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If only SEO were a Science

January 29, 2019 - Marketing - ,
By: Chris Riley

For any good practitioner content marketing operation, the stage between complete copy and hitting the Publish button is search engine optimization (SEO). If you are reading this post, chances are you already know what that is, and that you, like us, want it to be a science. But it is not.

At Fixate, we do not claim to be SEO experts (not yet, that is). We can spot healthy SEO practices, and we know the basics. After years of encountering many SEO companies and seeing the results differ on individual posts, the traffic claims within, and the algorithm hack ethos, I’ve realized that SEO unfortunately is not a science.

In practitioner content marketing, you focus on the quality of the content first, and then SEO optimization. That is what Fixate does. We make sure that we curate, assign, and review technical content in a way that gives it the most credibility and authenticity, and that provides value to target audiences. This is what makes us stand out as a premium technical content marketing agency.

But we also have to consider when the copy meets the road. SEO practices are critical to giving your content a good chance for organic traffic — the primary goal of most of our customers. At the very end of our content creation process, we do what we call SEO and Format review. We do not pretend that this is full-blown SEO research and optimization. It’s just the basics — Make sure there’s a good title, meta description, a focus keyword, that the density for that keyword is good, that there are links, headers, and that it’s readable. This basic review builds consistency in what we deliver, and covers the basics for publication.

For our clients, most of the time, there is one more optimization step. Our larger clients will have in-house SEO experts, and smaller organizations will contract with someone. These experts will review the final content and perform additional optimization. They will do more in-depth keyword research, align with other site content, and roll the post into some backlinking and social strategy. We normally do not need to interact with these providers. In some cases we do, but we almost always see the final outcome.

This is where we have been a little shocked.

We had a few opportunities in 2018 to see the same post optimized by two separate SEO experts as separate posts, and to see the same post re-optimized. Each individual expert was unaware that the post had already been optimized, and assumed that nothing had yet been done. What we found was very similar to the nature of technical post reviewers — Each expert found issues with, undid, and dismissed the work that had already been done (different keywords, different links, different research, and modification of the copy in different ways).

The reason this was so shocking is because all of us (especially the SEO experts) want to believe that SEO is a science. You do x things, and your post is 100% optimized for search engines. This makes sense. Search engines have ranking algorithms. Knowing what boosts a ranking is pretty cut and dry, until you bring in the human element.

The Risk of SEO as a Science

When we observed the re-SEO of several posts in 2018, the final outcome was always still good — meaning we were confident in the fact that the SEO expert did work that left the post better optimized compared to the complete piece before any SEO review. But when the same post was re-optimized, we could not point to some edit that made it seem more search-engine-worthy, even though the efforts were distinctly different.

So why does this matter? The issue is perception and distraction.

The perception of SEO optimization is that because you have the expert optimizing it, your content will outrank any content in the same keyword cluster. But this is not possible all the time. If it were, then the search engines would modify their algorithms to again rebalance your mastery of what they had before. And SEO would not work for anyone over the long term.

An overfocus on SEO can become a major distraction for many organizations — so much so that the SEO takes precedence over their content and its value to the market, which can make it come across as less valuable to the reader.

What the Copy Lacks

SEO efforts are not just related to the copy. Other ways SEO experts make sure content is successful are just as important (how it’s entered into a CMS like WordPress with Yoast, for example). The post needs to have alt tags, tags, descriptions, etc. And backlinking, a sometimes risky activity, can be very powerful. It requires someone actively working to get relevant backlinks to your content.

The Science of Good Enough

We do not think of SEO as a science, because unless robots are doing the optimization, a lot of subjectivity is introduced. We look at SEO as content hygiene. You do the basics, and you try to optimize across individual pieces of content and the entire site — but you don’t dwell on SEO or overemphasize the SEO effort.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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