Technical vs. Engagement SEO: The What, Why, and How of Modern SEO

Search Engine Optimization


An effective SEO strategy leads to increased organic traffic, more qualified leads, better brand awareness, and—ultimately—increased revenue. If your SEO program isn’t providing all of these benefits, you may be allocating too much time to the wrong tasks. It’s time to revisit your strategy.

Because SEO has changed a lot in recent years. Veterans of the early days will tell you horror stories about keyword density and link farms. It worked for a time, but it was all about technical prowess to manipulate Google’s systems.

Those days are over—and good riddance—because Google has gone to great lengths to interpret user queries, monitor engagement with SERPs, and decipher online content, all to provide the best answers at the top of search results. And they’ve done it. Google’s algorithms are extremely sophisticated, which means it’s time for a new framework for SEO.

A Modern Framework for Effective SEO

At Propecta, we recommend that SEO strategies use an 80/20 framework. 80% of effort should be devoted to engagement SEO—creating quality content—and 20% to technical SEO.

That doesn’t mean technical SEO isn’t important. It’s the foundation of all SEO efforts. But once that foundation is solid, the focus must shift to engagement SEO.

If your SEO strategy isn’t driving revenue, it’s time to revise your approach and refocus efforts on the tasks that move the needle.

Building a Sound Site Foundation with Technical SEO

Technical SEO focuses on optimizing site code. It creates the foundation that allows search engines to find and catalog site content efficiently, and render pages correctly. Without clean, optimized code at its core, a site may not appear in search results at all—much less rank well—making any content marketing efforts ineffective.

For this reason, certain technical SEO tasks must be addressed first:

  • Crawl Issues:  Crawl issues prevent search engines from accessing and indexing site content. This issue is commonly caused by incorrect formatting in a robots.txt file, unintentional use of noindex tags on content, server limitations on crawl rates, or redirect loops. To find out if your company’s site and content is being indexed, conduct a search for “site:[yoursitename.ext],” and make sure the pages appear in the results.
    find technical seo issues
  • Rendering Issues: Rendering issues occur when site code prevents search crawlers from viewing all page content and components—often the result of heavy JavaScript use. To make sure search crawlers can see all the page content, use the Fetch as Google tool in Google Search Console, and make sure Google renders everything that’s designed to be on the page.
  • Unintentional 404s: Sometimes, a page is intentionally deleted, and a 404 error (page not found) is fine and appropriate. Unintentional 404s are commonly caused when 301 redirects aren’t put in place after page URLs change. Review 404s in Google Search Console by expanding “Crawl” and selecting “Crawl Errors.” Create 301 redirects for any URLs that should point to new locations.
    find 404s in google
  • Slow Page Load Speeds: Pages that take too long to load negatively impact search rankings and create a poor user experience. Use GTmetrix to test site performance. It will provide performance grades and a prioritized list of recommendations for improving load speeds.
    gtmetrix dashboard page speed
  • Google Penalties: If Google has taken a manual action on your site, all SEO efforts will be worthless until the penalty is removed. Penalties are commonly issued when Google believes a site has been hacked, has a high amount of user-generated spam content, or an unnatural backlink profile. Check Google Search Console to see if penalties have been applied to your site (Search Traffic → Manual Actions), and take immediate steps to remedy any issues.
    google penalties seo
  • Mobile Usability:  The site must display and function well on mobile devices. A bad mobile site negatively impacts both rankings and user experience. Use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool to find out if your site is optimized for mobile. If it’s not, it’s time to invest in a site redesign.

With these foundational technical tasks complete, it’s time to shift to engagement SEO work. Other technical tasks—such as those suggested by a machine-run technical SEO audit—can be addressed iteratively so as not to exceed 20% of total SEO efforts.

Driving Real Value with Engagement SEO

Google’s top three ranking factors are content, links, and RankBrain—all of which are addressed via engagement SEO.

Thus, while the goals of SEO are commonly defined as improving rankings and increasing organic traffic, those goals are impossible to achieve if SEO is a primarily technical strategy. Instead, a modern SEO framework prioritizes engagement SEO to help brands build a library of content that’s the most helpful, engaging, and popular. It’s this focus on quality that leads to high organic search rankings.

Content: The Vehicle for Effective SEO

Creating quality content may fall under the responsibilities of the content marketer, but providing a definition of quality is the responsibility of the SEO. Defining the aspects of quality that lead to high rankings and increased engagement is achieved with keyword and user intent research—the process of mining search results for user intent insights that simplify content planning and enable optimization.

Keyword and user intent research allows SEOs to define:

  • What questions users are asking when searching for specific keywords.
  • Which personas are more likely to search for specific keywords.
  • Where users are in the buying journey when searching for specific keywords.
  • What formats of content are preferred for specific searches.

In addition to user intent research, it’s the job of the SEO to decipher RankBrain’s preferences for the company’s industry, audience, content, and/or the specific keyword group. This requires turning a trained eye to organic search results in order to pick out which of Google’s ranking factors RankBrain is prioritizing.

With this information, SEO can provide writers and editors with detailed roadmaps for creating content that engages users and—as a result—earns high rankings.

Links: Engagement and Authority Must Be Earned

From there, SEOs can assist with content promotion—which is much more than simple link building. SEO content promotion seeks to get content in front of as many eyeballs as possible, and build relationships with industry leaders.

Links can’t be “built” the way they used to. Google is highly protective of being spammed with low-quality, purchased links. Earning authentic links in the modern SEO landscape means building relationships and earning backlinks with high-quality content.

RankBrain: Always On

Finally, SEO isn’t a one-and-done approach. RankBrain—the portion of Google’s algorithm that refines search results in an effort to consistently provide the highest quality content to searchers—is always on and always working. What defines quality today may change six months from now. So another major aspect of engagement SEO is monitoring analytics for trends that signal content needs to be revisited.

It’s these tasks that drive true business value and create the kind of high-quality, popular, relevant content that search engines want to deliver to users. For that reason, engagement SEO tasks must encompass the bulk of effort allocated to an SEO program.

The What, Why, and How of Modern SEO

An effective, modern SEO strategy uses an 80/20 framework, dedicating the majority of effort to tasks that boost engagement. While technical SEO forms the foundation for optimization, it’s engagement tasks that ultimately earn high rankings, boost brand awareness, and drive revenue. I often say that technical SEO is what gets you on the playing field, but engagement SEO is what moves the ball.

Brands that are struggling to achieve success with SEO should take the time to audit their approach. If more time is devoted to technical tasks than engagement tasks, consider if those technical tasks are foundational. If they’re not, shift focus away from low-value technical tasks, and dedicate more time to working with other marketing areas to improve the quality and visibility of site content.