It seems simple at first—at least that’s what most brands think when it comes to SEO strategy.
First, you find the lucrative keywords in your niche through a tool like Ahrefs, and then scan and skim the articles on the first page of Google.
Then, you create similar content by following the “10 ways to do X” format if the first page is littered with that approach. You might even draft an eleventh way, maybe. But if the ranking results swear by “How To” and “Ultimate Guides,” then you stick to that approach. And you make your article longer.
Soon enough, after ranking for as many keywords as possible, you publish eBooks to capture some of those juicy lead-nurturing emails. At that point, hopefully, you convert your readers to your customers.
But does this confined approach to SEO still get results today?
Why this “standard” approach to SEO no longer works
By following the conventional SEO best practices above, you may be able to grow your organic presence, get top-of-funnel traffic, and help your customers a little.
Today that isn’t enough.
Google is overloaded with thousands of results for every profitable keyword, and each one says the same thing. As a result, “SEO content” has become a synonym with pumping out repetitive, curated articles that add nothing new to the conversation.
So what’s the outcome? Websites with booming traffic but low conversions.
SEO tools are part of the problem because they restrict you to writing only about things people already search for. For example, they have an input of existing articles that rank for keyword X, and they urge you to include the same keywords, headings, and examples—regardless of whether or not they fulfill search intent.
Choosing to understand search intent over keyword stuffing is important because the ultimate aim is not to rank on Google, but truly help readers and provide them the information they came for.
Does this mean you should throw your SEO playbook out the window? Heck no.
3 ways your brand can level up its SEO strategy
SEO-driven content can and does work, but only when you don’t shed the human-ness while writing to meet a content grade on Clearscope.
Here are three ways to produce original, clear, and engaging SEO articles instead of publishing doppelgangers on your company’s website:
- Conduct a content gap analysis
It’s now common for companies to fixate on emulating the same H2s and H3s to beat the Google algorithm. It’s crucial to write for your readers first, however.
According to Ashley Cummings—freelance writer for brands like Salesforce and Hashtagpaid—that’s a huge error.“The biggest mistake brands make with SEO? Writing for the algorithm instead of people. Write for your target audience, then optimize where it makes sense,” she says.
For example, let’s say you want to create a blog post about vegan diet snacks. You should search for that keyword on Google and see what the first page displays.
When you read the top-ranking content, ask yourself: Is anything missing from these articles?
- Does the content answer the query directly with no fluff and unnecessary build-up?
- Are all the posts long-winded when brevity could also provide an accurate answer?
- Is there a looming question that the current articles don’t answer?
It’s not necessarily about improving the content quality, either. For instance Medical News Today stands out in the example below because of how easily skimmable it is. The article lists the ingredients and cooking methods using bullet points instead of the chunky, hard-to-read paragraphs on all the other blogs listed on the first page.
How could you boost this article’s ranking even more? Include the “cooking time” for busy readers hunting for the quickest recipes.
In other words, use your article to address the holes in existing pieces that rank on Google. This way, you’ll know your content is better than what’s already out there.
You can also flip the equation to conduct a content gap audit for your published pieces.
- Are there any published articles that have become outdated?
- Is there any common pain point you aren’t addressing in some of your pieces?
- Compared to page one articles, what does your content lack?
Look at your post as if it’s on a competitor’s website. Then, do a content refresh to breathe new life into the pieces collecting dust.
- Create bottom-of-the-funnel content
Hear me out: I know content marketing is often used to push top-of-funnel awareness. But that’s not the only way to use it.
Realistically speaking, your top-of-funnel customers have a long, long way to go before they become paying customers. So it only makes sense to spread your content marketing efforts to support prospective customers in other stages of the acquisition cycle.
Yvette Brown, the co-founder of marketing agency XPROMOS, says this is the most common SEO mistake she’s witnessed brands making. “Brands aren’t answering all the questions the prospect has in their head at that point of the customer journey,” she explains. In this aspect, creating bottom-of-funnel content (BOFU) is sorely underutilized.
What is bottom-of-funnel content? BOFU content speaks directly to buyers who are ready to purchase from you. These prospective consumers are no longer in the “awareness” stage. Instead, they have ultra-specific problems and questions about your product or service.
SEO tools are great, but the best way to find bottom-of-funnel article keywords is to create them by partnering your content team with your sales teams. Ask yourself:
- What questions do prospective customers ask about your product on a call with sales?
- What’s the primary pain point people look to solve with your product or service?
- Which objections do prospective buyers mention most often on a sales call?
BOFU content often includes case studies, product reviews, white papers, and direct product comparisons. But it can also be as simple as helping your customers do their jobs by using your product.
Zapier is an excellent example. They have a vast content database around integrating online tools using their product.
For example, when you search for connecting your Google Docs to Gmail, their call-to-action link shows up on the first page—driving new sign-ups for Zapier.
It all comes down to identifying, understanding, and acting on the search intent. If people are looking for more information about your product, you don’t want to show them overarching educational content that doesn’t speak directly about your tool. Identifying bottom-of-funnel content ideas can be difficult. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, though—begin by answering what your customers already ask.
- Find an untapped angle and experiment with it
The surest way to rank for any keyword is to emulate the format of the top-ranking articles. Maybe you can add some spice to the H2s, but that’s about it.
Then what’s the problem? You might rank first, and yet readers still won’t remember you. And customers don’t buy from brands they don’t remember.
Deborah Tennen, Managing Editor at Zapier, poses the question perfectly: “SEO can be a great way to come up with topics, but it shouldn’t be a strategy for content creation,” she says. “Anyone can write an article about social media strategy—why should I read yours?”
So how do you stand out from the noise? Find a novel angle on a worn-out topic and have the courage to experiment with it.
Maybe you have more expertise than others, or your experience in your niche gives you more authority. Or perhaps you have a unique perspective no one’s discussing.
For example, see how Chintan Zalani, founder of Elite Content Marketer, talks about why you need validation—when everyone gives you “how to” tips about how to stop seeking approval—and ranks on the first page.
His content is a breath of fresh air compared to the stale content reiterating the same hacks. Challenging the status quo entices curiosity and makes people click on your article over the others. And, most importantly, they’ll remember you in the end.
So, if you have a commonly accepted truism you want to challenge, go with it. Poke holes and find edges in a tired topic.
Meeting the search intent doesn’t mean always sticking to the best strategy an SEO tool recommends. Maybe a better type of content just hasn’t been tried yet.
Before you start creating another “ultimate guide,”ask yourself: Is there a better way to optimize your content for SEO?
The approaches outlined here might feel uncomfortable for some brands. But there’s a significant opportunity to zag when everyone else zigs. It’s all too easy to forget—the ultimate aim of SEO is to boost business, not traffic.