I get lots of questions about content marketing and how it can be improved using SEO (Search Engine Optimization). I thought I would take a moment to capture the advice I give for the questions I get asked most often on this topic.
Since there are a lot of questions that are tangentially related, I broke this post up into three main sections:
- Process & Strategy: Structure, Style, Tone and Keyword Research
- Measurement: Success Metrics, Performance Reports, Quality
- The million dollar question – How does Google rank content?
Grab a cup of something piping hot. Holly’s advice starts now.
Process & Strategy: Structure, Style, Tone and Keyword Research
Q: How do you determine the style and tone of voice for a piece of content?
Q: Which tone or style have you seen to be most successful in past projects?
It might sound obvious but a conversational style and tone where correct grammar and punctuation are used (obviously) without sounding like a robot or where the author is writing just to obtain search engine rankings really does resonate with human beings.
In terms of what’s most effective, I’ve found educational, helpful content that solves the user’s problem is the best approach.
It takes a bit of testing and iterating but after researching what people search for that’s related to a the main topic (i.e. “weight loss” or “home entertainment system”), answering the questions that are being asked is the most effective way to provide useful, relevant and informative content.
Solve real problems. Build trust. Sales will ensue.
Q: How do you decide which content topics to focus on and what format that content should take?
Since I always advocate a customer-focused approach, the smartest thing to do is to start by listening to what consumers in your market want. You do this by getting an understanding of the kinds of content that’s already ranking in Google when you search for your core topic. According to Google, that’s what consumers want to see.
The other variables that help you decide what to focus on are: keyword seasonality, average monthly search volume. You want to align these to your business priorities in terms of the resources you have to optimize existing content versus spending all your time creating new content. It’s faster and easier to improve upon content you already have.
For format, think about how you can make your branded content the most relevant to what consumers are seeking (this is called matching search intent). Does that mean providing a video? Maybe listing steps in a guide? This takes research and examination of the landscape digesting what’s ranking and using that information to improve your contributions.
More on format, it’s helpful to bucket content into two main types so the intent of your pages is clear:
- Informational (educational in nature and intent)
- Transactional (which is more product focused)
In this way, your page is designed to either capture rankings for organic searches (i.e. “best queen mattresses”) when consumers are in an awareness and consideration stage. Or it could be to gain rankings for product pages focused on transaction-based searches (i.e. brand+mattress: “Serta mattress”).
Many brands try to create content that gives shopping tips & ideas. Start by performing keyword research to see the data that’s available on a term especially the estimated monthly search volume. If you pay for an enterprise SEO tool, you can easily get this type of data. Alternatively, one of the best “free” tools available is to sign up for a Google Adwords account. This will require you to enter some form of credit card information but you don’t have to buy ads; you’re there to do research. Just be aware that your cc info is on file.
Some enterprise tools also show Seasonality data (i.e for a fluid term like “flowers” it’s at its peek in January/February due to the Valentines day holiday). This is helpful to know because it indicates the time of year of when your content is going to be the most relevant to someone searching for it online.
It also indicates when teams should begin refreshing content for upcoming seasonally relevant searches. Especially helpful if you manage an internal content team or external writers as part of your content resource.
Here are a few quick ideas of the places I check when I’m researching the landscape and brainstorming the kind of content that will be most effective. The process involves researching metrics using several free & paid tools:
- Identify missing topics and search intent using tools like AnswerThePublic.com and Moz Insights.
- Check the Google SERP to see what questions appear in People Also Ask boxes.
- Identify the first 20 short head terms related to the topic which have a significant search volume (no lower than 1K) and a second list of another 20 terms which are long tail terms. Prioritize these as tier 1 and 2.
- Check Buzzsumo for trending topics related to the category page for opportunities to provide content competitors are not covering.
Ideally, your research and methodology needs a combination of qualitative and quantitative data. You’ll be manually evaluating the quality of your competitor’s content and using data to improve your own pages.
Q: What is a good process for proofreading?
Q: Can you describe a process for creating and updating style and copy guidelines?
My process is largely based on ensuring the content meets the user’s intent and provides value: it solves a problem with information or provides a solution that solves the problem a human is experiencing. Bottom line, if the content is not useful the searcher will go elsewhere. There is so much “noise” online so the most effective content must deliver value.
