Should you write your blog or engineer it?

I think I figured out why nearly every social media blogger sounds exactly the same — commonly referred to as the “echo chamber.”  I’m learning that copying and pasting can be profitable.

To unpack my point, allow me a brief explanation of content marketing.**  One hot concept is using statistical methods to determine optimal “keywords” that, when used strategically in your content, result in “inbound leads.” In plain English this means embedding words about hot social media topics in your blog to snare sales prospects.  People are charging for webinars on this topic so I’ll save you a few dollars/euros/dinero by providing the theory in a nutshell:

  • Conduct research into the “keywords” that are leading people to your, or your competitor’s, website.
  • Seed these keywords liberally and systematically into strategic places like blog headlines to fool the search engines into thinking you are the premier destination for those search terms.
  • Employ “outposts” like Twitter and other social platforms to become vessels for your keywords and links.
  • Attract backlinks from places also laden with keywords.
  • Focus your content plan, headlines, tweetstream, etc., precisely on these key words.
  • Rinse.  Repeat as needed.

So within this theory, original content is secondary and it’s not really about marketing either.  You identify hot topics and then engineer your content to perform a precise and technical function. The ultimate goal in this new age of content engineering is not necessarily to engage, inform or entertain. It’s to pump up your search engine results.

Let’s get back to the echo chamber.  One of the master purveyors of content engineering (my term, not his) is a guy named Lee Odden. He’s pretty much the Elvis of SEO and has done some outstanding work in this field.  I don’t know Lee but I read most of his posts because I think it’s important to keep on top of the latest tactics in this arena. Here is his advice from last week:

Social conversations influence search behaviors and if you can identify relevant concepts that are emerging in popularity on the social web, why not create and optimize content around those topics so you’re easily found via search engines?

So the big idea here is to simply copy what everyone else is doing and ride the wave of sameness to SEO glory. This may explain why my blog reader sounds like there’s a scratch in the record.

I have mixed feelings about this. I can’t deny there is a certain ruthless beauty about using statistical analysis to turn your content into those tentacled robots that tunneled through the rock and chased everybody on the Matrix movies.  I’m a capitalist pig-dog and the idea of using data to annihilate your competition appeals to me.

But I also have a soul and I’m in love with the idea of building an audience through content that is profound, beautiful and entertaining.  I think it’s possible to fight through the clutter, engage a meaningful audience and realize business benefits without pre-determining my subject matter through a statistical analysis.

On the other hand, the whole keyword thing seems a lot easier! : )

I’m really interested in your ideas on this important and fascinating trend. Will content engineering kill the soul of blogging or finally drive the measurable results effective business people demand?

** It was correctly pointed out by community member Jeremy Victor that this sentence reads as if  I am fully describing the discipline of content marketing. I was not attempting to do that, I was only exploring this one “keyword engineering” aspect.  Jeremy provides a more thorough explanation of content marketing in his comment on this post. Rather than re-write the original article I decided to address my insufficient description with this annotation. Thanks for keeping me honest, Jeremy.

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  • As both a copywriter and author, I hate it when people spread this kind of dreck around. Writing should be a stream of consciousness, a rational or emotional journey through cascading ideas.

    The idea of finding “hot” keywords and then splicing into a blog or article just seems so manipulative and smarmy to me. And jerky writing filled with this may pull search bots, but will ultimately repel readers. At least thinking ones.

    I’m one of those old school people that believe your content should speak for itself. And experience has proven that to be true.

    The mission of my blog is connecting with people on the pathway of personal growth who are critical thinkers. I never dumb it down, am never afraid to challenge them, and would never insult them with such manipulative tactics like this. The result is a blog that ranks in the top one half of one percent in the world.

    This blog of yours is offers well-thought-out discourse and ideas. Why get seduced by the dark side of the force and start programming to search engines? At the end of the day, the entities that will connect with you and support your work are real people. Write to them and they’ll find you.


  • I have an immediate, negative reaction to the idea of just jumping on the bandwagon and seeding with keywords to get traffic. But I know it’s because I place high value on original, intelligent posts. Also, I find the it irritating to see the same refrains and the same basic ideas regurgitated.

