Search is one of the most important channels a modern marketer has at their disposal. Which is easy for me to say as I write an article about search. But, hear me out.
The digital marketer has a lot more in common with the stockbrokers of Wall Street than we’ve typically given credit for. Our goal, like the stock traders, is to find under-appreciated opportunities (channels, tactics, markets etc.) and invest as much as we possibly can.
In 2022 it feels like every marketer, founder, or c-suite executive, is trying to become an influential figure on social media. Similar to a stock, the more who play in that arena, the higher the cost and the lower the returns. With all these bright folks shining on social media, it’s becoming harder to stand out.
Display advertising is incredibly difficult to overcome and seems to be reserved for a few specific types of companies. And search gets more expensive every year – though I would recommend everyone reading this right now ensure they have remarketing set up for their own keywords.
Back to Google. Although they’ve indexed trillions of pages (and billions every day), making it seem like an insurmountable rat race, I believe it’s an undervalued opportunity. Part of that reason is because of how many people would disagree with me. In my opinion, marketers treat it with far less respect than it deserves.
When I hear about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategies, it feels like the consensus is generally two strategies. The first is to follow some SEO checklists, like updating meta tags, load speed, and filling keywords in. While the second is to generate a ton of articles to show Google how engrained you are in your keywords and mad dash land-grab of search traffic.
This strategy gives the impression that you can complete a few checklists and outsource the rest, and over a month, you’ll start ranking. The main issues here is that anyone can easily do both of these strategies, they don’t provide any competitive moat to your business.
The biggest issue I have with this strategy is that even if everything works well and you do start ranking, the content your readers are served will be the second rank, at best. And I don’t believe you can build a loyal audience through poor quality content, you may capture someone from a search engine but you won’t create super-fans.
In the words of famous ad man David Ogilvy, “The consumer isn't a moron. She is your wife.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with technical SEO tactics. I would encourage it. However, at this point in the digital competitive landscape, it’s table stakes, not a competitive advantage.
(If you’re looking for advice on that, check the gang at Backlinko out, they have a brilliant guide on Google’s ranking factors)
This article is about how to use high-quality content to increase your search results ten-fold while creating sustainable lead generation for the longer term and differentiating your brand.
From the outset, it looks like there are an incomprehensible number of pages on Google. You hear trillion and think you’ll never compete. But when you dig into the numbers, there may be more of a quality deficit than you think.
In 2020 Google reported that they discovered an average of 40 billion pages of spam every day (which is an increase of 60% from 2019). It turns out, there’s a lot of trash on Google, some have argued that 30% of what Google discovers is garbage.
Add to that the sheer number of low-value content, like mass-produced articles from content mills or topics written by non-experts with the sole purpose of showing up on search.
When you go even further and slice it up by specific niches, you’ll see that there are generally only a few high-quality sources per category. These are oftentimes media/journals, and sometimes there are a competitor or two. You end up with a space that is far more barren than originally thought.
At the end of this article, I’m going to tell a story about how I used the process that I’m about to describe and ended up finding a new channel for sustainable lead generation in about 10% of my time at work.
This strategy is simple in explanation but difficult in execution. There are two tactics I use to grow search results. Sticking to them has helped me improve exponentially, rather than incrementally. It’s helped me win against competitors, without having to battle them head-to-head on a budget (which is key for challenger brands).
The way to stand out in a mass-produced landscape is to come up with well-researched, engaging, and deeply piercing articles written by subject matter experts. When you produce content that not only gets readers to click but keeps them on the page, as well as clicking through to other posts on your site, you tell search engines that you are producing something of value to its users.
Google, being a profit-generating machine, wants to ensure users have a good experience each time they use their product. When users find what they’re looking for with your website, search engines consider this a good experience. So, your page is then promoted on Google, and the flywheel begins.
When your articles are high-value, it also makes it easier to engage in link building, which has dramatic effects on your search rankings. This can be completed by producing authoritative works that others link back to or by reaching out personally and pitching your articles. This process is drastically easier with well-written work.
