It used to be that as long as you wrote long-form, valuable content on a regular basis, you could do well at content marketing.
Unfortunately good content isn’t enough anymore.
The SERPs are getting more competitive, and the marketplace is turning into a winner-take-all battle to the death.
Here’s what the latest content marketing studies can teach us about ‘good’ content and why it’s no longer going to get you the results you want.
1. The battleground is overflowing
On average, four million blog posts are published daily. With so much competition, it’s becoming nearly impossible for your content to be seen.
There are millions to billions of search results for even the most absurd keywords on Google:
“Good” content isn’t enough to make your post the one-in-a-million (or billion) articles that earn a coveted spot on the first page in SERPs. After all, only the top ten make it onto page one. At most.
Back in 2015, Moz reported a significant spike in the number of SERPs showing fewer than ten results.
And this trend hasn’t reversed.
But wait: does it matter if page one is only showing 5–7 results instead of the usual 10? If your article is ranking in position 8, you’re probably screaming, ‘Hell yeah!’
While, in reality, it’s not going to make much of a difference. Because over 95% of people click on one of the first five results:
So, if you’ve been competing to get on the first page, you’ve been wasting your efforts. You need to be within the top 5 results. Which takes a lot more than just good content.
Optinmonster recently shared the ten most important SEO ranking factors for 2019.
When looking at the list, it’s understandable if you start to feel a little excited about your chances. After all, the first three ranking factors (site security, page speed, and mobile friendliness) are all fairly easy to meet with little to no technical or SEO knowledge.
Unfortunately, it starts to go downhill from there. It’s nearly impossible to gain the links and social signals required to rank in the top positions on search results.
Research from Moz and Buzzsumo indicated that 75% of blog posts received zero links and fewer than ten shares.
And it’s only gotten worse over the last four years. Much worse.
Today, according to a study by Backlinko, 94% of all blog posts have zero external links. 94%!
That means only 6% of the content being produced earns even a single backlink.
And your chances of getting multiple backlinks is even less likely. The same study shows that only 2.2% of posts earn backlinks from more than one external website.
Yet the top SERP spot holders have acquired thousands of links:
Competition is fierce. And the newer your site is, the more you’re at a disadvantage.
No one is going to link to your post unless it’s the best of the best.
That means content that: is audience and intent driven, has compelling copy, and covers a wide variety of subjects.
Sure, these types of articles might have been good enough in the past. But these days, all the experts agree that anything surface level isn’t going to make the grade:
It’s no wonder that bloggers are relying more and more on paid traffic and influencers to help them reach their audience.
According to research conducted by Orbit Media, the number of bloggers who pay for website traffic has increased by 322% in the last five years!
These days, only the top 1% of 1% will ever show up in the top five SERPs.
And that’s not even the worst part…
2. Click-through rates are abysmal
We’ve already covered that 95% of click-throughs go to the first five results in SERPs. Which is bad enough. But just how closely did you look at that graph that I shared?
Let’s blow it up for easier viewing:
Over 30% of CTRs on a desktop go to just the first SERP result. And that rate gets cut roughly in half as soon as your article slips just one position. While things are mildly better on mobile devices, it’s still a shockingly steep curve.
By the time you’re in third place, you’re only getting a third of the click-throughs of first place.
At this point, you may be so depressed by the competitive SERP environment that you’re thinking about your other options. After all, SEO is far from the only way to get your content out there.
Maybe you’re willing to put your money into paid ads?
Well, that’s no guarantee that your content will be seen either. According to WordStream’s latest survey, the average AdWords CTR is 3.17% for search and 0.46% for display ads.
Both these averages are higher than when the survey was first done in 2016. But the average cost per click has also gone up over that period. Which brings us back to the insanely competitive battleground.
You could opt for social media ads instead. But the competition is just as fierce there. Acquisio reports that the average CTR of a Facebook Ad ranges between 0.5%–1.6%.
