A brief history of SEO – is content still “king”?

You may have heard the expression used in digital marketing circles that “content is king”. This is a phrase that takes its origin from when SEO was largely to do with keyword mentions in content and in meta tags.

Back in the not so good old days when cloaked text filled with keywords littered the footer of even the most trustworthy of sites and backlinks weren’t such a concern, this could well have been true.

Enter Larry Page, co-founder of Google, who in 1998 released the prototype for “PageRank” and the introduction of backlinks as a measure of effective SEO. So, we as marketers did what we do best, we rinsed this knowledge for all that it was worth. We stuffed every keyword and we bought every link. What could possibly go wrong? I won’t dwell on PageRank as it has now been absorbed into Google’s much more complex algorithm and isn’t a standalone measure.

SEO Poor Practise Timeline

Pre-2005 – Stuff all the keywords – every sentence, heading, meta tag should be chock full of keywords. The more the merrier.

Pre-2011 – Buy all the links – once links became important for SEO a commercial opportunity was spotted by both brands and publishers. Paid for links were the norm and again quantity was better than quality.

What happened next

In 2011 Google released a major algorithm update known as Panda (they have a penchant for animal names as you will see shortly). This was a major clamp down on poorly crafted content. This included keyword stuffing, cloaking (white text on a white background for example) and generally thin pages being devalued because – surprise, surprise – these were offering poor experiences for users.

The search results people were getting were dominated by brands who could stuff their pages the most key phrases and Google knew that this was a poor way to rank pages.

Shortly after in 2012 another major update was released known as Penguin (we warned you there was an animal theme). This addressed the uprising of link farms, unnatural forum comments and even affiliate links that passed “link equity” that is the SEO value you obtain from a link.

Paying to be listed on a website is an absolute no-no and Interflora paid the price 2013 by being removed from Google’s index completely.

Interflora was dominating the rankings for terms looking for flowers and part of their strategy had been to either pay or offer goods in return for links back to their website. Google took action and penalised their site so that it didn’t even appear for their own brand term.

Interflora Banned from their own branded search

Remember when search results used to look like this?

What do we learn from this in terms of what is important for SEO?

These two major updates and subsequent iterations of Google’s guidelines have paved the way for what we now know is acceptable SEO practice. At ISD we approach SEO as a blend of three practises (affectionately known as the three pillars of SEO) namely: technical, relevancy, authority.

Is content still important for SEO?

In short yes. Is content still king? That’s always been debatable. Even when content was king it certainly won’t have been the only factor that Google considered when ranking pages.

Content as a mechanism of keeping a website “fresh”

As SEOs we understand that in order to encourage Google to revisit and re-crawl your website you should keep your site properly updated and maintained. This can be done by creating new, unique and interesting content for your audience. It can also be achieved by updating content that was published a while ago but making it more relevant to your audience today (we call this “Evergreen” content).

Indeed, John Mueller confirmed that updating your content to improve it, is generally better than removing it altogether from a Google search point of view (see below at around the 6 minute mark)

Content as a mechanism of building internal links

One of the elements we focus on as search marketers when we review the technical aspects of a website is how well your pages are linked together. If you drive backlinks to your homepage, the “link equity” or the SEO benefit passes from the external site to your page. By linking this page to other pages, the link equity is passed between the pages and the benefit is shared further through your website than if no internal links were present.

Using appropriate anchor text can also help to improve the relevancy of the page from the internal link as it does with external links (hence why you’ll see mentions in this blog post of SEO linking back to our SEO page).

Internal links are also the main way that search engine bots will attempt to crawl and understand your website. Furthermore, they allow the human users of your site to navigate around your pages. Internal linking solves a myriad of SEO issues so you should work this into your content wherever possible.

Content as a mechanism of increasing your page’s relevancy

One of the main methods that Google uses to understand what your web page is about is to read the actual words used on that page. This is where keyword research and semantic search come into their own.

We conduct keyword research to establish what users are searching for most in relation to your pages and then use those phrases and semantically similar terms naturally in the copy to ensure that human users and search engines understand what the page is about. This is not to say that you should stuff the words into as many sentences as possible.

I would recommend writing your content for human users first and then checking that you have mentioned your key phrases in the right areas from there. If you are genuinely relevant to your target phrases and are writing for your audience, you should find that your themes are well woven into your content in any case.

Content as a method of gaining natural backlinks

A further consideration around content is its importance in earning links back to your website. In link building we look for opportunities to naturally find ourselves in authoritative places around the internet. If we produce content that sets us apart as an authority on our chosen field, and we share that content with other sites, they may reference it in their own work.

This is one of the most natural, and arguably hardest, ways of gaining links back to a website but is one of the best ways to avoid a penalty. To quote Matt Cutts; “the aim is not to make your links appear natural but for them to be natural”

Write authoritative content that positions you as an expert in your field, the share it through your social media outlets and your email newsletter if you have it. If people find a good piece of content they will be inclined to re-share it on their social networks and reference it in their own work. This extends your reach, builds brand awareness and should ultimately lead to more links back to your site.

Conclusion

I posed the question at the beginning of this article as to whether content is still king. While content serves a number of purposes and it undeniably still a critical part of SEO I would argue that the three pillars of SEO should all be taken into account for your strategy to be effective.

Technical - If your site is technically unsound, neither people nor bots can navigate around your website – you won’t appear as highly in search engines (or at all)

Relevancy - If your site is light on content or the content is poor quality – you won’t appear as highly in search engines

Authority – If your site is not linked to by other websites – you won’t appear as highly in search engines

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