Search tactics aside, by producing this type of content, you’re engaging your potential customers, building trust, and likely collecting their information (through product demonstrations, newsletter sign-ups, or gated content downloads). You put yourself in a position of authority which makes the future sale far easier. And, if the content is interesting enough, these readers share it with their colleagues, further extending your brand’s reach.
How do you produce high-quality content? By either becoming deeply engrained in a subject matter that you’ll write about or partnering with subject matter experts. I would recommend the latter in the first couple of years working with a company as it’s hard to write authoritatively on a subject while you’re learning about it. Partnering with someone else will also get you up the knowledge learning curve faster, and it will help you grow your output.
Easier said than done. But, I strongly believe marketers should be on the hunt for new ideas and emerging topics. When you find them, wrap your arms around them and produce as much content as you can, so long as they produce results on your site.
There are two big reasons why I think writing about new topics is the ideal path (it’s doubly as important for challenger brands). The first is because no matter what industry you’re in, you are likely up against the elephant in the room. That elephant has likely grazed the fields and taken the low-hanging fruit. You won’t compete in a meaningful way by covering basic articles like “What is SEO”, it’s been done. You will benefit from writing about topics the elephants haven't covered, these are new, untouched fields.
When you write about new topics you’ll be able to rank higher, faster, and with less effort, because these topics haven’t been covered by the industry leader or its followers. So long as the topic has a critical mass of searchers, you will benefit from this.
The second reason is that when you cover these topics, if they’ve been relatively untouched, you become an expert on them and you tie your brand to the idea. It’s far easier to become known as an expert in a new aspect of a category, where there is no defunct leader than to unseat the reigning champ. The current leader is known for being the defacto authority, and, as Reis and Trout remark in their book positioning, it’s easier to create a new category than change people’s minds about who is the leader.
I wanted to end this article with a quick story about how I rigorously applied these two strategies and what they did for me. I feel like there are too many marketing pieces that sound great but feel impossible to execute.
At my day job, at Rally, I wanted to pursue search but I didn’t have a huge budget, large staff, or an excess of time to dedicate to it. On top of that, we had a few large competitors who we couldn’t afford to compete with head-to-head.
I figured that my way into search engine relevance was to ride the coattails of new and exciting topics, write with as much flair and interest appeal as we could muster, and to produce only content I knew our readers would deeply enjoy. If we were to compete on the basic keywords, write like everyone else, and produce a volume of so-so content we’d be dead in the water: we would see little to no results and I’d lose support from my bosses.
I wrote a few of the earlier pieces about marketing and law, which garnered a fair amount of interest, but wasn’t closely enough related to our business to create meaningful results. Then, I found an insanely creative, subject matter expert writer (shout out to William Peacock) who agreed to work with us. That’s when the real magic happened.
We started covering topics that others weren’t and were seeing huge results. He wrote in a fantastic, exciting way that no other company blog did. With a small cadence of one post a month (again, tiny budget) we started seeing a huge return on our investment.
On the Google Search Console, we saw that in a short period of time we 10X’d our clicks and 20X’d our impressions. We were making sales from people who read the blog and I was hearing from prospects about how those posts cemented that we were the right choice for them because we “got it”.
Within a few months this channel became a small part of our lead source, then kept growing, and is now a pillar in our advertising strategy. We’ve also ranked for competitive keywords because our content's unique approach drives visitors.
The craziest part is that the bulk of our results came from only 5 blog posts. What do they all have in common? They’re all very different from what the industry had put out in the past and the majority covered emerging trends.
Our blog also acted as pillar content that were incredibly valuable above and beyond the initial leads they would generate. We would use posts to create ads, social media posts, newsletters, email copy, engagement for existing clients, sales would use it to engage leads, and we wrote an ebook spun off from a post (which yielded even more results)
We saw a road that had been well travelled but found a new way to navigate it. We tried something different and thanks to a bit of luck, we earned substantial output with minimal input. We’ve grown the business from it and proven out a new channel that we’re now growing. It’s also helped us build our brand image.
And, I don’t think this is unique to my own company's situation. I think the market is saturated with low-value content. I think in just about every industry new ideas and a bold take will go a long way. Because of that, I think search is an undervalued asset right now.