SEO has come a long way since the late 90s. Algorithm updates and advancements in technology have made it increasingly harder for brands to manipulate their search signals in order to gain maximum search engine results page (SERP) visibility. And those areas where algorithms fall short at identifying current scaled off-page techniques, Google can and will do manual penalties. Gone are the days of spammy methods like keyword saturation, forum and blog commenting and guest blogging at scale.
The Back Story
There are still recommended on-page best practices, but implementing those alone will most likely not lead to an avalanche of organic website traffic. Implementation of new indexing methodologies like Caffeine, and subsequent updates like "Freshness," have rewarded frequent publication of quality content from trusted websites.
Further technological advances from Google, like the Panda and Penguin algorithms, have made it tougher for SEOs to optimize both on-page and off-page factors without keeping the user's experience top-of-mind. Its continuous use of security certificates in search has led to robust obfuscation of keyword data making it nearly impossible for SEOs to measure their results in the traditional ways they were used to.
Google's focus on its Knowledge Graph technology and its launch of the Hummingbird algorithm is pushing to provide users answers directly in its SERPs, instead of clicking through on a link. Google is also using these technologies to get much better at understanding semantics and intentions in search, rather than relying on generic keywords alone.
What Google Says
Google has long been telling us to focus our attention towards the user and not the search engine. Sure, it offers some best technical practices, but its goal is to serve up the most helpful content-utility-to its users. Matt Cutts, head of Google's Webspam team says:
"I would concentrate on the stuff that people write, the utility that people find in it, and the amount of times that people link to it. All of those are ways that implicitly measure how relevant or important somebody is to someone else."
"The philosophy that we've always had is if you make something that's compelling then it would be much easier to get people to write about it and to link to it. And so a lot of people approach it from a direction that's backwards. They try to get the links first and then they want to be grandfathered in or think they will be a successful website as a result."
In other words, links are still very important; but links to compelling content that provides utility are most important. Google has improved at identifying and penalizing links to content it doesn't find to be a compelling utility.
In January Cutts wrote:
"Okay, I'm calling it: if you're using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it's become a more and more spammy practice, and if you're doing a lot of guest blogging then you're hanging out with really bad company."
Shortly thereafter, hundreds of brands around the world were manually penalized for guest blogging at scale. The difference between this type of "link building" and real guest blogging is articulated by Cutts below:
"A guest post is something that a fantastic author has thought deeply about, labored over, polished, put a lot of work into and then publishes on a highly reputable domain name."
According to Moz's search engine correlation survey, dozens of the most correlated attributes for optimized search engine visibility are mostly off-page and link-related. This means off-page SEO has the biggest impact on a brand's search engine visibility today.
However, links to and from content that do not provide utility (guest blogging at scale) can do more harm than good.
All of this tees us up to discuss how Moz and HubSpot REALLY do SEO.
How Moz and HubSpot Really Do On-Page SEO
It's not rocket science. Brands like Moz and HubSpot publish copious amounts of helpful content. These particular brands do so on multiple owned blogs. Their large audiences consume, contribute to, share, comment on and cite their posts, which further helps drive up SERP relevance. They've built up these large audiences by establishing themselves as some of the first brands in their industries to regularly publish helpful content online in the last decade. Marcus Sheridan calls brands like this "Digital Sooners."
This is great for them, but most brands don't have an audience of significance to help facilitate this level of engagement today. Because of this, even if a brand chooses to publish content as often as Moz and HubSpot, it's unlikely to drive the kind of search visibility those brands experience for many years, if at all.
How Moz and HubSpot Really Do Off-Page SEO
Their on-page content ends up driving lots of organic off-page signals today. However, that hasn't always been the case. Both HubSpot and Moz publish guides, studies and other forms of advanced content that are newsworthy to the audience that consumes them.
Moz published its Beginners Guide to SEO and regularly surveys and publishes the results of its bi-annual Search Engine Ranking Factors questionnaire. These examples represent true contributions to the search and marketing industry, and are inherently useful. As a result, they are newsworthy utilities and get cited thousands of times by journalists, marketers and SEOs.
