what makes content go viral

I have been thinking about this question: “What is the relationship between SEO and content?” Content is critical for SEO … but is SEO critical for content transmission?

I know there is a “rulebook” about SEO best practices but in my experience, it doesn’t appear to make sense all the time for every piece of content. In fact, sometimes it seems it makes no difference at all. I couldn’t quite sort out this relationship between SEO and content … until now (I think).

Today I would like to connect some dots between “viral,” SEO, and content type. Let’s get into this little case study.

Can SEO make content go viral?

As you can see from the chart above, there were three posts that drove extraordinary traffic to my website in the past 12 months. These are the posts:

January — Content Shock 

June — 70 Rising Stars of Social Media 

November — A speech you will never hear again

These posts would be considered “hero content” under the definition I recently described in a post about a “content pattern” that companies use to build a brand over time. This pattern requires three types of content:

  • Hygiene content that takes care of everyday customer needs and is the most likely target for search engine traffic.
  • Hub content which tells a deeper story and connects people to your brand.
  • Hero content which creates broad awareness through viral distribution.

Of these, hero content is by far the most difficult to produce. You just can’t plan for viral. And yet each of these three recent “viral” posts did have qualities that may be common to the “epic” content needed to transcend the ordinary daily drumming of the web.

1. It had nothing to do with SEO

Ironically, these three posts were probably my least-optimized posts of the year. I mean what kind of search traffic does “content shock” drive? It was a made-up term!

Isn’t this an interesting idea? We are supposed to pay attention to SEO to drive blog traffic and yet premeditated SEO played absolutely no role in these three successes. Why?

When I wrote these posts I mindfully tossed SEO aside and produced great content that I knew people would love. Think about it this way … if you are stuffing your content with popular search terms, how original — how heroic — can it possibly be?

By definition, competing for SEO terms forces you to out-duel somebody else for keyword supremacy. Creating content with a chance to go viral forces you to stand in a place where you create an entirely new keyword — supremacy based on originality.

Perhaps SEO strategy is the bane of “viral.”

2. It took a lot of work

It usually takes me about 2-3 hours to write a great post. Here is what went into my three pieces of viral content:

Content Shock — I spoke about this idea for the first time in a speech in Montreal in July 2013. I started writing through my ideas and kept refining the concept each week until I published in January 2014. This post was more than six months in the making.

70 Rising Stars — I cannot even count the hours it took to organize and create this content over a period of six weeks. Probably my most time time-intensive post in three years.

Speech you will never hear again — This started out as a 12-minute speech that I practiced aloud dozens of times until each word was perfect. So this transcript was the results of weeks of work.

I am not suggesting that time devoted to a post guarantees anything. You can spend a lot of time blogging and still produce crap. But in this case, the time was a reflection of originality and the depth of the content. These posts took more time because the content was richer and I was rewarded for it.

3. The content was long.

Most posts on my blog are under 1,000 words. I have had a long-held belief that shorter is better, as we respect our reader’s time and get to the point. I’m beginning to think I am wrong. These three posts were not only the most popular posts, they were also the three longest posts I wrote all year.

Research supports the fact that more in-depth posts get shared the most. According to an analysis of 100 million web-based articles by BuzzSumo, on average, long-form content gets more social shares than short-form content. In fact, the longer the content, the more shares it gets, with 3,000-10,000 word pieces getting the most average shares. Research by the New York Times confirms this. Nearly all of their most-emailed articles are more than 3,000 words long.

A new way to think about SEO and content

As I reflected on this experience and on the role of SEO today, the idea began to crystallize for me that an emphasis on SEO is dependent on the goals for your content. I had been struggling with this idea for some time. I know that SEO is needed and useful to help ignite some content, but in the case I explained above, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

I began to think that SEO is not a universal solution for content ignition but aligned with the TYPE of content you are producing. This graphic summarizes my thinking on the subject:

seo and content

This theory would suggest that for most content, SEO is an essential part of the discovery process. On the other hand, being wedded to SEO best practices (popular keywords in headlines, links, copy) may actually inhibit the ability for content to attain massive reach.

A grand irony … the Content Shock article, written with no SEO in mind, produced hundreds of valuable backlinks from many of the most respected blogs in the business. By ignoring SEO, I had my biggest SEO success.

Is this a solid concept? I honestly don’t know — I’m testing the idea with you! That’s why I have a comment section. What do you think?

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