Traditional SEO v Content Marketing

Should you use traditional SEO or a content marketing strategy to increase your website’s traffic? Is traditional SEO dead? Hint… there is a third option…

why traditional SEO isn't dead yet

Ok, see that can of worms over there? Good. Now see this tin opener?…

I was reading an excellent article on Cole Wiebe’s blog yesterday titled Is SEO Dead? (check it out and drop him a comment!). The article argued that, despite the huge shift towards content marketing over the past couple of years, there is still a place at the table for traditional SEO methods. It’s a topic which is the cause of a great deal of debate in the SEO community at the moment, so I thought I would take the opportunity to add my twopence worth to the discussion.

Firstly, here’s a quick refresh on what we mean when we talk about traditional SEO and what we mean by content marketing.

Traditional SEO

There’s a lot to cover here, but in summary, traditional SEO involves: –

  • On page/site optimisation – titles, tags, internal links etc
  • Traditional link building methods – focus on gaining lots of links to your money pages, branded links to home page, building up site authority etc
  • Exchanging links with relevant sites
  • Keyword research – finding relevant keywords and optimising content accordingly

It might be said that traditional SEO (certainly the link building element) is more aggressive. We’re actively going out pursuing links, looking for any opportunities, sending out lots of outreach emails. There is no build it and they will come approach, it’s all about bringing the mountain to Mohammad.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is, fundamentally, the strategy of producing regular, high quality, content with the aim of attracting links, social shares, buzz and (of course) traffic.

Content can of course be text, but it can also be video, photos, or other graphics.

Generally, content marketing takes a softer approach than traditional SEO with a focus on gaining organic shares/links through social media promotion (twitter, facebook, pinterest etc). It’s all about providing real value and resources that people will have a genuine interest in sharing.

While there is of course an outreach element to it, if you are doing your job right as a content marketer it should be much easier to pitch to potential linkers as you are not asking for a link straight to your money page, but instead to a relevant, interesting piece of content. Softly softly catchy monkey.

Just Traditional SEO

Let’s assume for a second that the techniques are mutually exclusive and we can either use just traditional SEO or content marketing. So firstly, could our website succeed with just traditional SEO methods?

Well, our site is of course going to need some content to begin with, but lets say we put together a 20 page static site and (after the initial pages are added and content optimised) we never add, or change anything on the site.

Each month we build (through outreach, begging or *cough* incentives) 20-30 new links to the site from good quality relevant resources. Will our rankings increase month by month?

I’m using my instinct here and it would be an interesting experiment to try it out in the wild, but this is what I think would happen (for the purposes of this article we’ll ignore any initial sandboxing etc).

  • We would see good traffic gains for the first 6-12 months or so of the sites existence
  • Organic traffic would start to plateau after this (may fall). Certainly it would become harder and harder to increase organic traffic and may involve upping the volume of links coming to the site (and possibly triggering a penalty in the process)
  • Direct/repeat traffic would drop off

So, could the site be successful? Potentially, assuming we reached the tipping point in terms of traffic/profitability before we stopped gaining. We’ll have to work hard to keep ourselves up there though as the chances are our competitors are working just as hard as us at building links and are also adding new content.

What Are We Missing Out On?

Here’s a few things we are missing out on by not combing content marketing with our traditional SEO.

  • Fresh articles bump – google’s algorithm certainly favours fresh content (particularly for time sensitive searches)
  • Internal pagerank accumulation – every page on the internet is born with pagerank, so the more (quality) pages you have on your site, the more you can pass around internally. Internal links are a much smaller factor than external, but it all adds up
  • Regular readers/visitors – why would people keep coming back if nothing ever changes?
  • Social traffic – it’s likey that social shares will tail off as the content becomes old
  • Content becoming out of date – things change fast these days!
  • Long tail traffic – google is still primarily a text based search engine and it follows that the more text you have on the site, the more chance you have of being found for long tail keyword combinations

It’s also not impossible to imagine a time when google actively penalises (or demotes) static sites and unless the content we put on originally is truly evergreen there is every chance that its relevance will start to decay and its rankings suffer.

So, we might succeed with just traditional SEO, but it’s going to be hard and we shouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing comes tumbling down at some point in the future.

Just Content Marketing

So, on the other side of the spectrum, let’s say we focused solely on content marketing.

I’m not going to say we put together a site and don’t add any titles to the pages or such like, but let’s just say the site has the basics of on site optimisation in place and we don’t do anything beyond that in terms of building links other than pitching our content.

We’ll assume the content is very good, relevant and worthy of sharing. Here’s what I think would happen.

  • Initial organic traffic will be slow
  • Bulk of traffic in early days will come from social media/direct
  • Links will start to come in slowly and organic traffic will increase slowly over time. Most of early traffic will be long tail
  • After 9-12 months traffic will start to snowball as volume of links reaches tipping point and we should see gains in higher equity keyphrases
  • Organic traffic will continue to grow
  • Repeat visitors will continue to grow

Note: While most of our incoming links will be going to content pages and not directly to our money pages, our content pages should of course link to the money pages allowing pagerank to flow through to them.

So, it will take us longer to get off the ground, but once we are up and running we will see better results with our 100% content marketing strategy. However…

Combining Traditional SEO With Content Marketing

I’m with Cole on this. For the best results we should combine both traditional methods of SEO (without being overly aggressive) with a quality, ongoing content strategy.

If we put some effort into building supporting links in the early stages, it will get us some early organic traffic which will have the added benefit of getting our content in front of more eyeballs and hopefully gaining some organic links.

And beyond link building, the traditional SEO practices of on page/site optimisation are just as relevant today as they were 5 years ago (some would argue more so). See my articles on optimising page titles and meta descriptions for some pointers.


So for the best chance of internet success in 2013 you should combine the good, white hat elements of traditional SEO with a well planned content strategy. And no, traditional SEO is not dead…. far from it!

Check out my guide to SEO In 2014 for more on where things are currently at with SEO.

Do you agree with my thoughts? Anything you would like to add? Let me know by dropping a comment below!


About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.

Cole Wiebe - August 30, 2013

You’ve done a great job of expanding on the idea that traditional SEO and content marketing work best together, putting a lot more meat on the plate. Excellent post!

James Perrin - August 30, 2013

Great post David. An integrated strategy to any digital marketing campaign is always for the best; as such I’d say that some sort of social media management is essential with SEO and Content Marketing. Having one or a few people overseeing these 3 services, with an effective strategy across all three can have an awesome effect.

    David McSweeney - September 2, 2013

    Thanks James, you’re bang on the money – social media management really is an essential part of SEO/traffic building these days.

Denis D. - September 29, 2013

Some valid points here. From everything I read about site optimization and content marketing, combining the two should yield the ultimate result. And once again having quality content is key. I think that one has been repeated thousands of times all over the net because it is THAT crucial.

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