English Español Deutsch Français Italiano Português (Brasil) Русский 中文 日本語

Technical SEO vs Content Optimization


Engineers vs Marketers - Deep Dive into SEO 2



Viola: Hey, everyone. Welcome to a new SEMrush webinar. Today we have the second webinar in a series called Marketers versus Engineers. And basically this is an opportunity to compare two worldviews, two perspectives, two ways to think about things. 

Two ways to think about marketing; two ways to think about SEO, and then basically draw a conclusion from that. Where do we agree? Where do we disagree? And what can you learn for your life as a business owner or marketer or someone who is working in the space of SEO? 

Today's episode is about technical SEO versus content optimization. I think that's going to be a really interesting discussion to be had. Both of them are super popular topics. And I have three panelists guests here with me today and I'll quickly introduce them. 

The guy that's just going to get us started is Jono. Jono is a digital strategist, marketing technologist, and full-stack developer with two decades of experience in development, SEO, analytics, brand, and campaign strategy, Legion, CRO, and much more. 

Jono: Wow. Amazing. Thank you, very kind. It's a pleasure to be here.

Viola: Then we have Rad on the panel here with us and he's been working in the digital marketing industry for a decade. Also comes from web development and software engineering. 

I guess you guys can already guess who are the two engineers in today's discussion. Rad is basically a specialist in technical SEO with a deep understanding of algorithm and software architecture that gives them a huge advantage.

And then thirdly, we have Rebekah here with us who has been in digital marketing for the last five and a half years. She turned from content writer into SEO, doubled with PPC a little bit, and now is using all the knowledge learned over the last few years to create great user-centric content.

My name is Viola and I'm here kind of like as a host, but I also consider myself very much on the marketing and content side of things. Jono, I'll hand over to you to set the stage for this discussion about technical SEO versus content optimization.

Jono: Thank you. Let's share my screen and see if this works. Let's talk about engineers versus marketers and who's going to win.

A Simplified View Of SEO

This is a radically oversimplified view of what SEO looks like; maybe used to look like. In order to succeed, you need some degree of technical SEO, a solid foundation, some degree of content optimization, the ability to tell your message to the world, and get that right. 

And some degree of evidence that you are an authority and relevant, which typically comes in the form of links. Because links are the least interesting bit of this conversation, and there is far too much talk of and focus on links in the industry, we're going to completely disregard that area and look at the two remaining interesting areas. What is your platform and how is it built and how does it work and what are you putting on it to convince users that you are a good fit?

This is technical SEO versus content optimization. The question we need to answer is, which side should you pick? How should you prioritize? How do you know and what happens tomorrow and in the future, assuming that everyone has finite resources or time or energy and money, where should you invest?

I don't think there are any easy answers to this question. And if there were, it would certainly vary widely by organization, website, person, country context. But this is the kind of question which we should always be asking is people who are interested in SEO. What should I focus on now and in the future to get the most impact and the best results?

The Technical Approach and the Content Approach Working Together

The first thing I want to look at is, what is each side of this debate trying to achieve? And I think that's pretty easy to answer. Both sides want to achieve the same thing. In principle, we're aligned in our vision. We have the same goals. We want to know how we win at SEO. In some cases that will mean rankings and some will mean conversions, but we're broadly trying to do the same stuff. 

Now, to achieve that, we have different approaches. The technical side will focus on, “let's build a perfect platform so that users and search engines have the best possible quality of experience. Because we know that all the science has that errors and slow pages and missing standards can impact things like discoverability, crawling, indexing and more broadly user experience and onto conversion rate”. 

The content side says, “we need to develop perfect messaging so that we can convince our users and search engines that our products and services are a perfect fit for a particular type of user with a particular type of query or problem because the science tells us that generic content, thin pages or mismatches and user intent versus content can impact discoverability and onto user experience and conversion”. Two different approaches and mentalities to try and solve the same kind of problems. 