A good process for creating or updating style and copy guidelines is similar to a gap analysis (what’s missing from our competitor pages that you can talk about) is to reference the Google Quality Rater Guidelines. Google began publishing this information in 2013 so that more webmasters would have a blueprint for what Google considers to be quality. One of the key elements is a component called E-A-T. Online content should demonstrate Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness. It’s worth downloading a copy of the PDF and looking through it on a Sunday afternoon building the insights into your style guide to share with broader teams and writers.
Q: How would you structure a content calendar to compete with a brand’s main vertical competitors?
Q: What is the process of a competitive analysis to identify gaps and content opportunities?
Broadly speaking, every business has three main types of competitors that they compete with for consumer attention. It’s helpful to think of classifying these as:
Here is a framework for you so you can begin to group the brand names and think about a mini business SWOT analysis against your main vertical competitors:
|Direct Competitors||Indirect Competitors||Informational Competitors|
|(physical retailers who offer similar products to your store’s main categories)||(vertical retailers who sell similar categories your brand also sells, some may be online-only)||(these are websites that publish content from a non-retail source on how to buy things your brand sells)|
|brand name 1
brand name 2
|brand name 1…etc.||brand name 1… etc.|
The process for structuring a content calendar to compete with your brand’s vertical competitors takes time. Quite honestly, it’s a topic for another post. At a high level, though, it starts with research to establish a baseline of these components:
- keyword topics
- a gap analysis of competitor pages on a URL-to-URL level basis to determine the type of content that will be most effective against competitive pages and holds value to searchers.
- prioritizing internal and external resources and identifying where your brand wants to invest in building out value-based content that inspires customers.
- determine baseline performance KPIs you want to see from the published content. This will inform where and how you make future optimizations on underperforming pages.
- building measurement dashboards using a combination of KPIs that account for user engagement and rankings.
The key to this strategy is to prioritize improving existing content so that it delivers a ton of value instead of pumping out a bunch of new content that first has to get crawled and indexed and might not give enough value. An editorial calendar designed around quality and location based searches is a unique advantage against competitors that think the answer is quantity and volume.
Onto the second question of addressing the process of a competitive analysis to identify gaps and content opportunities. In a nutshell, here are the high level components:
- identify your main topic keywords; the pillar content your site wants to rank for.
- include several long tail search terms.
- assess the search intent by analyzing the top 10 organic results (5 if you have less time): are people seeking guides? how to pages? Are tips and lists surfacing most? The goal is to get a sense for the format that people want to consume content.
- manually access how difficult it would be to rank via on page factors; what content does your page need to outperform the one that’s ranking?
I will say this, trying to rank for high search volume terms (i.e. 20K+) is largely a waste of time. For most brands, it’s better to adopt a keyword strategy that lets you create content around core terms, long tail searches that drive specific intent, and questions your brand can answer succinctly (hint: b/c Featured Snippets & Answer Boxes are as good as Position 1 of a paid search ad but you obtain them organically – $free.99, people).
Measurement: Success Metrics, Performance Reports, Quality
Strap in. These are some of the more hard-to-define questions.
Q: What makes content/copy “successful”?
Q: How do you know if content has performed well or not?
Q: What are the types of measurement for success analytics?
It depends 🙂
Content success metrics can be defined in many different ways. That’s the good news. The bad news is, there are many metrics to choose from.
Like any goal, the best ones clearly define when success has been achieved. They’re SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
Content is successful it’s when measured against the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) you develop as your guideposts for what you want the content to achieve based on what’s important to your business and within a designated timeframe. For e-commerce sites especially, this is a balance of improving on-page content to generate revenue and improving organic rankings.
Simply put, that could mean “these 20 product pages that receive the most organic traffic in a given month will be successful if 3 out of 5 visitors makes a transaction.” Or, “these four category pages that each have a total of 10 non-brand keywords will ideally rank for upwards of 200 terms after we make the on-page optimizations over these next four weeks.”
See how the SMART framework gives a bit more definition to the term “successful” by making things measurable?
Here’s a small framework for thinking about and identifying qualitative, vanity metrics and quantitative, data-driven ones. Aim to have three total using a combination of these two types:
|Vanity Metrics||SEO Metrics|
|(These are more indicators of quality but are hard to measure b/c they don’t directly translate to contributing to a goal like sales)||(These are data points are quantifiable b/c they have a number)|
I know, it’s a lot. It’s helpful to determine your success metrics using a balance of qualitative input and quantitative data.
Q: After you have published your content, how would you promote it?
