From the very first day Benji and I founded Grow and Convert (G&C), we have associated the entire brand with the term “content marketing.” We initially started G&C as a content marketing educational site. We tried — and failed — to sell corporate content marketing training, which led us to eventually launch the content marketing agency that has been the focus of our business since 2017.
As a result of all this “content marketing” branding, clients view us as their content marketing vendor, and rightfully so. That means, in their minds, we are in charge of their blog content. We have, to date, been fine with this. Blog posts are our primary work product, and we’re proud of the results we get for clients.
But recently, we’ve begun to question this positioning:
After debating it, we’ve decided to reposition Grow and Convert as an SEO agency that excels at using content to rank for valuable keywords. We think this will be a win-win for both us and clients, as we explain below.
We’ve already begun making changes to our site and sales pitch to reflect this new positioning, and this post is a written account of our reasoning and the resulting changes. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments once you’ve read our arguments.
Reasons Why Being a “Content Marketing Agency” May Not Be Ideal for Grow and Convert
Reason #1: It’s Inconsistent with the Results We Get for Clients
You don’t hire Grow and Convert for blog posts. You don’t hire us to meet a certain word count. You hire us:
- To rank for your most valuable search terms
- To drive qualified leads, and ultimately sales, from those rankings
And in our clients’ minds, who is generally in charge of ranking for valuable, lead-generating search terms? SEO agencies, not content agencies.
So, the main business result we get for clients is something they feel is the responsibility of a different category of vendor. That’s not good.
Reason #2: Many Companies Value Blog Content Less Than SEO
This is a bit of an odd reason because we actually think blog content and SEO aren’t two different things. Blog content should be considered a part of SEO, but many marketing teams think of them as separate activities. Many people don’t even think blog content can or should be used to go after their most valuable keywords. As we’ve written ad nauseam, they consider blog content a “top of funnel” or “brand awareness” activity.
If this is how you view content marketing, then frankly, this makes your content marketing vendor more expendable and less valuable than your SEO vendor. Because if I asked, “Would you rather rank on Google for 30 of your most valuable keywords or publish 30 well-written blog posts?”, everyone would choose the rankings. But they’re not mutually exclusive!
We actually produce those exact rankings for clients (30+ high value keywords in your first year with us) via blog posts, yet almost no one thinks this is possible. They think these rankings are the job of an SEO agency that optimizes your existing site and builds links to achieve those rankings. Blog content is thought of as a secondary “nice-to-have”.
Weaknesses of Typical SEO Agencies and Processes
Those two reasons (discussed above) make us feel like our current positioning isn’t ideal. But to add to it, we also see a massive opportunity to improve on the service of traditional SEO agencies.
Below are what we consider weaknesses in the strategies of SEO agencies retained by our clients. Our conclusions are based on directly seeing the work product of these agencies, seeing what results these agencies have (or have not) achieved for our clients, and hearing the frustrations our clients have voiced to us about these projects.
Weakness #1: Too Many SEO Agencies Emphasize Technical SEO Over High-Intent Keywords
We’ve noticed that most SEO agencies (or in-house teams) focus the majority of their efforts on on-site SEO (e.g., technical SEO, site maps, and site structure) combined with domain-wide link building, while giving a lot less focus, priority, and effort to what we feel is the most important part of SEO strategy: identifying high-value keywords and creating pages designed to rank for those keywords.
We think this is backwards.
In our view, activities like technical SEO and domain-wide link building should only be done as a means of ranking for your highest value keywords.
Because otherwise, what’s the point? If you (1) haven’t identified what your highest value keywords are and (2) don’t have pages on your site specifically created to fulfill the search intent of those keywords and thus have a real chance of ranking for them, then what are you possibly hoping to achieve with technical SEO or link building?
What use is a high domain rating (the goal of most link-building efforts) if you don’t have pages on your site specifically created to rank for your highest value keywords? Or if (and this is shockingly common) you don’t even know what your highest value keywords are?
These may sound like obvious mistakes that no one would make, but you’d be surprised. We see this backwards approach to SEO all the time. A ton of effort is spent on technical SEO and “cleaning up the site,” a lot less effort is spent on identifying their highest value keywords, and even less is spent creating content aimed specifically at ranking for them. Inevitably, in these scenarios, the company becomes frustrated when all the budget and time spent on SEO fails to produce any measurable increase in leads, sales, or business.
