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The Unspoken SEO Dilemma: Optimizing for no optimization

How do you optimize your content, when the correct optimization is no optimization?

There’s an unspoken dilemma with SEO: to get the best optimization, apply no optimization.

For an industry obsessed with optimization, how can this be true? Surely the correct optimization is to get the treasured Yoast green light? 

No – given a choice of increasing the utility of a piece of content against optimizing through including the target keyword a couple more times, the correct optimization is to make the content more useful.

Hence the dilemma: usefulness is extremely subjective and extremely difficult to measure. This is the hardest type of optimization, and if ranking on Google is a game, this is the hardest level. Today, let’s explore the dilemma that nobody talks about.

Web pages should be created to help people

Web pages should be created to help people. In fact, they’re directly measured against their ability to help people. Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines are clear on this:

“Websites and pages should be created to help people… A highest quality page serves a beneficial purpose and achieves its purpose very well… content is high quality if it takes a significant amount of effort, originality, and talent or skill to create the content.”

It’s easy to forget that behind many thousands of clicks each month are real people, with real problems; and indeed, the guidelines described above are assessed by 16,000 real humans sub-contracted by Google to manually review web pages at scale.

The manual ratings are used as a way to test different search methodologies and increase the usefulness of content in Google. Always remember: we’re dealing with real people, who have real problems, and we need to solve those problems.

Most content on the internet is useless

If web pages should be useful, your content should be as useful as possible.

I want to pause for a second here, because this statement is wildly more controversial than it sounds: how much “SEO content” have you read recently that’s actually useful?

I needed to buy a new phone recently, and finding information about “best phones” was a horrible nightmare. You’re flooded with relentlessly generic opinions and affiliate links; in a ChatGPT world, this just gets worse than ever. It’s 2024! I should be able to get a good answer to which phone I should buy!

The problem is that being useful is hard and expensive. Sites like The Wirecutter have done so well because they test for these things, but they do so with the New York Times’ backing and resources. Does the average affiliate site actually test the best phones? No, obviously not.

I’d argue categories dominated by affiliate links in particular are fundamentally broken. Google is trying to shift towards more expertise, experience, authority, and trust, but in many spaces the content delivering against this just doesn’t exist.

I’d also argue that legacy SEO optimizations are unfit for purpose: keyword density is obviously not aligned with creating useful content; even more modern methods like topic coverage are increasingly unfit for purpose as they bias towards ever-longer Complete Guides about everything. A 5,000 word Complete Guide, when a 200 word direct answer would have worked, is not useful. 

The risk of relentlessly generic AI content

If you throw ChatGPT into the mix the argument only becomes more persuasive: ChatGPT-powered content is only going to be more relentlessly generic.

If you then mix that with legacy SEO requirements like keyword density, you’ve got a recipe for creating useless content. Content which covers all the topics searchers are looking for but offers no insight about any of them to some extent looks the part but it’s surely the last word in unnecessary busywork. 

Where competitors are not offering useful content, there’s a huge opportunity to win by being more useful.

There may be a day when AI can handle this, but it’s certainly not here now: we’ll see a divide between human-crafted expert content and AI-generated mush. There are going to be big winners and losers from this. 

SEO is winner takes all: the winners will be those crafting useful content and working to be ever-more useful. I feel increasingly bullish that reckoning is coming for the generic content – whether AI-generated or not – and I’m going to enjoy being on the right side of this. You can, too, whilst your competitors are searching for answers.

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Alex Denning

Alex Denning is the Founder and Managing Director of Ellipsis®, a world-class SEO Content agency. Alex is the inventor of FALCON AI®, the next-generation AI SEO platform that helps you predict how your content will perform – before you create it. Alex is an international speaker and publishes regularly on the future of SEO. @AlexDenning on Twitter