Thought Leadership and SEO: 5 Ways Thought Leadership Drives Rankings

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You hear it in marketing meetings all the time.

Q: Why are we doing content marketing?

A: Thought leadership

Thought leadership is that often discussed, but rarely defined marketing goal.

To learn what people mean by the term, we partnered with Survey Monkey and Mantis Research on a survey. We asked 481 marketers about thought leadership and came up with a new and improved definition of thought leadership marketing, based on the majority of responses…

Thought leaders clearly communicate challenging new ideas, back them up with data and have a strong point of view.

And these were the nice-to-haves…

Thought leaders are likable people who publish consistently, get mentioned by others and don’t shy away from controversial issues.

You can immediately see the relevance to search engine optimization. Search is partly about relevance (ideas, data, points of view) and partly about authority (mentioned by others). Relevance and authority are the foundations of SEO.

But not all thought leadership helps SEO.

Here we detail five ways thought leadership directly impacts search rankings. You can draw a straight line from the actions of thought leaders and the impact on links, PR and rankings.

Note: You’ll notice that these go beyond the actions and outcomes of typical content marketing. Most content marketing programs don’t employ any of these five strategies. 

1. Publish strong opinions

53% of survey respondents said strong opinions are essential for thought leadership.

I once attended a conference where Seth Godin gave a short presentation. It was excellent. I was the first to raise my hand during the Q&A. I couldn’t wait to ask him for his perspective on thought leadership. Here’s what he said:


Seth Godin, sethgodin.com

“Thought leadership always creates tension. It’s about making assertions and you have to be willing to be wrong. You can be certain that people will disagree.


In other words, thought leaders take a stand.

This is the key difference between thought leadership and regular content marketing. Thought leaders don’t just publish how-to articles. They share their perspective. They publish opinions. They challenge the status quo. They may even embrace controversy.

Experts are everywhere, but true thought leaders are rare.

3 qualities of thought leadership

How does taking a stand affect SEO? Here’s one example:

Jason Fried was fed up. Jason is the founder of Basecamp and when he searched for his company in Google, he kept seeing ads for his competitors. So he finally decided to do something.

He created his own ad, calling out Google.

Then he tweeted a picture of his new ad.

Then 13,000 people commented.

jason fried twitter
Soon, the media picked up on the story and covered it. Within a few weeks, 1000+ websites had written a story that linked to the Basecamp site. This including many high-authority news media sites.

press spike in links

Jason wasn’t thinking about SEO when he tweeted his ad, I’m sure. He was just frustrated and he decided to make a very public statement.

But that SEO impact is real.

And it’s possible only with this kind of strong perspective.

MSNBC doesn’t care about your last blog post. WSJ doesn’t think your how-to article is newsworthy. But Jason’s David-and-Goliath story is something else entirely.

Most brands really don’t want to take a stand. They’re uncomfortable with op-ed content. They’d run from anything controversial and leave “opinion” out of their content mission statement. That’s fine. But that’s why thought leaders are different.

Do you need to be controversial?

No. You can trigger a strong response without taking on a big social issue. There are plenty of mundane topics that people feel very strongly about. No one stays on the sidelines when these topics come up…

  • The Oxford comma
    I’ve seen bar fights over this. Broken bottles. Police. It’s scary.
  • Y’all
    Is it an improvement on the English language, finally giving us a second-person plural pronoun? Or are y’all committing a grammar crime?
  • Blog post dates
    Every time I recommend removing dates from blog posts, people get really worked up. It’s weird.

blog post dates

If you’re not ready for controversy, look for a safe topic that triggers strong reactions …then pick a fight in your next post. It may not be thought leadership, but it’ll start a conversation.

That’s the idea: make something worth talking about. Something remarkable. If you make something remarkable (worthy of remarking on) it’s also link-able (worthy of being linked to).

Three actions:

  1. Ask yourself these questions before you write your next post: What questions are people in my industry afraid to answer? What do we believe that most people would disagree with?
  2. Write something that gives people a new perspective.
  3. Simply make stronger assertions in your writing (omit qualifying statements)

2. Publish original research

60% of survey respondents said research reports are effective thought leadership content.

Expertise is essential for thought leadership, and research establishes expertise. Conducting research is the shortest path to building a reputation as an expert.

Original research is a categorically different type of content. It is one of the few formats that makes a website the primary source of new data.

And new, original data is far and away the most link-worthy content. If promoted well (here’s our playbook for promoting original research) it can attract an incredible amount of links and authority, because it can support the messages of other thought leaders and publishers.

Original research was central to the Content Marketing Institute’s content strategy from day one. Take a look at the top linked-to pages on their site:

original research CMI
Take a look at the so-called “backlink profile” for any site with a content program that includes publishing research. You’ll see something similar.

Probably, online tools are only URLs that are better at attracting links. Of course, creating original research is easier than building a tool.

Michele and her team at Mantis do research-driven content marketing all day, every day. She has a tip on how to make a bigger splash with your next report.

Three actions:

  1. Ask yourself, what do people in my industry frequently say, but rarely support with evidence?
  2. Conduct a study that produces a statistic that supports that common assertion (find the missing stat)
  3. Conduct a study that produces a myth-busting, unexpecting statistic that creates buzz.

3. Write a book

32% of survey respondents said authors make the best thought leaders.

Like original research, books are special. As a format, they automatically qualify as “big content.” Books hold a special place both in the mind of the audience and in search engines.

There’s a long list of reasons to write a book. SEO isn’t usually on that list, but there are direct search-related benefits.