    I suppose if your goal is just to get traffic, you might take the SEO approach. It will probably get you new eyeballs, but it won’t get you respect and probably won’t get you a lot of subscribers/repeat visitors. I think it may also lose you respect, from people who do return to your site only to find there is nothing original there.

    For me, as a blogger, this isn’t an approach I’m interested in. It doesn’t support my business goals, which involve showing that I can do original work for clients that fits their particular business needs, leveraging the current ideas in unique ways to meet their goals. It also doesn’t meet my needs as a writer. I enjoy the challenge and stimulation of coming up with new ideas. I get great pleasure from those ah-hah moments where I identify something nobody else has identified, yet. If my job as a blogger became thinly masked plagarism combined with keyword seeding, I’d quit.

    Thanks for another good post, Mark!

  • When I read concept’s like this – I tend to take the technique to the extreme. I don’t believe that Lee is advocating wholesale keyword stuffing. I’m sure he’s not recommending that we compromise originality.

    So let’s take the high road and decide to see what he could be suggesting.

    Before I write a post, I do research. I look for topics that are popular but need another perspective. Keyword research is a great way to zero in on these topics.

    When I begin writing, I make sure that I speak to my audience. My keyword research informs this process. If a particular phrase is important, I look for intelligent ways to use it.

    When I finish, I tag the post with these researched keywords and place them in my keywords meta-tag.

    Am I keyword stuffing? Nope. Am I playing the SEO game? Yep. This is about balance.

    In the end, my goal is to serve readers. To do that, they need to know I exist. To get on their radar screen I need to attract their attention. For now, SEO is (just) one way to do that. Being smart about keyword usage serves my goal of serving my readers – it doesn’t hinder it.

  • Well – Aol, Yahoo and others clearly believe in the robotic approach and its economies of scale. And others, for example Hubspot, deliver quality, focused content as a way of selling marketing automation tools.

    Personally I don’t think either approach – pure robotic or pure human – is economically viable. If you’ve got something to sell, you need to be *constantly* marketing it and prospecting for new business.

    You can’t grow a business by networking and referrals alone – at some point you *have* to be out there taking business away from competitors. And that, I’m afraid, means SEO and writing copy that helps the robots send people your way. And it probably also means paying for traffic and links.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    @Randy — Thanks for showing up in such an articluate and passionate manner. I’m not seriouosly considering engineering mode. Never even crossed my mind. I write about what interests me! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    @Neicole @Neicole — I thin kyour key point is identifiying your business purpose. There are probably businesses that can benefit from the engineered approach just as many benefit from engagement. I can’t dismiss the legitimacy of this as a strategy for certain situations but I am happy using my head instead of my calculator to compose my posts!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    @Stanford — I could probably learn a lot from you. I agree a balanced approach is a good compromise, and a smart one.

    @Ed — It seems like you represent the more extreme robotic side so I am really glad you offered your opinion to balance the debate. Paying for links is no different from paying for advertisinf I suppose but it doesn’t appeal to me in the least. I guess it depends on what you’re selling. I have a comfortable business, built almost entirely off the social web, and have never even considered paying for a link so that is a foreign world. Your views enrichen the discussion. Thanks!

  • I wouldn’t say I “represent” the robotic side so much as I’ve studied it intensely and think I know where its strengths and weakenesses are.

    But you’re right – one can probably build a comfortable life-style niche business only using social web, or even avoiding all but the free Google tools for registering businesses for local search.

    But I’m not convinced that, for example, a small coffee shop can compete with Starbucks without *some* kind of moderately focused digital marketing campaign. We have lots of social media marketing success stories here in Portland – our food carts are nationally recognized now! But is a “Portland Food Cart Franchise” going to show up in 60 cities nationwide next year and be the “next Wendy’s” or the “next Godfather’s?” Not a chance without robots! 😉

  • Mark

    @Ed — I respect you perspective and experience in this space but would disagree. Let’s use your Portland food cart example. If this company has a great product and serves a niche in the food service industry, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t scale without buying links.

    If you have a product that is creating buzz on a local level, couldn’t you leverage that on the social web to tell those stories on a national level? Are customers of a gourmet street product motivated to buy the product because of lofty search engine results or because the food is convenient, delicious, fresh, healthful and economical?

