Digital Marketing (R)Evolution: Looking Beyond Content and SEO
Distributing high-quality, meaningful content wasn’t something that we adopted as an agency. We had always done it. Our journey in digital marketing began several years ago as newspaper publishers. Yes, newspapers. Our flagship property, the Long Island Press, was one of the first alternative publications to put all of our content online. Today, as one of the top HubSpot partner digital agencies in New York, we are still publishing high-quality content and distributing it through digital channels. The difference is we do it for our clients and not ourselves.
We sold our news publication and website in early 2017 to focus on growing our Inbound Marketing agency. But, even since that time (which seems like decades ago already) the game has changed. More than the changes that have occurred, it’s the pace of change that is alarming and keeps us on our toes.
Morey Creative Studios is still committed to creating compelling content to attract more visitors and create conversion opportunities through organic, paid, social and referral channels. But the value of content and the fundamentals of SEO have changed dramatically. While we have seen several algorithm changes over the past two years that have been of great benefit to the type of content we create, the pace of change in search is beginning to eclipse and somewhat nullify these gains. Our journalism background has always informed our writing style; therefore, the mantra of “killer, not filler,” is core to our methodology
“There’s a very real problem in the world of digital marketing when the platforms we’ve been taught to work with are suddenly our biggest competitors.”
Today it takes more than “killer” content to move the needle for brands. Since most of our clients are B2B, it’s incumbent upon us to evaluate more than just a client’s “web presence.” That wasn’t always the case. When we entered the world of digital marketing as web designers, we paid close attention to the fundamentals of SEO, as well as proper website architecture, schema, security, blogs, landing pages, social distribution, etc. Our philosophy was simple: build a website properly, fill it with authoritative content and distribute information through email and social channels. Basic. Solid. True.
We steered clear of black or grey hat tactics that plagued the playbooks of so many other shops. Our approach, while not all that sexy, simply worked. When we partnered with HubSpot and began offering our services on their platform, our service and capabilities went to the next level.
Search is growing but the opportunities to win are shrinking
The point of this article is not to say that these fundamentals aren’t still at the core of what we do. In some ways, they’re more important than ever — the advanced tactics and strategies we now employ cannot succeed without them. But the digital marketing world has become uber competitive for a couple of reasons. First off, Inbound Marketing is maturing to such an extent that content is abundant. Second, Google improves every minute of every day. There is no such thing as “gaming the system” any longer, so the best results are indeed winning the day. The confluence of these two factors means that great results are more entrenched at the top of the search engine result pages (SERPs) than ever before. There is also research that backs a new line of thinking that search is plateauing. This is an intensely data-driven discussion so best to consult with our expert, friend and guru Rand Fishkin on this one. The upshot here is that search is still growing but the opportunities to win are shrinking.
It’s important to understand that Google doesn’t exist to help marketers and brands. Google exists for one thing and one thing only: to organize the world’s information and provide the best answer to a search query as fast as possible. Whew. Big stuff. Understanding this and playing by their rules is how good content marketers have approached their jobs. Do your research, create original content in plain language that answers a specific query, cite sources, optimize, publish, distribute.
Building on the idea that search is beginning to plateau somewhat, and established websites with high authority dominate the top rankings, it’s worth examining the nature of search. For years we were taught to aggressively pursue specific keywords. The big brands and news sites might own the top terms but there were smaller, derivative terms that were fair game.
For example, let’s say you were interested in learning how to play the stock market. You might search a broad term such as “Investing in stocks.” The top result (as of 8/22/2018) that I received was from an enormous financial resource website called NerdWallet.
But searching the phrase, “investing in stocks online course” delivers different results with the top one being from an actual online academy.
So it still holds true that your content needs to align perfectly with the service you provide. Udemy isn’t going to beat out Fidelity, the Nasdaq or Nerd Wallet for the main term, but they can win important battles that are core to their primary service offering. (That’s not to say NerdWallet isn’t still a significant contender in this discussion.)
The giants have staked their claim
Search is well beyond infancy and the giants have staked their claim throughout the Google universe. Therefore, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to unseat them, even on narrower long-tail terms. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Google has moved away from keywords altogether and has begun associating results with topics and ideas. The technical terminology is semantic search, whereby Google has begun to contextualize search intent and deliver results based upon the meaning behind the search and not necessarily keywords themselves. (Our creative director recently interviewed Jeffrey Vocell, principal product manager at HubSpot, on the Morey Creative podcast to discuss the migration away from keywords. You can listen here.) This concept has been around for a while but if this is new to you, take a moment to let that sink in.
“The point of this article is not to say that these fundamentals aren’t still fundamental. In some ways, they’re more important than ever — the advanced tactics and strategies we now employ cannot succeed without them.”
