For years, I’ve heard dozens of search engine optimization (SEO) hacks claim that the “quality” of an article is by far the most important factor in whether the content climbs to those coveted top three positions. “Write the best post, and then you’ll rank,” they say.

This attitude is, at best, a gross oversimplification of the time, effort, strategy, money, skill and teamwork that decides who wins the search competition. At worst, this aphorism is arrogant, dismissive and condescending. If only the first three results are the most well written, the implication is that every other article has inferior writing quality.

Writing Quality Vs. Optimization

When you punch in a keyword on a search engine, click a result and start reading, you’re most likely evaluating the page by asking yourself these questions:

• Does the content give me the information I’m looking for?

• Is the content easy to read and understand?

• Does the content seem accurate and trustworthy?

• Is the content interesting?

These elements are part of what we think of as writing quality, and they impact our experience in ways search engines can measure. When articles are engaging, we read longer, click more and scroll deeper than we would on a boring piece of content. Google then knows exactly how long you were on that page, where you clicked and whether you made it to the bottom.

Optimization, however, is only for robots, not readers.

When you browse an article, are you determining its value by counting how many times a certain word is repeated or mentioned? If someone added a line with some keywords to that article, would you feel like its quality increased dramatically?

Of course not. You most likely wouldn’t even notice these tweaks.

Think of quality and optimization as a Venn diagram. In the overlap section, there are editorial components that impact both reading experience for humans and optimization for search engines. On the left side there are technical issues only Google cares about, and on the right are measures of quality only a reader would be able to appreciate.

Another difference is that quality is almost completely subjective. You might think the viral article your co-workers are raving about is actually vapid and overrated.

On the other hand, machines decide optimization, and they are much more objective than we are. Each search engine company has preferences and biases, but their bots crawl every page the same way.

What SEO Is Really About

I find that there are seven factors that determine SEO success, and we have already covered two of them: writing quality and optimization. Here are the others:

Link Building: The more people link back to an article, the higher its chances are of moving up the rankings and driving a ton of traffic. Even if barely anyone clicks on those links, they are gold to search engines. One quality link has the potential to blast a piece from page three to page one.

The Source Of Content: When a website has a high domain authority, it has a huge head start in the SEO race. Google will give credence to an article from The New York Times, for example, over a niche blog with a few thousand subscribers.

Time: SEO is all about the long game. With many keywords, I’ve spent entire seasons gradually building links, optimizing, promoting and testing. It’s so satisfying when, after so much toiling, you watch your blog post claim that top spot. Whether you have that much time to spend is dependent on this next factor.

Money/Teams: More money means better SEO tools and a bigger team of people working on all of the above. At one company I worked for, I was part of a team of 10 full-time people and dozens of freelancers who focused primarily on SEO content. I didn’t have access to our budget, but I assumed we spent at least $50,000 a month, which is a lot for content marketing. The results were undeniable, though. In only two years or so, we passed a million page views a month. Try hitting those numbers with a one-person team.

Luck: I’ve written dozens of articles that landed in those top three positions, despite a complete lack of optimization or SEO strategy. If I didn’t attribute those results to luck, I’d be giving myself way too much credit.

How Much Does Quality Matter?

I would enjoy SEO so much more if it was as simple as pouring your heart and energy into writing the best article. Because of my love for the craft of writing, I aim for that height anyway, and I believe you should do the same.

Nonetheless, the reality is that quality is only one ingredient, and it’s not more important than the other factors. There are thousands of uninformative and bland blog posts that rank well for keywords because their owners have spent time and money on link building and optimization.

SEO is a competition of strategy and perseverance, and that’s OK. We don’t need to cling to this idealistic view that the contest is about proving who the better writer is. Winning based on hard work should be more than enough for bragging rights.