What comes first – the chicken (rankings) or the egg (good content marketing)? Are they mutually exclusive or does one require the other? In the not-so-distant past, they were often mutually exclusive because rankings didn’t necessarily require good content marketing. Rankings could be achieved with poor to mediocre content, technical on-page sculpting and link building for the sake of link building.

Trailing IndicatorToday’s post-Panda and Penguin reality makes link building for the sake of link building and mediocre to poor content risky tactics for SEO. The analytical obfuscation from Google’s SSL, iOS 6 and Firefox, the publishing frequency favoritism of Caffeine’s Freshness update and Google’s admission to using social signals further add to the riskiness of older tactics.

In addition, Google has a patent on what it calls Ranking Documents. Rather than webmasters making updates and seeing historically normal or predictable SERP movement, the webmaster will see a random transitional rank (up or down) for a random period of time (could be months) prior to seeing the final target ranking. This randomness will make it very difficult to see the cause and effect of unnatural link building and/or on-page sculpting.

What is Good Content Marketing?

Good content marketing is in the eye of the beholder. However, when it comes to rankings, the only eye that matters is Google’s. Over the last two years, Google has become much better at aligning its algorithmic eye with that of the human eye. As a result, they’re getting much better at sniffing out and rewarding quality content. This desire to align its algorithm with the human eye is clearly reflected in their basic principles for quality guidelines below.

Webmaster Quality Guidelines – Basic Principles

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.

What does Good Content Marketing Look Like to Google?

According to a 2012 U.S. ranking factors study by Searchmetrics, SERP performance is highly correlated to a myriad of social signals and inbound links. However, it’s safe to assume that the correlation between inbound links and rankings today are based on inbound links not targeted by Penguin. It’s also safe to assume that sometime in the near future (maybe now) the positive or negative impact of an inbound link will not be truly known until transition rank has run its course.

Based on this study, and the myriad of Google updates outlined above, a page is mostly rank-worthy due to social signals and natural inbound links. But how is this accomplished?

Good content marketing naturally acquires links and gets organically shared across many social media platforms without breaking any of Google’s guidelines. Therefore, viable SEO today should be content-focused with an emphasis on quality and publishing frequency. This will drive social signals and natural inbound links. For this reason, rankings are a trailing indicator of good content marketing. Download A Tale of Two Studies: Establishing Google & Bing Click-Through Rates to learn how organic rankings affect click-through rates.

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