Essentially, if we’ve done our job correctly, then search results should be aligned with the goods or services our clients provide. But it seems we’re fighting for less and less real estate on the SERP’s every day. Because Google is offering so many complete answers on the SERP in various forms such as a knowledge card or carousel of images, there simply isn’t as much room to deliver organic results as there was previously. Depending upon the actual query, a searcher might find a “position 0” featured snippet with related questions and answers below, several ad positions, a map, videos, “rich cards,” and more. Sandwiched in the midst of this visually pleasing and extremely effective delivery of results are several organic website results. Hopefully (crosses fingers) you’re one of them.
This is hardly exclusive to Google. The big tech players are all seeking ways to keep their audience “in app.” Facebook wants you to watch videos, talk to friends, make phone calls and purchase items without ever having to leave the platform. Amazon wants you to order groceries, watch their newly released movies, purchase paper towels and dog food for morning delivery and control your thermostat with your Alexa. There’s an argument to be made that someday there will only be one or two companies that control our lives in Orwellian fashion. We can argue that another time. For now, there’s a very real problem in the world of digital marketing when the platforms we’ve been taught to work with are suddenly our biggest competitors.
Perhaps the most daunting trend on the immediate horizon is voice initiated search. While this is a popular topic in SEO circles, in our minds not enough attention is being paid to this trend. Comscore predicts that more than 50% of search will be voice-based by 2020. Given the exponential rate of growth, however, we believe this number to be fairly conservative. As mobile traffic continues to climb and voice recognition powered by AI becomes more effective, there’s no question voice search will be dominant. Here’s why this is a troubling and game-changing development.
“When a search is voice initiated and the result comes through your speakers, that’s the end of the transaction. No site to visit. No other options. Just the answer.”
When a result is delivered on page and is sufficient enough to answer the most immediate query, it’s likely that a top-of-the-funnel search will end right there. It’s happening already with featured snippets and knowledge cards. On screen, however, there’s still a chance to lure the searcher through to discover more about a topic or, at a minimum, encourage peripheral learning from surrounding results. (You might look beyond the featured result and explore a variation on your query from subsequent results.) When a search is voice initiated and the result comes through your speakers, that’s the end of the transaction. No site to visit. No other options. Just the answer.
This is the game-changer.
Like traditional SEO, there are things you can do to “win” these voice result positions. It’s more difficult and should be considered the “Highlander” of organic wins. (There can be only one!) While it’s definitely worth fighting this battle in the hopes that your brand name is somehow mentioned or at least intimated in the result, there’s still a good chance that you will be unable to continue the conversation. Recently, Backlinko did an impressive job of analyzing voice-search results to determine what a winning strategy might look like. The good news is that the fundamentals behind this strategy are fairly similar to that of sound SEO tactics. There are differences worth examining and incorporating into a content strategy, and our team has already taken measures to do so. But there’s no question that the nature of content marketing has been forever altered.
BEYOND CONTENT AND SEO
Where does this leave most content marketing firms and the brands they work for? The answer for most agencies is most likely unpleasant. Firms that rely on building sites and producing content will have a value in the market, but it will continue to diminish in the coming years. Relying on content-only strategies will be less effective and it will be increasingly difficult to command retainers or project fees for work that is being simplified by intuitive design editing tools in content management systems. Moreover, where a content-only strategy has yielded great results in the past, these victories will be harder to come by for the reasons stated above. Given the glut of content marketing firms that exist today, the competitive aspect cannot be ignored either. Publicists, “social media gurus,” marketing consultants, traditional web design shops have all gotten in on the action in recent years by just calling themselves “Inbound” content marketers. That simply isn’t going to cut it any longer.
From the brand perspective, these changes are even more daunting. With proper in-house resources, some companies have been able to adopt certain best practices related to content marketing and web design. It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that the skills required to navigate the evolving landscape might be too great to foster internally. We’re truly heading into Darwinian times when only the strong will survive. And being strong in digital marketing means staying ahead of the curve and thinking big.
While I can’t speak to the strategies other firms are evaluating, I can tell you that Morey Creative has been aggressively pivoting over the past 18 months to tackle these new realities. First off, it’s imperative to highlight our partnership with HubSpot as there is no way we would be the agency we are today without them. We bet early on HubSpot because we believed in their approach, their software and their culture. This was at a time when they were already considered the leader in marketing automation. Since becoming a partner agency, we have witnessed their remarkable transformation from a mar-tech company to enterprise sales, service and marketing platform leader.
Today our engagements are much larger in scope than they were even a year ago. We’re still following the fundamentals of content marketing and working to achieve search victories large and small, but this is just a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle. Top and bottom line revenue growth are always the primary objectives, so while a good deal of this growth can certainly come from increasing traffic and online conversions, we take a holistic view of the sales process. It doesn’t do anyone any good to create more sales opportunities if your company isn’t prepared to make the most of them.
Thus, our business model has evolved over the past couple of years from digital marketing to complete growth consulting and management. We have incorporated services such as building sales workflows, creating service desk protocols, leveraging programmatic, producing podcasts, shooting and editing videos and even advising on core branding and positioning. As the defacto sales administrators and full-time marketing department for our clients, we see and touch every part of the business to ensure that the customer journey is seamless and efficient and that our relationship is a profit center, and not an expense.