


Building Quality Backlinks 


Backlinks are links from one website to another and are of best value if they're one-way and not reciprocal. They can be a time vampire, but they’re still a cornerstone of SEO, acting as a key indicator of a website's authority and relevance to search engines. A solid backlink profile from reputable, high-authority websites is a thing of beauty. 


I can’t stress how important it is to avoid black-hat SEO tactics - like buying random low-quality links or taking part in dodgy link farms - as these will lead to ranking penalties. Just don't. The process of disavowing backlinks is another logistical headache that nobody needs.

To build backlinks ethically, I focus on creating valuable and polished content that naturally encourages other sites to link to it – check out the likes of ‘30 Sobering Cybersecurity Statistics for 2023,’ with over 200 social shares and a ton of blogs linking to it in just week one. I also offer my services on (reputable) sites for guest posting in exchange for inbound links. I started with industry partners and resellers, reaching out and suggesting I share any posts I write for them on our own social channels to grease the wheels and give them something in return. Adding RSS feeds to syndication sites is a simple win, see my copy on Security Boulevard as an example. Hitting up industry influencers and bloggers for collaborations, or to share our content, is time-consuming but has resulted in a few nice inbound opportunities.


Building relationships within your industry and actively participating in community discussions, forums, and social media can give organic linking opportunities, but again, there are only so many hours in the day, and we're usually not the experts. Most in-house or agency content creators aren't knowledgeable enough on a specific topic to have the critical and supportive conversations needed. I try to focus my efforts on quality over quantity, making sure backlinks are relevant and adding value to our audience by encouraging relationships with sites that discuss our industry issues - giving credence through context - which has the added bonus or reinforcing my own writing creds on any given subject.


The Role of Social Signals? 


The role of social signals in SEO is a heated topic of much debate among digital marketers, but when I see my own LinkedIn posts in search results, I’ve got to give the idea some props. 


‘Allegedly,’ social signals - likes, shares, comments on social media platforms, etc. - influence a website's search rankings. While Google has repeatedly said that “social signals are not a direct ranking factor,” the benefits to me appear to be very real. Social media can also boost brand visibility and drive traffic to a website, which are further components of SEO success. 


If nothing else, content that gets decent traction on social media can boost backlinks, as it gets noticed and shared by a wider audience, including bloggers and journalists who might link to it from their own websites, plus opens the doors to syndication.


Again, I focus on creating shareable, engaging content that resonates with our audience with good, custom-written social posts written for each asset. I encourage social sharing through the integration of social media buttons on our website, as standard, and actively engage with our followers and evangelists on platforms. By building a strong social media presence, you can enhance brand recognition, drive traffic, and (potentially) positively impact your site's SEO (all be it indirectly). 

While the ever-changing value of individual social channels is a whole other conversation - gee, thanks, Mr. Musk, for taking the Twitter [X] pipe away from Google - social still appears to be a part of the process.

Voice Search Optimization?


I have to mention voice search, or someone's bound to say, "What about voice search?" 

Voice searches have been ‘the big thing for next year’ for over half a decade, but honestly, all it really does is read snippets. Nobody is regularly optimizing for voice. So far, it seems to be "a goalless win." With any result, where's the click-through? Where's the transaction? Who's booking a demo through voice results? Where's the memorable experience? Where's the branding? Where's the awareness element? Yeah, it's happening, but it's not making sales - so far.

Voice search queries tend to be more conversational and longer than typical text-based searches. This means that if I am catering to them, I focus on optimizing for natural language and long-tail keywords that mirror how people speak in everyday life. I occasionally craft posts that incorporate question-based phrases and complete sentences into my copy, at least into my H2 copy, as these are seemingly more likely to align with voice queries. For instance, targeting phrases like "What are the best Chinese restaurants in the center of Liverpool?" would be better than just "Chinese restaurants Liverpool."

Even if it’s not a sales goal, I still try to make sure that my content gives clear, concise answers to potential questions, which can supposedly increase our chances of appearing in voice search results. However, that's just something I do for clarity rather than a conscious effort to court the likes of Alexa. At the start of 2023, structuring content in a Q&A format or including an FAQ section on a website page (like this one I wrote on mitigating zero-day attacks) was beneficial - and actually not as ‘grey hat’ as I initially thought - but now this doesn't show in mobile results. As a result, that's two days of writing fluff for FAQs I'll never get back.

Voice search optimization is still one to keep a casual (and critical) eye on, but I won't be making it a big priority until the algorithm and the outcome tell me otherwise.


SEO Analytics and Tools 


Analytics provide insights that are a goldmine for understanding the effectiveness of my efforts and for making informed decisions. It’s a dopamine fix when I’m proven right and helpful when I'm proven wrong.

Analytics tools let me monitor key metrics like conversion rate, organic traffic, bounce rate and 404s, keyword rankings, and page load times, and give me a clearer picture of overall performance. Google Analytics is the de facto tool, giving me data on website traffic and user behavior. Google Search Console gives me insights into search query data, website impressions, click-through rates, and the health of our website in terms of indexing and pesky crawl errors. Other tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Moz offer advanced features for keyword tracking, analyzing backlinks, and thought-provoking/content-inspiring competitor insights. 


Regularly reviewing the numbers helps me see the areas of success and highlights those much-needed improvements, allowing us to smooth overall SEO/content effectiveness and work better towards our business goals. I also like services like Tableau and Skedler for visualizing SEO report data, which gives my non-statistical brain that wee bit more clarity.

Getting SEO Ready for 2024


Sorry, I did say this was going to be a long one, but SEO is as crucial as ever heading into 2024.


As search algorithms evolve, with artificial intelligence and machine learning, an informed approach to SEO and content marketing is going to be a must. The narrative has shifted from the keyword-centric tactics of yesteryear to a holistic strategy that embraces user intent, new tools, visual storytelling using video and quality imagery, and mobile-first indexing, all underpinned by the timeless value of quality content. 


For success in the coming year, we content marketers need to stay as informed and agile as our specialist SEO comrades, adapting our content strategies to sophisticated, context-aware algorithms without resorting to content spam for the sake of it. A multifaceted content repertoire optimized for semantic search, mobile responsiveness, and AI tools, alongside ethical backlink practices and leveraging social media's indirect benefits, are going to be the backbone of growing (and keeping) a decent online presence. 


With Google's focus on Core Web Vitals enhancing user experience, and the potential of featured snippets to boost visibility, there’s an obvious call for continuous learning and adapting content marketing accordingly. It needs to be as much a part of the job as creating graphics and copy. Monitoring these efforts through accurate analytics means strategies can be data-driven and finely tuned to the whims of search engines. There are interesting times ahead.


After that, I’m going to go and have a little lie-down...