Lee Odden

Content Strategy and the Dirty Lie about SEO

SEO Content StrategyA recent comment on Online Marketing Blog in response to advice on Content Marketing Optimization states: “Why not write less and give more to gain credibility …  reach the audience and the rest will follow?”    It makes sense to create great content that people will interact with and share, growing visibility over time naturally. But that’s a superficial and often naive approach to content marketing.

Here’s the full comment from Kal:

“I find a lot of content is wasted! You see the site ranking and click! All you see is garbage and you know it is written for the search engines and not for the reader, researcher, consumer or the surfer.”

“Why not write less and give more, then for sure you will gain credibility and credits. The problem isn’t being able to reach the first page, but reach the audience and the rest will follow.”

Who to blame for SEO ruining content? No doubt, there’s  too much content created purely for SEO. You could blame SEOs for that. You could also blame Google for ranking it so high and you could also consider the companies that hire SEOs who want higher rankings – fast.

The dirty SEO lie. The reality is, that the “less is more” argument with content strategy works great when you don’t have to worry about where the traffic to the great content will come from.   This is part of the “dirty lie about SEO”:  That great content attracts its own audience and that SEO ruins content.

Promote and optimize – and they will come. Should content have purpose, be coordinated, planned and measured? Of course.  The missing link from this kind of advice is the importance of attracting readers to the content and being accountable to the marketing performance of that content.

Content must be accountable. Since most content strategy work is more focused on messaging, workflow and managing purposeful content and NOT on sales, strategists don’t often value the built-in traffic generation capabilities of SEO.   Most consultants are inherently biased towards their own expertise and without a holistic perspective or checks and balances, the client’s objectives will not be served properly by over emphasizing SEO or by dismissing it.

The answer? Content SEO talent. There are many marketers that refuse being herded into this channel, that great content requires advertising to attract traffic to it.  The most talented content marketers I  know are thoughtful about efficient content, messaging and workflow. They are also capable of incorporating SEO best practices within a content strategy so all the great content can be discovered via multiple channels including social media and search engines.

A disservice to clients. If you have great content, the question of attracting relevant traffic to it has to be considered.  Not many tactics are more effective in doing that than being where customers are looking.  Suggesting a company slice their website content in half or to expire older content without considering the impact on the ability for that content to attract buying customers via search is a gross disservice. It’s just as bad as a SEO agency suggesting a company create hundreds of junk, keyword stuffed pages just for the purpose of attracting search traffic.

Great SEO, social media and content marketing is a win for all. Poorly executed SEO isn’t any more helpful to customers than amazing content that no one can find except via advertising. A combination of quality SEO and Social Media Marketing can drive substantial attention to quality content. We call that Content Marketing Optimization. Adding advertising to that mix is fine but its not the only way to reach audiences.

What do you think? Do you think SEO ruins content? Do you think great content will naturally grow traffic to itself? Can Content, SEO and Social Media quality help marketers realize the best of both worlds: great search & social visibility plus engagement with quality content?

PoorSo SoOKGoodAwesome (4 votes, average: 4.50 out of 5)

Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. it is the SEOs duty to provide the uniquely relevant results for the searcher on behalf of the client… it’s providing QUALIFIED traffic.. not just more traffic…

    Dear Hal,
    some of us have been doing SEO OVER 15 YEARS.. we make it a practice not to pollute the SERPs with our clients domains.. please do not apply your assumptions to all the people who are ethically sound Search and social media professionals doing the best for Google and the Client at the same time.


    • As long as people get paid for “rankings” and visibility metrics vs. outcomes doing what resembles SEO tactics, the crap content will continue.

  2. GREAT post — thanks! I wrote about this a while back when I was playing with Scribe — http://crosscutcommunications.com/2010/03/social-media-content-real-or-just-what-we-wanted-to-hear/, and I still believe it–I think that, ultimately, if SEO actually works, it will put itself out of business.

    The question of content discovery is incredibly complicated, as you’ve noted. Great content doesn’t equal traffic by a long shot, as the plethora of great unknown books published every year will attest. It’s a complex dance of findability and substance…has to be in the right place at the right time, appeal to the current mood, etc. A cross between Tipping Points and Build It And They Will Come.

