If you’re not the alpha dog, SEO may be holding you back


By Mark Schaefer

I was helping out a friend by reviewing his blog. His goal was to build search traffic for his small marketing agency and, on the surface, everything seemed to be in order:

  • His content was interesting and relevant, offering tips and how-to posts that might address customer questions
  • The writing was very strong. The copy was somewhat impersonal, but well-written.
  • He published consistently, averaging two posts per week for more than two years.
  • The posts were well-constructed with popular marketing keywords in the headline, the top of the post, in sub-heads and sprinkled throughout the post.
  • Every post had a meaningful call-to-action to learn more.
  • He had visuals with every post.

So he was definitely following the classic SEO “playbook.” And yet, after more than 200 posts, he had almost no results. Few subscriptions, little engagement, almost no increases in web traffic.

What’s going on here?

In reality, his strategy is back-firing on him. Let’s find out why.

A strategy in context

A content marketing strategy doesn’t begin with an employee, a blog, or a content plan. It starts with an assessment of the content density in your marketplace. You need to figure out how you can maneuver to out-wit the competition.

For example, I had another friend who was starting a blog about “babymoons” (a romantic holiday before the baby comes!). That is an unsaturated niche — he is the first to create content on that topic in a meaningful way. So by following the SEO “playbook” based on that keyword, he is likely to get massive attention from Google, eventually.

But in the case of my marketing agency friend, how many digital marketing blogs are there? A bajillion — a very saturated niche. By simply creating more content in this crowded field, my friend is simply adding to the noise of the marketplace with little hope of any SEO results. In fact, this keyword-based SEO strategy is working against his progress.

Are you a junkyard dog?

Does this mean he should quit? No. But it does mean he’ll need to find a new way to maneuver.

This is precisely the subject I cover in my book The Content Code — winning in a world of overwhelming information density.

There are a lot of great ideas from the book that would be relevant for my friend, but I wanted to call out one specific topic today. Maybe he should NOT write for SEO. That may seem heretical, but hear me out.

When I think about the never-ending fight for SEO dominance, I have a picture in my head of a couple of mean old junkyard dogs ferociously fighting over a bone. In a crowded content market, the only way to win is to be one of those junkyard dogs and win that bone, week after week after week.

But there is more to Google and search success than keywords. Much more, in fact.

Let’s consider this graphic depicting some of the important search considerations for Google, which comes to us courtesy of Zyppy.com:


Google uses thousands of factors to determine your search ranking and these are just the top 10 (or at least we think so). The problem is, “SEO” for most companies means focusing on only item number one (targeted content), which is aimed at keyword strategy.

And no question, that is very, very important (in most cases). But the problem is, every competitor is going to be in a keyword cage match and only 2-3 companies will be at the top of the search results. Those are the biggest, meanest junkyard dogs in the pack … the alpha dogs.

My friend is not an alpha dog. His little agency is more like a cute puppy just looking for a little Google hug. Pick me up and play with me, he’s barking. But no. Google is too distracted by that never-ending, high-stakes dogfight.

But look at these other nine factors in the chart. We still have a lot of room to maneuver, don’t we? Maybe my friend needs to hunt in an area being ignored by the rest of the pack.

The anti-SEO strategy

So what do you do if you have no chance to snag that bone?

By definition, when you’re optimizing for the most important keywords, you’re battling over popular terms. You’re probably not going to have a viral content sensation because you’re writing about the same ol’ crap everybody is writing about too.

So one idea is to step completely away from keyword-SEO and build an audience by establishing thought leadership along your own path.

Let’s string together some of the other factors from the chart to plot another strategy that is less dependent on keywords. Google will reward you for content that is:

  • Useful
  • Unique
  • Authoritative
  • Fresh

If you’re a bright, original thinker in a crowded niche (and my friend is) breaking from the dog pack and writing for the reader instead of for the keywords is a legitimate strategy. The idea is to earn an audience (and maybe even backlinks!) because you’re so darn interesting.

Case studies

When you get right down to it, I’m in the same situation as my friend. I’m a puppy in the big-dog digital world. I am never, ever going to write a post that will outrank content machines like Social Media Examiner, Moz, or Hubspot.

But if I’m interesting enough, I don’t have to. I’ve been able to build a massive and loyal following for my content even though I don’t rank well for any significant keywords. See if you can find a pattern in some of my most popular posts:

In each case, I wrote on a topic that only I could write about: A new idea, a different perspective, a personal story. In this post I could have included some industry keywords in the title. Am I trying to rank for the term “alpha dog?” That would be dumb. I’m trying to write a headline — and a post — that people really want to read.

I’m never fighting over that SEO bone. I’m the SEO puppy that is so adorable that you can’t help but stop by and pet me a little every day. If I get enough people to do that, Google will notice too.

There is no single solution

Today I’m presenting a perspective, not a solution. There is no single solution or strategy that fits every business. There is also no reason you can’t work on both SEO and thought leadership, and there are many different ways to differentiate yourself over time.

If you’re in a crowded niche, I wanted to write a post that can provide some hope. You do have options. There is a world beyond keyword-based SEO, and there are ways to win, even if you’re in the puppy pound like me.

seoMark Schaefer is an SEO puppy and the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustrations courtesy Unsplash.com

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