Rand Fishkin, Co-Founder of Moz, says, ". . . the Beginner's Guide to SEO and the Search Engine Ranking Factors were seminal works. They helped establish our brand, build an audience, and create credibility in the market. Without them, it's tough to imagine that Moz could be where it is today."
The same holds true for HubSpot. Its groundbreaking grader.com tool and annual State of Inbound Marketing report are inherently useful and represents a true contribution to the marketing industry - they're newsworthy. HubSpot also publishes hundreds of guides, templates, tools and videos that have provided help, guidance and utility to millions of marketers around the world.
Dharmesh Shah, Co-Founder and CTO of HubSpot explains, ". . . grader.com (which started life as WebsiteGrader.com) has been our best performing piece of content, ever. This is based on the number of leads it generates on an ongoing basis. Of course, like other high-impact content, building a tool does require an investment -- but when it works, it can work really well. We can trace millions of dollars of revenue over the years to grader.com"
It's the creation and publication of inherently useful advanced content, like the examples above, that drive both audience and the kind of good links that Matt Cutts describes.
Most brands don't have this type of inherently useful advanced content. And if they do, their lack of audience prevents it from being seen as well as it should. It's for this reason marketers and public relations (PR) pros need to be proactive and pitch their advanced content to media outlets and niche industry sites to earn the coverage they deserve.
Check out this case study on the results of publishing and pitching inherently useful advanced content to the media.
How You Can Do It, Too
Since most brands don't have large audiences like HubSpot or Moz, it's important to focus resources on building and growing an audience to help drive the signals Google uses to determine SERP relevance.
This is done by tapping into other websites' audiences and being inherently useful to them. This is also known as earned media. Over time, a certain percentage of those people will stick around and become part of that brand's new audience and drive the kind of signals Cutts describes above.
This activity is very similar to the work of traditional PR. However, instead of pitching the media a brand or product story, marketers and PR pros need to pitch inherently useful advanced content that resides on a brand's owned website.
The multiple media citations can drive significant brand awareness, website traffic and conversions. Conversion rates tend to be on the high-side because the citations reside on trusted media outlets.
In addition, these links represent some of the most powerful off-page search signals a website can earn. Notice the word used is "earn," and not "build." Search benefits resulting from this audience building strategy is the tertiary benefit after referral traffic and conversions.
What's being described above may seem pretty straightforward. In fact, to some readers it may seem downright easy to do. However, journalist and niche bloggers can be a pretty tough group to pitch to.
To have the best shot at getting content coverage and driving real marketing key performance indicators, you must follow the four steps below.
1. Research - This is the most important step for earning media coverage to advanced content, and should start before the content is created. Tools like Hitwise, Cision and many others help develop ideal personas to target, defines their problems, and identifies the media outlets they frequent and the journalists and bloggers they read.
This information guides marketers toward learning what advanced content to produce, who wants to consume it, and where and who to pitch it to.
2. Creative - The next step is to actually create the inherently useful content and utility to pitch. It could be an ebook, guide, study, survey results or even a mobile app. This is also the phase to create a landing page to house the content.
3. Promotion - This step - media outreach - is commonplace in the PR industry. Based on the research from step one, marketers and PR pros should have a valuable list of media outlets, journalists and bloggers to contact. Email, social media and all other forms of communication are on the table for promotion and pitching. Native and advertorial paid media placement can help accelerate promotion.
4. Conversion - Having a clear understanding of the goals of the campaign and making sure its aligned with the buyer journey is very important. Optimizing and testing landing pages, marketing automation, email campaigns and retargeting are all items to consider and deploy for consumers of a brand's advanced content.
Not all brands can achieve the same type of search success that Moz and HubSpot enjoy, but their recipe for success isn't a mystery. Earning real media citations with inherently useful content that builds and grows audience over time is the path to optimum search engine visibility, both today and for the foreseeable future. Those benefits, however, are merely tertiary to the ample volume of traffic and conversions the referring media outlets drive.