Lee Odden

What Should Lead Your Online Marketing Strategy: SEO or Content Marketing?

SEO content marketingThere are quite a few studies showing that companies publishing more blog posts and more content in general equates to generating more business than those that don’t.

I suppose if you’re starting from scratch, adding any kind of content has the potential to improve a company’s ability to attract people seeking to buy.  Since content creation is one of the biggest obstacles to companies realizing gains with content marketing, it’s no wonder that advice about how to produce articles, blog posts, infographics, white papers, and visual marketing has become so popular.

Which brings me to the point of this post. When looking for help with content marketing and content creation, there’s a difference between what one gets from a SEO agency and a content marketing agency. That difference is not so much about one being better than the other, but more about sizing up which is most appropriate for your situation.

In fact, it would be nonsensical to limit one’s options to just SEO and content marketing, so keep in mind this post is intentionally narrowly focused.

Many pure SEO agencies have added content marketing to their mix of services in the past year if not completely re-inventing themselves that way. This is the nature of SEO, adapting to the changing nature of the industry to provide current services for improved online marketing performance.

Starting as a Public Relations firm in 2001, TopRank Marketing has been in the content creation business (messaging strategy, press releases, case studies, newsletters, white papers, email marketing, etc) for a very long time. As we evolved into more of a digital marketing agency, those PR centric content efforts evolved into blogging, social media content, ebooks, infographics, video and other visual content. But we don’t create a diverse array of content types simply because we can. We create them when it’s the right thing to do for a certain audience to affect a particular outcome.

Therein lies the fundamental difference between today’s SEO focused content and what content marketers offer.

SEO is accountable to metrics like search visibility, organic search traffic and any measurable actions that lead to and result in conversions. The more content that can serve as a “hook in the water” of search results, the more the SEO can show an impact on the investment.

As I’ve been saying lately, SEO anticipates demand through an understanding of keyword popularity and content marketing creates demand driven by producing content based on the customer journey. Optimization is an effort to improve search visibility of existing content and digital assets as well as the creation of new content according to a target list of keywords.

Content Marketing is an approach that emphasizes the thoughtful creation of content for a particular audience designed to influence an action or outcome. Rather than keyword popularity driving content creation, an effort is made to understand the customer buying journey and to architect a content plan that provides the right kind of information and experiences along the buying cycle.

When a marketing strategy calls for demand creation, a content marketing strategy will provide for a holistic approach to content where ever the there’s an opportunity for customers to interact with it. That might mean online to offline as well as an intersection with other tactics like advertising, email marketing, rich media and certainly social media.

SEO is a critical partner to content marketing. Search represents a substantial opportunity for information discovery at a time when customers are actively looking for a solution. SEO plays an essential role for information discovery across the spectrum of customer lifecycle content. SEO assumes the buyer is firm in what they are looking for and that is not always the case.

Many companies are making a transition of sorts, from SEO and a focus on creating “more” content to a content marketing focused strategy that emphasizes targeted content mapped to stages of the buying cycle. Such a shift should consider a number of factors from the resources and culture of the marketing organization to a short vs. long term view towards online marketing.

Many SEO agencies have added content marketing to their mix and can provide resources for optimized content creation.  The most common form is to evangelize creation of more content. As SEOs mature in their use of content, audience targeting, content planning across channels and integration with other types of content that have nothing to do with explicit search behaviors will emerge. For now, that evolution is not as common as the evangelism of “more as better”.

When a company is in need of a strategic approach, a content marketing agency will be able to help define audience segments, map buying cycles and develop a content plan that provides for storytelling that is optimized for discovery, experience and outcomes – across the customer journey from awareness to purchase to advocacy.

When it comes to SEO and content, how do you lead your online marketing efforts? Do SEO and keywords drive your content creation or do you plan content according to stages of tbe customer buying cycle? Do you define content marketing as creating more content or have you created a content strategy?

Image source: Shutterstock

PoorSo SoOKGoodAwesome (6 votes, average: 4.33 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. Avatar opedmkt says

    Nice article Lee. However, I don’t think SEO or Content Marketing are strategies, I believe they are tactics. As we wrote in our eBook, a business needs to take a holistic approach to online marketing: one that involves ATTRACTING visitors to your website (SEO, PPC, Content, Email, etc.), CONVERTING visitors into fans, leads, prospects, or customers (Web Design, Testing, CRO, etc.) and KEEPING and growing your customers and audience by consistently engaging them (Social Media, Email, Blogs, Referral Marketing, etc.). If a company focused too much on SEO and Content Marketing, they’re going to increase their traffic, but if their website “can’t convert” the traffic than there’s little point. The key is to find a healthy balance between these three actions of ATTRACTING, CONVERTING, and KEEPING customers.

