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How to Crush SEO Content Without Being a Copycat (Webinar Highlights)

16 min read

Growth consultant Eli Schwartz and MarketMuse Co-founder and Chief Product Officer Jeff Coyle discuss how to go about developing an SEO strategy that is uniquely yours and will drive defensible growth.

Jeff Coyle: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to another MarketMuse content strategy webinar. Today we’ve got an amazing guest, and we have an awesome topic, how to crush SEO content without being a copycat.  For people that might not know you, Eli, tell us a little bit about your background and what you’re currently focused on, and what you’re currently excited about.

Eli Schwartz: [00:00:18] Yeah, it’s great to be here, Jeff. So, I spent about 12 years as an in-house SEO. And while I was working in-house, I worked for startups, but the last role I had was at Survey Monkey as Director of Growth and leading the SEO team. And that’s what I’ve been doing about the last year and a half, working with some really interesting companies, big and small, helping them build out products for SEO.

And it’s not just around content and copying your competitors as we’re going to talk about today. But really building something useful for users and how to grow SEO as a channel and not just grow SEO as a piece of content or some rankings. The more and more companies I work with, the more I see everyone’s challenge is the same.

It’s really getting a ton, convincing a boss to pay for it, getting the right users, measuring it, looking better than the other team that maybe has some bigger budgets.

Jeff Coyle: [00:01:07] To start along the lines of what we were going to talk about today with building content that’s differentiated, not focusing only on being a copycat.

I really wanted us to begin by getting your sense. There’s so much noise, whether you’re on LinkedIn, whether you’re on Twitter, whether you’re on SEO Twitter, which is its own world, about content, quality about EAT.

How do you think about content quality and differentiation? How do you think about how Google’s managed it over the years?  What do you recommend, and what do you advise on that has changed?” Or how it’s become like a, “Hey, I told you so this whole time” situation as I get that sense from you. But let’s see, how do you think about content quality right now when you’re giving advice?

Eli Schwartz: [00:01:52] That’s a great question. So, I had a unique advantage, and I just moved to Houston from the Bay area. I’m one of those, right, cliche. I moved from California to Texas, but I spent many years in the Bay area, and I lived in Palo Alto, near Google’s headquarters. And about four to five times a day, I would see a Waymo car, which is Google’s self-driving car. So, Google has been doing these things for about ten years, and a few years ago, I had this realization when someone was pitching me these shady links. I was like, Google’s got these cars on the road, I think they’ve driven 9 billion miles, and they haven’t killed anybody that we’ve heard of right. 

Now that’s AI, and this is the company that they do a lot of things. We all have Gmail accounts, and they do Search, and they’re using AI in all this. So, a company that’s good enough to do that level of AI and really AI is intelligence. It’s artificial intelligence trying to be exactly like a human. So, Google’s trying to achieve that level of intelligence.

Now, when I think about content quality, I think about us as humans, and I’m gonna connect the two dots right here. I think about us as humans, like we’re reading content, and right away, that content is of quality or not quality. Like I was reading something the other day about my car, and there were like links planted in it, and the keywords were used over and over again.

Clearly, this was written for SEO and not because I actually want to find out something about my car. Now Google’s AI is attempting to be as good as a human. It’s not there yet, but that is what I think you need to do. You need to focus on the human because you should expect that Google will eventually catch up and be able to figure out that this content is quality or not.

Jeff Coyle: [00:03:26] Yeah. I think Colleen Jones at Content Science put out a recent stat. I think it’s gone down every quarter that she’s done this survey. I think it might be down to about 55% of people are going through that sniff test. Every time they land on a site, they’re assessing whether this is hit and miss, whether this is a complete miss, whether this is written by an expert, quicker and quicker.

So, you get one shot of someone looking at that site and saying, “Oh yeah, this was clearly written by an expert, or this is not, and I do not have this trust.” People are getting quicker to judge when they land on those sites.

I think there are so many things that just validate what you’re saying. When you get into a situation where you’re working with a team, I love the kind of just be an expert or become an expert or write genuine content or build great processes that yield expert content.

What have you seen as far as low-quality practices or old school practices or keyword research practices that just don’t lead to differentiation? Or finally, when they get implemented, the outcome is some of that low-quality content that didn’t help you with your car anyway.

The Typical Keyword Strategy Approach

Eli Schwartz: [00:04:34] Yeah. So, whenever I am in one of these conversations; I always try to have logic overwhelm data.