    Again, really nice post here. You’ve captured a lot in a small space.

  3. In short, if Advertising is the failure of your product, SEO is the failure of your content.

    Both are over the top generalizations. Both are a little bit dead on.

  4. When I advise someone how to write an article for SEO, this is my advice: know your audience. Learn how they talk. Adopt their vocabulary. If they were looking for you, what words would they use to find you? Often times, thinking about these simple things makes people realize that they know NOTHING about their audience — and once they take the time to learn, not only do their rankings improves, their content does too.

  5. Interesting post! Now this is great content that is usable by your readers. It is interesting, I was reading a press release of a new website that redesigned and launched just recently. I read the press release and thought to myself “Well that was not written for the people that they want to be using this site” So great all the Ad Agencies, PR Firms, Mashable picked up this press release, but the Mom, Dad, Beginning Foodie, Causal Chef will they see? will they think the press release appeals to them…..nope and that is who you need clicking on this damn website 4 mos later…..the mashables, RWW, techcrunch’s, nbc’s leave in 2 weeks, you need to start proving that ROI in 3-6 mos!

    So how many different press releases and content strategies are you going to have to have a dialog with these different audiences? The Answer bullet point nails it! But I rarely see this happening.

    • When it comes to press releases, and audiences there is certainly room for a message intended for media as well as a direct to consumer message using different content and different distribution services.

      Unless, as an audience, you are both the media and consumer, you shouldn’t notice such segmentation of messaging and content delivery. Especially of the content marketer or even SEO are executing well.

  6. Avatar thetrafficblogger.com says

    I think that once you separate great content and seo into two different efforts is when you create a problem for yourself. If you find ways to combine traffic building, Seo and great content into a single effort then you will succeed.

  7. Hey, Lee – great topic here, and plenty of people think bad content is due to SEO. I disagree. Bad content (i.e. crap, stuffed, B.S.) is due to bad SEO and poor content writers (as you said in the article). Is it easy to go overboard in the writing? Yes… because people get so stuck on rankings and search that they forget their main target is the visitor.

    In fact, the topic has been bothering me so much of late, I’m working on an article of my own about it – I had to pause when I found your article, though lol

    Great thoughts!

    • Thanks Jahnelle, I had hoped to inspire some commentary and it’s great to see differing perspectives. The root of bad SEO execution with content is a strategic problem – also an issue with how many SEO engagements are structured. I agree that people get too stuck on the notion of rankings vs. outcomes involving buying customers.

      Looking forward to your article 🙂

  8. Avatar Grosen Friis says


    Normally when you build content and links for ranking you do it this way. For linkbuilding sites you generate quality content that includes links to your main website. The main website usually contains same or even better content than the linkbuilding network. This way the main website usually gets good rankings. The content from the linkbuilding network usually never enters page 1 in SERPs.

    However, if content from a linkbuilding network enters page 1 in a SERP, it’s not due to bad SEO ruining content, it’s because a good SEO pushed the main website to a top ranking and also pushed the linkbuilding content to at top position for the search phrase in question.

    That’s not SEO ruining content, that’s a lack of sufficient good content for that particular SERP. If the competition for a position in the SERPs for specific phrases is sufficient, the linkbuilding content will rarely enter page 1 in the SERPs, but if the competition is missing, yes, then good SEOs can make all their own content rank well in the SERPs.

    To me that is not dirty SEO, it’s because the particular search phrases in question are not yet the focus of sufficient competition.

    Those who have the largest marketing budget(s) get their messages out in the best possible way in TV, Radio, printed media, AdWords etc. In addition those who are the best to “manipulate” journalists via PR gets their stories mentioned in the same media. That’s not dirty tricks, that is finansial skills and/or PR talent. Same with SEO that brings results to the clients, that’s the result of a job well done!

    /Grosen Friis

    • Grosen, I suspect you’re only tracking higher volume keywords and therefore don’t pay much attention to the long tail. Those linkbuilding network sites do indeed appear on page 1 – for more obscure phrases. People interact with that content and can see SEO execution.