  2. Great article, Lee. My personal opinion is that it’s not one or the other… it’s both. Many SEO-led strategies I’ve seen leave consumer insights on the table, minimizing the effectiveness of the content. Meanwhile, most content-led plans leave some aspects of consumer intent or findability on the table, also watering down results.

    • I agree, we need both. For the long run, a customer centric, content led strategy where I can optimize and amplify well thought out messaging that aligns with customer goals becomes more portable across marketing channels than keywords alone. Understand customer intent for discovery, consumption and action – then apply that insight towards optimization across channels: attract, engage, convert.

  3. SEO is part of a bigger discipline as is content marketing. New terms come and go but it’s all just marketing. Consumers need buzzwords so the industry creates them but in the end…. What we were doing in 96 is much the same as what we do now!

    The tools and technology got better but marketing is marketing and at the core of it all is a message and at the core of a message you find content meant to move an audience towards an action. If there is no audience or the message is wrong or poorly thought out then all the buzzwords out there can not make it work!

    This post is excellent because it is saying look for the hook for the action you want the audience to take and get it visibility by whatever means fits the bill… SEO, Video, PR that’s where the tools and data come in to provide the basis for the plan of action and final implementation.

    • “it’s all just marketing” exactly. I’m glad it resonated Terry because you summed up my intention of the post really well.

  4. Thanks for the comment Jeff. Re: “SEO was never a task, and never a be-all-and-end-all panecea for marketing problems.” There are still plenty of SEO agencies, consultants and customers holding on to that very premise.

    I think there is some merit here “the issue has shifted away from what you can do technically to what you can do creatively” but I believe the technical side of SEO is still very necessary in the right situation.

    Content is the reason search engines exist and it’s also the core of the social experience: what people create and share. For that reason, I think a content marketing strategy provides benefits with greater impact across marketing channels than a SEO led strategy. However, a competitive advantage is unlikely without ongoing optimization – for search, for social for customer experience.

  5. I agree webprotech, and whenever someone proclaims, “content marketing is not the new SEO” somewhere, someone scares a kitten.

    Content marketing strategy is insight into the customer journey and SEO helps make the discovery, consumption and action based on that content relevant and meaningful for all: brand and consumer.

  6. Would probably consider it this way: content marketing it is about the storytelling and SEO about how to better place it and make it visible, and effective. Both so critical, maybe, SEO, more as a process.

  7. In my opinion, content marketing can never be focused on creating more content. Creating diverse content is the need. Quantity of the content must not be the primary focus of content marketing strategy.

    “As SEOs mature in their use of content, audience targeting, content planning across channels and integration with other types of content that have nothing to do with explicit search behaviors will emerge.”

    These lines explain everything. Content marketers will come across new search patterns every few weeks or months, and accordingly they will have to tweak the strategy to stay ahead in the competition.

    • Optimization has evolved and the continuous process marketers must engage in to improve the performance of content is just that: optimization. Thanks for commenting Yogesh.

      • Avatar chrisbaggott says

        Yogesh is right: (..content marketing can never be focused on creating more content) so some extent but we can’t escape that ‘recency’ is still huge. You may identify the perfect piece of content for the right topic/persona/funnel stage. But this isn’t a one and done world. You need to be creating specific content for this segment all the time…..multiplied by all the topic/persona/funnel stages that drive the organization.

        So while it’s true that content volume can’t be the single focus….successful content marketing today requires volumes that were unimagined a few years ago.

  8. Avatar jcrowe_openview says

    Nice article, Lee. I especially like the question you end with: Which drives your content creation: a) Needs related to your customer’s buying cycle; or b) visibility (SEO)? I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone address it.

    Obviously depends on the company/situation, but one thing I will say about the buyer stages approach is that too often it seems like companies feel (or are told) they have to create content that maps to every single stage to make sure every touchpoint is covered, whereas they might be better served focusing on the one problem touchpoint/content opportunity that stands to have the biggest impact, and concentrating on nailing the right format/messaging/delivery until they see results.

    Focus, test, iterate, optimize — seems like more content marketing should adopt a “lean” approach focusing on the result of the content rather than the content, itself. Otherwise, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of simply checking off boxes (blog-check, white paper-check, video-check, etc.), creating a variety of content just for the sake of creating it, and then calling that a strategy.

    So where do you see SEO fitting into a strategy that focuses on isolating one buyer touchpoint at a time and creating/testing/optimizing content for maximum impact?