Weakness #2: Keyword Research by Itself Doesn’t Get Results. You Need to Actually Create Content That Will Rank
When we have seen keyword lists from SEO agencies, there are often several issues with them.
First, they’re often just massive lists of hundreds of keywords that any company could get for themselves from any SEO tool. Some agencies do the hard work of categorizing or prioritizing these keywords by buying intent, but from what we’ve seen, most do not. And these SEO tools (where most agencies are getting these lists) almost always suggest tons of low buying-intent, high search volume keywords. They don’t interview sales, product, or customer support to deeply understand customer pain points and uncover non obvious but high converting, high buying-intent keyword ideas. You need humans to do this hard work.
Second, these lists aren’t actionable. The vast majority of companies don’t have the resources to produce 200 or 500 articles that are crafted well enough to actually have a shot at ranking. So this kind of keyword research may make the agency feel productive, but it leaves the client overwhelmed and wondering how they can possibly rank for all of those keywords.
Compounding this issue is that many times, the SEO agency that provided the list will only create “content briefs” for each keyword, but they won’t actually write and publish the pieces. (Or, if they do, they’ll charge an enormous amount to do so.) But, content briefs don’t rank. Pages published on the site that match search intent rank. These take time and effort to produce. So, it’s no wonder many SEO firms don’t do this. Heck, many brands don’t even do this. It’s hard.
Weakness #3: SEO Agencies Prioritize Traffic Over Conversions
Next, in addition to emailing their clients unreasonably large keyword lists produced by an SEO tool, we take issue with how most SEO agencies prioritize keywords: They chase traffic over conversions.
We’ve talked a lot about why this is a problem in our foundational Pain Point SEO article and in many others, but in short, traffic doesn’t pay the bills for the client, customers do.
Yet, the #1 thing you see SEO agencies brag about online is traffic growth. How many screenshots of an upward trend organic traffic graph have you seen on Twitter from SEOs? Mentions of how many leads SEO agencies drove for their clients, though, are much harder to find.
In our experience, the primary driver of conversions from SEO are the keywords themselves. Thus, if the keyword research itself is based on maximizing traffic, it’s misaligned with what the client wants.
Weakness #4: Most SEO Agencies Don’t Specialize in Product Copywriting
Next, in order to rank for high buying-intent keywords (e.g., “best accounting software”, “marketing reporting stack”, “post-concussion syndrome treatment”) and convert that traffic into leads, you need to be good at product copywriting.
Pages ranking for high buying-intent keywords usually talk a lot about products. So, if you want to rank for these keywords, your pages need to talk about products in-depth, including, for example, an explanation of key features, the use cases for each feature, and what differentiates your product from others in your space.
This requires a different writing skill set than traditional “blog writing.” First, most blog writing is self-researched, but product copywriting should not be. The traditional blog writing workflow involves handing a writer a keyword and asking them to come up with what to write on their own. Sometimes the writer is given a “content brief”, but even those are mostly dictating the subheaders based on what the existing ranked pages are already saying.
That may be fine for introductory, top-of-funnel keywords like “accounting tips for small business,” where most of the articles ranking say the same thing, so a reasonably smart writer could digest the tips in a couple of hours and produce something similar but professional. But if you’re going after a buying-intent keyword like “accounting software for small business,” then you need to actually discuss the details of your software:
- Outline your features and benefits
- Why does your feature set look the way it does?
- What are the most important benefits?
- Are there any design details that are important?
- Compare your software with others
- What differentiates yours from others?
- Where in the market do you sit?
- Are there certain use cases where a competitor might be better?
No freelance writer is going to be able to write this on their own.
First, they’re going to need to interview product experts at your company to get this information. Most SEO agencies don’t have these interviews as part of their process.
Second, they need to be able to write this kind of content well. How do you sell the features without being too salesy? How do you contrast with competitors without being too aggressive or trashing them? These are hard skills to learn. Some writers on our team have told me that our writing is more like landing page copywriting than blog content writing. They’re not wrong.