I'm cheating a bit because I don't think this is really a versus challenge. It's not tech versus content. It's about the relationship between the two. It's about how do we get these to work together. There is some overlap, these things don't and can't exist independently. You can't have a website without any content, not in a way that would make sense. And if you have content, it has to live somewhere. 

Google says just to produce great content but that quietly implies on a fast website with no errors on a great design, which works on mobile with rich meta information and structured data and an up-to-date server. 

What we both want to do, and this is my attempt at really trying to define quite precisely what modern SEO might look like, is to provide the best resource for a specific audience for their specific problems. I think the wording here is quite intentional and interesting because ‘best resource’ isn't a technically perfect page within content. 

It's not a perfectly crafted page of information on a page, which looks awful or takes ages to load and it's not perfect content on a perfect platform, which targets the wrong people with the wrong messaging for the wrong keywords in the wrong country. I think we need to start understanding what are the boundaries between these disciplines, because as individuals, as businesses, we have finite time in focusing resources. 

It's impractical to say, “Be perfect at everything, fix all the things.” That's really easy to say, but obviously the reality is harder. Improving your website, your content, your marketing, your technology, and the choices you make on your focus there, all come at opportunity costs, whether that's time, money, energy, or not spending time and money in other areas of your business. 

Breaking Technical SEO ad Content into Smaller Parts 

This visual monstrosity is a slide that I've stolen unashamedly from a talk I gave in 2018, which was trying to paint a little bit of what I think SEO might be turning into. And it starts to give you this idea that maybe technical SEO, isn't just one thing. It's a lot of little areas like speed and security and how your servers are set up and the quality of your HTML and what type of JavaScript you use and how your sitemaps behave.

But also content is more than just the blocks of words you put in a page. It's tied deeply into design and user experience design and accessibility and PR. And not only that, but it lives in multiple formats and increasingly in places other than just on your website, as we look at co-publishing into other platforms. 

The good stuff where we really make an impact on user experience and conversion rate and revenue and success is this meaty center. This intersection of all the things which are technical and content, this is where the most impactful SEO happens.

From Hierarchy to Holocracy

At least part of answering this question about what should we be doing and prioritizing it's about... understanding how we make changes in this middle area, rather than just having two disciplines nibbling around the edge. 

It's worth considering that maybe we've already made a mistake by considering these to be two different disciplines in two different teams, two sets of people. I know that one of the things you might do to start to address this overlap is reevaluate how you structure these teams or your whole business, moving away from a conventional hierarchy to something more like a holocracy. 

Teams of multidisciplinary people working in focus and project groups, tasked with areas like improve growth or manage retention rather than saying, “Work on the content, improve the technical platform.” That makes it much easier to ask and answer these difficult questions. 

Like “how do we help users who are researching in our product space rather than, which technical things should we fix this week or what articles should the content team like for which keywords?” 

I know anecdotally, the businesses who are winning at answering this question of what is the relationship between technical and content marketing are the people who structure their teams in this way, who unify them and give them a shared goal and help them to attack that.

It's worth thinking that businesses have always had to do both of these things in whatever environment. They've had to establish a credible platform, whether it's an e-commerce store or a physical branch on a high street, attract an audience to it, and then convince those people to engage. 

Now, in the brick and mortar world, say with a clothing store that might mean making an appealing brand, maintaining an attractive storefront, optimizing your layouts and shopping experience, and refining your sales messaging. That's not radically different from the stuff we're talking about doing online.

The Shape of the Current Digital Marketing Landscape 

What's happening now is some streamlining of those processes and some additional complexity, which we inherit from being digital. I think one of those that's worth looking at, is the increasing baseline quality of website technology. 

It is no longer 1998. Websites are no longer built-in flash and cold fusion and action script. We are making fewer mistakes. I say that as a technical SEO who is continuously furious about how many websites and developers make basic mistakes or things like meta-tags.

But that aside, in the broader space, we're rarely building things from scratch. We're building on the work of others and foundations. We're using more open source solutions. The technology is evolving and getting easier to use. The standards are evolving. The documentation is better. There's more education. 

