Forget the Search Engines, Focus on Your Audience

by Angela Stringfellow

3 min read

Having trouble tracking Google’s changes to its search algorithm and adjusting your digital marketing strategy accordingly? You’re in good company. Even SEO professionals have a hard time keeping up with what’s an acceptable practice vs. what’s likely to get penalized these days.

Major tweaks by Google since 2011 have significantly influenced how web publishers and marketers approach search engine optimization, as they react to everything from the removal of keyword data for organic search queries in Google Analytics to a crackdown on link-building practices.

Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, in January shook things up again by proclaiming, “Guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy.” Cutts later clarified that guest blogging for the sole purpose of generating backlinks is ill-advised, but it’s OK for building brand recognition, increasing reach, and providing valuable information.

Therein lies the key to SEO: Don’t focus on gaming the search engines; focus on providing an engaging, valuable experience for your audience.

SEO Still Matters, But as One Piece of a Larger Pie

Organic search still accounts for about half (47 percent, on average) of all website traffic, according to a June 2013 study by Conductor. In the same analysis, social media accounts for about 2 percent of traffic, paid search (or pay-per-click advertising) accounts for 6 percent, referral visits account for 15 percent, and direct visits account for 29 percent of total website traffic, on average.

Conductor’s study evaluates traffic over a one-year period for 30 websites spanning six industries, with some variations in distribution when the data is broken down by industry. Websites in the consumer electronics, education and online retail industries, for instance, see the largest proportion of visits coming from natural search (between 53 and 56 percent), whereas websites in the travel and hospitality industries receive the lowest segment (31 percent) of visits from organic search.

Tom Demers, founder and co-owner of Cornerstone Content and an expert in search engine marketing, says he often sees a similar distribution of traffic sources with his clients. “Digital marketing today really goes beyond solely focusing on ranking on the first page of Google to drive traffic to your website,” says Tom Demers, founder and co-owner of Cornerstone Content.

“In fact, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you choose that route. Today’s digital marketing strategies are built around a range of techniques and approaches to building authority in your space,” he continues.

“Once you have that foundation in place — setting up your website with a search-friendly structure, schema markup, and so forth — shifting your efforts to finding your target audience and creating a rich user experience through extraordinary content is what ties it all together. Ultimately, you’re taking a strategic approach to SEO, which is what Google wants you to do anyway.”

The Positive Feedback Loop of Digital Marketing

Digital marketing success involves finding and engaging your target audience. That’s why experts like Demers say a multifaceted approach is the best bet for most brands. What results is a positive feedback loop that, when executed well, gains momentum and generates brand recognition and authority.

In the most simplistic terms, here’s how the feedback loop works:

  • Social media provides insights into industry trends and audience demands.
  • You craft content specifically related to what your audience is talking about or seeking, using SEO best practices (such as relevant keywords and optimized titles) without over-optimizing.
  • You distribute your content through social media and other channels, using various formats (such as slide decks and white papers).
  • Your audience engages with your content by sharing and commenting, because you made it relevant and delivered it at the right place and time.
  • Those social signals attract more members of your target audience.
  • The same social signals, and the high-quality, optimized content that you’ve created, hints to Google that you’re a trustworthy authority on the topic. This boosts your SEO.

To put it even more simply, focusing on your audience with a content-driven, multichannel digital marketing approach benefits your organic search ranking over the long term. The marketing initiatives you’ll use to get there will nurture your other traffic sources at the same time, keeping you in Google’s good graces — because you’ve taken a strategic approach and avoided gimmicks.

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