Why content-led SEO will always fail to build links effectively

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SEO as a discipline has always struggled with its black hat or unethical practitioners saturating the industry with questionable link-building practices. As an ethical SEO, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling pleased about Google’s efforts to fight against these attempts to game the system with algorithm updates like Panda and Penguin, resulting in a wider awareness of the risk of unethical strategies.

One side effect of Google penalizing common unethical techniques like link buying, link exchanges or flat-out content spinning has been an upsurge in the popularity of “content-led” inbound marketing strategies.

Content-led inbound marketing strategies

We’re all familiar with this approach. Typically, the process flows something like this:

The SEO agency tells its client that its strategy to build links is to create great content, promote it, and then reap ranking benefit from the subsequent developed links. They advise the client that they will run content ideation sessions and allow them to vet the proposed ideas so nothing will be outside their brand or tone guidelines. They may also align the planned content strategy with the client’s marketing strategy.

At this point, the SEO agency will probably use BuzzSumo, or a similar tool, to find content that is popular socially, and then look at what made that content so successful. They might match that back to target audiences from the client’s wider marketing strategy. They then run an ideation session using that data and provide back to the client the content ideas for sign-off. If the client is lucky, those ideas will be genuinely unique and interesting. If they are exceptionally lucky, they will also have a level of realism and feasibility baked into the requirements of creating each idea.

After sign-off, the ideas will be worked up into highly polished content and promoted using a clever, light-touch multi-channel promotion strategy. In an ideal world, they all go live on time, and the promotion strategy works to efficiently place the new content right under the noses of all those social influencers identified in the ideation session.

The problem with this approach is that it is wildly unsuccessful at consistently creating any links of value for the client.

Chart from the HubSpot study showing the expected greatest commercial impact in 2016.

Chart from the HubSpot study showing the expected greatest commercial impact in 2016

In a recent collaborative study of content marketing success run by HubSpot across 700 marketers, the headline figures were that although 67 percent of those marketers were planning to increase their content marketing efforts in 2017, 72 percent of those same marketers rated their current content-led marketing activity as “Limited, Basic, or Inconsistent.” In addition, 60 percent of marketers rated content marketing strategy as their biggest challenge.

So, what is the cause of this basic failure of content-led strategy to achieve its stated purpose?

At QueryClick, we have been surveying marketers for more depth on the causes of content marketing failure, and overwhelmingly, a lack of genuine ability to get high-quality content live is a key factor. Poverty of quality in ideas proposed is a challenge. And failure of influencer uptake for content that they have already moved on from wraps up the key issues with the process as it stands.

What does content-led strategy failure really mean for SEO?

While it may seem obvious that investing the majority of your time on content production that ultimately fails to get out of the gates (or otherwise fails to achieve your planned content strategy goals) may self-evidently appear to be a bad thing, can we quantify what failure in this aspect of your overall SEO strategy means for organic performance?

Moz comes to the rescue here with a comprehensive study of its own, although it is now a little dated, as it was last run in 2015. In the study itself, run across 150 SEO experts, Moz found that backlink domain diversity and authority stand out as by far the dominant factors in driving SEO performance.

Taking the two studies in tandem, we have described an SEO industry that is tied to a practice (content-led inbound marketing) that is failing in its core objective (driving high-authority domain links and domain diversity).

How can we work smarter in targeting content strategy?

In my view, demonstrating the failure of the current approach to content marketing highlights a solution (one of no doubt many — and I’d be very interested to hear thoughts from the community). Replace content-led strategy with audience-led strategy.

One of the issues with common approaches to content marketing is the failure to qualify ideas, which leads to too much time wasted on content that won’t actually achieve your business objectives. The ideation session should focus less on content types and more on audience profiles. This allows the session to be refocused on genuinely new content ideas that will add value to both their audience, and ultimately provide a better quality of links back to the client website.

I like to use a blended metric of Tendency to Link to understand an influencer and their audience’s ability to transform social interest into hard links to the website. By doing this at the ideation stage, you can link those high-tendency audiences back into your overarching keyphrase strategy and build in underlying SEO impact to your creative ideas, no matter what form they take.

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