Dear brands: Please stop chasing website traffic with SEO blog content

July 7, 2022

If you’re working on or thinking of starting a blog for the sole purpose of using SEO to increase your brand’s website traffic, stop.

Seriously.

You’ll save yourself a bunch of wasted time and money and protect your brand from perpetuating the dismal state of content on the internet.

From r/AskReddit, 2014

It saddens me when I check out a brand’s blog only to discover page after page of posts crafted by well-meaning SEO professionals using every trick in the book to win the Google algorithm game.

These articles can boost traffic, but ranking #1 on Google won’t do you any good if customers discover you’re serving up the same pattern as everyone else. When what they want to know is buried at the bottom of a post under paragraph after paragraph of irrelevant “information” put there to push the page to the top of the search results, they’ll leave without ever noticing your brand.

For your blog to become a resource worth visiting, you need to understand the questions your customers are asking and how to provide the most helpful answers. You need to give up trying for quick SEO wins and commit to a long-term focus on quality.

If that strikes you as radical, consider this: Blogging started out as a form of online journaling, not a marketing tool. The earliest blogs were on sites like OpenDiary and LiveJournal. Companies didn’t start using blogs for marketing and awareness until the early 2000s.

Since then, the entire thing has gone through a downward spiral that’s gotten us to where we are today, with me writing a blog post (!!) to share why I think you should buck the blogging status quo and write with intention for the people who are going to appreciate it most.

The problem with the SEO → outsource to freelancer model

SEO isn’t inherently bad. If you’re trying to sell stuff, it’s important to rank for your brand name, product names and key ingredients or benefits.

The trouble starts when SEO becomes the driving force behind all the content you create. The process goes something like this:

  • Your site isn’t ranking the way you want
  • You decide launching a blog is the answer
  • You hire an SEO agency that promises to 100X your traffic while you sleep
  • The agency outsources the blog writing to freelancers
  • You post the blogs on your site and wait for the magical traffic spike 🚀

Sometimes this works: The posts start ranking, and traffic numbers jump. It’s exciting—until you realize traffic isn’t converting to sales. Or the spike turns out to be temporary, and you have to invest in more “get traffic quick” content to keep up the momentum.

This isn’t to denigrate SEO agencies and freelance blog writers. Some are quite good at what they do and consider how traffic fits into the big picture instead of making it the only goal. But a significant number have also hopped on the SEO train and only know how to deliver “SEO blog content” in the same format as every other blog that follows the same pattern.

Google’s (apparent) commitment to content quality

It’s common for these posts to start with a question from the Google answer box (or worse, a list of every possible question) before devolving into a series of paragraphs separated by keyword-dense subheadings. The content rarely says anything new or interesting; often, it just rehashes every other post on the same topic.

Click through the top few ranking articles on a keyword, and you’ll see what I mean. Once you’ve read one or two of the results, you’ve read them all.

All this despite Google’s insistence that content quality is a top ranking factor.

From r/SEO, 2019

SEO best practices for blogging say that quality means writing something more detailed than Google’s top-ranking content. Content marketing advice insists that you must answer every question about a topic in detail and write thousands of words to outdo the competition.

Simply doing more than the other guy has been confused with doing better.

This is where brands—and pretty much all content creators—go wrong: They focus on making content designed to rank and do everything they can to play the algorithm in their favor. But ranking shouldn’t be the primary goal. You should strive for excellent content that serves your customers, not Google.

Writing high-quality content requires more effort and a more significant investment than generic SEO blog content. It often takes longer to rank. But the effort pays off in the long run when your customers realize you’re making content that’s actually helpful and doesn’t insult their intelligence with its banality.

How to excel at playing the long game with your brand’s blog

If you think about it, a long-term approach to content strategy makes sense. Trying to “go viral” is a fool’s errand. There’s little rhyme or reason as to why it happens, so it’s pointless to waste energy (and time and money) trying to find the magic formula that will make you the next Numa Numa Guy.

Creating good content is a cycle of researching, brainstorming, testing and improving—one you should approach with the same diligence and determination as other areas of your business.