      Great content optimization should be invisible to the reader.

      While most SEO efforts are focused on top of the funnel, my experience is that more SEOs and online marketers in general are being held accountable for revenue and other business outcomes. That means it’s not enough just to optimize with keywords and build links, but to create a congruent experience for the customer and lead them to a sale.

      I agree that what Public Relations and Advertising does to gain an advantage is no more “dirty” than what SEO does. The difference in the context of the blog post is that SEO and great content work best together and also that they need to be accountable for business oucomes.

  9. Holy Cow, Pick Me!

    Forget the quasi-scientific part of the discussion or people’s (well put, actually) point that the voluminous crap being posted purely because the phrase “publish or perish” really is true in the age of the Internet and search engines often points you at the wrong stuff.

    The problem with bad SEO content is SEO practitioners who can’t write.

    I have clients who wish for me to handle their off-page elements, but write their own content. Assuming I can get them to DO it, the problem still remains that they write in a way that doesn’t get the search engines’ attention. On the other side, though, are writers who think that it’s OK to load up a piece with keywords, thereby attracting the search engines but compromising the human-focused part of the content.

    Reality, of course, lies somewhere in between.

    My favorite example of how to do this correctly happens, not surprisingly, to be a piece of my own work.
    Look here and ask whether the folks at Nissan of Manhattan are soon going to
    forget me

    Yeah, the piece loads up on the desired phrase. And it’s worked; that post is Google’s #1 for one important phrase and fluctuates from 9 to 11 for another. But it’s also fun to read. AND, while the target of my little diatribe might not like it, it’s completely on-point for the key phrases.

    SEO doesn’t ruin content. in SEO, like any other kind of media, bad producers ruin content.

    • I agree with this Jeff: “The problem with bad SEO content is SEO practitioners who can’t write.” Often times the outcomes SEOs are tasked with involves content creation when those SEOs are only skilled at optimizing existing content. It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to online marketers that can really serve client interests. That means talent in content creation and even more talent incorporating SEO best practices.

  10. Avatar Tiffany Etterling says

    I really appreciate this post. I am so tired of manipulating my content to fit key word phrases where they don’t really belong. I can recognize when other web sites and blogs are doing that so I am sure my visitors can recognize it as well. I think you’re right, in the end good content will draw viewers regardless of key words.

    • Hi Tiffany, my point isn’t that great content alone will win. Not at all. It’s the ability for a truly talented marketer to create copy that can inspire readers as well as inform search engines that wins. SEO + Content + Social = a big win for all. Poorly executed, nobody wins.

  11. You get a standing ovation from me on this article, Lee. Well said!

  12. I think your final question is rhetorical. Quality content is good for search & social visibility plus engagement. 🙂 Your response to Tiffany summarizes it.

    “SEO + Content + Social = a big win for all. Poorly executed, nobody wins. ”

    SEO is more than keyword stuffing, and it’s part of the misunderstanding of what SEO really is. It’s not a “checkbox” in the process of developing content. Planning content that engages and can be “found” is the foundation around which content is built.

  13. If people looked at the strategy a different way, it could work! You can create the content for the reader, go back and optimize some backend stuff (keywords, URLs, descriptions, etc). If your content serves multiple purposes, it can be done. If you write purely for one or the other, you’re missing out. Just like you said: SEO, Content & Social Media and you have a winner.

  14. I think you need to have a mix of it all – great content, SEO strategy and promotion via social media.

    I agree fully with what @jakrose said about the link between advertising and SEO. The best SEO strategy often calls for us to make our content super spammy, and that is NOT what the point of content marketing is. That being said, I don’t think you should through sEO out the window. You should keep keywords in mind, think about links, fill out metadata and tags and categories and the whole shebang. But don’t let it control you.

    If you are writing intelligent, relevent content that relates to your product, industry, company… then yes, I think it is a natural form of SEO.


    • If a marketer is researching and empathizing with customers at all, they’d be obligated to consider what language resonates best in regards to customer needs, pain points, product/service features and benefits. That sums up a lot of the keyword research process with SEO. Great content and SEO are a lot closer than most people think.

