Search engine optimization is based on two concepts: relevance and authority. Without great content, your site will possess neither the relevance nor the authority required to rank well in organic search.

Words are everything online. Websites would have no basis for existence without words. Even something as visual as a viral meme relies on words to make it funny and give it the relevance needed to go viral. Video also requires some form of textual wrapper – at least a headline – to help the user decide if they’ll bother watching it.

Without words, search engines would have absolutely nothing to base relevance on to determine which pages to rank – and which ads to serve – for each search query.

Relevance drives search and words create relevance … which means that only content can be king in SEO. But what does that mean to SEO in practical terms?

Twenty years ago, optimizing content for relevance in SEO meant cramming in as many exact-match keyword phases as possible – even if they weren’t relevant to the rest of your content. Sites listed scores of completely irrelevant but highly searched keywords on their pages – or hid them in various ways so that the visitor couldn’t see them but bots could.

At the time, search engines determined ranking solely based on keyword usage. People who sold used car parts or life insurance might optimize their sites to rank for the vastly more popular keyword “viagra.” It drove tons of traffic to their sites, none of which converted. However, analytics packages 20 years ago were also less advanced, so it wasn’t always possible to determine (outside of common sense) that nothing converted.

Thankfully, search engines have evolved their algorithms to understand contextual relevance – entities that are related to entities – ending SEO’s dependence on exact-match keywords. Writing keyword-stuffed copy doesn’t drive organic search value today, and customers won’t stick around to read it.

Instead, contextual relevance depends on using keywords, and keywords related to those keywords, to form topic clusters. These clusters provide greater assurance of the meaning behind the content, which Google (in particular) uses to rank its search results.

For example, an ecommerce site that wants to rank for “rechargeable batteries” should also talk about battery sizes and brands, common devices the batteries power, and the material that powers the batteries, such as lithium ion. These concepts make up the topic cluster for that keyword topic, and ranking will be difficult without addressing them.

However, as powerful as creating great content that’s well optimized for a topic cluster is, we need links from other sites to bestow authority upon that content.

In order to consume your content, people either have to know that your content exists, or click on a link to it. Maybe that link is on your homepage, or another site they like. Maybe they see it in an email blast or on social media. Relying solely on Google to send you traffic through organic search results, when it doesn’t even know your great content exists, does not work. Hence the need for links from other sites.

Search engines assign value to your content based on the links your content receives, especially links from other sites. When another site values your content enough to link to it, search engines use that information as an algorithmic authority signal that searchers would also find your content valuable.

As more sites that the search engine considers valuable link to your content, the authority signal grows stronger.

Continuing to produce great content helps others determine that your site is valuable enough to link to. Thus, everything returns full circle to the importance of great content. It provides the value that people want to share with other people through links on their own sites.

Content provides the relevance and generates the authority that search engines need in order to deliver relevant results to searchers. That’s why content will always be king in SEO.