Researching: Immerse yourself in your audience’s culture

Step one is to understand the audience for your content: your customers. The best way to do that is to be a fly on the wall in the online spaces where they hang out. Your customers learn, share and talk to each other in these communities, and their interactions tell you:

  • What they want to know
  • What answers they’re seeking but not getting
  • Where they’re getting incomplete or wrong answers
  • What they think they know but don’t really understand

This gives you a foundation for your content based on the thoughts, struggles and questions of actual people you’re trying to connect with and sell to—not whatever happens to be trending on Google.

From r/SEO, 2021

Go through this process before brainstorming or planning your content. Doing it the other way around will bias you toward what you think your audience (or Google) wants, and you’ll run the risk of cherry-picking information that corroborates your assumptions.

Brainstorming: Choose topics that serve your customers

Doing detailed research pretty much dumps content ideas into your lap, and they’re not always what you might expect. You’ll discover nuances that traditional market research doesn’t reveal, like why customers choose one brand over another or are wary of certain product claims.

You’ll also find out which topics can help, educate or entertain your customers. To narrow in on these, go back to the notes from your audience research and:

  • Make a list of topics, phrases and questions that come up repeatedly
  • Group the related topics together into sub-lists
  • Give each sub-list a heading that describes its general idea or prevailing thought

You’ll focus on these areas for everything you write on your blog.

Yes, it is that easy once you know what your customers are thinking.


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Testing: Write for your ideal audience as if ranking didn’t matter

Now comes the hard part: decoupling yourself from the idea that blogging is about making Google happy. It’s time to overcome the fear that not bowing to the algorithm will lead to failed efforts.

Write for your audience first.

To get in the right mindset, ask yourself:

  • What would I write for my customers if I didn’t care about ranking?
  • How can I address common questions and concerns in a way unique to my brand?
  • How would I share this information in a face-to-face chat with a customer?

Writing this way ensures that those who are a good fit for your brand find content that’s helpful to them, speaks to their needs or aligns with their tastes. Instead of being another voice shouting into the endless internet noise, your passion will shine through. Customers will notice the difference and start looking forward to your posts instead of scrolling past most of the content, grabbing one factoid and going on their merry ways.

From r/EatCheapAndHealthy, 2016

Improving: Be patient, and keep posting quality blog content

Taking this approach doesn’t mean Google won’t notice your blog. It just takes time. According to Authority Hacker, top-ranking content has a median age of 3.5 *years,* and most of it is updated regularly to keep it fresh and relevant.

So you could sum up the content “long game” this way:

create content → optimize for audience → share → let the content percolate on Google for a while → check performance → update and refresh

This is, of course, an approximation. Performance data is notoriously tricky. Likes, views and other vanity metrics don’t tell you much about whether people enjoy your content or how they react to it. About 90% of people are “lurkers” (at least on social media) who read or view content without interacting.

I know that’s not encouraging. But over time, people will start to come out of the woodwork and tell you how much they appreciate your posts. Those same people will remember you and look you up when they need what you sell. That is what it means to build awareness—and it’s much more profitable than a quick SEO traffic boost.

The proper place for SEO in your blog

But SEO does have a place in all this: at the end.

Once you’ve written a post, pop the topic into an SEO tool and see what related keywords come up. Pick a relevant word or phrase and a handful of variations, and work them into the post body and headers as you edit. Or, if you already had an SEO agency do keyword research for you, choose keywords and phrases from their report.

Don’t overthink this too much. You’re writing for your customers, not Google.

Good content, happy customers

Remember: The whole point of researching your audience before creating content is to write something useful that they enjoy.

Stop worrying about what Google thinks. Make content you’ll still be proud of two, five or even 10 years down the line, content you would share with your friends or network even if it wasn’t part of your marketing.

Maybe that means you’ll write one post every six weeks. Who cares? What matters is that it’s good and your audience feels like their time reading it is well spent.

From r/Blogging, 2021

Try it. See what your audience thinks. If nothing else, doing the customer research will give you a more detailed picture of who you’re selling to and help you write better copy for the rest of your site.

Either way, you and your customers win if you stop using your blog as an SEO traffic machine.

Thanks to Foster members Elizabeth Michael and Nicholas Forero for their help polishing up this post!