Did you know that Google uses more than 200 factors to determine when and if your content shows up in search engine results pages? That’s assuming your content is indexed, optimized, and technically correct enough for Google to even find it.
Two hundred factors. That’s a lot to account for in your SEO strategy. And what’s more, the first 10 aren’t even about content—they all concern the details of your domain name.
So what’s a content marketer to do? For starters, consider these two scenarios:
The future of SEO is brand storytelling. Scenario two forces marketers to think about the people they are trying to reach, not the data provided by search engines—and as a result, it’s long-lasting. If you effectively change the way a person thinks about a topic, they’ll come back, look for other great stories that you provide, and eventually choose your brand.
On the topic of brand storytelling, Alexander Jutkowitz for the Harvard Business Review wrote:
Branded content is a brave new world and a brand’s editorial team, regardless of how it’s organized, must learn to live and breathe a company’s bottom line while also being mindful of the kinds of stories that appeal to readers. The editorial organization within a corporation has to be independent enough to form unique perspectives, but embedded enough to access exclusive information.
This kind of commitment to storytelling and editorial integrity, albeit shaped by sponsorship, is undoubtedly how content marketing has begun to encroach on the whole of marketing. Content, it seems, has miraculously given brands a greater purpose. Brands are no longer merely peddling products; they’re producing, unearthing, and distributing information. And because they do, the corporation becomes not just economically important to society, but intellectually essential as well.
With the shift to brand storytelling comes a shift in the marketer’s mind-set—and maybe even the team structure.
The future of SEO and brand storytelling is built on three pillars:
These components are not the easy way out. They’re not hacks that you can apply tomorrow and see immediate results. But if you want to build a future for your brand that relies on the power of story to challenge, motivate, change, and retain incredibly loyal customers for years to come, they’re the fundamental elements you’ll absolutely need.
But before we get into all that, I’d like to talk to you about hiking.
In my free time, I like to hike and be outdoors. Some people think that’s weird: “Why would you want to spend your weekends exerting energy after a long work week?” But I love it.
One of the things I like most about hiking is the journey. You start somewhere, choose your path, work toward a set destination, and, through hard work, you arrive at that destination. Most people enjoy the views and peaks the best (and so do I—it’s where I take the best pictures), but what really keeps me motivated is the time I spend getting there. I love the hard work, the sweat, the pain, and the grit required to make it from the ground to the summit.
My all-time favorite hike to date is the Bright Angel trail, which leads to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Once you get yourself down, you have to get yourself back up. Those who commit to the nine grueling miles down know it’s not over yet—they still have 10 more seemingly endless miles back up to the top. (Imagine being on a StairMaster in 90-degree heat for eight hours). It’s extremely hard work, but the payoff is huge. Sitting a mile down into the earth is something most people can’t say they’ve experienced.
When hiking long distances like that, you cannot cheat your way from point A to point B. You have to put in the work to receive the reward, and that’s what I love about it. That’s the approach marketers need to take with SEO and storytelling: storytelling is the grit and desire it takes to reach your goals, SEO is the gear and physical skills your journey is built on.
Traditionally, the battle between SEO and editorial has been fierce. All too often, marketers have optimized for keywords, while editorial leaders fight for quality-first content. I asked Joe Hebert, one of Skyword’s associate directors of editorial, why editorial integrity matters. He said: “Constantly changing SEO best practices, fighting for page views and clicks—it’s not easy being a content marketer today. That’s why having a strong editorial mission and clear guidelines is essential. Without them, it’s easy to forget about the difference between good storytelling and a good keyword.”
Even Google has made changes to get better at deciphering a well-optimized page and a good story. Since the company announced semantic search, its sole focus has been to surface the best possible results to its users based on their original queries. You see all those queries in Google Keyword Planner, but have you asked yourself what inspired them? What if the person saw an email a week ago and wanted to find a specific article, or recently read a Tweet and didn’t have time to read the article, so they searched for it later? Or how about people who find out about a great story through word of mouth, then try to find it on their own?
Dave Armenti, senior content marketing executive at TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals, shared his approach to editorial integrity:
Editorial quality comes first, keywords a close second. Most of our strategy depends on the goal of that particular piece of content. On our TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals Blog, SEO and keywords are a tangential benefit to much of the content we create, not the first priority; as in, we don’t necessarily write for keywords or dictate topics by a set group of keywords. Instead, we figure out the editorial integrity of the post—the topic, angle, format, main points we want to portray, audience, etc.—and the goal of that post. Then we consider whether there is a keyword that fits based on that integrity. We create a lot of content where the goal is unrelated to SEO, such as content for PR pitches and paid/organic social channels, for newsletters, or for B2B studies. So the content needs to cater to that channel and audience.
At the end of the day, if it’s high quality and engages people, Google will likely take notice. I’m a firm believer that there is a valuable keyword related to almost any topic you’re writing on. It may not be the strongest keyword, but even niche, long-tail words can be valuable. So first, button up the editorial integrity of your post, and then, right before writing, establish a keyword or two that you want to include throughout that gives you the best chance of reaching the person who will find value in your story.