    Those are all good marketing points of differentiation that can be promoted without bying SEO results.

    I’m really open to new ideas here — I’m a student just like anybody else — but I’m not sure the robotics are always necessary are they?

    It would be fun having this discussion with over you over a latte in Portland, one of my favorite cities!

  • Mark,

    You know I love you, but this post really, really pisses me off.

    Your summary of content marketing is pitiful. You have essentially taken one tactic – keyword analysis and selection – and translated that into the entire discipline of content marketing.

    There are a number of definitions but to me Content marketing is a methodology for developing helpful, useful information that can be used to market your products and/or services during the multiple stages of today’s B2B buying process. From awareness to selection, today’s B2B marketers need content that influences buyers.

    Content marketing involves the development and creation of content to accomplish that, (not just blog posts, all kinds both on and offline – direct mail, print ads, case studies, white papers, ebooks etc) and starts with the creation of Buyer Personas.

    Once you have those Buyer Personas, one of the important steps is learning and understanding the terms those individuals use to search the web to find products and services like yours.

    At that time, you then follow good, sound, SEO copywriting practices in your blog post and web content writing to increase your chances of being found by your prospects and future customers. WHere is the harm in that by the way?

    Now sure there are people doing what you describe – but its certainly not content marketing.

    Someone with such an authoritative voice as yours, is doing a disservice to people like myself (and Lee Odden) who work every day at helping B2B companies understand this new form of marketing that is critical in today’s mobile, social web and how people use it to source products in the B2B world.

    The only thing that needs “Rinse and repeat” is the mis-information you are spreading about content marketing out of this blog post.


    PS I still love you…

  • Mark

    @Jeremy — I love you too. Now, down to business.

    At first I was surprised at your outburst because I thought I had represented this as just one angle of content marketing. The words I used were “one hot concept …”

    However, as I re-read the way I characterized this, I see how my introduction could be seen as an explanation of the entire content marketing concept, which you have more correctly described in your response.

    I’m concerned that I was not clear enough that I was representing just one facet of the discipline and that others will mis-interpret this as you did, especially future readers who do not make it to the comment section.

    So I think in fairness I need to take your point to heart and be more clear in the opening paragraphs.

    Congrats — you earned a re-write Jeremy!

  • Don’t you dare “re-write” this post.

    Jeremy Victor has made his point. As a reader, I am happy to have seen it. Why? Because now I am encouraged to seek out a deeper definition of Content Marketing. I will scour Jeremy’s blog to understand his perspective. I will be a better marketer for it.

    You, my friend, have elevated this conversation from merely an SEO tips post to a sharp discussion about the essence of content marketing. You’ve done it with class and patience. Rewriting your post will only cheat your readers and yourself.

    Thanks fellas. I’m glad I can’t put this debate to bed.

  • Mark

    I didn’t re-write, but added an annotation explaining that my writing was not clear. Think that is the best way to handle it.

    Jeremy was right in that I mis-represented the discipline because my opening comment was too vague. I am happy to admit I’m wrong and correct this because that is the right thing to do. It does not water down my point, but just puts it in a more accurate perspective.

    Thanks for your encouragement, Stanford. I am so happy we have connected. You’re an awesome intellect.

  • Josh


    I’d say in some respects you already do this although you may not be as intentional about it. If you look at several of your previous posts:

    “Can Shirtless old spice guy pull off a marketing miracle”

    “Twitter Time savers”

    “Twitter irrelevant? No Advertising age blew it”

    The mashable post about leaked microsoft photos.

    These are all emerging topics of their day, and stories that were widly covered. The idea that Lee is promoting is writing about topics people are searching for and talking about, but using your own voice and your own perspective. If you were intentional about doing keyword research or “engineering” as you call it I’d bet you get more traffic but the quality wouldn’t suffer at all.



  • Mark

    @Josh — Thought provoking. Am I part of the machine? : )

    Seriously your point is well-taken. I write about what interests me and sometimes that is a current event. I can see your perspective here. Honestly I do a horrible job promoting this blog because I’m lucky enough to squeeze out content every week in the midst of running a business, let alone worry about keywords. But as you point out, I am already employing elements in what I write any way. Maybe I could be more mindful of the keyword strategy. Thanks.