As with research, book pages are link magnets. Whenever the author gets mentioned, a mention of their book usually isn’t far behind. When this mention is on a webpage, it’s often a link.

Links to book pages appear everywhere.

  • Guest post author bios
  • Podcast show notes
  • Bibliographies in scholarly articles
  • Contributor quotes on blog posts

Here you can see a book link in the author box of Andrea Fryrear, co-founder of AgileSherpa, below a recent guest post for Content Marketing Institute.

author box example

The key is to make sure the book has its own page on your website and when possible, link to this page, not to the page on Amazon. You can even do a little link reclamation to turn unlinked mentions and links to Amazon into links to your site.

It’s worth it. The SEO value is real.

links to book pages

Books also officially make the writer an author, a special designation within Google, often reflected in the knowledge panel when you search for that person’s name. Writing books has a big impact on personal SEO.

Both “books” and “authors” can be tagged with schema markup, sending the signals to search engines that make the knowledge panel more likely to appear.


Authors also get a page on Amazon’s Author Central, from which blog posts can be posted, linking back to other content.

amazon author central example
When a book gets cited in an academic journal, it may get picked up by Google Scholar. This is really a separate search engine, but results sometimes appear in Google Search. Authors whose books have citations in Scholar can create a profile page, which can link back to their website.

google scholar

Three actions:

  1. Create an outline of all of the topics and subtopics relevant to your content marketing. (Ask yourself, have you covered all of these yet in your writing? Or are there gaps?)
  2. Start organizing your past and future work into a structure that can eventually be adapted into a book.
  3. Track your lifetime body of work (aka, your LBOW) to keep yourself organized and motivated.

4. Contribute to other websites

This is the most direct SEO benefit of thought leadership. Every contribution to another website is a mini-press hit with a combo of little benefits: exposure to a new audience, social media mentions, potential referral traffic, and of course, a link.

Here are the main ways in which thought leaders contribute to content. Notice how they vary in costs (time) and benefits (exposure, visibility).

contribution chart

Each of these, even the roundup, may also be a chance to strategically mention (and link to) specific articles.

A clever contributor finds opportunities to link to the almost-high-ranking articles on their own site, passing authority to the posts that benefit the most from a link.

We’ve listed the complete step-by-step process for finding the lowest-hanging SEO fruit, but here’s a shortcut. Turn on an “organic traffic” segment and check the Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages report. Use a comparison date range and you’ll see exactly which posts have declining search traffic.

landing page report GA

It’s usually (but not always) because of a drop in rankings. A link from a contribution may help. So look for ways to reference these pages in any contribution you make to any other websites.

Three actions:

  1. Build a list of bloggers and editors who contribute to content on high-authority websites.
  2. Reach out, ask them to collaborate on the content you’re creating. Invite them to contribute a short blurb from them in your latest research report.
  3. Make sure they know you’re available to contribute to anything they’re working on.

5. Give presentations

28% of survey respondents said public speakers make the best thought leaders.

Conferences and summits, association meetings and webinars. Thought leaders can often be found on stages, giving inspiring keynotes. Speaking at events has a lot of potential benefits, but can it help SEO?

Yes, in several indirect ways.

  • Speaker bio pages attract links …and can be search optimized
    Event websites often link to the websites of the speakers, often to the speaker’s bio itself. Combine these links with some keyphrase-focused web copy and you have an opportunity to rank for the “[topic] + speaker” keyphrase. This feedback loop creates more speaking opportunities.

speaker serp page

  • Presenters often get mentioned in event round-ups
    Beyond links on the event website, attendees sometimes write round-ups that mention the speakers and link to their websites.To catch unlinked mentions, set up an alert for the speaker’s name, then reach out for a bit of link reclamation. Here’s what it looks like:

linkedin message

  • Presentations can refer to rankings
    This one is a bit sneaky, but we’ll share it anyway. If a presentation touches on an article that already ranks, the speaker can simply tell attendees to go search for the article. It sounds like this:“Everything I just explained is in an article. You can find it by simply searching for [keyphrase].”

    Within seconds, some attendees will take out their phones, search for the phrase and click on the article. Others will make a note to do it later. Anyone who does is unlikely to quickly hit the back button.

    This sends a positive user interaction signal into Google. Google sees that people searched for the phrase, clicked on the article and then stuck around for a while. That’s good for the future rankings of the article.

“Let’s take a bunch of 80 year olds to Burning Man”

Lynne Katzmann, Founder and CEO of Juniper Communities, is taking a stand against ageism. She wants to remind us all that life can be as vibrant in your 80’s as in your 20’s.

To prove it, she set up camp in the Nevada desert together with 18 of her residents at the famous, (sometimes debaucherous) festival known as Burning Man.

Naturally, they had a blast.

Naturally, when you bring a group of octogenarians to a week-long art party in the desert, people notice, people write and people link. And in this case, they linked a lot.


We were working with Lynne at the time. I talked to her about search and links and how Google works. She listened carefully and understood everything. Then she went back to making waves in her industry. She wasn’t thinking about SEO. She’s not concerned with links, mentions or shares. She was taking the lead on an important topic.

Thought leaders drive SEO outcomes, not by thinking about search, but by being leaders. By sharing perspective, setting agendas and challenging the status quo.

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About Me

I am hands-on senior-level business professional with twenty years of experience- the bulk of that experience being within the marketing and advertising side of business, I follow that with over ten years of operational experience, in addition to a very extensive technical background which combined with these three areas make me a force to be reckoned with. 

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