Your website’s content determines which keywords the pages on your website will rank for. Content that is unique and relevant to the intent of the keyword search will rank higher than “thin” content that does not satisfy searcher intent.

The birth of SEO

Google launched in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that search engine optimization really took off. Give or take, that would make SEO about 15 years old.

Cue the quinceanera?

SEO has blossomed from a reckless hellion that valued excess into a precise utility that pierces the internet’s cacophony with memorable messages. If it were a 15-year-old girl, she’d be precocious, and would probably find sparkly dresses and tiaras a bit gauche, because let’s face it: Less is more when it comes to modern online marketing.

So today we celebrate SEO’s coming of age with a refined rendition of our classic hit, “Why content for SEO?”

A 1-million string quartet

In the time it took you to read that introduction:

  • ~ 100,000 Tweets were published.
  • ~ 15,000 Instagram posts went live.
  • ~ 1,000 blog posts were posted.
  • ~ 1 million Google searches were made.

The internet is noisier than ever, and it’s getting louder with each passing second (we’re now at about 1.3 million Google searches).

Conventional SEO wisdom tells us that we need to crank the volume to be heard – more fresh content, higher word counts, more domains. And that used to be true. As recently as 2005, black-hat SEO practices were tricking Google – for instance, by overlaying solid-colored backgrounds with plain text of the same color to fabricate the impression of more content on a web page (more on that here).

But Google’s algorithms have evolved over the years. In 2014, Google’s IQ score was 26.5. By 2016, that IQ score had nearly doubled to 47.28.

To be fair, a 6-year-old child (average IQ of 55) is smarter than Google. Still, that’s higher than the IQ scores of Microsoft’s Bing (31.98) and Apple’s Siri (23.94) – and it’s no wonder why. There have been nearly 3 million search queries and counting since you started reading this. The more data that Google parses, the better it gets at returning relevant search results.

How does modern SEO cut through the noise?

The basic answer to this question is the same as it’s always been: Modern SEO attempts to establish high relevance in as many of Google’s ranking criteria as possible. What’s important to understand is that those criteria have changed since 2015, and SEO has changed with them. More than ever, they err on the side of quality.

Let’s talk algorithms.

Below are what we view as the eight core Google algorithms that all content creators should be focusing on:

Hummingbird (Launched August 22, 2013): This fascinating algorithm allows Google to aptly contextualize search queries. Hummingbird uses natural language processing to determine searcher intent, by attempting to understanding the meaning of a query. Hummingbird sees right through keyword stuffing and low-quality content.

Pigeon (Launched July 24, 2014): Pigeon applies Google’s core ranking criteria to location-based results. In other words, it forces local businesses to step up their offsite SEO game, and encourages them to become listed on relevant business directories.

Mobile (Launched April 21, 2015): Remember Mobilegeddon? It happened in 2015, and it completely changed the internet. Individual web pages that are optimized for mobile now receive a ranking boost; those that do not will suffer in SEO.

RankBrain (Launched October 26, 2015): Hummingbird’s genius little brother, and Google’s self-proclaimed third-most important algorithm. Since late 2015, RankBrain has identified superficial content by using machine learning to actually summarize a website’s pages in the index and subsequently use those summaries to align them with search queries. In other words, it focuses on the overall user experience and macro purpose of each existing page – and it gets better and better as it goes along.

Panda (Updated January 12, 2016): Panda, originally launched in 2011, was promoted to a core Google ranking algorithm in 2016. It now scores content by assessing indicators of plagiarism, duplicate content, thin content, spam and keyword stuffing.

Possum (Launched September 1, 2016): Possum geo-targets the searcher and the address of a business. Curiously, Possum has actually improved search rankings for many businesses that are located outside of a city area where a search is conducted. In a way, this makes sense. A person is not confined to a city when they’re searching for a service, especially not in B2B markets. Still, this algo is all about location, location, location.

Penguin (Updated September 23, 2016): Since 2016, Penguin (initially launched 2013) has run in real time, continuously, as part of Google’s core set of algorithms. It down-ranks content that uses irrelevant links and/or anchor text to manipulate and spam web users.

Fred (Launched March 8, 2017): As Google’s narc, Fred tattles on web pages that couch advertisements in shallow, thin or meaningless content. This forces businesses to make sure that banner and video ads are complemented by high-quality content.

Now let’s see how SEO has responded.

In three words: Quality is in.

Google’s algorithms know authentic collateral when they see it, so content for SEO needs to be smart and engaging but also backed up with strong web design and UX (because RankBrain somehow sees all).

Businesses are on board with this trend. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 89 percent of businesses now practice content marketing, which is more than ever before. More importantly, 76 percent say they value quality over quantity.

Nevertheless, quality content is harder to produce. It takes more time, effort and talent because it’s not a numbers game anymore. It requires:

Context: With Hummingbird calling the shots, understanding and catering to user intent is more important than ever. Loading up on keywords won’t cut it anymore*. You need stories. Facts and information. Well-executed commentary. Landing pages that are concise but memorable. Remember: Google’s self-proclaimed mission is to give people the gift of relevance. Good content will be rewarded with strong SERPs positioning and higher click-through rates. On the flip side, they’ll spot a volume play from a mile away. This means more traffic, yippee!

*Note: On-page SEO still plays a role! Marketers should follow on-page best practices with title tags, alt text, etc. But don’t you dare think about fooling search engines!

Variety: Yes, anticipating the many search-query iterations your target audience uses is important. But we’re not just talking about variety of language. You also need shareable assets like videos and infographics that people want to link to and embed in blog posts. Each and every link back to your multimedia content moves the needle. Not to mention, just because people search with words doesn’t mean they’re searching for words (e.g., cat videos). Google made that distinction long ago, and so should you.

Mobile: The other great thing about visual media is that it looks good on a mobile phone. Bite-size, engaging graphics and quick-hitting “how-to” videos are great for snacking on the train ride home or while waiting in the elevator. Careful, though. Strong multimedia collateral is no substitute for a mobile-optimized website.

Social: At 83 percent, social is the most widely used content marketing tactic. Why? Links galore. Your content and social are in a symbiotic relationship. Social promotes your content, and your content drives engagement on social. Take away one, and you kill the other. But together, they’re like peanut butter and jelly. Simon and Garfunkel. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And heck, Spongebob Squarepants and Patrick Star (this is a quinceanera, after all).

So where does that leave us?

There have been about 16 million Google searches since you started reading this (depending on how fast you read). Bear in mind that there are well over 1 billion estimated web already in existence.

By the numbers alone, that means there’s roughly a 1 in 16 quadrillion chance that one among those 16 million queries landed on your homepage.

Granted, that’s an incomplete assessment. We can’t just focus on numbers; the content matched with queries isn’t random – and that’s sort of the whole point of creating content for SEO. Google knows when you’re delivering purposeful web content that truly aligns with your target audience’s search intent, and it rewards you for it.

That means that your content-for-SEO strategy must fire on all cylinders, which we realize is easier said than done, especially now that most businesses practice content marketing. This ultimately brings us back to the question at hand, “Why content for SEO?” which we can answer with another question:

“What’s the alternative?”

Yes, it’s a hard game to play, and yes, it gets harder every day. But as in life and in business, the best response to adversity is to keep stepping up your game and to rise to every occasion.

Dominick Sorrentino, Brafton's Brand & Product Manager, is based in Portland, ME. He likes language, playing guitar, birding, taking his dog on scenic strolls, traveling, and a good conversation over a great cup of coffee. He promises he's not as pretentious as he sounds.