Content management systems like WordPress, yay, and plug-ins like Yoast, yay. And other tools also handle a lot of the technical requirements quietly in the background and increasingly just get it right, which means that businesses and users can focus more on their marketing rather than their technology. 

On the other side, I think that the quality of publishing tools is increasing as well. The platforms, the tool providers who help facilitate getting words onto pages are understanding more about what it means to really market to an audience.

I think both of those are allowing us to put more focus on the quality of the thing itself. Now, in the real world as consumers, we have to evaluate the marketing messaging of each brand, which is vying for our attention and choose which ones we trust. 

What's happening online is that Google is increasingly acting as our agent and it's filtering out brands and products. They do that in part based on the technical and content quality of our websites. 

This is great for users. It means that you never see things which are a bad fit, but it can be a double-edged sword for brands. If you're an incredible baker, it feels like a dysfunction that you also have to maintain a perfect website and craft compelling content.

These improvements in all areas of web tech and digital marketing mean that you can focus more on what you're good at and search engines are getting better at understanding and rewarding that. 

Conversely, if you're a brand whose product or service or prices or reputation aren't that great, it's going to make things harder. It's going to mean that you have to have produce even better content and keep your tech in even better condition to stay in the playing field. 

I think the other thing that's worth thinking about is the growth of structured data as a primary communication medium. The way in which we communicate about our content and our quality and our relevance to Google increasingly involves not only the content and the words on our pages, but also the metadata in our code, the way we describe our organizations on our pages and our products and their prices and their credibility and all the nuanced information and fact.

The Future: Automatically Generated Content and Websites That Just Work

What is happening next? We would be remiss if we didn't open the can of worms that automatically generated content and machine learning and AI and all the buzz words around that. 

What's really interesting in this space is that for a long time, for many years, Google said explicitly that using automatically generated content could lead to forms of penalization. Machine learned content is the devil. That's mostly because the quality at the time was poor. And it typically went hand in hand with abuses of scale and will automatically generate a million low-quality pages for $5. 

This is a reality that exists in the world. Many people try to use this as a strategy. Now, what's interesting is that a few years ago, I forget the exact date, Google removed that documentation because high-quality machine-generated content is becoming more common. And in some cases, it's better or produced faster or more in-depth or more accurate than a human author might be able to produce given the same time and budget.

Isn't that interesting? The idea that a machine could write a better piece of marketing collateral and webpage than a human could give an equivalent resources. 

And in the last few weeks, we've seen some radical things from open AI’s GPT-3, a new machine learning piece of software and piece that's close to AI as we have achieved as a human race in the public space. It's capable of creating what I call real looking content with only tiny amounts of guidance. Guidance, like a keyword or a short phrase, for example.

And we know that this works, especially in the SEO space, there's a site called notrealnews.net, which is a proof of concept running on GPT-2, which is the worse predecessor of GPT-3, which gets millions of organic visitors per month from search engines where the content is nonsense, but compellingly realistic. 

None of this is new, but we've reached a tipping point where we really ought to be considering the role of technically generated content and what that means for this discussion. 

I think we're also potentially on our way to a place where websites just work. I know there's a huge amount of my time in WordPress land is spent on saying, how do we fix all of the potential flaws and bugs that people encounter in websites and also prevent them from happening in the first place?

As these frameworks start to become the norm and sites no longer break, what does that mean for technical SEO? I think the future of our reality looks something more like this. What stands out is the importance of structured content. 

This space where content marketing and the way we describe it, technically with structured data and schema overlaps, where content is well written and well-targeted, but technically optimized too. 

Very quickly. I think it might be worth considering if we should change the terminology. If content marketing can be machine-generated and technical SEO can be fixed, maybe we need to look a level above those at the true problems we're trying to solve. 

