Dominick Sorrentino

On Google, website content determines just about everything — including the keywords your web pages rank for. Unique content that is relevant based on a searcher’s intent will often rank higher than wishy-washy words that do not satisfy that intent.

But before we talk all about the importance of content for SEO (if ranking isn’t convincing enough), let’s educate ourselves by exploring a brief history of search engine optimization — starting with its inception.

The Birth of SEO

Google launched in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until about ‘97 that search engine optimization started to take off. Yes, SEO is a 90s kid. Today, that bouncing baby is about 26 years old.

Since its … birth, SEO has blossomed. It started as a reckless hellion that valued excess and has transformed into a precise utility that pierces the internet’s cacophony with memorable messages. So, when it comes to modern online marketing, less is more.

But back to the question at hand: Why content for SEO?

A 1-Million String Quartet

In the time it took you to read that introduction:

Google registered 6.3 million searches and hundreds of thousands of other activities, too: blogs published, tweets tweeted (or X’s, X’ed ) and photos shared on Instagram.

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. It used to be all about quantity over quality.

Back in 2005, black-hat SEO practices were tricking Google. For instance, overlaying solid-colored backgrounds with plain text of the same color to fabricate the impression of more content on a web page.

But Google’s algorithms have evolved over the years. The more data that Google parses, the better it gets at returning a relevant search result for each user.

The 3 Fundamental Subsets of SEO

SEO as a concept is divided into three fundamental subsets that pretty much cover it all:

  • On-Page SEO: This is all about optimizing individual pages of a website to rank higher and earn more relevant traffic in search engines. It involves tweaking elements like website content and HTML tags (titles, headers, meta descriptions), and ensuring a good user experience. Essentially, it’s about making your pages more attractive to users and, subsequently, to search engines.
  • Off-Page SEO: Unlike on-page SEO, off-page SEO is about activities that happen outside your website. It includes building backlinks from reputable sites, social media marketing and other external efforts that help improve your site’s credibility and authority. From Google’s perspective, if other respected sites are linking to yours, your content must be valuable and relevant.
  • Technical SEO: This is the nuts and bolts of optimization. Technical SEO focuses on the backend of your website, ensuring it’s technically sound and efficient for search engine crawlers. It involves factors such as website speed, mobile-friendliness, indexing, crawlability and having a secure connection (HTTPS).

How Does Modern SEO Cut Through the Noise?

Modern SEO content 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 over the years, and continue to change, meaning SEO has to evolve alongside them. Now more than ever, Google errs on the side of quality — the way it should.

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 understand the meaning of a query. This algorithm sees right through keyword-stuffed articles and other low-quality content.

Pigeon (Launched July 24, 2014): Pigeon applies Google’s core SEO 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. And, web pages that aren’t designed for mobile or are clunky on mobile interfaces will suffer in terms of SEO.

RankBrain (Launched October 26, 2015): RankBrain is 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 factor and algorithm in 2016 and remains there to this day. It scores content by assessing indicators of plagiarism, duplicate and 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 improved search rankings for many businesses that are located outside of the area where a search is conducted. A person is not confined to a city when they’re searching for a service, especially not in B2B markets. Still, this algorithm is all about location, location, location.

Penguin (Updated September 23, 2016): Since 2016, Penguin (which initially launched in 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.

BERT (Launched October 24, 2018; Worldwide rollout December 9, 2019): BERT is a language interpreter. This algorithm helps Google better understand the context and nuances of words in a search query. With it, Google can comprehend the relationships between words in a sentence, leading to more accurate and contextually relevant search results for users.

These updates mark major milestones in Google’s journey. Of course, intertwined with these identity-defining changes, more frequent core updates help Google run better.

Where SEO Content Stands Today: At the Forefront

Three words: quality, engaging content.

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, and content marketing is more popular than ever. According to a study conducted by WordPress VIP, 58% of organizations expect their content budgets to grow in 2023. And while a reported 61% are still creating more content, these businesses are indeed starting to focus on 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, optimized content will be rewarded with strong search engine results page (SERP) positioning and higher click-through rates. On the flip side, they’ll spot a volume play from a mile away.

*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: Social media is a popular content marketing strategy these days. Why? Links galore. Content and social media share a symbiotic relationship. Social platforms promote your visual and written content, and your content drives engagement on social media. Take one away and you kill the other. But together, they’re like peanut butter and jelly. Simon and Garfunkel. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Heck, even Spongebob Squarepants and Patrick Star.

So, Where Does That Leave Us?

If you’re a really slow reader and it took you an hour to reach the end of this article (which it didn’t, but work with us here), there will have been about 145 million Google searches by the time you finished.

By the numbers alone, that means there’s roughly a 1 in 145 quadrillion chance that one among those 145 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.