SEO and Content: Can SEO drive “viral?”

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?

All posts

  • Gerry Tacovsky

    Mark, that has been my experience, albeit in a much more modest way. My three most popular videos in 2014 should not have been made if I had followed the SEO path. Creating content is like creating products – no-one was searching for iPhones until Apple launched them although there was an inert need for them. This also applies to your “Content Shock” – no-one was searching for it but everyone feeling it. You were able to articulate the problem that resonated with your audience.

  • Thanks for the validation on this Gerry. I am certainly no SEO expert but I am getting a feel for “what works” after publishing consistently for so long. I like the iPhone analogy very much.

  • jackhadley2

    I like the graphic representation of your idea, Mark. One of the difficult things to think through here is how existing reach affects your theory. You have good momentum, with a good following. I wonder if there is a sliding scale of some kind that should overlap your graphic, that takes into account existing reach. Should a content creator just getting started focus exclusively on hygiene content? If not, should it be the primary focus?

  • Great post, Mark! One of our contributors recently tackled this issue, albeit in a slightly different manner, and basically confirms the conclusions you draw here: hygiene and hub content relies on or benefits from SEO because you can monitor success and track the needs of your customers to match the appropriate content. But viral/hero content is elusive because it defies any sort of formula. Here’s the link in case you’re interested:

  • For me, as a professional SEO person, it’s an interesting view and it coinsides with the emphasis Google holds on content rather than links.
    Also I think your definition of SEO is quite narrow, while most well known SEOs define SEO as including social shares, traffic quality, etc.
    As for content to go viral, I’m convinced that you are right. Write for your audience, put great effort in research, editing, proof reading, etc. and you have a unique piece of content which will be shared and eventually it might go viral. I too like your pyramid graphic.

  • Puranjay

    I dig this idea Mark, dividing content into hero, hub and ‘hygiene’ (interesting choice of word).

    B2B marketers have one big challenge though: the platform that drive the highest number of shares – Facebook – is not conducive at all to the content we create. Unless you already have a ton of friends in the field on FB, you likely won’t share a 3,000 word piece on content marketing.

    This limits us to Twitter and LinkedIn (even Pinterest is largely a no-go). I’ve personally seen limited results from Twitter. You have to reshare extensively to see the content ‘stick’

  • Gifford Morley-Fletcher

    Mark, I think you have managed to encapsulate where SEO is going as opposed to what it used to be. Keywords are always important but, on their own, they are not going to automatically get you ranked for the perfect search phrase. And ranking for the perfect search phrase won’t guarantee you traffic on a viral level either. Also, it’s not just about keywords today – it’s about areas of interest – in your case B2B marketing, social media (humanity!) etc.

    What you write will automatically be categorised according to your ‘areas of interest’, even if the relevant keywords are buried deep in the text, rather than highlighted in the title, description, subtitle, ALT text, first paragraph… But you can be pretty sure that there will be relevant keywords in what you write – so that’s covered off anyway.

    What matters, what makes it viral isn’t doing well in search. It’s engaging your audience with great content that they share and link to (which is pretty much what Google says you should do anyway). And – as you know well – if you get lots of links, you do well in search, which can only boost your traffic. All of the above to say that I couldn’t agree more with your thinking. We need to stop worrying about Google when writing – it will just get in the way of high quality content.

  • jmctigue

    I like the idea, but I hope people don’t take away that you should focus exclusively on hero content. For one thing, as you describe, it ain’t easy to create hero content let alone have it go viral. I think a nice regular mix of the three kinds of content is the way to go for a brand. Creating themes or topics that span different types of posts and cross-promote each other is also probably a good idea.