  15. It’s all about balance, isn’t it? I always aim to write for users but use keywords where possible in my content. If you are prolific and on message, you will rank for it. If you keyword stuff and are writing just for engines, your bounce rate will sky rocket which hurts your ranking.

  16. Having a balance of all three will put a marketer in a winning position.

  17. Thanks for posting this. There’s something about balancing SEO with good content that seems well … more honest don’t you think?

  18. Hi Lee,

    Finding a balance between the combo of super SEO and effective social media marketing seems to work best.

    Cover all bases possible. Keep search engines and your human counterparts in mind when developing a strategy. Your expertise may be in one area but you can still integrate both techniques in your campaign.

    Thanks for sharing your insight.


  19. Avatar Bryan Vartabedian says

    Fascinating post, Lee. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never gave SEO much thought until I spoke to you at BWE in Vegas. While I have always believed that good content will save the day it is a disservice to ignore the realities of SEO as you preach. I still put almost all of my attention to quality content but I now work after the fact to dot the i’s and cross the SEO t’s. The focused investment has already paid off.

    And I wonder if Seth Godin thinks about SEO?

    • Bryan, your comment regarding new attention to SEO with great content “the focused investment has already paid off.” says it all.

  20. I think all of us in the SEO business are so preoccupied with the content angle just being limited to “keyword focused articles or blog posts” and they too do not do a lot of talking other than just about SEO. Sharing thoughts, opinions and findings on SEO is OK and that IS our business model but in other industries meaning of content can be altogether different.

    I am a molecular Biologist turned SEO (quite strange huh?). Well that is true. In the molecular biology industry, content means something completely different. We can have research papers which are cited by tens of biggest publications and directly linked to, we can have software that automates a batch query saving huge number of hours, we can have a write up on interaction between labs and the industry. It is not uncommon to have sites of PR 5-6 in this industry as a norm. A bit of on page SEO goes a long way in helping these trusted, real and non SEOd sites. On these lines I would conclude: horses for courses. For an industry like ours (I am talking about SEO now), content development is one of the best tools for gaining popularity so that is what we do. The quality and usefulness of the content is determined by how good we can write and how much we know.

  21. Avatar Bross William says

    You are correct. I also see that maximum things are written for the search engines and not for the reader, researcher, consumer or the surfer. If anyone comes to your site and do not found anything important or if he does not found anything that is suitable for him/her, why he/she will come again? You have to do seo marketing properly.

  22. I agree with all the points that you have mentioned. It is very important to have information on your website which will be beneficial for the visitor of your website and make him/her come back to your website on regular bases

  23. I am an architect. Recently trying to do my own website using SEO strategy. A lot being taught about creating good content. But your article have given me some thoughts on the other side of it. Fascinating post, Lee. I need to uncover more knowledge about SEO.

  24. One of the ways SEO ruins content is through the “more is more” rule. The more content your write, the more search engine traffic you get. I’ve recently unsubscribed from two of my favorite blogs because they began bowing to the more is more rule. They brought in a team of guest bloggers so that they could post content every day, and sometimes multiple times a day. Their reason was not to enhance the content of the blog, but to get more search and social traffic to the blog.

    Now, instead of publishing regular, insightful, thought-provoking posts like this one, they publish a daily dose of Twitter bait.

  25. I think many businesses let SEO ruin they’re content. However it depends on the goals of the business. If the business’s primary focus is to generate leads or sales then it is somewhat understandable. However, if the business is focused on building a brand then more focus on quality content makes sense. Overall I have to agree with most others that have posted a comment, that finding and executing the right balance would probably be any site’s best bet.

  26. Great tips! I agree,content writing needs to be for the search engines but we should never forget what the search engines are bringing in….traffic..that traffic is human beings who would like to read something of value that makes sense.

  27. SEO does NOT ruin content. You write with the consumer in mind, but that includes putting basic SEO strategies into place so that the consumer you’re writing for actually finds you. Putting up good content and hoping that traffic will follow is a plan for failure.

    The mistake people make is getting so caught up in SEO that they do put up “garbage” as you say, or they outsource to a company that gives you $7 pieces.

