The world’s most popular search engine has affected the marketing psyche. Yes, quality matters.
Marketers believe exceptional content ensures SEO rewards because Google emphasizes quality. But for every success story among enterprises, there’s another that fails in a dramatic way.
How did we get to think it’s all about quality content?
The push likely took flight in 2011 when Google introduced the Panda algorithm update that played up quality and battled keyword stuffing.
The following year, Google rolled out the Knowledge Graph, its way of handling searches related to people, places, art, and more.
It started to become clear that Google could glean more from the themes, concepts, and purpose of content way beyond keyword phrases. Back then, Amit Singhal, Google’s senior vice president of engineering, wrote that the Knowledge Graph is an intelligent model that looks at “real-world entities and their relationships to one another: things, not strings.”
Revealing part of its technology strength, Google released its Hummingbird algorithm in 2013. A major aspect dealt with processing often long and conversational voice searches. Mostly, Hummingbird reiterated how much Google concentrates on meaning or intent of queries, not just a literal phrase.
Google in 2015 introduced RankBrain, a machine learning-based algorithm that explores the meaning of searches based on previous queries and searcher intent. Now companies can rank on Google for keywords not included on their page. In its 2017 Ranking Factors 2.0 study, SEMrush found that 18% of websites that ranked well didn’t feature the keywords in their content.
So where does that leave quality? Google claims it matters, yet even the most basic text can rank well. And exceptional copywriting? Well, it doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s hard to find a free pass to The Land of Top Google Rankings.
Quality should be a priority for many reasons, including brand standards and effective messaging. It can also help with engagement, dwell time, and earned backlinks, which could factor into rankings.
But quality isn’t the only answer as demonstrated in these five common scenarios:
1. Quality article without top rankings
In 2019, Allstate was the Content Marketing Awards winner for best corporate blog. With a well-designed blog packed with useful content, it’s no wonder the company earned the honor. Unfortunately, for all the traffic the blog must deliver, the content sometimes doesn’t rank well for multiple keyword phrases such as this post: Tips for Maintaining Your Sump Pump.
This Allstate article could get higher rankings with some SEO revisions to such things as the page title and content header. Sure, it’s No. 1 for “sump pump inspection,” but that phrase only averages 110 monthly searches. What about “sump pump maintenance?” The article only ranks 11th for that phrase, which is searched an average 1,300 times a month – almost 12 times more than “sump pump inspection.”
I would change the “Tips for Maintaining Your Sump Pump” header to “Sump Pump Maintenance Tips.” The page title could be updated from “Sump Pump Maintenance Tips | The Allstate Blog” to simply “Sump Pump Maintenance Tips.” I also would test this page title: “Sump Pump Maintenance and Inspection Tips.”
Yes, those revisions could affect that No. 1 ranking for the little searched “sump pump inspection,” but different approaches could result in higher rankings overall and more website traffic. Why settle for the first version of the content? Tweak and test the results.
Note: Data for all keyword research charts comes from SEMrush.
Let’s look at a different industry with a quality content page. This Hyatt hotel’s home page is filled with the right details in the text and a good selection of images. I like this tone:
Look out over the bustling Gaslamp Quarter from the rooftop of Andaz San Diego, where contemporary living spaces epitomize Californian cool. Our historic building – originally opened in 1913 for the World’s Fair celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal – is within just a mile of the San Diego Convention Center and surrounded by vibrant nightlife.
What keywords get high rankings with that quality content? Oh, there are some contenders:
Even though it’s well written, the word “hotel” is missing. To rank well, it helps to use essential words in the visible text. Google can detect the essence of what you’re conveying even if you don’t always work in a full keyword phrase. Other content blocks could be expanded and refined to help more keyword phrases rank, especially ones that mention “Gaslight district,” “hotel,” and “hotels.”
It’s also unfortunate that “San Diego” is repeated in the page title: “Boutique Hotel Near Gaslamp Quarter San Diego | Andaz San Diego.” Repetitive words dilute, weigh down, and detract from the focus of page titles.
As with any website, more testing can be done. Maybe “boutique” doesn’t help with rankings. One new page title could be: “Hotels Near Gaslamp Quarter: Andaz San Diego.”
2. Mediocre page ranking in top 10
What’s wrong with this Valmont Structures lighting page? It doesn’t qualify as superior content and yet Google gives it several high rankings.
I think the SEO page title, content header, and secondary header all came together to help this page rank well even though the content is nothing exceptional. Any of those elements could be revised to see whether rankings improve even more, but the page generally has visibility.
3. Quality page ranking well
Manifest, the agency behind Michigan Medicine’s blog, was the 2019 Content Marketing Awards winner for best blog post: A Doctor Explains What Makes a Heart Attack a ‘Widowmaker.’
The quality is exceptional. Google gave it a standing ovation with an assortment of top rankings. But was it the quality of the writing and the depth of expertise that impressed Google? Maybe, but I think the keyword-packed content header carried a lot of weight.
Page titles still matter. Manifest obviously took some care with this SEO Dream Team page title): “Widowmaker Heart Attack: Symptoms, Risk Factors & Treatments Explained | Michigan Medicine.”
The results are notable:
Content Marketing Institute faces similar challenges. I’ve advised CMI on SEO matters and its top-notch content filled with advice and real-life, practical examples. But those articles don’t always achieve top rankings. Some content can simply reinforce expertise even if few keyword possibilities exist or the natural search competition is fierce.
But CMI still has several thousand top 10 Google rankings.
For example, I wrote 54 Content Writing Examples, Tools, Tips, and Resources for the platform in 2016. Pleased with the rankings and natural search traffic, we kept the page title and header. The article continues to rank among the top 10 Google positions for dozens of keyword phrases:
4. Quality site with hits and misses in search engine visibility
Some online publishers consistently manage to produce both quality content and earn frequent SEO victories. ClearVoice, a platform for brands and content creators, must make many marketers envious of their success:
Yet, its quality content doesn’t always win high rankings. For example, Blogging a Comeback: How We Rebooted Our B2B Blog From 3K to 50K+ Organic Monthly Pageviews (and Growing), was a finalist in the 2019 Content Marketing Awards for best blog post. It is full of insights, transparent, and easy to digest. It may have generated organic traffic, but it didn’t earn top rankings on Google:
5. Uninspired branded content with high rankings
What about brand-focused content? Of course, Jiffy Lube ranks well for branded keyword phrases on its FAQ page. The page copy doesn’t stand out, but the page is organized, useful, and relevant (just like Google ordered). Thus, website quality is relative, much like a brand’s reputation. Even though Jiffy Lube had success, brands aren’t guaranteed to rank high for their brand-related keywords.
Jiffy Lube must be happy with all those brand keywords that rank near the top of Google.
The site URL illustrates that using keywords in domains may be helpful. Moz sets the page authority at 43 on a 100-point scale based on the number, quality, and diversity of inbound links. One of those referral sources is HuffPost, which actually links to an old URL (http://www.jiffylube.com/customer/faqs.aspx ) that redirects to the new FAQ page. The page title likely made an impact too (distinctive from the page header): “Oil Change & Car Repair FAQ | Jiffy Lube.”
Quality isn’t everything to Google
While quality content matters, so do SEO elements. You should always think seriously about the keyword research, get the SEO essentials right, and review the ranking and organic traffic data. That way when you make adjustments, you can see if those tweaks will help get your content found more frequently.
What do you experience with your website? Does Google always reward your quality content?
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute