The Future of B2B SEO is Audience Development

The Future of B2B SEO is Audience Development


SEO is well regarded by B2B software executives and investors, and has been for the last 15+ years. Despite SEO’s reputation for being difficult to measure and a moving target in regards to Google’s rules and guidelines, it is also praised for being low-cost compared to paid media, and when done correctly, it can generate steady traffic and qualified pipeline with minimal ongoing effort.

The enthusiasm some have for SEO, whether B2B or consumer, is now misplaced. This is mainly due to an outdated understanding of what it takes to make SEO work and the costs behind scaling it up. From my perspective as an agency owner, organic search is no longer the low effort and low CAC channel it was even five years ago.

The SEO bar has been raised, and it’s become a game where only publishers, big brands (both business and personal) and well-funded startups can compete for high-value commercial terms.

Why is it just a game for established juggernauts and fast rising stars? Why is capturing market share in organic search harder than ever? Because the internet constantly matures and internet user expectations around content quality rise as a result. That means that the playbook of writing 50-500 articles targeting valuable search terms in some hidden corner of your marketing site, or auto-generating 1000s of pages with public data sets or product data, isn’t as surefire as it used to be.

In order to win in today’s search landscape, companies need to evolve beyond executing SEO tactics in a silo and pretending as if the path to purchase is a simple linear clickstream from SEO article, to solutions page, to demo request, to closed-won account.

Marketers need to move beyond assuming getting clicks from generic search terms will yield revenue on its own and adopt a mentality of using SEO to build a loyal audience. SEO still very much has a place in the modern marketing playbook, but if everyone now knows how to do it, and generic SEO text can be auto-generated by AI, how can you set your company or brand apart and win?


Why Has SEO Gotten Harder?

Before we talk about what it takes to win - let’s outline why search is now very tough for newer sites and companies. There’s four main reasons why search has gotten harder:

  • The link graph has matured and created moats for incumbents

  • Google knows what users want - and gives them exactly that

  • Popular AI-powered SEO tools encourage carbon copies of existing content

  • Expectations in content quality have increased.


The Link Graph Has Matured

Links are a primary factor in ranking - you can read more about “the why” here. Back in ~2008, when I started in search, getting links from other sites was easy and acquiring links had a direct and immediate impact on your search engine rankings.

As Google updated its algorithm to combat sites trying to game the system, getting links from other sites became more difficult and costly. Eventually Google got pretty good at figuring out what sites represented a legit business with a real world presence and what sites were a pure SEO play propped up by spam and garbage content. In the early 2010’s the pure-play SEO sites (i.e. type domains) started dropping off the first page of Google and being replaced by brands with a real world presence and technical and on page SEO basics covered.

The sites run by real companies that have been competing in the search results for 15+ years have steadily earned links due to ranking (or “passively generating links” as some of my peers would say). When you rank well for a term, other writers find your content and link to it in their writing. This perpetuates a “rich get richer” scenario that has only made it harder for new sites to obtain search traffic over the years.

Example of the rich get richer SEO paradigm:

Here’s a screenshot from the popular SEO tool, Ahrefs, showing what pages rank for the search term “project management software”:



The right most column that’s outlined shows the count of different domains that link to each result. The least linked page that ranks has 228 different sites linking to it. In order for a site to reach even the bottom of page 1 for “project management software” in Google, immense amounts of promotion, resulting in acquiring dozens or hundreds of links, would need to occur just in order to compete.

Sure, you could strategically avoid competitive terms like this and stick with low competition opportunities that yield less traffic, or try and pick emerging topics that will pick up volume over time and eventually become valuable - but that doesn’t change the fact that the incumbents own the lion’s share of search traffic today and unseating mirrors David vs Goliath.

The link graph of the internet itself has matured, and the effort level required to just catch up with your competitors has been turned way up over the last decade.


Google Now Knows What We Want & It Gives It To Us

In 2013, Google released the Hummingbird update. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was one of the biggest changes in search that I’ve been witness to. Here’s how Wired described it at the time:

"Rather than just examining each individual word in a search, Google is now examining the searcher’s query as a whole and processing the meaning behind it. Previously, Google (and most other search engines) used more of a “brute force” approach of looking at the individual words in a search and returning results that matched those words individually and as a whole. Now Google is focusing on context and trying to understand user’s intent in order to deliver more relevant results and better answers."

Google shifted away from just matching words in your search query to words on a web page, to attempting to understand what the words in a search actually implied the user was looking for. This ushered in the age of search intent - where the users goals, and how well you helped them accomplish those goals, played a role in determining how your site ranked.

Before search intent mattered, you used to be able to rank for broad, high traffic terms with transactional landing pages. Once search intent played a role in ranking, and you had to consider the experience search engine users wanted to have (vs what action you wanted them to take), brands and marketers had a lot less of a say in the format and substance of content they wanted to rank. Google became a key decision maker on editorial web content.

The need to meet search intent changed content creation for SEO. Teams stopped being able to write what they wanted to publish, and instead had to factor in what a general audience wanted from Google search.


New AI Tools Push For Carbon Copies of Existing Content

A wave of affordable (non-generative) AI powered SEO tools hit the market a little over 5 years ago. These tools, most notably, ClearScope, MarketMuse, and Surfer, can find and analyze content opportunities and tell you what common ideas you should bring up in your content that search engine users (and Google) likely expect. They will even grade the “quality” of your content in relation to a specific term. They do this by analyzing the 20-30 top ranking articles and determining the ideas discussed and the questions they answer. They then push users to create content that’s very similar to what’s already ranking.

I was an early adopter of this software - to say the tools worked well in 2016 is an understatement. They worked absurdly well and answered the question “what do we need to publish in order to rank” at scale.

Fast forward a few years and now everyone is using them, and getting the same (or very similar) suggestions on how to write and update their SEO content. The tools provide a crutch for non-experts to spin up low quality content that clogs up the search results with 3000 word articles that don’t actually say anything.

Just like the link graph has increased, the topical graph has increased. Google doesn’t take chances, it wants straightforward answers to questions on websites that cover topics in depth in a straightforward manner.

To a certain extent, SEO requires mimicking what’s already there, but the topical analysis tools have pushed content creators too far and it has resulted a feedback loop that generates increasingly generic content.


Internet Users’ Expectations Have Increased

15 years ago, having a blog was a hip new thing. “Brand as publisher”, was a buzzy term a lot of business folks started throwing around at that time too - but few brands were actually publishing that much content. What they did publish was pretty bad because the bar for internet content was incredibly low.

Fast forward 15 years: audiences have seen it. All of it. And now many of them are sick of it. Very few search engine users want a 40 minute deep reed on “budget vs actuals”, they want to get the information they are looking for as quickly as they can while putting in as little effort as possible.

Long form, smart, thought provoking content still has a place, but it’s not in the search engines, and it’s definitely not in “The Ultimate Guide to [Category]”. Readers no longer want ultimate guides. We want content in novel engaging formats that allow for quick consumption and an enjoyable learning experience. More importantly - most modern internet users definitely don’t want to read bad writing and rehashed ideas from a list of 10 best practices that were mostly lifted from other sites. For now, these rehashed low quality articles still rank fairly well, and I think this is why we are starting to see articles talking about the death of google.

The average internet user’s expectations around content and online experiences have increased greatly, and with that, has come an ability to recognize and strongly dislike content that exists purely for SEO.


How Can B2B Companies Stand Out in Search?

So to recap. Search is now harder than ever. Internet users don’t particularly like or trust content designed to rank in search, and incumbents are almost always going to have the upper hand. So how’s a B2B company supposed to compete in organic search?


Audience Development, Not Raw Value Extraction

As search and content has evolved, so has the B2B buyer journey. Very few qualified buyers will Google a category of software they need, explore the search results one by one, find a site they like with messaging that resonates for them, and then sign up for a demo and buy the product without considering other options. That’s just not how people buy (and it never was).

Every visitor from search isn’t a chance for a sale, and marketers need to shift their mindset away from viewing every visit that doesn’t convert as a miss. Clicks from search should primarily be viewed as an intro to a new audience member with a goal of earning their email, not earning a meeting on their calendar. The goal for SEO shouldn’t be to get them to buy right now, it should be to get them to follow along to the point where buying your product isn’t just a possibility, but the only path they consider taking.


Focus on the Tactical & The Tactile

I’m in the camp that whatever content could shift to video results in Google, will. You’re already seeing it with some consumer topics:



And some developer and knowledge worker topics as well:



If the content you are trying to rank can be turned into a video and be easier to digest than a text based version, chances are that is the format that will rank in Google eventually. In order to stand a chance against video (and losing traffic to YouTube) marketers need to give audiences value. That value could take the form of being a one of a kind, unique, and insightful expert (this post by Jason Lemkin from SaaStr is a great example), so that audiences give over their email and opt in to more content, because they can’t get that info anywhere else.

Or marketers need to provide an explicit exchange of value, like a template, playbook, webinar - that is also unique, and helps them solve real problems in their job, so they happily hand over their email and ignore the free, general, surface level videos that tend to rank on page 1 of Google.


Amplify Messaging, Positioning & Strategic Narrative

Search is a tool that surfaces answers to user questions. The questions can be simple or complex, single part or multi step, but if someone asks “what is website personalization” there’s only so many ways you can answer that question and still have it meet searcher intent.

In order to make the opportunity worthwhile, SEO content should be viewed as a chance to broadcast your brand’s point of view on a topic, to work in your messaging, and if possible, position your product as a way to solve the problems being discussed - and not just to provide an answer to “what is [search term]?” that takes up 1200 words of text.

That’s what will help your content spread. Generic answers to general questions are a fast path to low or no ROI with organic search in 2023. To make search work for your brand, you have to approach it in a way that is unique, authentic, and true to what your company stands for.


Fight the Generic, Champion the Authentic

It’s clear that search is more competitive than ever, but I want to be direct and say that B2B SEO is far from dead. If anything, it’s about to go through a renaissance. People can create blog posts with a prompt and a click thanks to ChatGPT, or grade all their content automatically to find topical gaps and low performing content… but all that advice, all that AI automation and streamlining - it will push marketers towards being average and it lacks any original ideas or expertise.

AI tools and SEO best practices have changed the way web content is written and edited, but your team doesn’t have to follow the same path (and get lost in the noise). Think about it: if straightforward answers to questions with no editorial point of view were what internet users actually wanted – which is what most SEO content resembles – the Associated Press would have the biggest audience on the planet and Fox News and MSNBC wouldn’t have a business.

People don’t just want information; they want a lens that distills things down for them according to their worldview and existing biases from a voice they trust. When using a search engine, people aren’t so much looking to learn new things, but more to get reinforcement for the way they want to continue to operate and think. That’s where you and your team can stand out from the crowd in the search engine results pages, by having something unique to say.

Right now is the time for marketers with original thoughts that are willing to take risks to reinvent the channel and approach SEO as a brand-first audience development initiative instead of a standard and generic SEO play.


John-Henry Scherck | About the Author

Owner, Growth Plays

John-Henry is the owner of Growth Plays and resides in Sherman Oaks, CA. He consults, advises, and invests in world leading and world changing B2B technology businesses. Follow him on Twitter: @JHTScherck


The Future of B2B SEO is Audience Development

In order to win in today's search landscape, companies need to evolve beyond executing SEO tactics in a silo and pretending as if the path to purchase is a simple linear clickstream from SEO article, to solutions page, to demo request, to closed-won account.

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