I want to get something straight right out of the gate in this post:

SEO and content marketing are not the same thing. Even if you’ve read that content marketing is the new SEO, I want you to eliminate that idea from your brain right now.

The confusion arises because SEO and content marketing often share similar goals.

In fact, sometimes it can be hard to tell which one is part of the other, or which one of the pair should be dominant in content strategy.

When it comes to SEO, content should have a deep connection to the technical side of your website. This includes things such as site speed, crawlability and information architecture. After all, an SEO professional’s job is to improve content’s search engine position. And even though content is an essential part of SEO success, it’s just that: one part of a larger whole.

Content marketing, on the other hand, has its own broad spectrum of metrics. Search ranking is one of them, but so is social sharing, conversions and lead generation. In other words, content marketers are interested in building an audience that will ultimately convert.

To put it simply, content marketing is an activity an SEO professional might perform, while SEO is a consideration that a content marketer might have.

In between the two, you will almost always find an overlap in goals and metrics measured. For example, SEO strategy might incorporate content creation into an overarching strategy for attracting links and targeting keywords, while a content marketer might integrate SEO to generate new leads from organic.

Furthermore, both content marketers and SEO specialists should measure their impact in the form of links, traffic, rankings and revenue. Both will also be concerned with things like branding, voice and tone. After all, to market content well, you must focus on the audience you’re serving.

When the Gap Closed

The overlap between SEO and content marketing was thrown into the spotlight after Google began its algorithm changes. Updates like Penguin forced SEO specialists who were using sketchy link-building tactics to embrace content instead. Embrace it they did – in droves.

Believe me, I know from firsthand experience. Before I went into content creation, I spent over four years on the agency side doing SEO. The shifting algorithm updates had a profound effect on where SEO pros like me put their focus: Content marketing was quickly embraced as the safest way to earn links.

Now, it’s no longer just about cramming keywords, but iterating on themes and using semantically-related language to help Google better understand the relevance of a page.

Clearly, content marketing matters to SEO. But does SEO matter in content marketing?

How Much Does SEO Matter, Really?

I’ll start answering this question by saying this:

Creating content solely for the purpose of rankings is a misguided endeavor. If you are 100 percent focused on producing content that will rank well, you’ve already failed.

Rather, the focus should be on the audience you want to reach. After all, content marketing is ultimately about building relationships with your audience by delivering content they want to consume again and again.

In order to achieve that relationship, SEO cannot be priority one. Instead, it’s about balance. There’s nothing wrong with having SEO as a primary objective, so long as you’re trying to rank customer-focused and useful content.

Here are some important SEO considerations for content marketers:

  • You still need keyword research to understand how your audience looks for what you have to offer. The caveat is that we’re seeing phrases grow longer and more specific, so a very specific phrase with almost no traffic may still convert well if your site is relevant.
  • The old standbys for SEO still apply: Title tag keywords, H1 and page URL all correlate with improved rankings, but the writing must read naturally. In other words, there’s no sense in butchering a compelling headline for the sake of cramming in a keyword.
  • Try to use a descriptive, compelling meta-description that contains the keywords you’re trying to target. Just remember: The primary goal of a meta-description is to earn a click, not please a bot.
  • Fresh content seems to get at least a temporary boost in ranking, so regular publishing has some impetus in SEO.

Content-First Approach to SEO

So, what approach should you take toward SEO in your content creation? What tactics should be abandoned?

In my post “Death to SEO Copywriting,” I laid out what I consider to be the modern day rules of engagement:

  • DO try to use textual content on your site’s pages. Google is still a machine, not a mind reader.
  • DON’T write filler content to hit a word count because you think “Google likes long content.” Say what you need to get the job done, and then shut up and get out of your own way.
  • DON’T create content for the sake of targeting a keyword. Create it for the sake of targeting a person. There’s a huge difference.
  • DON’T write a single line of copy that isn’t useful to the people visiting your site. This includes buried footer text and tabbed-boxes.
  • DO map keywords to pages and use them where natural, but treat them like themes rather than plug-in phrases.
  • DO strive for a balance between clever and clear. It’s great to be imaginative with your words, but remember that people still want plain English.
  • DO make use of synonyms and variations instead of harping on the same tired phrase in a vain attempt to reach keyword density.
  • DO write as though someone’s purchase decision depends on you – because it does.
  • DO place monetary value on creativity in your branding and messaging. There are more ways to win online (and in business) than SEO.

Above all, writing for people means more than just writing naturally. You also have to focus on the customer, adhere to branding, maintain a consistent voice and tone and, maybe most importantly, offer up something worth consuming.

Once you’ve achieved that, you can decide how important SEO is to your content. But at no point should SEO and content marketing be at odds. Instead, you should teach them to play nice.