Weakness #5: The Sprinkle Method
As a result of all of these challenges with producing content that actually ranks for the researched keywords, we’ve seen many SEO agencies use an approach we’ve started calling “The Sprinkle Method.” Instead of producing a unique article or landing page for each target keyword, they simply give blog writers the keyword sheet and ask them to sprinkle the keywords in their articles, thinking this will organically get the site ranking for these keywords.
This doesn’t work.
As we explained in detail in this article, Google’s algorithm can tell the difference between content that’s tangential to the topic and content that specifically addresses the search query. So if you don’t dedicate a single page to fulfilling the search intent of your target keyword, you’re likely to get beat out by competing pages that do.
Basically, if others are creating dedicated pages for specific keywords, and you’re just “sprinkling” keywords in here or there, you have a slim shot at ranking.
How Our SEO + Content Process Solves the Problems Above and (We Feel) Produces Better Results for Clients
Fundamentally, we feel our process is better aligned with clients’ desired outcomes (rankings for high buying-intent search terms) and is more likely to actually achieve those outcomes because of what we prioritize.
Below is each step of our process, listed in order of priority.
(Important Aside: By “priority,” we don’t mean chronology, i.e. when we do each step. In a client engagement, we may start each step at the same time. But the point is our SEO strategy is guided by the higher priority items, and our argument is that this makes a huge difference.)
Our SEO Priority #1: Finding the Most Valuable Keywords to Target
Unlike traditional SEO firms that launch headfirst into technical SEO or link building without a keyword strategy in place, our focus starts with the keywords for which we want to rank.
Ranking for your target keywords is literally the entire point of SEO. Nothing matters if you don’t know which keywords you’re targeting. Link building doesn’t matter. Technical SEO doesn’t matter. Yet, as we said above, we’ve had many clients who’ve spent months on all kinds of SEO activities without an agreed upon list of their most valuable keywords. Or, only slightly better, their target keyword list is only one or two keywords.
Also, a crucial detail is that both the words “valuable” and “keywords” are equally important in the above phrase. Who cares about ranking for keywords loosely related to your product if they don’t bring you any business? Sure, your organic traffic graph will go up and to the right, and you can post that on Twitter and brag about it, but if the keywords aren’t ultimately leading to sales, then it doesn’t give clients what they want.
We’ve linked to these articles already, but to recap, you can read more about our high-value keyword strategy here and here. A case study quantifying the value of high buying-intent (bottom of funnel) keywords can be found here.
To emphasize my point about priority, every other SEO activity we do (listed below) is in the service of ranking for these high-value keywords. This is our entire goal for clients.
Our SEO Priority #2: Creating Product Content Aimed to Rank for These Keywords
Second, and frankly equally as important as the first priority, we produce or optimize individual pages to rank for each high-value keyword we are targeting. We don’t use the sprinkle method, meaning we don’t produce a single “small business accounting guide” that’s aimed at ranking for 10 different accounting keywords.
We look at each keyword, analyze the existing results on page one, ascertain search intent, and produce or optimize a unique page on the client’s site that we think better fulfills search intent (and sells the client’s product or service) than the existing results. Most of the time, these unique pages are articles we write, but if we feel like an existing page on the site (e.g., the homepage, a landing page, etc.) is best suited for a keyword, we may use that page to go after a keyword instead.
And because most of our keywords are high buying-intent (“best accounting software,” for example), we sell the heck out of our client’s products and services in these articles. We get into the details of features, we explain the nuance of benefits, we weave in testimonials and case studies, and we differentiate our client’s products from those of their competitors (sometimes gently, sometimes aggressively). We base all of this on extensive interviews with product experts, product demos, and sometimes demo accounts (so we can use the product ourselves). We have been doing this for years and have an extensive writer training process that has helped us build a tight-knit team of product copywriters.
Our SEO Priority #3: Site Cleanup and Technical SEO
You may be wondering, “How could this be third in the priority list? If the technical SEO isn’t in order, won’t you have trouble ranking for those high value keywords?!” Our answer is, “Yes, you would.” In fact, we start every client engagement with an SEO audit precisely to check for technical issues with the site that may hurt our ability to rank. Then, we either fix or suggest fixing the technical issues before we get started publishing.
So, like I said above, just because we list this as our third priority doesn’t mean it happens third chronologically (in time).