If you’ve built a foundation and your entire team understands your editorial mission, content guidelines, and overall style, then you must also be able to clearly articulate who your audience is. Your audience can be hierachical—for example, your foodie publication may target young women who like to cook, but an article could target a young woman who lives in a city and cares about her health. For that latter example, you may write an article about three ingredients you can find at a farmers’ market that are an alternative to adding sugar to your meals. Through this scenario, you can see how there can be subsets of your audience, and how stories can be customized to reach that specific audience subset while still staying true to overall editorial approach.
That’s exactly how Dave Armenti described TripAdvisor’s approach:
We don’t have an audience for our SEO strategy (it’s not like you can see the demographics of who is searching for a particular keyword), but we absolutely have an audience for our editorial strategy. For example, the ‘beach house vacation’ has long been a family-centric, large-group type of trip. If we write a post around beach destinations, we’ll cater it to parents who are likely planning a trip with their families, their young kids, and maybe some relatives. But if we’re writing about a city spot, we will use a tone that’s a bit more Millennial style—hip and younger—since we’re seeing more and more 20- and 30-somethings staying in city rentals during their travels. The younger generation seeks a more authentic, local experience compared to traditional hotels. If we don’t speak their language and understand their needs, they will go to a competitor.
Understanding your audience (at both a macro and micro level) is the foundation of a strong editorial strategy. Once you know who your audience comprises, you can picture that person in your head, and begin to visualize them as a real human being—from there, you can put in the work of developing the way in which you connect with that person on a human level. That is your editorial strategy.
When you think about the products you love, you probably don’t think about their features or benefits. For example, I love my Keen hiking boots—but not because they have a dual-density, compression-molded EVA midsole or a metatomical dual-density footbed. (What the heck is that stuff anyway?) I love those boots because they kept me comfortable when I backpacked through Yosemite with my wife. The experiences we had on that trip will live with me for a lifetime. I’ll probably buy more boots in the future and I’ll look at Keen first because the Yosemite experience sticks in my mind.
Yosemite is my second-favorite national park (after the Grand Canyon)—and I tell friends and family about my trip there all the time. Backpacking through the Tuolumne Meadows on the John Muir trail was a life-changing experience, and guess what? When people ask about the gear we used, I’ll tell them about my Keen boots (among other favorite items I like to carry).
The reason for this is that people think in story. Robert McKee, world famous storytelling and founder of Storynomics, has been bridging the gap between marketing and storytelling for years. In a recent interview with the Content Standard’s Managing Editor, Jon Simmons, he said this:
The mind is a story-making and taking-in machine. The natural way in which people think is to storify their experiences. This is how you remember, this is how you try to anticipate the future. You put the past or future into story form in order to make sense out of life and try to understand what your life has been like, to try to prepare for the future. The mind is constantly storifying its experience. That’s the way it works.
As a marketer, you should be able to describe the experiences of your customers and target audience. If you can anticipate or learn more about those experiences (past and present) then you’ll be able to create a story that resonates with that person because they will feel like you understand them. The natural result of a well-told story that resonates with someone is that the story is told again and again.
Here’s how that breaks down from a technical perspective: In the marketing world, the act of retelling stories comes in the form of social media engagement and online endorsements of your story. Online endorsements can constitute a link to your story in a forum or community website from someone who thoroughly enjoyed it, a share on Facebook, or, the ultimate endorsement in the SEO world: a link from an influential publication to your story as the source of credibility.
In addition to that, a key factor for search engines to determine the credibility and trustworthiness of your website is your link profile. Your link profile is the sum of all inbound links to your pages from authoritative and credible websites, social media networks included.
Obviously, then, a well-told story is key. If you don’t design your stories to evoke emotion, thought, or change, readers’ perspectives won’t change. That will mean less online endorsements, a poor link profile, and a story that’s never retold.
Dave Armenti shared that he uses backlinks and link profile as metrics that help determine success of their storytelling.
Backlinks are huge for our SEO strategy on the blog. Much of our content gets included in PR pitches or highly distributed on social media. The stories get a lot of exposure to different audiences. When we’re developing our PR strategy (let’s say we did a blog post on affordable vacation spots for a summer beach house), the publications we pitch that story to will use our unique data and create their own story, but link to our original blog post for the source. That’s a huge backlink to achieve, especially if it’s a big-time travel publication with a lot of credibility.
Marketers today are at a crossroads. Traditional advertising isn’t working anymore, old-school SEO and marketing techniques don’t produce a strategy that will keep you in business long term, and customers’ values are shifting: today, they want transparency and value, not promising and bragging. Storytelling is the future of business, and the future of content marketing.
My advice to marketers is to take baby steps. Don’t scrap your SEO strategy today; rather, change the way you think about SEO. Think about the stories that will engage and change the perceptions of your customers. Then think about ways they may find that story (SEO included).
We have so much content on the internet right now, and too much of it is garbage. As you think about your storytelling strategy, hold yourself accountable for the stories you create. If you tell a story that doesn’t get read, rewrite it. Take it down. Start over. Don’t mass produce stories based on hundreds of keywords and churn out words until you hit big. Create fewer stories, with an emphasis on quality that ensures each one is a story people will love. If you can do that, the future is brighter, and a lot more simple: instead of mass-producing stories, you’ll tell one story that’s retold ad infinitum.