Debunking The “Just Write Great Content” Myth


I recently had a bit of a debate on the SEOmoz Pro Q&A boards about the role of content in SEO.  Some member posted a question inquiring about ways to automate link building.  Naturally, a bunch of us jumped on the topic and informed the original poster that automated link building strategies are by and large useless, as any links you’re going to get from things like low quality directories, blog comments, and forum profiles are of minimal value, if any, and are likely to get devalued in the future.

The debate started when an extremely well-respected member of the SEO community (and a really nice guy!) posted a response I see on a lot of SEO forums.  Essentially, he said that all you need to do is write great content, and the back links will roll in on their own.  Voila – no need for silly link building strategies.

Now, I’m definitely on board the “content is king” bandwagon.  Complete content makeovers are usually the first thing I suggest to my clients.  Creating great content is definitely something I recommend all the time on forums and Q&A boards like SEOmoz or Quora.

Content is King...but even a king needs to spread his decree for all to hear.

Content is King...but even a king needs to spread his decree for all to hear.

My major qualm with this advice is that I think it is sort of misleading.  If you’ve got an established website that’s getting some traffic, or you have a strong community, a big following on social network, or the good fortune of working in an industry that really embraces blogging and social media, then it’s true, oftentimes creating good content is enough.  You focus your efforts on researching and creating great articles, and when you publish them, you just have to give them a little push in the right direction (via a Twitter post, for example), and the links start to roll in.

The real problem here is giving this advice to people running small businesses, or people just starting out with their digital marketing efforts.  Take Joe the Plumber, for instance.  He can pour his heart and soul into writing The Best Guide To Plumbing Ever, and slave and sweat over it until it is positively the best plumbing resource guide on the Internet.

The thing is, how is this post going to attract back links?  Nobody’s visiting Joe the Plumber’s website, so there are no eyeballs on it.  He doesn’t have any followers on Twitter or other social networks.  He doesn’t have an active community regularly reading and commenting on his website with their plumbing woes.  And it’s not about an Apple product or a picture of an adorable kitten, so he won’t have much success on social bookmarking websites like Reddit, either.

The post just sits there, not ranking for anything competitive because it is on a weak domain and an even weaker page.  If Joe the Plumber wants to get this page to blow up, he’s going to need to start networking with bloggers and niche web masters via social media, maybe get a few guest post opportunities to drive in links and traffic, run a link request campaign via e-mail, and in general market the hell out of the content if he ever wants it to get noticed, much less linked to.

Does this sound like “automatic” link building to you?  Didn’t think so.

Content is certainly the most important factor in any SEO campaign.  But for most people, and almost every small business, it’s only part of the equation.  If your content is to actually attract the links that you intend it to, you’re going to need to market it effectively – and that IS link building.

Unrealistic vs Realistic Content-Based Link Building Models

Unrealistic vs Realistic Content-Based Link Building Models

The flip side of the equation is that the content on it’s own probably will start to pull in links on its own - eventually.  It’ll rank for long-tail phrases and slowly but surely web masters will start to link to it, assuming that it truly is the best-on-the-web content that Joe the Plumber claims it is.  This is a slow process, however, and by no means a guarantee.

Is your time best spent creating more great content, while you leave the link building to happen naturally?  For most websites, probably not.  You’re going to need to put just as much effort and attention into marketing your content as you do creating it.

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Michael Martine on September 4, 2011 at 8:29 pm says:

Great points, but this isn’t even the biggest problem. The worst thing about “just write great content” is that it’s simply meaningless puffery unless you can define what great content means.

And remember that Joe the Plumber isn’t interested in having a “popular” blog… he’s interested in having a successful plumbing business. So the real questions is: what kind of content helps to make that happen, and what is in place for conversion?

mangiamarketing on September 4, 2011 at 9:43 pm says:

Thanks for the comment! That’s a valid point. Some link bait, though, is not really intended as much for your customers as it is for bloggers and people in your industry, and I think that’s okay. If that’s what it takes to get you links to your site and build domain authority so that you can be more competitive for other keywords that might be more customer-oriented, then so be it. Your point is valuable, however – there is certainly a distinction between what we see as great content and what our customers value as great content, and at the end of the day, conversions are the priority.

Rob on October 18, 2011 at 11:11 am says:

You made some great points. Another way I see it is this. I have an affiliate website in the financial industry. The competition is massive. There are thousands of sites and blogs with great content in my field.

There aren’t many websites or blogs in this field who will just link to great content. There is so much of it available and most of these sites are trying to rank themselves and make money. Also when your dealing with the subject of loans most customers want basic information and will either apply for a loan from you or a competitor or change their mind. They don’t really want much outside of basic information. When I promote my article pages and they do come up top in my niche low level webmasters find them and steal them and publish them on their blogs and websites.

No matter how good an article is that I write or have written I neeed to find back links. People aren’t coming out of the woodwork to link to me. I get a little annoyed hearing the “great content cliche”.

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