But, it’s third on our priority list by importance. Meaning, for us, site cleanup and technical SEO is only important insofar as it helps our content (Priority #2) rank for the most valuable keywords (Priority #1). Yes, if there are glaring technical issues, such as multiple H1s on a page, thousands of no-value, no traffic pages eating crawl budget, the entire site randomly no-indexed (you’d be surprised!), etc. — we’ll fix those problems immediately.
But many times, there are no problems with the site!
Contrary to what most SEO agencies will tell you, most websites of decently sized companies that can afford to hire these agencies aren’t a hot mess. Take, for example, the marketing sites of most B2B SaaS companies: They’re not even that big. They usually have something like 10 to 20 largely static pages (product, solution, pricing, etc.). So why are these companies being sold months of SEO audits and technical SEO “cleanup” by SEO agencies? It makes no sense to us.
We do technical SEO and site cleanup fixes; we’ve done a lot of it for our clients. We do a site audit, and we prioritize issues by importance and severity. But for us, it’s just something to get out of the way so that our content (#2) can rank for our high value target keywords (#1), not something to extend for as long as possible to keep charging the client.
Our Priority #4: Link Building
This takes us to the final leg of our SEO process: link building. We view link building the same way we view technical SEO: We’ll do as much of it as necessary to get our content ranking for the high value keywords we’re targeting and nothing more. Now to be clear, that may be a lot. Link building, in our experience, works. But like technical SEO, it doesn’t pay the bills without the right content (#2) aimed at the right keywords (#1). It’s just a means to an end. The end is what’s important (the rankings).
In contrast, we’ve seen clients come to us after spending years paying untold sums on link building without even having a clear set of high value keywords for which they’re trying to rank, much less the content they need to actually achieve those rankings. When we ask, “Why are you building links?”, they tell us, “Our SEO agency said it was important to get rankings.”
What rankings are these exactly? No one knows.
Potential Downsides of Repositioning
For all of the reasons above, we are repositioning Grow and Convert as a content-focused SEO agency. This means referring to ourselves all over our site as an SEO agency, tweaking the Work With Us page to align with that positioning, and also changing a few things in our sales conversations with prospects.
Here is how our homepage headline has changed:
And here is how our Work With Us page (now called “Our SEO Service”) is changing:
But the fact that we’re doing this doesn’t mean we are sure it will work. Here are two risks:
Will People Come to Us When They Need Content?
First, if we’re thought of primarily as an SEO agency, we may no longer be a go-to agency for content. Right now, when a company says “we’re going to invest in content” or “we need blog content” we’re one of the names in consideration because we’re a content agency. Will that still be the case when we’re an SEO agency? Will they still think of us? Hopefully they will, but it’s a risk.
Content is obviously what we’ve become known for. It’s a strength. So, I think it would be unwise for us to completely position ourselves away from it. That’s why our initial guess at this is to say we’re a “content-focused SEO agency”.
Will We Run Into Operational Headaches?
A very convenient fact of being a content agency is that we’re really only in charge of the blog posts we produce. If someone on the client side releases a site update that messes up the on-page SEO of the homepage, that’s not our responsibility. But if we’re the SEO agency, monitoring those rankings and fixing those issues fast is our responsibility. That adds an operational burden.
Also, we may have to do more custom development projects related to technical SEO issues. If our technical audit reveals some key issues with the overall site template, we should be the ones to fix it if we’re the SEO agency. (Aside: It’s shocking how much we hear from clients that many SEO agencies don’t even do that. They just give the recommendations and move on. It’s like people are paying agency prices for a single Screaming Frog report.) Fixing these things requires the personnel (developers, technical SEO experts, etc.) and a workflow for doing custom work.
Right now, as a content marketing agency, we don’t have to do that many custom projects. We have a set process, we produce a set number of articles every month, and we monitor and report on certain metrics. The operation has been honed over many years and many clients. Things (by and large) run smoothly.
Who knows what that will be like when we have to do custom technical SEO and site fixes. We could get into it and decide we aren’t good at this, that it’s a huge burden, or that we just plain hate it. We’ll see.
That said, we still think this (tweaking our positioning) is a good thing for us, so we’re going for it. We’d love to hear what you think in the comments.