As 2023 looms, it’s worth asking: is broad-scope, basic SEO content still a viable strategy in the modern search landscape, or are companies wasting tens of thousands of dollars on strategies unlikely to bear fruit?
As a marketer, you’ve probably encountered variants of “SEO is dead” on LinkedIn and other channels. Maybe your in-house team have even espoused similar sentiments.
Of course, SEO itself isn’t dead – organic search still plays a key role in many buying journeys, and so, for most brands, optimisation is necessary. But the concept of pumping out ‘beginner’ content that barely scratches the surface of a topic is justifiably under attack.
In this article, we’ll explore the purpose of creating basic SEO content in the first place, the perceived problems with it, and whether it still has a role to play in modern SEO.
- The Purpose of Using SEO for Content
- The Perceived Problems With Basic SEO Content
- So Does Basic Content for SEO Still Work?
The Purpose of Using SEO for Content
To understand whether basic SEO content is still viable, we need to look at the reason it became such a broadly used tactic in the first place.
The basic goal of all marketing is to fulfil four functions:
- Make prospective buyers aware they have a problem.
- Educate them about the problem.
- Educate them about a solution.
- Convince them that your brand is the ideal solution provider.
Each of these functions requires the fulfilment of two conditions:
- Prospective buyers must be available to receive the message.
- The attention of prospective buyers must be seized and held so the message can be delivered.
These fundamentals have held true from the first printed advertisement in Imperial China to the incredibly sophisticated marketing that takes place today. Other principles, like the four Ps of marketing, exist in service of these top-level ideas.
Now, to fulfil the first condition (reaching prospects), marketers must be able to accurately identify the places that buyers exist in. Let’s take a look at a very basic example – swing signs. In places with high foot traffic, they’re incredibly effective, because they reach a high number of prospects (who often also have problems that the providers can solve). Any broad-appeal B2C businesses (like eateries) will likely enjoy success with swing signs, because footpaths and walkways are channels that contain buyers who are interested in learning about problems/solutions/providers.
In the twenty-first century, Google and other web-based search engines have become the preferred method of information retrieval in many parts of the world. People use search engines to learn about problems, learn about solutions, and learn about solutions providers – so it makes perfect sense that brands try to meet them there.
Google’s algorithm is based around information retrieval in response to queries, which has led to SEO content – articles and pages designed to seize the attention of buyers by appearing as high in the SERPs as possible. Optimising for this algorithm has shaped how SEO content has changed over time; today, there is a focus on comprehensive content from trustworthy providers that answers the searcher’s query, which typically manifests as long-form pages/posts, building domain authority, and keyword research/optimisation.
Of course, the fundamental weakness of SEO content is that it only becomes available for receipt in response to specific queries, and this requires that the searchers have pre-existing knowledge about the problem. If there is no problem awareness, no need for an answer of some kind, Google and other search engines will not be used.
Although SEO content can fulfil the first function (make prospective buyers aware they have a problem), it can only do so by piggybacking off different problem/solution/provider searches. In marketing terms, we’re talking about the difference between demand generation (function one) and demand capture (functions two to four).
The Perceived Problems With Basic SEO Content
The common complaint that many marketers make is that SEO is no longer an effective marketing channel – and, therefore, basic SEO content, in particular, is pointless. This complaint typically has three grounds:
- Prospective buyers are using web-based search engines less and less to learn about problems/solutions/providers.
- There is too much competition – incumbents have built up near insurmountable moats of domain authority and topical content around search terms with commercial value.
- The mechanics of SEO mean that content that ranks on Google is not aligned with content that actually educates about problems/solutions/providers (and therefore doesn’t lead to revenue opportunities).
Do these claims have merit? Maybe.
Modern Buyers Use Search Engines Less
The first is certainly worth examining. If buyers in your niche rarely use search engines in their buying journey, and you have data to back that up, then basic SEO content probably isn’t where you should be spending your budget.
Obviously, though, this claim is also wholly dependent on your target audiences. The majority of purchase journeys still feature organic search at some point.
There’s Too Much Competition in Organic Search
The second claim is that there’s ‘too much competition’ – getting significant results from SEO is too costly due to the existence of giant companies with huge content libraries, high DA, and frighteningly fast output.
Here’s the thing: no competitive advantage is insurmountable, especially because Google’s algorithm is a constantly shifting landscape. Necessity dictates that Google continues to find ways to deliver more relevant answers to users’ queries, which, in turn, means that new algorithmic incentives will favour better-quality content that actually delivers on problem/solution/provider questions.
Over time, older SEO content that is less aligned with these updated incentives will be demoted in the SERPs, and, as brands see this happening, the content production processes that created such content will also be phased out. Google’s most recent update, which is being rolled out in a few days, is an excellent example of this occurring.