I think that it's not technical SEO and content optimization. I think we're talking about quality and about marketing. If technical SEO also covers areas like speed and accessibility and security and 100 other things, it makes more sense to think about it as quality. It's still abstract, but maybe it's a better framework. We're talking about how you make your pages convincing and compelling; that's marketing.

If we're going to say both of these teams need to work together in new and exciting ways, how is that funded? How is it tested? How is it guaranteed to be more effective and more efficient? How do you stop all of this breaking? 

There are questions around how you measure this and which tools you should use, where you should definitely not be focusing, where we should individually be focusing our professional development if these industries are changing and a whole bunch of other stuff. Let's explore.

Prioritizing Based on Website Size and Age

Viola: I love it. Do we think that the question technical versus content maybe depends on the website's size and age? Is this more, maybe not a battle of the two, but a natural progression? 

Rebekah: I think definitely in terms of age, it's a question of, there's a different amount of jobs that needs to be done. With the age, you're going to have content that needs fixing and you're going to have loads of bugs that need fixing. There's going to have to be a lot more effort put into it. Whereas with newer sites, I think there's a lot more experimentation that's going on. I don't think it's sort of one or the other, I think it's just different outlets.

Rad: I actually quite agree with that. What I was going to say is, when you had an older website, I'd assume that at some point or the other, it's already had some technical SEO done to it. It's almost impossible that you have like three, four, or five years old website and no one's ever looked at it. 

I'd assume that some of the technical issues have already been taken care of and therefore more stuff would probably need to be done in terms of the content. Like you said, Rebekah, there will be like a lot of outdated stuff, things that might no longer be accurate currently depending on the orientation, stuff like that. 

Also on the contrary, having said that, if someone did SEO five years ago and was focusing mainly on-page SEO in terms of like technical stuff, I wouldn't think there is a lot that changed in general. And if it's an older website, most likely it will have more, let's call them hidden or buried issues than the new ones. 

Viola: Yeah. It's funny, some people said in the comment, I see neglected websites all the time.” I think my experience is it sits kind of like along the lines of what you guys just said. I often attract a lot of startups and new companies. And then I always tell them, “Get a Shopify, get a WordPress, get a Wix. I don't know, make it easy on you. Get the website going and just pump out content.” 

In my mind, I always thought it's a progression. I was like, “Oh, first content then later more technical.” But maybe that's also not the truth because it really depends on the size of the website and the way you act at any given stage. 

Rad: Yeah. Just going back to your question, because you also mentioned the size of the website and what I think, so with that, I would say that the bigger the site the technical SEO actually becomes easier because you can basically tackle all these things at scale. If you find, I don't know some indexing issues or tags that you want to get rid of, you just block them out, use Yoast or something else on a different platform and noindex. 

And so with the content, let me ask you guys this question, how wrong can you go with the content if you're actually writing the content? Even if you have like, let's say not very experienced in terms of the SEO content writers, but content writers that can write and can research and can create like decent quality content. 

My opinion is, obviously I'm curious to know your opinion, but my opinion is you can't really go that wrong. On the contrary, if you have a developer who's just starting in the business building websites. And if you ask them to build a website, you'll basically end up swearing a lot, while you're doing SEO on their website.

Rebekah: I think it's a lot harder to convince the people that are buying into it why certain things need doing in a certain way for content. With technical, you can pretty much say, “Here's the tool that showed this, and this is what needs to be fixed. And it will do X, Y, and Z.” 

But with content, if you just look for search terms and the high search volume, and don't look at what's generating all the stops for that, or you're not thinking about the brand or the tone of voice, or even your audience, I think it is easy to get it wrong. It's more difficult to explain that to someone I think than it would be to explain a technical fix.

Jono: I think content SEO or content, in general, is often undervalued because everybody finds it very easy to have an opinion on it versus the tactical stuff, which is quite often a bit more obscure which means that everybody will invest just enough to get to a four out of 10 quality content, but they struggle to often understand the difference between 10 out of 10, but which is that real understanding of the audience and the problem you're trying to solve.