So, in that sense, like you, I’m approaching a client, and I was in-house for a long time and doing the same thing with my managers or my direct reports, instead of saying, “Hey, let’s look at our metric here. Let’s look at our EAT score. Let’s look at our rankings metric.” Let’s talk about the logic here.

Like when you read this, does this make sense? Are you proud of this? Scores aside, is this logical? Do you really think that you deserve to rank on this? Are you going to sell from this? Is someone going to click on the CTA? Are you tricking people? So that’s the one thing when I’m having these conversations. As far as things I’ve seen in the market, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many companies.

And I’ll come in and say, “What are the things you’re focused on?” Then they’ll give me a download of an aHrefs or SEMrush keyword research. And they’ll color code it and say, “Here’s all the search volume, and this is what we’re focusing on.” Don’t you realize that your competitors also probably have $99, and they can also buy this, and they can also color code it?  No one’s applying that logic layer to it. Whatever SEO tool you’re using. You put in the word insurance, and what do you know? They’re going to spit out the top words around it.

Generic Keyword Data Pitfalls

So, it’s going to be “insurance,” and it’s going to be “life insurance,” “give me health insurance quote,” and then those become the target keywords. Now, no one takes that logical step backward and be like, all right, it’s the year 2020. The Internet’s been around, let’s say 25 years. So, Google has a repository of 25 years of data.

The companies that sell insurance like MetLife and progressive, and Geico have had websites since 2000, since 20 years. Are you really going outrank all these websites? And there are not 10 of them. There’s 30 of them. Are you going to outrank all these brands on the word insurance? If you put that logical lantern on it, usually the light bulb goes off, and it’s like, “Oh, what do I do now?”

This is it. I had mine color-coded, and insurance is right up there with a million searches, and I put it in green. That’s what I’m focusing on. That’s not going to fly. You need to be a little bit more creative around that and not just do exactly what your competitors will do.

And the other thing is the way people execute on this. So, once again, they go on insurance, and they got “life insurance” or “selling quotes.” They go on Upwork, and they find the high-quality, not the $5 writer, but the $50 writer. Can you give me 1100 words on the word “insurance” and also talk about life insurance? Maybe we’re going to be specific, and we’re going to find some geo’s in there. So, it’s going to be different than our competitors. Take all those keywords, search them on Google, and you’ll find that a hundred other websites have done the same thing.

Jeff Coyle: [00:07:03] Yeah. There’s nothing better than seeing a competitor who’s done a descending sort of a keyword list that you can source from somewhere. Because now you know what they’re going to do for the next two years as well. It’s based on search volume. No, that’s great!

But I guess that when you get the yield on that, when you’ve worked with teams that have had those outcomes, what does that do internally to create chaos? Have you ever experienced that? Where there’s just the fact that they were working with a flawed keyword list and they’re not thinking critically about being an expert has just created more silos in the organization.

Eli Schwartz: [00:07:39] Oh, yeah. A lot of times, I’ll come into those situations where they’re like, “SEO hasn’t worked; we spent all this money.”

Search Engines are About Semantic Relationships

I was working with a company, a very large brand that had budgets that I was fortunate to get a little bit of, and they were like, “we signed a two-year engagement with a content agency, and we gave them $2 million for content for two years [00:08:00], and that didn’t work.”

And I look at the content, and I’m like, of course it didn’t work. It was never going to rank. And if it did rank, it was so tangentially related to the product. Even if you were number one, you weren’t going to sell anything.

There’s another company I was working with. They spent a lot of money on an outsourced blog that wrote stories. And it was basically whatever the vertical is; it was medium. They recreated random blog posts that even if they did rank because I couldn’t find the keywords, and it was just long-form content for the sake of long-form content.

It was so tangentially related that the best conversion they could get from it is a second-page view. Someone would read it and be like, “I’d like to read more from this writer,” but there was no way that anyone is ever going to convert. So, when you come into one of these situations, they immediately start with, “SEO didn’t work, I spent 2 million bucks look at all these pieces of content.”

And by the way, my thing is I love working with big companies because there are so many disconnects. This company spent 2 million bucks on the content agency. They didn’t post 75% of the content because they couldn’t get through all those hoops.

They spent $2 million, and they didn’t even use it. So now you’re talking to the executive, and they’re like, “SEO doesn’t really work for us. We spent $2 million. Our engineers are refusing to post things. Our CMS is two years behind.” Yeah. It’s That’s what it does.

You’ve burned all your actual capital and political capital on a wasted cost.