  • Once again, you are on to something. That’s probably much more productive that being on something. It will be interesting to follow along as you continue to develop this framework. Some might argue that results are always going to be different for someone as “connected” as you are (deservingly due to years of commitment, engagement and remarkable content for sure). But I can see how an article could be created for almost any industry or niche that mirrors your “70 Rising Stars” post. It might be “10 People That Will Revolutionize The Dry Cleaning Business” or whatever but it could be just as provocative or magnetic and sharable. The same could be said for “Content Shock” and “A Speech You Will Never Hear Again”. Every industry could use a good shock now and then. And everyone has a truth-telling from the heart speech somewhere inside them. Thanks again for leading and sharing and being a friend. – Proud #GrowTribe Member

  • Mark – with search engine algorithms becoming evermore sophisticated, I continue to believe that SEO is not the horse before the cart; rather, I think that we are going to continue to observe a significant shift in the value that SEO adds to engagement with content. While I am not suggesting that SEO is going away, I am positing that perhaps the association between type of content and value of SEO assumes that the user experience is an homogenized one.

  • Very, very interesting idea. I will have to think about that but off the top of my head, starting out I would certainly work on a combination of hygiene and hub. The business need might determine the ratio. Somebody with a lot of “how to” like Home Depot would have more hygiene. Somebody trying to establish thought leadership would lean toward more evergreen content. Unless you are a big brand with lots of resources, I’m not sure anybody can really plan on “hero” content. I certainly did not : ) Wonderful comment Jack. You made me think!

  • That means a lot Peter. I was hoping a professional SEO would chime in. I do take a holistic view of optimization (I’m not sure I defined it at all here but perhaps implied a definition). Many, many thanks for adding your wsidom to the discussion.

  • All strong ideas. I am working on a new book on this very subject. You are going to love it! I am thinking through all the art and science of social transmission. That is what really makes a business go, right?

  • This comment is a real gift Giff! Very good summary. I still see “Google obsession” getting in the way of content creation. I recently counseled a business owner who has been blogging faithfully under the “rules” of an SEO. She was miserable and bored. I told her to have fun and write about stuff she loves to think about and the first post she wrote under “Schaefer rules” went viral and represented the most popular article in her three years of blogging. : )

  • That is a very good point and I agree 100 percent. I hope people don’t think that is my recommendation! Thanks for bringing up that point!

  • I am smiling ear to ear with that last sentence.

    I think audience building and engagement has to go right along with content creation. In my new book I am actually going to suggest six factors that represent the keys to the content launch code. Can’t wait for you to see the book!

  • Don’t stop there. This is great thinking and I want to hear more! You are thinking about SEO in a very interesting new way here Liz.

  • Thanks Mark, for your kind comment. That makes the score 1 to 5,000+ (with you in the lead) for the number of times inspired! 🙂

  • Having the social connections to put out this content must have played a part. Therefore, SEO and social media engagement must have had to come first in order for this to break the rules!

  • Question, in your chart–what is the numerical difference between the lines? 10, 100, 1000? I’m just wondering if your results are grouped tighter or your HERO posts are actually outliers. Good stuff to think about either way.

  • I think I know what you’re saying here that I had to lay the groundwork for a long time to even have the chance for this to happen. Yes, agreed.

  • The data is not truncated. That is the actual slope with the actual relationships.

  • I totally agree with Liz to. SEO is becoming ‘just’ one of the
    fundaments that you have to work on. After that, what is the quality of your
    message and with what ease do you present it. From search engine optimization
    to user experience optimization (maybe even worth an own hashtag #UXO).

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  • Hello Mark,
    You are surely insisted for an interesting topic. In my opinion, I agree with your theory that a viral content and SEO has not critical relationship that we sometime talk about. However, you should arouse people’s emotions in your content. Moreover, you should create something admirable, but people should keep in mind that should not exaggerate and not to brag.

  • Yaser Arshad

    I landed on this page by doing google search which means I had the same doubts about importance of SEO from page to page and case study to case study. Reading your post has cleared my doubts and am relaxed that I am on the right path.

  • Thans for adding your thoughts Sudipto.

  • Thanks for reading my blog Yaser.

  • I always thought there was no relationship between SEO and content going viral.

    The content has to be good in the first place. I’ve just recently started a blog and I wanted to know what was the SECRET to content going viral. It has always fascinated me.

    I’m starting to think that the only real secret is to care about what you are writing about because if you care than probably other people care but you just don’t know it yet.

    You have to tap inside of yourself I think and find what matters to you.

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