    If you hire an SEO company, ask about their writers. A good SEO company knows that content fuels the fire and good content can only be achieved by good writers. When it comes to content (and SEO) you get what you pay for.

    • Thanks Christine. It’s interesting how the title of this post was truncated in several people’s tweets, which made it seem as if the post was somehow against SEO. Poorly implemented SEO does affect content quality and its ability to engage the reader of course.

      But the point is that we must focus on quality all around (as you’ve pointed out).

  28. I love this blog which is simple to understand. It really work on your blog which not write for SEO. If someone know about SEO, they know what you are writing and they looking for new method. If you writing for normal marketers, you need to write a simple article with lot of example to improve the understanding.
    In my opinion, i feel that natural content do not work much in grow traffic. SEO and social media quality will help to improve traffic.

  29. This is a really tricky discussion. Some businesses need SEO to survive. I bet most do not. It comes down to what people are searching for. I also think it is only part of the discovery process. If you are looking to buy a product or service that might initiate the discovery. Followed up by inquiries to friends and your social network. On the other hand if I am searching for information/content and your business provides that with ad dollars as your revenue source it is really important you have a high SEO ranking. Same if you sell a product many other people sell.

    If my business model had SEO as a main driver I can see it affecting the quality of my site as the exchange for ranking high in a very competitive area.

  30. Finding a fine balance is what’s important. SEO can be the life-blood of a young/small business but at the same time, it is imperative that the content is directed at potential clients and that they find it useful.

  31. If you look at the whole content farms issue, than yes – SEO is driving content quality down in many cases. There is a lot of good alternative content out there, Google is just not “smart” enough to rank it, so the easy solution is to write content for Google if want to rank well or for people if you want loyal readers – do a bit of both over a long period and you may have a winning site

  32. This has just left me feeling all the more confused. I understand that the old rule of content is king and build the site and they will come no longer applies (did it ever apply?) but now the idea is that content is hardly important at all. I thought that content was still the most important factor on any website, regardless of the message, purpose etc? I guess the key is attracting links. If you have naff content but build content networks then all is well. If you build an excellent site that people naturally want to link to, this probably works much better in the long term.

    • Of course content and the messages/stories within are important. The old rule you mention is valid, it’s just missing a key piece. Build the site, optimize and promote it – they will come. The same people that will most engage with the content are not necessarily the same people that will link to it naturally. Therefore, some external promotion will help draw attention.

  33. I got what you mean my friend. I really know that what you have shared here had a great impact on me as an SEO Specialist. Proper writing and making good content for your site are very important in order to be successful and win your clients. Thank you for posting this article.

  34. I find it so interesting that, out of 49 comments in response to this post, not a single one of them mentioned content strategy. Not sure your point came across as you intended it to! Well, maybe we can all pick up the conversation next week when I post a response at http://blog.braintraffic.com … stay tuned! =)

    • It didn’t. Perhaps if I was a better writer. The essence of the post is about the accountability of content and content marketing. Looking forward to your response.

  35. This is a good post. To answer your last question, SEO can ruin content if you use it incorrectly. Who cares if your keyword density is 20% if your content makes no sense? You need to balance readability with SEO to attract search engines AND humans to your content.

    • Absolutely – In fact, great SEO should be transparent. The point of the post is that quality work on the part of the content strategist, writers and SEOs can work together for customer engagement AND improved discovery via search. Poor quality work and/or dismissive attitudes about content strategy or SEO means lost opportunity.

  36. Avatar Jeff Eaton says

    “…There’s too much content created purely for SEO. You could blame SEOs for that. You could also blame Google for ranking it so high.”

    Honestly, it’s hard to take people who say (and believe) that statement seriously. Google, as a primarily ad-funded company, is no shining beacon of virtue. But it’s absurd to suggest that the eternal arms race to game Google’s results page is the search engine’s fault. One might as well say that Google dressed like it wanted SEO, and content farmers are just giving it what it really wants.

    The same folks who adopt this “Don’t hate the player” attitude are also the first ones to scream when Google penalizes popular SEO techniques. This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate SEO techniques that can be used to increase accessibility and visibility, but there’s no way to deny that the snowball effect of agressive SEO techniques has done real damage to the quality of findable information on the Internet.

