We’ve all heard that increasingly common search marketing mantra, “content is king.” It certainly sounds nice, and if it was true, it could really be a wonderful thing, because it suggests that all you need to have a well-performing, highly ranking and highly converting site is to treat people the way they want to be treated and give them an awesome site to experience.
Now, I am not Matt Cutts and I am not omniscient, but I do know this: Content is not king. And here’s how I know this: I can point to innumerable instances of poorly written, ugly, blatantly spammy pages ranking well for keyphrases that they did not “deserve” to rank for. And these nasty, thin, worthless pages far outnumber (even post-Panda) instances where beautiful, engaging pages that just focus on “building a community” and “great content,” but do not have strong ranking signals, rank well.
And, lamentable as it is, this makes perfect sense, because Googlebot is a bot, and bots do not possess the complex, higher-order intelligence that allows humans to assess the “usefulness” of a site. In a simpler, more perfect world,* a search engine crawler might be able to do so. It could go, “You know, this page’s offerings are more engaging, and the site itself has that, how do you say, je ne sais quoi. I’ll rank it above this ugly exact-match domain site with a ton of links pointing to it, because THAT site looks BORING.” Alas, our world is not so simple, nor so perfect, so Googlebot must use ranking signals as an indirect indicator of a page’s usefulness. These signals, generally speaking, correlate rather well to a site’s quality. The number of links a page has pointing to it, for example, should give a search engine crawler a good idea of how popular that page is. However, these signals do not correlate perfectly, and—as we all intimately know—they can be gamed. This state of affairs is not ideal, but it’s worthless to take the stance that if you just pretend that it is not where we are currently at, then your problems will go away.
I regularly hear that search marketers should only employ tactics that mirror our vision of a more perfect Googlebot by focusing solely on what we think search engines should emphasize. This stance is as curious as it is ubiquitous. Last I checked, clients pay marketers for results, not for potential results, provided our vision of a better tomorrow becomes a reality. In this particular case, shunning what works might be the result of a rosier outlook on the world, but it’s still fatal from a results perspective.
It comes down to this: Everyone—Google, search marketers, site administrators, and (most of all) users—desperately wants content to be king, but it’s not, at least not yet. It’s in a power-sharing agreement, and it will be for as long as Google’s algorithm dictates rankings.
*Perhaps. I, personally, would rather have a bot—even one that can be gamed—rank options for me over being force-fed choices based on opinions of quality, opinions which are inherently subjective. But that’s just me.