What about email marketing?
This option is marginally better, with an industry average CTR of 7.06%, according to Constant Contact.
But of course, you need to account for the insane reduction in potential reach. Since you’ve now gone from a SERP or social media audience in the 6–7 digits to a small mailing list. Even with the right lead magnets, your list is probably only in the 4–5 digits.
Wait, what about video content? Cisco reported that 82% of all internet traffic will be related to video content by 2021. And as a newer development, it should be less competitive, with better results, right?
Video marketing is already as saturated a market as blogging, if not more so. Companies are already dominating with video, and first to market advantage for it was lost years ago:
People already watch a staggering hour or more of online video content every day. And video-based ads have skyrocketed by 95% in the last few years.
Andrew Chen coined a special name for this CTR problem: the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs.
Back in the early days, even mediocre content got noticed, because there was very little competition. Skip ahead to 2011 and CTRs had already dropped to alarmingly low levels.
Check out Andrew Chen’s display ad example:
And as he predicted, CTRs have continued to decay.
3. The game is rigged
We’ve already talked about the fact that Google is reducing the number of SERPs on page one. But we didn’t talk about what those organic results are being replaced with.
Enter the Knowledge Graph.
The knowledge graph was created by Google to answer people’s questions without making them click on a result to find the answer.
In other words, you’re now competing with the house. And the house always wins.
A recent study conducted by Moz reports that 40% of search results now end without a single click.
Which means that 40% of people have got their answers straight from Google, without ever having to click through to your website or anyone else’s.
And that percentage will only continue to grow.
Back on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, Google started experimenting with zero-result SERPs where organic search results were entirely removed from a small number of keyword searches such as the one shown here about the time in Seattle:
The experiment was halted less than a week later. But it is still an important omen of what may come.
And we shouldn’t be surprised since this has been Google’s primary objective since Day 1.
All that hard work for almost zero real content consumption, and therefore, no brand awareness or development.
I’m not trying to suggest that SEO will disappear. Far from it. After all, Amazon and Voice search both equal SEO.
But we need to start looking at SEO and content in a new light. It’s no longer just text. And it’s no longer even static. Content is becoming more conversational, both through voice search and chatbots.
This is just yet another sign that SERPs have become winner-take-all markets. And ‘good’ content is not enough to survive. So what makes the cut? What is better than “good enough” in today’s market?
Let’s cover a few examples of how companies are standing out.
Check out this customer service resume article by Freshdesk. It covers multiple subsections and targeted keywords in the customer service space. This is a great start. Then, it delivers with detailed content and a free PDF to drive big-time on site and user satisfaction, all while building their brand:
Want to produce better content? Stop settling for mediocrity. Drive value through depth, content upgrades, and understanding what the user wants to see.
Another stellar example is from SpyFu, a competitive analysis tool. In a blog post about SEO audits, a topic that has been covered more times than you can probably count without going crazy, they vastly improved their value. How? First, they added a table of contents for usability:
But that was just a minor step. Then, they took usability to the next level and created a video showcasing how to do it for visual learners and those that want to follow along:
Finally, they were responsive in the comments section answering any and every inquiry:
Want better results? You have to go the extra mile as SpyFu did. That means better-formatted content, more formats to consume it, and responding fast.
Content marketing can still provide significant results for your business. If it couldn’t, people wouldn’t still be creating millions of blog posts every day.
But in this hyper-competitive market, with no barrier to entry, anything less than extraordinary will languish in obscurity.
If your content is not amazing, unique, or controversial… don’t bother. Because the odds are literally stacked against you in almost every way possible.
You’re fighting an uphill battle. Where you need to be the one in a million to get noticed.
Guest author: David Zheng is the Founder of Growth Wit and Wisemerchant and the Head of Growth at BuildFire. He specializes in growth and content strategies to help influencers, eCommerce brands, venture-backed startups, and Fortune 500 companies grow their traffic and revenue online.