This essay originally was published on November 17, 2022, with the email subject line "CT No. 142: Ditch Tactic-level SEO."

Everyone who publishes online thinks they know SEO. But for seasoned practitioners, hearing inexperienced writers and marketers share SEO tips usually results in a facepalm.

  • You think SEO is adding keywords to an individual webpage after the content has been written.
  • You think your web developer will execute “SEO” on their own, without any specific research.
  • You think that if a website fails to optimize titles and meta descriptions, it will never be found in search.
  • You think checking Google autocomplete, Google Trends or Answer the Public for new search terms is keyword research.
  • You think your content is performing “fine” without knowing any actual numbers of how what you publish actions channels affects bottom-line business performance.
  • You optimize URL slugs by stuffing them with keywords.
  • You consider “SEO content” or “blog content” to be something wholly different than “website content.”
  • You think digital content strategy begins and ends with voice, tone and editorial correctness.
  • You spend time thinking about what goes in the "meta keywords" field.
  • You think most new website visitors are referred from social channels or newsletters.
  • You think watching keyword rankings move up and down is a business-critical activity.
  • You think there is such a thing as “SEO ads” — as found this otherwise authoritative post by the experts of measurement and media strategy at Nielsen.*

Although it’s been years since the above tactics have significantly moved the needle for content businesses, I continue to read “expertise” by digital strategists at large news organizations claiming, “SEO is for driving traffic!” It’s hard to avoid hearing brands trumpet an SEO and social content strategy that consists solely of “Be on TikTok because Google said that’s where Gen Z searches now!”

If you learned digital strategy simply from “being online,” reading Reddit, cruising LinkedIn Learning, or watching YouTube videos, you likely have no idea how the behavioral dynamics of digital audiences work. If you post without understanding results, or if you learned from college professors or legacy news organizations, it’s likely you learned outdated, impractical SEO and content tactics.

Like fixing all the serial commas but missing the major factual errors in an editorial review, post-publication tactical SEO may seem "correct" but burns resources on minutiae and misses the point of building audience trust.

So let’s set the record straight with five truths I’ve learned about digital content strategy across my career:

  1. SEO is an organic growth approach, meaning that it is not advertising. You can’t pay for it; you can only intentionally structure your content so it is more easily found.

    Search ads are called PPC, paid search or CPC. SEO and PPC combined are called SEM, or search engine marketing. Organic optimization/SEO can certainly be impacted by advertising! But using the phrase “SEO ads” or conflating SEO with paid media in any way is a clear indicator that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
  2. Digital traffic alone drives no revenue and has no impact on business performance unless you are selling impression-based advertising, and even then it’s pennies of ROI compared to the lifetime value and connection with a potential audience member.
  3. In 2022, topic expertise and website structure have more impact on SEO than any individual keyword- or page-based tactic. Building “SEO content” works kindof, but it’s a wasteful, clunky approach to audience development.
  4. Across every industry, social media hasn’t provided significant percentages of new users to high-quality websites since the big Facebook algo change of January 2018. Social media has many content and marketing merits, but organically attracting new users to your website content is not high among them.
  5. A true digital content strategy matches audience needs with business goals (aka $$$$$) at a macro level. Voice and tone, URL slugs, keyword maps, and title tags are small tactical parts of that strategy, but not the whole kit and caboodle.

From low-impact SEO tactics to a sophisticated audience acquisition strategy

In a sophisticated audience acquisition strategy, search optimization is a long-term, comprehensive digital effort to attract audiences actively seeking trustworthy information on topics about which your company or brand has authority. It’s organic, meaning that you’re not paying for your audience’s attention; you’re letting them discover your brand through their own efforts.

As an audience-building discipline, organic search in the 2020s is not about chasing shiny objects, adding keywords where they don’t belong, or bopping around platform to platform in search of an audience. It’s not about adding endless AI-generated blog pages to your website with zero originality. At minimum, organic acquisition takes audience research, competitive analysis, and a consistent content approach.

And at best, it’s a ground-breaking way to build topical influence with an audience that values your perspective, your brand and your business. An organic audience acquisition strategy is worth more to your content business than a bookstore endcap, a newsstand, a series of email pleas, and a viral Tweet combined.

The role of SEO in growing an audience who trusts your brand

Search optimization/SEO makes your content readily available in the channels where your audience wants to find you. As I demonstrated a few weeks ago, usually that channel is Google, simply because of market penetration and the fact that search has historically been the most consistently high-quality traffic for websites.

But a true organic acquisition strategy is about making your content discoverable: on Instagram or TikTok, DuckDuckGo or Naver—wherever your most valuable audience spends their time.

If your business is content, examine whatever role “driving traffic” has in your strategy and replace it with “finding an audience.” The role of organic search, aka SEO, aka how you show up on the most populated places and in the most crucial resources of the internet, is to introduce new audiences to your brand when they are seeking trustworthy information.

What is organic audience acquisition?

In the broadcast days, attracting audiences meant a great cover photo or killer headline for the newsstand, some creative splash to catch attention and inspire purchase. It meant buying an ad in another publication or paying for a sponsorship. Or it meant buying a mailing list and direct mailing postcards, coupons and brochures to your intended audience.

Search and social algorithms provide a new method of discovery: organic visibility, or the ability to attract audiences via free-to-use, free-to-post channels where your audience already lives. In the age of algorithms, audience acquisition means building organic visibility on non-branded topics in your target digital channels.

SEO and organic reach are often misunderstood by publishers and marketers because organic acquisition has a new set of contextual rules. The closest analog version is the public library, which is not an equivalent channel at all!

Why focus on organic acquisition separately from paid?

Organic acquisition (SEO, hashtag research, posting consistency) attracts a higher quality audience than paid visibility (PPC, paid social). Ask any cross-channel strategist: Paid works quickly, but organic is a long-term, higher value play.

Audiences worldwide take organic content more seriously and trust it more often, conferring higher value. Consult brand trust research from the past fifty years: contemporary audiences widely believe paid ads are less trustworthy than organically surfaced content.

That’s why trade regulators and Redditors alike make rules about paid sponsorship disclosures: when an audience knows a recommendation has been paid for, it becomes less valuable. Organic content success means outside algorithmic sources think the content is worth surfacing.

So how do you make your content more organically discoverable and trustworthy so audiences will find you…and then come back for more?d you…and then come back for more?

Stay tuned! The second half of this essay will be published on this website for paid subscribers only on November 25, 2022.