 And yeah, anybody can write 200 words about a thing on a page, but it's not going to convince and compel people. That's a craft. And it's just as difficult, I think as technical and as hard to scale as well. 

I think just the challenge of scale is an interesting one with big sites. You fix one tiny thing on a huge site and you fixed a million pages, whereas maybe adding one more page to that, isn't going to change the world. 

Yeah, for startups and small businesses, definitely content first on as good a platform as you can get, but it doesn't make sense to overinvest in technical at day one. It hurts me to say that.

Should You Stick to One Page Per Topic?

Viola: I have a question based on something that you mentioned in the presentation. I've been fortunate to have some clients who have an excellent content team and they actually they write good stuff. They are asking the right question. They think about what the target audience would like and they write good blog posts. 

But the main thing that I'm always teaching is this unholy one page per topic concept. And I always tell them, “For SEO, you're better off producing evergreen content, make sure that your pages are clearly distinct and make sure they don't cover the same keywords.” I'm curious to see where do the three of you sit on this. I always feel like I'm kind of like the party-pooper, like people are writing and then I'm like, “Yeah, but only one page per topic.”

Jono: Yeah. It makes me deeply uncomfortable in ways that I sometimes struggle to articulate. I think it's a dysfunction of the way that Google works, that they've imposed on us. 

And it forces the web into a certain shape where a page has to be about anything and how big that thing is might vary. It might be a keyword. It might be 10, it might be some loosely clustered topics, but it forces the shape that I'm not sure is the web that we would have built and had, had Google not enforced that. 

The reason we struggle to get content writers and bloggers to think in that way is because it is a bit alien and artificial. This idea that you have to have the perfect page with the perfect answer for one topic through all of time is not necessarily the way you would go about trying to convince and compel and prove that you have a good brand and a good fit. 

I'm not in love with that, but it's what we're stuck with. And I don't think it will change. I think this is so baked into the very heart of how Google works. That a page has a URL, is about a topic.

The other thing that I think comes out of this is that it doesn't really matter to Google who has that best page or who wins. They only care that that is a best page for each answer. And that distorts the web further, which I'm not sure is necessarily a good thing, but, hey, who are we to complain?

How Important is Word Count?

Viola: How do we feel about word count? What do you think about Rebekah, when you think about word count, what makes you make that decision? I'm going to let you go first and then I want to see what the guys are thinking when it comes to word count as well.

Rebekah: I never use word count, ever. The way I do my content is I go out and I try and figure out what questions people are asking and around a certain topic. And then the ones I think are the most important I'll answer. 

Sometimes I'll write content and it's 300 words. Sometimes it'll be over 1,000. If it starts to get quite long, I may think of maybe breaking up a bit more into a couple more pieces. 

The only time I would say I do think of word count, I guess is when I'm writing to optimize with featured snippets because I know there is a sort of sweet spot to get it to display. But when it comes to whole pages, I don't even think about word count, to be honest

Rad: I was going to say that whenever we create content requirements for websites something that we then send to our content writers, we usually put a range from around that long to around that long, let's say, I need a piece of content about X that is, let's say, between 1.5K to 2.5K words long. 

The reason for that is because we basically look at competitors and take like the averages usually because I'm a firm believer that if Google ranked something on the first page and the more common little factors you get out of all of these results, the better you have the chance to actually rank among them. 

To be honest with you, I've never gone and said to the content writer, “Hey, your content is too long. Just shorten it down or something.” Unless it was like three times longer than I needed it and I had the limited space to put it.

Rebekah: This is what I love when content marketers work with tech guys because when I write, I think a lot about how I see the web. I call myself a lazy looker, which is why I tend to use headers in my writing a lot because when I'm searching for myself, even though I'm a writer, I don't read loads and loads of content, I just look at the headers. 