Jeff Coyle: [00:09:25] Burning the political capital with an in-house thing is the biggest flaw. I love the example because when someone buys content externally, the first thing they do is judge it.

And if you don’t have the feedback loop in that cycle, you’re going to end up with a lot of stuff that you don’t post, and you’re going to feel burned. You’re just going to feel burnt, and then you’re going to burn internally. I love the concept of somebody saying, “Maybe SEO doesn’t work for us.”

It’s yeah, that’s definitely it. It’s not going to work for you, but it works for everyone else who does it really well. No, that’s a perfect example. How do you think about that when you’re walking into an organization? Maybe the metrics that they’re using as their North star or to guide their historical wins aren’t aligned with what you’re going to advise.

How do you focus on that change management? With me personally and with the MarketMuse, a lot of times, people are making all of their decisions based on search volume. So, we know we need to get into the story and get into the why you need to be an expert, why you need to own this topic. Let’s really change the story there.

But what other metrics do you typically see, or is search volume the thing that you’re, preaching against from day one?

Eli Schwartz: [00:10:32] No, I’m always preaching against search against volume. The other thing that I see is when big companies that should know better, they’re looking at rankings. Like they’re looking at how they rank on some generic keywords, which when I talked to them about it is impossible to rank.

Like, you’re not going to rank on the word insurance. I’ve never worked with insurance clients. So no one can try to figure out who it is, but you’re just not going to rank on the word insurance, it’s not. If that is your metric of success, every day you go into work as a failure because you cannot rank on that keyword. And looking at the search line and focusing on this big keyword, and then they’re completely unable to rank on it.

Using AI to Uncover Content Gaps

So, one of the things I find is that you do need to build reporting metrics.  Sometimes it can be really complicated because you have to get into a multi-touch environment.  I may not be the best at it, but at least I understand it and can have those conversations. That is political capital on how to get people to measure what you want.

Sometimes you can’t do it. Then you have to find other ways to measure yourself and not throw up your hands and say, “I can’t do it, so let’s go fall back on rankings or fall back on traffic.” Or like that company I mentioned that had this huge blog that was totally tangentially related to what they’re doing.

They got traffic that almost everybody I’ve ever worked with would be jealous of, but it didn’t do a thing for them. So, if you measure traffic and it doesn’t drive any revenue, you’re not really going anywhere. Ideally, you measure yourself on what the business does, whether it’s sales or downloads or leads or revenue, even better.

Now, sometimes it’s [00:12:00] impossible because you can’t tie all those pieces together, but you should at least try to get some sort of proxy in that direction. Now, one of the things I find, and this is for my in-house roles; my last role was at SurveyMonkey, where I haven’t been in a long time, so I don’t know actual data. But they spent millions of dollars per month on paid marketing. They had a really good reporting on how that paid marketing performed. But what they did was, because it would work really well, and Google and Facebook have a huge hand in this, they want to help you get all those conversion pixels.

So, you get the last click, right? What it does is it discounts all of the organic traffic. So, paid gets all the credit. And what do you think happens? “Oh, we need more sign-ups; well, let’s put more money into paid.” They create this cycle where bad reporting gets a bad budget, and it keeps going.

But if you can back into it and say, “Okay, let’s look at the revenue. Let’s look at the first click. Oh, wow. From a first click standpoint, maybe two-thirds of that revenue comes from organic. Don’t you think we should try to tell the story a little bit better? Because if you don’t, I’m going to start taking credit for all two-thirds of revenue, and now you can’t justify your paid.”

So that gets you into almost a political battle where you can find some sort of middle ground where organic matters and SEO matters. So that’s what I think is really important. Find the metrics that the executives care about, and then you get invited to the executive meeting. If all you’re doing is measuring search volume, executives don’t care.

If you’re measured on rankings, the CEO wakes up in the morning, and Google’s the word insurance. You’re not there. You’re still a failure. They don’t want to hear from you.

Jeff Coyle: [00:13:22] Exactly. Now I’m so aligned on that. It’s know who you are. Be able to understand and look at your existing content and know where you have opportunities and where you have lower hanging fruit opportunities, where you have big initiatives that you need to sell internally.

Eli, thanks for spending a little bit extra time with us today. And I think that this conversation is going to be one that a lot of people download. Thanks again.

Eli Schwartz: [00:13:44] I appreciate it. Thanks for having me. Thanks, Jeff.

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Stephen leads the content strategy blog for MarketMuse, an AI-powered Content Intelligence and Strategy Platform. You can connect with him on social or his personal blog.