    • Google continues to reward spammy SEO tactics by showing such sites in the Search Results and has been caught implementing some of them itself. Now is not the time to be naive.

      I suggested another cause in the post which you hadn’t included in your comment: companies. Companies hire SEO consultants demanding Google dominance immediately. Unfortunately, many SEO consultants agree to this – or sell themselves as such. The result is a pollution of Search Results and propagation of bad information all around.

      In the end you have to follow the money. Google makes more money when there’s more content for it to crawl, index and show ads against. Much of the content being published by farms and automated systems is very poor quality and not customer focused. On that we agree.

      Marketers that want sustainable and long term results in search visibility need to publish content that serves the customer and that also makes it easier for Google to crawl, index and rank it. Tricks, loopholes and exploits are not sustainable. Smarter, more creative and customer focused marketing is timeless.

  37. Interesting take. Search-first content strategy solves this. If you wear the white hat and create content for your audience, using SEO as a guide for what they need and when, they work hand in hand. If you create content just for SEO and not for an audience, you’ve put on the black hat and you sully the experience for all users who are interested in content relevant to those queries.

    • Content just for SEO is the root of the problem. Customer centric content that’s easy to find via search is a win for all. I try not to wear any hats, even in cold MN winter. 🙂

  38. Create valid content and then optimize the same for search engines. Don’t let greed take over, don’t create content to get yourself ranked for more and more keywords. Search Engine Optimize to the right limits. Don’t over do it. I don’t agree with you when you write “You could blame SEOs for that.”

    Knife is meant to cut, how much you cut using it, and what you cut using it would matter. It can be used to steal, it can be used as a tool to defend. It can be used to create a master piece. It depends what you do with it, and so is SEO.

  39. I know a ton of people who complain about seo content even when they do not know they are reading SEO content.

    I hear complaints about how sites with unreadable content appear high in the search rankings….and yes its a catch 22.

    • I know, it can seem a bit of a rub, In the end you know that a SEO will be held accountable to growth in revenue. So whether people complain or not, the increase in traffic and sales is what most business managers care about. If the SEO effort can be implemented transparently to the customer, then that’s the big win, long term.

  40. Seo destroyed content there are so many people using indian and pakistani companies and they dont write very good english, they also dont create useful and valid content, i think the keyword density and proximity also ruins articles and content, we would be in a better position without having to filter rubbish all the time if you could just write a real article in real english and have it mean something…

  41. I’m a bit late in posting a comment, but I just wanted to point out a key point that you made: “If the SEO effort can be implemented transparently to the customer, then that’s the big win, long term.”
    That sums it up for me. When SEO tactics are implemented into readable relevant copy the visitor shouldn’t even know that the site has been SEO’d. It’s the inexperienced SEOs who load a web page with bold-faced keywords phrases that give SEO (and SEO copywriters) a bad rap.

    • Exactly – I’m glad that point resonated with you Nina. Unfortunately it didn’t with everyone but I think some of the disconnect is that people see what they want to see. Thanks for the comment and I look forward to more.

  42. Quality content is good n all but, I don’t think just having good content will get you high enough. A good idea though, is to build up backlinks for good content/articles (so they have that extra rank boost) and then also link wheel, link the articles to one another so that as one rises, so will the others. If you have good content and backlink it, plus creating a link wheeling then, your site or articles have a real nice chance of ranking high (especially in a non competitive niche).

    • Links are useful, but not in the same way as when PageRank was a more influential signal. Most companies with a little bit of common sense can rank high in a non-competitive niche.

  43. Avatar Melissaconn says

    When working with clients, I find the best way to incease SEO content is to thoroughly reaserch organic analytics for the site and keywords for the industry. SEO is a full circle of relevent and helpful consumer content, ad managment, social media, and publication. Having a client post a ton of useless contentdoesnt drive the qualified traffic to the site. A site can have 10000 visitors a month and if most of these visitors are on te site for a minute and never return, I find it hurts rankings because the bounce rate is high.