  • Always a gentleman Mark, thanks.


  • Hey, this is a priceless post my friend! You speak directly to an emerging issue with the social web in general. Clutter! At one point, seeing emerging trends about topics based on the amount of discussion around them was important, now it is becoming redundant because many are posting popular topics only for attention, not real insights. Is this becoming the new definition of “spam”? Personally, I can only read so much and look for authors who discuss real issues, not just popular ones. You have built a following because you fall into the former category. When I see the same subject rehashed over and over again, I tend to ignore those authors.
    SEO is a great strategy to help those with common interests find eachother. When it is used strictly to generate traffic for the sake of traffic, it will ultimately fail. Those who follow this path will quickly become redundant and get lost in the noise. To rise above it and succeed, one must be fresh, innovative and challenging. They will use SEO techniques to attract readers based on the value they deliver, not just by riding on the coat tails (quote “echo chamber”)of others. Let’s just let those who follow that path continue to do so and drift into irrelevance leaving more room for new ideas and fresh thinking that will help expand the value this medium delivers.

  • Josh

    @Steve I think that most of what you see is people following the discussion. However, I believe this makes identifying emerging trends even more important (rather then irrelevant) and valuable from a business standpoint. If you are the one who sees the trend building before it happens and are the first in the space, then the entire echo chamber that doesn’t have the energy to write their own unique content will reference you as the source. If you are consistently the first to notice/set trends in your niche and consistently referenced by everyone one in your niche, that will do wonders for your brand, for building subscribers, and building your business. The trick there is to look at the keywords and spot the trends before the conversations have started. If you’re waiting to spot the trends through your Google reader, you’ve already missed this opportunity.

    Also this mass content generation can be viable for different types of keywords, Demand Media and other are building low quality content en mass for very obscure keywords that only get a few searches per month. These keywords don’t generate enough traffic to make it worth anyone’s while to spend hours and hours developing high quality in depth content, so the choice is low quality content that answers what you were searching for or no answers at all to your search. Ehow for example is an incredibly spammy looking site and I would never go there to search for something on my own, but when I search on Google for something really specific they are almost always the only result, and 9 times out of 10 its useful to me. (BTW I believe last year Demand Media pulled in $250Million from this strategy).

    Your absolutely right, if your just rehashing everything everyone else has already said, it’s not going to do you much good, but this strategy can be so much more then that.



  • Mark

    @Steve + @ Josh — Tremendous insights. This has been an amazing discussion so far and I’ve learned a lot! I’m so grateful for the time you’ve taken to add to the discussion!

  • @josh, thanks. We are actually in agreement. Your examples totally substantiate the point. It’s just unfortunate that so many just don’t get it and they are the ones I was suggesting will ultimately become irrelevant.

  • Josh

    @Steve, Agreed as with anything the majority of people latch on to an idea and run with it but never bother to take the time and understand what they are trying to accomplish, the result, as you stated is “clutter”.

  • Mark, you have the talent and perspective to create magnetic content that draws attention with or without contrived keyword placements but I also agree with Jeremy on his view across all inbound media.

    If my business, professional passion and specific expertise are all about commercial construction for example, then the latest technology, labor saving processes, equipment and materials innovations, training and regulations etc. might be my muse. And keywords inherent to those topics would naturally flow within my content. Storylines about problems solved and opportunities seized would also include my primary keywords.

    And as with almost anything in marketing, whether inbound or outbound, it pays to have a strategy. Keywords are no exception. But when you have style and and creative talent (like the two of you do), you know when and where to break the rules to break through the clutter.

    You are both good sports and highly regarded mixed martial artists of social media and B2B marketing.

    When is the rematch?

  • Mark

    @Billy — Thanks for your wisdom on this and I loved your tweet:

    @billiymitchell1 Content Marketing Keyword Cage Match – champ: @markwschaefer vs challenger: @jeremyvictor


  • Mark,

    Great topic for discussion. At the end of the day (from the reader’s perspecctive) it is about rich content and having enjoyed the experience. For the marketer/blogger, satisfying the reader has to be goal #1. Truly connecting with his/her needs brings the reader back and answers important questions: did I learn something by reading this blog? Am I a little smarter for having read it?