Assuming this algorithm refinement continues to take place, the competitive advantage of incumbents will be eroded exponentially, and smaller, more agile entrants will be able to secure chunks of the search landscape for themselves. It’s not dissimilar to how real-world markets work – over time, behemothic incumbents have their market share chewed away by innovative, agile entrants who identify and target underserved market segments.
The key here is to do good research. In saturated search landscapes, SEO marketers can’t get away with lazy content planning that targets basic, broad-level topics. Instead, the focus must be on topical fringes – ultra-specific content that no-one else has covered well (if at all).
Almost every niche has that type of content up for grabs. If you can’t find white space, you’re probably not looking hard enough.
SEO Content Is Bad Content
There’s an idea among some marketers that the process of search optimisation naturally involves creating ‘bad’ content (read: content that fails at fulfilling any of the four functions). This is not true – but it’s easy to see where that idea came from.
Look at the SEO content of most companies. It’s not good. Why? Not because those companies provide bad products or services – but because the content has been output through methods like the skyscraper technique, where uninformed content writers scour the internet, rework basic information they find on a given topic into listicles or ‘complete guides’, and then publish each piece as fast as possible.
Are listicles inherently bad? No. Are complete guides bad? Certainly not. It’s the regurgitation of information that leads to bad content, not a specific format or style of writing. There are plenty of high-quality ‘complete guides’ out there, just as there are plenty of entertaining, informative listicles.
The problem is that the output of content vastly outweighs the input of original information, ideas and experiences. Content mills, poorly trained writers, and AI writing tools all plunder from the same data pool, which leads to countless near-identical iterations.
Brands can still optimise for search without sacrificing quality – but doing so involves conducting actual research, hiring writers that charge more than $30 per hour, and allocating more than a handful of hours per article.
So Does Basic Content for SEO Still Work?
Creating basic content for SEO is a viable strategy if any of the following are true:
- The target search landscape is relatively immature. Few other websites are covering the topic well.
- You want to establish yourself as an authority on the topic, and you have the time and resources to be able to build out large content clusters.
- Certain beginner-level keywords are commercially valuable to your business.
Let’s break those down.
Immature Search Landscapes
In some niches, there may be an actual need for basic SEO content. Although these situations are unusual, other providers may not have covered a given topic comprehensively or in a user-friendly format, and it may actually be helpful for users to have a well-designed, clearly written ‘ultimate guide’ or ‘top ways to …’ piece.
If there are a number of sites already covering the topic well and you’re unable to add value, regurgitating their content is unlikely to be a good use of your resources.
Establishing Topical Authority
For companies with time and money, adopting a HubSpot-esque strategy of comprehensively covering every aspect of a given topic can be worthwhile. The result is a broad, deep competitive moat – even if algorithm changes do cause erosion over time, libraries of knowledge like this will establish brand authority and independently attract users outside of search.
Importantly, companies with the infrastructure to successfully execute a strategy like this will almost certainly have the capabilities to update and maintain content, allowing them to maintain key search positions by adapting to algorithm shifts. Keep in mind, though, that these organisations are limited in number. The vast majority of businesses simply don’t have the time, staff or budget to cover topics both deeply and broadly.
Valuable Beginner-level Keywords
Some beginner-level keywords may actually be commercially relevant to your business.
Let’s look at an example of when they wouldn’t be. For example, if you ran a specialist estate and trust accounting firm, old SEO playbooks would recommend creating content like ‘How to File Taxes in Australia’ and ‘How Does Estate Planning Work in Australia?’.
The problem, of course, is that (even if you could rank for such competitive terms) the traffic captured by those articles would be extremely unlikely to need your firm’s services. Tens of thousands of dollars would be spent on creating content that never translates into revenue.
Now, here’s another example: the search term ‘how to design an Instagram post’. It’s incredibly basic, yet, for Canva, which currently holds the top two positions for that term, it represents a key pain point for customers that the Canva platform directly solves. Canva’s core target audience is beginners – inexperienced marketers and small business owners – so creating basic SEO content makes sense, because it’s not content for the sake of ranking. It’s content that solves real problems for their consumer base.
Like most questions in marketing, the answer to ‘does basic SEO content work’ is ‘it depends’. At Chevron Editing, we still often recommend basic SEO content as part of organic search strategies (and still execute beginner-level articles ourselves).
Of course, we only do so if one of the three conditions (immature search landscapes, establishing topical authority, commercially valuable keywords) is true, and we prove the efficacy of that content by tying it back to both revenue opportunities and positive indicators like clicks.
Basic SEO content isn’t dead, but it does require a more nuanced execution. Value addition is necessary. Targeted, thoughtful content development is essential. Most importantly, your ‘basic’ content needs to address a core need of your target audiences. If it doesn’t, you’re not doing marketing – you’re running a media company on your employer’s budget.