Why content is ‘not’ king and never has been
I have been in the search marketing industry for over a decade, and I don’t think a year has gone by in which I haven’t heard the expression ‘content is king’ multiple times at conferences, seminars and events.
As well as this being boring marketing rhetoric it’s also a misleading statement, especially when spoken about in the context of SEO. This single phrase was used to describe the effectiveness of keyword optimisation, in-depth articles, keyword positioning, proximity and density. It encouraged SEOs to churn out content without any thought for a user or, in most cases, spelling and grammar.
Even though we have moved on from this era, the phrase ‘content is king’ is still used heavily, and although tactics have now changed within content marketing, UGC and creative campaigns, the term is still very misleading when used in relation to SEO.
So, I want to discuss this purely from an SEO perspective and share some thoughts on why ‘content isn’t king’ and how you will need to adjust your thinking to succeed in search.
It always comes back to Google
With over 80% search share in the UK and over 60% worldwide we can’t ignore Google when talking about search: it’s unavoidable. Ultimately as SEOs we want to understand what signals Google is using to display websites organically. We know there are hundreds of signals, however there are few that are more important than the rest. Depth and relevance of content have always been signals, and in true SEO fashion the advice has always been to churn out fresh content.
I’m not saying this doesn’t work, but it is missing the point.
We all know Google wants to ‘organise the world’s information and make it accessible’, but what we need to understand is how it prioritises this information. Google knows that keywords and links are terrible ways of understanding the importance of information: they are factors but shouldn’t have the weight they currently do.
In recent years emphasis has been moved to site speed, mobile compatibility and brand. These moves hint at where your focus should really be.
Google is moving away from ‘cold’ number-based signals to more user-focused signals that give insight into the experience users have with that information. Google wants to deliver search results that not only comprehensively answer the question, but also give the user a great experience. The number of keywords on a page cannot tell you this, and links are a weak signal at best.
Google is a bot
Google is at a major disadvantage when trying to measure the experience on a given web page because it is a robot. Return to search, CTRs and maybe analytics signals can be used to measure engagement, but again these signals are generic and different experiences will exist between industries.
For me, the shift towards personalising websites will mean Google have to get to grips with prioritising different signals. As a bot it will only see one generic experience, one generic message, a piece of content or call to action. When businesses become better at personalisation the experience will differ from user to user; Google cannot see the content each user is seeing, but must try to gauge the meaningfulness of the experience.
I rarely click on a search result to read a long article, or study a subject in depth – I usually just want an answer, quickly and easily.
My goal will determine the experience I want. When looking for a new car I may have already decided what I want, I may want to know the technical spec, watch videos, find my local dealer, or I might just want some advice. The experience for each one of these intentions is very different, and a text-based algorithm cannot shed much insight into the value a web page offers.
As personalisation matures, so will the weight Google puts on ‘engagement’ signals rather than those based on content. They cannot rely on their generic view of the web moving into the future.
What to do?
Just to be clear, content is still a significant signal. The depth and quality of your content drives topical relevance and as long as it is useful it will help you in organic search. Quality links from trusted resources are still important and will equally help you perform well.
However, moving forward your strategy needs to focus much more on intention: how are you going to be the best search result for your customers? What are they expecting to find on your website, what questions need answering, and what experiences are important in helping them engage with your business? This is the future of SEO strategy: content may well be a vehicle to driving this strategy, but not quite ‘king’.
The truth is, content has never actually been king. In the world of SEO, Google was king, and now it’s customers.
For more about engagement/intention, you may find these presentations useful: