For years and years, the one constant in the chaotic world of SEO has been a simple statement: Content is King. This statement has been the cornerstone of content strategy in SEO projects, and its validity has hardly been contested. This is not due to lack of trying. Many posts in the blogosphere have taken an opposing stand (Heidi Cohen: format is king, Carl Ocab: marketing is king, Bernadette Coleman: trust is king). The message of the opposition is this: content cannot be king, as it is only a small part of the audience experience.
I agree, and I also think the metaphor is a poor one. Being king implies sovereignty. Kings inherit their power through lineage (or usurpation), and they rule supreme (well, they used to, at least). The problem with this metaphor, in terms of content strategy, is that this devalues all the other, hugely important aspects of creating a successful website. In SEO, all parts of the optimization process come together in a well-developed content strategy:
You need the technical groundwork to make sure the site is crawlable. Without crawled pages, your site's standing in organic search results will be compromised. As long as you have access to a modern CMS, you won't need to worry about this too much.
You need a strong keyword analysis to make sure that the right audience arrives at your site. You need to understand your audience's needs in order to convert them to followers/fans/revenue/whatever your goals are.
You need jaw-dropping design to make sure that the initial impression your site gives is the one that draws your visitors in.
You need a good outreach plan to build hype around your site. Your marketing department must be up-to-speed with the latest online trends and fashions.
And finally, you need incredible content to make sure that the audience who does arrive at your site doesn't leave. Ever. You want your site to be the last one they look at before they go to sleep, the one they dream about in their feverish dreams, and the first thing they think of when they wake up in the morning.
You can focus your content strategy in many ways (see e.g James Agate's wonderfully informative post A Guide to Producing World-Class Infographics), but the basics are always the same, and I will introduce them next.
Right content strategy for the right audience
I like to approach content strategy with the same tools and methods I used when I was a product owner in an agile development team. Everything began with a vision statement. Every product, every release, every increment, and every feature needed to adhere to this vision religiously.
imilarly, when I think about what content to create for a single page, for example, I think of a single content statement which governs everything the page should be about. Really, it must be simple. A good content statement contains the the core message of the page, the general target group, the differentiating factor, and a goal statement. For example:
After I have my content statement, I can start thinking about the target groups more carefully. This aspect of content strategy requires a lot of niche knowledge about the business. If a SEO consultant has been hired to work on the content, target group analysis should be developed as a team effort.
I call this audience design, and it should provide you with the keywords you need to work on semantic optimization. Look at search trends to make early bird calls, and home in on your competition's tactics.
Another really good method of implementing audience design is to draft user stories and scenarios. Think of a few user profiles who might be typical visitors to your site, and write scenarios for them: “As a user type, I want to find out about page content so that I can statement of need or action". Once you have a number of these, you can start writing your content.
The point behind all this labor is simple. Your content strategy will ensure high quality content if you ask the following questions after each paragraph you write:
Is this paragraph in line with the content statement? If there is any content that cannot directly be related to the content statement, discard the text. You don't want to confuse your visitors by littering your pages with irrelevant or anecdotal content.
Does this paragraph cater to the user scenarios you wrote? Step into the shoes of the user profiles you created. Read through the text as if you were a visitor on the site. Does it work for you? Do you feel attached to the content of the paragraph, or does it leave you cold?
Does this paragraph cover just one issue? Or do you ramble on? Focusing your writing is a good habit and increases readibility a lot. Each paragraph should cover just one issue related to the topic of the page, and each page should have just one topic.
As long as each paragraph you write scores well on the questions above, you should be well on your way to creating amazing content.
The most important thing is to really, REALLY, suck up to your audience. Your content strategy is not king-like. Its power is not self-derived, it doesn't have the means to dictate, and it can't overrule the masses. It's more like a democratically elected president: It has a lot of power, but the minute the people are dissatisfied is the minute they abandon the fruit of all your hard work.
So content really isn't king?
That's right it isn't. Content is not and should not be the sole reason your site is successful. And here's the kicker: your content strategy should not just create quality content. Your website design should not just create beautiful and accessible visuals. Your forms, plugins and widgets should not just provide fluent interaction with your site visitors. No.
Everything you do should be geared towards eliciting an emotional response from your guest.
Read that again. You are competing against a gazillion of similar sites in the web. You must know who your visitors are, and you must model your content strategy after their needs.
In other words: Remember your audience and they will remember you.