Jun 10, 2013 · 5 minutes

During the last five years, many of the most successful content sites have been associated with -- or pejoratively accused of employing -- search engine optimization (SEO).

The term itself is as common as it is murky. The gist is that most people find content they want using Google, and so if your website’s content is appealing to Google, then you will attract more visitors. In the last year, sites like BuzzFeed have succeeded with "Social Optimization," basically the same concept, only for Facebook instead of Google.

Still, the premise for all successful media sites continues to be that they have "cracked the code" on how to get Google and/or Facebook traffic. And given that those two sites are basically the highway on-ramps to the Internet, it is accurate to say that visitor growth depends highly upon them.

And, yet, those who attract a lot of search or social traffic tend to incur the wrath of “real journalists” (regardless of whether such haters are actually real journalists).

Famed sports blogger Will Leitch recently said, “We're mad not because Bleacher Report is inherently terrible, but because it always felt like they were cheating. They got huge and popular through internet tricks…”

Will Leitch is completely wrong, but that is nonetheless the image of SEO.

Those who have not succeeded in attracting lots of search traffic perceive SEO as some sort of Voodoo-like mix of cheap tricks and time-tested secret methods. There have always been rumors that the key to SEO is rooted in HTML tags, headline keywords, and a bunch of other tactics.

But that’s entirely incorrect.

The Google search algorithm is so sophisticated, and the number of sites that stack keywords in their headlines is so great, that such methods would never trick Google. Not even a tiny bit.

And, so my good reader, let me tell you what the real “secret” of SEO is. Let me tell you exactly how to reach millions of readers -- a method that, if replicated, may lead to you building the next Huffington Post...

[Drumroll, please.]

The secret of SEO is to... create content that people want to read. That’s it. That is the deep, dark secret.

Will keywords and HTML tags give you an edge? Probably not. Because everyone else uses them too.

The difference between a site that attracts 1,000 search visitors per day and one that attracts 1,000,000 search visitors per day is that the latter will create content that people actually want to read, and the former will create content that people do not want to read.

“But Bryan,” you may be asking, “my website creates content that people should want to read. How come I get so little search traffic?”

Are you sure that your site creates content that people want to read?

It took Bleacher Report many years to understand what sports fans truly wanted to read. And once we did figure out what sports fans wanted to read, a veritable litany of “real journalists” decried our success at it. Why? Because they were angry at the American public for having tastes and preferences for stories that they didn’t want to write.

Traditional journalists picked their story topics by holding a finger in the air and guessing at what a reader should want to read about. Or they simply disregarded what a reader may want to read. If a writer determined that the best story to write was a profile about Cambodian youth baseball leagues, then he simply wrote a story about Cambodian youth baseball leagues. Even if nobody was going to read it.

In contrast, Bleacher Report employed facts and statistics to better understand what resonated with our own readers (which were basically the American public at large). And we found that very few Americans wanted to read about Cambodian youth baseball leagues.

Not every story was determined based on data. But many were. And, that is the way it should be. Because, the truth is, everything else has always worked that way.

Do you really think that Hollywood greenlights a $100 million summer blockbuster without doing extensive research into the potential audience and the film’s appeal? Do you think that real estate moguls build shopping malls in towns before doing extensive data analysis on the local market? Do you think that VCs invest in hot startups without scrutinizing the TAM (total addressable market)?

Sites like Bleacher Report and Huffington Post simply did the same exact thing that any professional would do. They made informed decisions on a very large scale. How did Huffington Post know what Americans wanted to read? Well, that is their secret. But you wouldn’t expect John Doerr to tell you how he is able to figure out markets so presciently.

Never mind that film studios, book publishers, and music studios have been doing this for decades, it was evidently earth-shattering when a few digital publishers applied it to politics or sports coverage.

Why? I have no idea.

But I can tell you what is so earth-shattering about it from a business standpoint. It was the micro-attention to detail. Film studios create relatively few movies, and so they can afford to research a project before committing $100 million to its production. The same is true with book publishers. But business people had always (incorrectly) assumed that to do so for a tiny newspaper article was overkill.


You can perform market research before producing a $100 million film, and you can perform market research before producing a 1,000 word article on Barack Obama. In the past, news publishers were simply unable to even try.

So, if you or your loved ones want to master SEO, then I advise you to quit stuffing keywords into your content, and start trying to figure out what stories your potential audience of one billion English-speaking readers want to discover.

It should only take you five or six years, so long as you have dozens of editors. And, that, ladies and gentlemen... is the deep dark secret of SEO.

[Image Credit: jinterwas]