    Mark Burgess

  • Mark

    Beautifully said, Mark. Thanks.

  • Surely, anyone who calls me “the Elvis of SEO” has to be a cynic!

    Mark, the tactic of “using statistical methods to determine optimal ”keywords” that, when used strategically in your content, result in “inbound leads.”” you make reference to is called search engine marketing. It’s not just a
    “fascinating trend”, it’s a $14 billion industry that’s over 10 years old.

    SEM doesn’t work by fooling anyone of course, because buyers want solutions, not to click on a search result for one thing and find that the destination page is about another.

    The yardstick of success for marketers who have souls (I have one too and I’m pretty sure your readers do too) is revenue. Compelling content that meets customer needs and educates them about solutions is in perfect alignment with best practices search engine marketing.

    I practice that kind of marketing and it’s resulted in clients earning millions based on a fraction of that investment over the past 10 years I’ve been in business. Many of my peers in the search marketing community have made even bigger gains for large companies with huge websites based in part, on smart keyword research.

    When companies consider hiring a consultant to help them better connect with customers and increase sales, they can pick someone that’s “ love with the idea of building an audience through content that is profound, beautiful and entertaining” or they could pick a consultant that understands searcher personas vs. the language of the copywriter in order to create and optimize content that best meets customer needs.

    I am an optimist about creative marketing and content. I am also an optimist and a realist about the true business impact of search marketing. Your post does a nice job of being profound and entertaining, but far from being truthful.

  • Mark

    @Lee — Thanks for stopping by. I’m grateful you took the time to add to the dialogue.

    Of course I did not call this a “fascinating trend.” I know this is big business and acknowledged that.

    My point that many blogs are starting to sound alike and that one root cause could be keyword SEO strategies seems sound, even within the context of your argument. I appreciate your passion but I’m hard-pressed to see why you think this is “far from being truthful.” It’s an observation. If lots of blogs sound alike, couldn’t keyword jamming be a contributor? If hundreds or thousands of people take your advice and “create and optimize content around those topics easily found via search engines,” wouldn’t that content have a chance of sounding the same? That is the point of the article.

    I sincerely acknowledged your substantial contributions. The Elvis comment was a sincere tribute to your status in the industry. Thanks again for adding your important voice to the topic, Lee.

  • I appreciate your perspective Mark but the point of good SEO is to be customer centric.

    One might say there’s a certain arrogance in thinking that the author knows better than the reader, what the reader is searching for. SEO improves information discovery and user experience. Why make it harder for people to find your content through search?

    As for thousands taking my advice, more than that are already using keyword research and have been for years.

    There’s a built-in incentive to make the best use of keyword research. Sameness doesn’t stand out and standing out is exactly what search engines and searchers look for. Blogs that sound the same, don’t get noticed and either change to be customer/reader centric or fail.

    The observation you make in the post dismisses the creativity that good bloggers (who also do keyword research) put into the content they create. I don’t find it to be a truthful representation of how most bloggers would use SEO.

  • So Lee, are you saying you should write your blog *and* engineer it? Because I think that’s the correct answer. I’ve invested most of my blogging and tweeting time over the past year on the writing part, which, given that I’m an engineer by training, seems remarkable.

  • Mark

    @Lee — I’m glad you recognize the value of balance and creativity in content marketing. I’ve read your blog for some time and that has not been an overwhelming theme. For example on your latest post under the importance of “content” you write:

    “If content can be searched it can be optimized and a well planned digital asset optimization effort that works in sync with social networking and promotions can efficiently get content to those that want it and also facilitate better search visibility. That is the essence of Social SEO.”

    The essence of SEO in this description sounds pretty robotic. And there is a place for that, as long as there is balance.

    While the best bloggers strike this balance between algorithms and creativity, there are also others who will follow your advice precisely. I’m sure you have seen the number of seminars being offered that take this concept to the extreme.

    And by the way, I did not say “most bloggers” are using SEO in this way. You are putting words in my mouth a second time and worse, trying to associate it with a less than truthful representation.
    Not appreciated.

