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Content Over Keywords: Why TOKY Cares More About “SSO” Than “SEO”


Many a potential client asks us the same web-relaunch question: “How will you handle SEO?”

We understand the need to pose it. In a few cases, it’s coming from a company that does indeed depend greatly on search traffic; in that case, we can recommend an agency partner of ours, a targeted paid search ad campaign, or perhaps a combination of the two.

Often, though, we soon realize that it’s a question and term that’s delivered as a kind of legacy acronym — the prospective client knows to ask about it but hasn’t yet had the chance to discuss what it means within the larger context of online marketing in 2013. In those more frequent cases, here’s how we answer:

  • First, any website TOKY launches will be built on a modern system that plays exceptionally well with all major search engines. That’s a given.
  • And second, in asking about SEO, you’re essentially asking about attracting visitors to your site and your company. To do so, we like to focus less on how users can stumble onto your site from search, and more on giving them a rich experience once they’re there — namely, with compelling ongoing content that’s in brand and advances your business goals. As we work with you on this major relaunch, our approach will be to spend less time on things like keywords and metadata and more on working with you to develop great content — week in, week out — that your audience will actually be interested in reading, then sharing with others.

TOKY calls this SSO: Search & Sharing Optimization. Here are five reasons we take this approach:

1. You’ve got ’em — what now?

Let’s say some legitimate SEO work has successfully steered a few hundred users to your website. What now? Once they get there, is there sharp writing, an engaging video, quality original photography, and compelling posts that communicate why your company’s worth supporting, connecting with or spending money on? If it’s the same stock photography and sales-heavy chunks of copy-pasted in from last year’s print brochure, that’s going to impress and engage very few people. Think they’ll come back? More likely they’ll quickly click away, and your SEO-focused investment will have a pretty low return.

2. Your competitors are telling stories — are you?

Content marketing — taking an editorial-style approach to marketing your company — is now serious business. We’d bet at least some of your competitors have entered this territory, replacing (or at least supplementing) antiquated press releases with short videos and first-person blog posts from company leadership. (When’s the last time you were moved to share a press release on Facebook?) No company wants to be the last in its competitor class to recognize that it’s now partly a publisher as well.

3. We increasingly find content through sharing, not just searching.

Think of some recent posts, galleries, articles, or videos that you took in — Dollar Shave Club, Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign, shiny tech products like Nest or Tile … How many did you find via search, and how many were shared with you by email or social media? Same here.

In a media-focused piece titled “Where Did All the Search Traffic Go?” Buzzfeed reported that search traffic to publishers had dropped 20% from August 2012 through March 2013, with referrals from Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest on the rise:

We can draw a lot of assumptions but few conclusions from the drop in search traffic. It’s probably safe to say that user behavior is changing, and we are seeing a shift in the way readers discover their content. We aren’t hunting for content as much as we are foraging from what’s right in front of us.

4. Search engines reward content that’s engaged with and shared.

It’s not that TOKY dismisses search. We just acknowledge that search engines have an interest in serving up content that’s been deemed interesting to people, rather than web pages with the right keywords but no there there. Because of this, Google, Bing, and Yahoo are continually tweaking their algorithms so that better, more valued content rises to the top. If you don’t believe us, take it from Google SVP Amit Singhal, who said this to Guy Kawasaki at SXSW 2013:

We at Google have time and time again said—and seen it happen—that if you build high-quality content that adds value, and your readers and your users seek you out, then you don’t need to worry about anything else. If people want that content, your site will automatically work… you could make a bunch of SEO mistakes and it wouldn’t hurt.

Here’s an additional quote, this one from Bryan Goldberg at Pando Daily:

Those who have not succeeded in attracting lots of search traffic perceive SEO as some sort of Voodoo-like mix of cheap tricks and time-tested secret methods. There have always been rumors that the key to SEO is rooted in HTML tags, headline keywords, and a bunch of other tactics.

But that’s entirely incorrect.

The Google search algorithm is so sophisticated, and the number of sites that stack keywords in their headlines is so great, that such methods would never trick Google. Not even a tiny bit.

And, so my good reader, let me tell you what the real “secret” of SEO is. Let me tell you exactly how to reach millions of readers — a method that, if replicated, may lead to you building the next Huffington Post…

[Drumroll, please.]

The secret of SEO is to… create content that people want to read. That’s it. That is the deep, dark secret.

5. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest are now search engines, too.

Some people who don’t use Twitter like to assume it’s filled just with inane chatter about someone’s socks or frozen custard. We’re already a few years into the counter-argument that Twitter and Facebook are at heart global communications systems, and as such have played a continuous role in urgent global events.

But the more recent recognition is that many of us have come to use these social media channels not just to post or read content, but to search for it as well. Whether you’re on the hunt for a new piece of furniture or reviews of the above-mentioned Nest, a search on Pinterest or Twitter might just offer more relevant, compelling, user-advocated results than Bing. With Facebook’s new Graph Search now rolling out, this point — having content that people like and share, not just Google for — is about to be underscored in a major way.

Bonus Point 6: The company that publishes knows itself better.

To close, we’re moving away from the evidence-based arguments, but we think it’s true: Those organizations that make and keep a schedule for producing fresh content — about their team, their culture, how a product was born, challenges they’ve been facing — have a more complete understanding of what they stand for as company, what makes them unique, and what their audiences value (lots of likes and shares) or have little interest in (no re-pins). They know themselves better and can articulate their brand stories more clearly.

Targeted search engine marketing certainly has a place in many online marketing programs. We just prefer not to see organizations privileging keywords over content, slipping into the assumption that SEO will solve the challenge of attracting truly engaged visitors, users, and customers.

By focusing on adding fresh, compelling, share-worthy content to the larger online ecosystem, your organization will ultimately connect with more people, more genuinely, and more continually than any algorithm could deliver.

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Written by Stephen Schenkenberg