    • Depends on the buying cycle and driver, yeah? Impulse vs. researched. Where is the consumer in the funnel when they meet you and your team…

    • Avatar chrisbaggott says

      This is brilliant: ” …whereas they might be better served focusing on the one problem
      touchpoint/content opportunity that stands to have the biggest impact,
      and concentrating on nailing the right format/messaging/delivery until
      they see results”

      The issue in Content Marketing here is actually the inability of marketers to measure a ‘unit’ of content by channel or outcome.

      For example, you may have a content unit that does great on search but has a minimal click through rate vs that same content unit that converts like mad on social or email. A click on search however may result in more closed business than a click on social (or vice versa)

      The next iteration of Content Marketing tools must make it easy for marketers to not only create great targeted content, but make it easy for them to know what is working where and for whom…and why.

  9. SEO and Content Creation are a Venn diagram, not mutually exclusive skills. I know I have much of both, though not all of either.

    I like that your piece indicates that the key is to be deliberate and not lean too far either way. Thing is: if either is truly competent and truly doing marketing and not computer science or free verse poetry, you’ll wind up with the first 80% of your SEO straight off (unless your architecture sucks or your integration point is staffed with fools or is ignored or underinvested). All the long tail terms, inbound links, and and minimized css won’t matter much if you can’t return a request at all or in a timely manner. So, how abut half 40% SEO, 40% Content Creator and then achieve other 20% via heavy tech, thanks for the piece — thought provoking. In other words both but neither, really. And let’s please have someone at the table who gets it the way a mechanic gets car.

  10. The customer should always be the first priority when it comes to content creation. That’s why I believe in creating content first, and then going back to look for optimization opportunities.

  11. Hey Lee, I really enjoyed reading this post as it really gets you thinking about where things are going. Rand Fishkin said that he’s given in to the fact that it’s not all about SEO any more, it’s inbound marketing and SEO is a component of this. So we are writing content in many formats, on different channels for different reasons to attract relevant audience. I think we should always consider the best way of presenting this content so that it attracts the most attention but this isn’t always keyword driven.

    • Thanks Ian, glad it stirred some thinking. There are quite a few folks that have been advocating the notion of optimizing for customers and then keywords for a very long time. Eventually, even the most stubborn will come around 🙂

  12. Avatar WebEmergence says

    Quality content should always be the number one priority. Regardless of how much SEO you apply to a site that has poor content, your online marketing campaign will fail. SEO can get website traffic and improve your rankings, but without good quality content on your site your retention and conversion rates will decline. Conversions into sales speaks volumes for both online marketing and SEO.

  13. Really insightful post. It’s difficult to appoint one as more important, you just need to know what your company ultimately wants to achieve. You said it very well, SEO and content marketing are great partners!

  14. i think seo is


  15. Avatar Michael Gocia says

    A really interesting concept. I think It’s very difficult to say. SEO and Content Marketing both are playing a vital role in online marketing.

  16. Avatar Jennifer says

    Great post! As you mentioned in your article, SEO and content marketing go hand in hand, but it’s based on the situation, the company, and the customers. SEO might work for one particular situation and content marketing might work for another. It all just depends on the strategy.

  17. Just like you write for your readers not the AI. I believe content should lead your strategy. Human being are what matter at the end of the day. People buy.

  18. Avatar Anna Pham says

    I think today people focuses more on SEO and somehow they lost the quality that content needs to keep readers stay longer with them.

  19. Great post Lee. Content Marketing and SEO go hand in hand and many of us fail to understand this. It depends on various companies and how they use content and SEO in a effective and improvised manner. Great content and a better place to make it visible is something that we follow at Synechron too. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Avatar Sean McColgan says

    Great post Lee – in response to your question – how do you lead your online marketing efforts?

    We’re always focusing on:

    1. How can we help our prospective customers?

    2. How can we help our clients customers?

    Knowing the end customer their fears and desires, and tying that into content that enables them to make better informed decisions is the key (We achieve this through surveys of existing customers, customer profiling, social media analysis).

    For client work, does it really make sense for us to be writing about content we have no prior expertise in? No not really, connecting with knowledge workers in that space is where it’s at – this could mean working with client to produce content or finding people in their respective domain who you’d partner with….

    With Google coming around on how they rank content (human based not website – page rank > author rank) hopefully everyone will eventually stop optimising for search algorithms and get back to doing what we’re here to do. Connect & help each other.

  21. Avatar Jayanta Dey says

    informative post. I think seo and content both are very important aspect. You
    always need to maintain quality when you write complete on other hand you also
    need maintain good quality work in seo. Excellent post. Glad to read such
    informative post. Thanks