I saw the difference Google’s new algorithm was making to reduce spam the very first time I tried one of the searches I do very commonly. Almost all of the old favorites I was used to ignoring because I knew that a quickly through would buy me nothing were gone. A host of new sites that showed quality results had taken their place.
I can’t say that every query is enormously improved, but the difference is very noticeable. I use Google for research, usually pretty deep research of various topics. When I go looking for information, I want high quality deep content, not somebody’s ad-laden content farm that tells me in 63 languages the obvious things I already know. This is cool, but it sends an important signal to marketers:
Content is Back in the Driver’s Seat!
This is not something I have had any doubts about, even before the algorithm change, and I’ve written about it in several posts:
I have this belief that content trumps SEO and Links not out of any religious fervor, but because I have seen it firsthand. I have a hobby business that I use to test Boostrapping strategies, tools, and techniques on. It’s website is called CNCCookbook, and it caters to machinists both home shop and professional. Despite the fact that the graphic design would make any decent designer shudder, the navigation is a mess, and most of all there is no SEO done to it whatsoever, it regularly produces fantastic amounts of traffic.
Consider this Compete report on the traffic received by CNCCookbook, the market leader in CAD/CAM and a $100M+ business (Mastercam), and one of the most popular and rising star competitors (Gibbscam):
If you’re running a startup, especially a bootstrapped startup, your #1 problem is how to get noticed. What would it be worth to you to have the same traffic to your site as your $100M a year competitor? For most companies, achieving that goal could only be a dream, but here’s CNCCookbook managing to accomplish it with a hobby site against much larger players. How? With content. The other guys have standard corporate websites if you check out the links. FWIW, I sat down and figured out one time how much I had invested in the CNCCookbook content that accounts for the lion’s share of inbound traffic. The answer was about 1 Bob-year of effort (YMMV).
CNCCookbook is not my only experience with this strategy. We made my last company, Helpstream, get noticed with content in a remarkably short time. I am still asked by executives of competitors how we got so much PR so fast. They don’t believe me when I tell them it was the content.
As a result of all this, I have been telling startups that there are two “first things” they must do to get started. The First-First thing is all the obvious moves around building a product that every startup knows. But the Second-First thing is to get started building your content Day One. Don’t go into Stealth mode and hide out all coy. That stuff is getting old and lame. It was cute the first 100 startups that did it, but it doesn’t cut any ice any more. There’s no street cred in it. Saying nothing does nothing in a world where it is so easy for so many to say something.
Instead, start creating content. Figure out how to make your site the go-to destination site for people who are likely to be your customers. Do not start out marketing anything to them. Give them valuable content. Free. Give them plenty of it. Do not hide your content behind registrations or other standard marketing nonsense. Get it out there. Make visiting your site to check your opinion on anything in your space an automatic impulse for anyone who has the slightest chance of being your customer.
Why? Because you need to be noticed. And because these Google algorithm changes are the first shots in a war that isn’t going to end. Search needs to improve its results and it will do that by identifying content that consumers find valuable.
Does that mean you don’t need SEO or Inbound Links? What does it mean about Social?
Good points. I had a good SEO consultant take a look at CNCCookbook because I wanted to quantify what could be done. His initial reaction on analyzing pages was that it would be a piece of cake to improve the site–I had done none of the standard things SEO espouses. Then he started analyzing search results to create a baseline against which to measure the improvements. Eventually he came to me and said, “Bob, I’m not sure how much we’re going to be able to improve these results–you’re getting some really good rankings already, better than a lot of my other clients after SEO.”
Fred Wilson says marketing is for crappy products. I don’t agree with that at all, unless you substitute as Seth Godin did “advertising” in place of marketing. However, one could argue that SEO is a bandaid for crappy content. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t SEO your content, but get some great content first, especially if you have little or no marketing budget.
On the question of links, they are hugely valuable but there are scary penalties for cheating. Just ask JC Penny. Any kind of cheating or gaming isn’t worth the potential downside, particularly now that we’re seeing competitors report each other to Google. Yet, links still drive the mighty Page Rank and they matter. A lot. So how do we get links? How about by creating content that’s worth linking to? How about by creating content that gives away value for free instead of spamming “calls to action?” Now you’re catching on.
As for Social, it works the same as links. There are penalties for cheating, and cheating is way less effective anyway in a social context. If you want to be talked about, give ’em something to talk about. Get deeper than the usual marketing messages. Quit selling so hard you can’t close and deliver some value. Become a trusted advisor to your community. Then selling is easy.
Last words: Get ready for the pendulum to tilt more and more to quality content. Content is the New Marketing. Changes in Google’s Algorithms will only accelerate that trend!
Dixon’s issue is he doesn’t see any big startups succeeding with SEO. The comment thread is very telling as people like Dharmesh Shah, Dave McClure, and Fred Wilson wade in to say he is wrong.
His article would pass for me if he means SEO = gaming the search engines versus writing great comment.
On the question of, “How else besides search can startups get noticed?”, I would consider that there are two alternatives we’ve seen more and more of in recent years:
– Viral Growth. My favorite example is EchoSign, just because it isn’t a gimmick. It’s a service for businesses aimed at signing contracts electronically. One you sign an average of 6 EchoSign contracts, you like the service well enough you’re ready to look at using it for your own business.
– App Stores. Where we rely on the virtuous conflation of a popular platform and getting to the app store relatively early. Needless to say, arriving the new kid in today’s world is tough. There are a lot of apps competing for your attention.
I still believe quality content used to deliver search traffic is the best way for Startups to get noticed. Add to that PR, which is very much related as it happens these days online and via blogs, and you have a winning formula.
I’m certainly nowhere near the first person to suggest that content marketing matters, but as I was writing this post, I came across this wonderful note from 37Signals (a company that has made its bones marketing via content) about the 1972 Chouinard climbing catalog. Check it out. The catalog is a masterpiece of content. I remember similar catalogs from my youth. For example, the Leica catalog always had the most wonderful content about the value of different lenses. You could learn a lot reading that catalog even if you could never afford an expensive Leica camera.