Search Marketing

Viral vs. Shareable Content: An SEO’s Perspective

July 8, 2014

“Viral” and “shareable” are two words that are sometimes used interchangeably in the digital space, but – as a recent Social Media Today article points out – they are not one and the same. This is true when it comes to measuring social impact, and perhaps even truer when it comes to meeting SEO objectives.

Viral content is content that spreads rapidly, much like how a virus might in real life. Shareable content is just that, content that is capable of being shared with few barriers to entry. With these definitions in mind, viral content is therefore a particular type of shareable content.

Content marketing can serve many purposes. For most social campaigns, the goal is to create or enhance relationships and drive word of mouth. Content marketing can also achieve long-lasting results for SEO that will help a brand stand out in organic search listings. The SEO impact of effective content can take time to build momentum (remember: results in the engines aren’t immediate), but it can be quite powerful once it takes hold.

Viral vs. Shareable Content

The article referenced above touts content marketing’s triumphs when it comes to creating shareable content tailored to specific groups of people who will be inspired to take a specific type of action. Viral content, on the other hand, is difficult to leverage for specifically targeted audiences or outcomes because of its disruptive, seemingly random nature. It’s easy to fall for the seductiveness of viral content (who wouldn’t want to achieve mass exposure overnight?); but for most brands, shareable content should be the answer. To borrow Andy Warhol’s trope, viral content might provide “15 minutes of fame,” but building a foundation on shareable content allows for building sustainable momentum.

This stance also applies to SEO efforts that include content strategy. While viral content might achieve a sudden surge of buzz, it’s limited by a lack of precision. Viral is great for generating sudden interest in a brand or that brand’s particular offering. However, viral is not great at sustaining that interest.

Here’s an example to illustrate this point: Imagine that you are sitting in a cafeteria and suddenly Anthony Bourdain shows up out of nowhere with a fantastic plate of hors d’oeuvres. This might be exciting, even memorable. Maybe you got an autograph or a photo with the world-renowned chef. But when he leaves, he’s gone. There was no lasting relationship created.

Creating Shareable, Sustainable Content

Organic search programs necessarily begin with a clear end goal in mind: to drive more site traffic that results in business outcomes for marketers through higher rankings in the engines. Thus, it’s advisable to begin with the clear understanding that people use search engines to find answers to their queries, satisfy their curiosity or perform a specific action they have in mind.

Content marketers can set their programs up for success by considering search behaviors (seeking answers, researching possibilities and performing specific actions) before choosing their preferred execution. Getting in front of the right user at the right time requires a working knowledge of how effective each form of content might be for achieving the desired result.

There is a fallacy some marketers hold that content marketing is a quick-win form of direct marketing. However, much like SEO, content marketing is not all about converting a user on their first visit. It’s about building a relationship and earning trust with the end user of the information. That momentum may eventually result in a conversion but it goes a long way in establishing the brand’s authority: both in the mind of the user and, if the information is shared (i.e. “endorsed”) enough, that of the search engine.

360i recently worked with Scotts Miracle-Gro to create shareable educational content such as How to Grow Tomatoes from Seed that integrates popular sharing buttons for both Facebook and Twitter. And working with Kraft, another 360i client, we created shareable recipes with Pinterest and Facebook sharing buttons integrated within the content. In an increasingly connected world, these earned social endorsements are quickly becoming the “new link building” for SEOs.


SEOs are part of the content marketing family because they seek to identify and correct gaps based on what users actually search for, and what they are both able and unable to find on a brand’s website. Viral content seems random, disruptive and less targeted. Unless a user has heard about it, they aren’t searching for it. Shareable content is therefore the future of SEO content as it seeks to provide lasting value and build relationships between brands and customers.

Brands should think about these three things when deciding what type of content to share:

  1. Who is the audience with which I want to connect? Answering this question will help determine where the content will be shared by your brand.
  2. What is it that I want them to do? Answering this question will determine how you measure success.
  3. What is the best format (article, infographic, video, etc.) to provide engagement and long lasting value to the user? Answering this question will determine the execution.

Michael Dobbs, Group Director of SEO at 360i contributed to this report.

Cover photo via The Atlantic