But if you came to me and said, “Hey, Rebekah, that content that you wrote is great. Did you know that the first page of the SERPs everyone's content is this long, maybe that might make a difference?” Then I can say, “Okay, let's try that.” And it might make a fantastic big difference. It might not, it might do and that's why it's so important that we all work together.

Viola: I think long content is a good way to add the keyword more often in a non-spammy way. That being said, personally am very much out of the school of thought that also Rad, is where I very much look on page one, but I think looking on page one tells us just what does Google think is the right answer for that search intent in that search query.

eCommerce Websites: The Borderline Between Technical SEO and Content

We have some people asking questions here, and I think that's a classic SEO issue as well. That's kind of like on the borderline between content and technical, which is how do you deal with e-commerce with the different sizes and types and how do you combat duplicating content all over the place?

Rad: This, by the way, might not be a very popular opinion, but frankly I think that Google is actually a bit more lenient when it comes to stuff like duplicate content, especially on product pages on e-commerce sites, but at least that's what I've been noticing time and time again, over all these years. 

But I don't think Google is paying that much attention to that in particular because on the e-commerce site I think SEO in products and optimizing just product pages, isn't the best strategy for that. 

If you're going for very long-tail keywords that involve product names and stuff like that, usually those keywords have much lower competition and obviously you can get away with some mistakes on the product pages. What you really want to do is focus on the category pages because usually they have a higher search volume potential and higher traffic potential than the product pages. 

If you optimize product pages, if you add like one, two unique sentences, if you extract some technical data and put it on the product pages, this is already making your content more unique and better. 

Add that tiny value, don't worry about copied description, product descriptions from the manufacturers, unless the product description is like that long then I would probably just cut them out completely and try to get like tables with technical data. 

I would basically focus on something that I can extract from the data, from the product specifications or stuff like that. And then try to add that as the added value to those duplicated descriptions. And other than that focus on the category pages.

Viola: And Jono, do you want to add something to the e-commerce debate? 

Jono: Where the additional challenge comes in from e-commerce, is you've also got to sell a product on that page, which is what Rebekah was saying about the importance of headings and structure, but within a whole additional layer that you're now having to balance that against the product stuff itself.

There's no reason why a great product page couldn't have 5,000 words of well-structured wonderfully helpful content that answers every question I might have that supports me that has post-sales that tells me the nuances of every different color, et cetera, that can be done. 

It's just much, much harder than to do 50 words of a description and a feature table. So, nobody does. And this was the other point I wanted to think about was that you need to be really careful when you're looking at what everybody else in the search results doing, because they're all people like you looking at what people like you were doing in the search results. 

They all have a broken website and none of them can convince their stakeholders to put more than 50 words on that category pages. You got to be really careful. You can win by breaking out of that, but it's much harder than just a page of content.

Creativity in a Rules-Focused World

Viola: I wanted to ask a different question before, but this is exactly what I'm so curious about is like where is our creativity in all of this? With all these kinds of rules about content writing and looking on page one, et cetera, are we all becoming so similar?

Are we all creating the same website out of the same toolbox with the same keywords in the page title and the same five sub-headlines that everyone on page one is using? How do we stay creative and unique in this game where everyone is using the same tools, the same content, AIs, et cetera. How do we set ourselves apart?

Rebekah: I think we need to move away from this fear of failing as well. A lot of the time people will only invest in something that they know is going to work. At some point someone will try something different and it will completely fit the script. It's just whether you're brave enough to do that.

Viola: Well, I can tell you what is kind of like the framework that I try with my clients, like what I tell them is always want to give them the content briefing and I give them, this one topic per page, et cetera. I always tell them, this is kind of like the framework is the skeleton. You still have the chance to add tone of voice and color and nuance to this. 

All right. It has been a pleasure with you guys, make sure to stay tuned. We have a new one coming up on the 8th of September. We have Bastian Grimm coming. That's going to be a party as well. And we look forward to having you. 

Jono: It's going to be good. Bastian is one of the best.

Viola: He is. He is a really good dude. All right.

All levels

Check out other webinars from this series