    I don’t want this to devolve into something beyond the simple point of the post and hope you’ll consider…

    1) I recognize the value of SEO and the measurable value it brings to businesses

    2) I recognized, respectfully, your important contribution to the field.

    3) I made a personal observation that keyword jamming might be contributing to the sameness on the blogosphere.

    If you look at the argument rationally and non-defensively, I’m not sure how you can dismiss the possibility that a preoccupation with keyword strategies could be a contributor to many blogs sounding alike.

  • Mark

    @Lee — I’ve been teaching a class this morning and just saw your tweet:

    @leeodden says: I smell stinkbait. Guy calls me “Elvis of SEO” (clearly that’s @derrickwheeler) then degrades the SEO craft:

    Unfair and wrong dude.

  • Mark, let’s keep this simple. You’ve used my name to degrade an industry that you don’t understand and allude that I am endorsing misuse of keywords in content creation. I practice and share tips for creative content marketing and it drives real revenue for me and my clients. I have no interest in convincing anyone that doesn’t get that.

  • Mark

    @Lee It’s not that simple, and I’m mystified by your defensiveness. “Degrade an industry?” Did you read my comment? Not getting it.

    Nevertheless my admiration of your contributions is sincere and I’m hopeful that our next interaction will be more productive. Thanks for being patient and passionate as we’ve tried to sort this out.

  • Pat

    I’m a bit surprised by the emotion and defensiveness in some of the responses to what I thought was a very balanced perspective accompanied by an interesting observation on the subject of “sameness”. I read a lot of blogs and would read many more but this level of quality of insight is rarely there.

    For our clients we focus first on quality writing related to specific known interests and often base it on proprietary primary research to understand what is important to them in a b2b purchase decision – for example. No amount of SEO can overcome mediocre content (which unfortunately is the norm) but extraordinarily tailored valuable content can in some ways overcome poor SEO. The SEO is a much easier problem to fix than the rampant vapid content on the internet. Both done at a high level is an excellent recipe for success because it will definitely stand out from the crowded field of numbingly mediocre content found throughout the Web.

    Excellent post. Thank you.

  • Jim LeBlanc

    I thought this was a thought-stirring post. You didn’t come out against anybody Mark. I’m reading Lee’s comments and am thinking WTF? I do not believe this gentleman even read the article.

  • @Mark, @Lee….you guys are actually in violent agreement here…..the point of this post (unless I’m totally misunderstanding – which has been known to happen-) is that one should not use SEO to derive / engineer / architect the subject matter only to promote it. Just to blog on a popular topic and then structure it for SEO for the sake of drawing attention is a waste (theirs and ours). As Mark has proven over a very short period, you can attract a community with quality thinking that actually feeds on itself. Leveraging SEO to draw more attention to this community makes sense. Using it to dictate what Mark writes about next just for the purpose of drawing attention would such a waste and insult to this (his) community, IMHO.

  • Mark

    Thanks very much for your comments and insights fellas.

  • Call me a trouble maker but I can’t help wondering why @leeodden couldn’t just answer the question that led the whole discussion. “Should you write your blog or engineer it?”
    It’s a valid question and Lee Odden could have answered it without all the attitude whether he considered your opinions snarky or not. I respect you both and think it interesting when two experts I admire disagree. I’m much more low profile than either of you though. So it’s easy for me to say Lee was way too defensive. If either of you were to question me or my approach to business in a negative way, I might go all crazy in response. But I hope if that ever happens, I’ll take a deep breath, think about the opportunity before me, and respond in a friendly, positive and professional way.

    This stuff doesn’t all have to be a mutual admiration society. Good disagreement, debate and discussion makes it interesting. Thanks to both Mark and Lee (and Jeremy) for the debate and I hope you all keep your minds open for further contact and communication. We can all learn from it.

  • Mark

    @Billy – OK, “You’re a trouble maker!”

  • I’ve the utmost respect for Lee, but I just can’t see how the topic “sameness” degenerated to his opinion in the way that it did. I truly hadn’t seen your angle Mark, but I found interesting enough to ponder on it, whether I agree or not, that’s why we have conversations…

    Enjoyed it!

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