One of my favorite examples is from GaryVee: How to Grow and Distribute Your Brand’s Social Media Content. It’s is a reverse pyramid where one piece of long form “pillar content” (like a video, infographic, powerful keynote or interview) is created and then repurposed by social teams into smaller pieces of content and distributed across the primary social media platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Quora in a way that’s contextually relevant to users on each platform.
Seriously, re-read that last part. Contextually relevant is key to getting attention and engagement in social. No one wants to see the same message across all their platforms, that’s when your brand starts to get tuned out because your message looks like a mass media advertisement.
It’s important to continually test and evaluate which pieces of short-form content are resonating best on each of the platforms. Story features are different from IG to IGTV to FB. Keep testing in order to get the best headline that resonates with your audience.
The Million Dollar Question – How Does Google Rank Content?
Q: How does Google rank content?
Without a doubt, that is the million-dollar question.
Google has upwards of 200+ ranking factors that it uses to evaluate which 8-10 organic links get to appear on page 1. If everyone knew how Google ranked content, they’d be doing it. That’s why we have to stay curious and be aware of the clues in the data we have and structure of the SERPs.
The search engine giant doesn’t make a habit of announcing when and how it updates its algorithm but when it does, it’s usually around improving the quality of content in order to continue providing the best user experience.
There are specific content guidelines published in the Quality Rater Guidelines. Google is especially critical of websites whose business is to help people make decisions that impact their health and finances; Your-Money-or-Your-Life content (YMYL). It’s also scrutinizing what constitutes “quality” where websites are a known online authority for having topic Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness (E-A-T) in their field.
Now, quality is even harder to measure than “successful content” because there are many factors involved. But if you’re like me and always looking for some kind of baseline, I have heard other SEO’s comment that it’s measured in links and mentions. Basically, what other authoritative websites say about your brand.
Q: What are Google’s primary algorithms relevant to content/copy writing?
Q: What doesn’t Google like in regard to content? What types of bad content practices could lead to removal or suppression in search results?
Q: Alternatively, what does Google like in content/copy, which makes it rank well in search results? What are a couple of best practices for excellent SEO and optimization for users?
Q: What tools are used for finding keywords, content opportunities and topic analysis to enhance SEO?
There are a few things to unpack here. The primary algorithms related to content are Panda and I would also name the more recent the quality updates in March, April and August (confirmed by Google) as part of their broad core update. Seems Google was busy in 2018.
Google’s Panda update was first released in February 2011. The change targeted “low-quality sites” or “sites with thin content” pushing them farther down in search results page. In particular, “content farms” lost rankings and higher-quality sites became visible near the top of the search results.
Second to making money, Google’s goal is to provide the best user experience. Pages that rank on page 1 are there because they’re considered to be relevant to the query and meet the user’s search intent.
Google does not reward pages with content that misleads users. This is what’s known as “black hat” tactics that are designed to lure people to your website. These are some of the bad tactics that lead to getting a manual penalty from Google:
- publishing malicious, offensive or inappropriate content
- phishing scams
- having too many advertisements on the page
- having intrusive pop-ups that cover the main content and are especially annoying on smaller, mobile screens
- thin or low quality content
- keyword stuffing on pages
This can all be avoided by creating high quality sites in line with demonstrating Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness relevant to the industry you’re in. Karma exists online too, folks. Do right by each other.
What other kinds of content does Google like to rank? Images! In fact, according to a recent study by Spark Toro, “Google Images accounts for more than 20% of all queries American performed in 2018.” Demand for images in the SERP is huge and that’s where Google is putting them (instead of under the “Images” tab).
Lastly, in regard to tools, there are some great enterprise SEO tools on the market. The big three are BrightEdge, Conductor and Searchmetrics. Other paid tools I use regularly for topic analysis and data on search volumes are Buzzsumo, SEMRush, Moz, STAT Analytics. I also love referencing free the website Answerthepublic.com to get a sense of how questions are being asked.
Don’t forget, the Google SERP itself is a fantastic place to identify trending content and opportunities: People Also Ask (PAA) boxes, Related Searches, and predictive searches all provide a great resource for writing content based on what. people. search. for.
The bots are going to think I’m keyword stuffing, I say it so much 😉
Q: What are some good ways to get other people to link to your content?
It sounds really simple but the key is to invest the time to make YOUR content great and worthy of being shared. Great content is memorable, helpful, insightful, inspiring, funny – it resonates with your audience. It can be hard to quantify but if you research the questions people are asking and see what information competitors are putting out there, you can fill the content gap with your content that’s better than anything else out there.
The second side of this coin are the tactics you deploy to promote your great content. This is a combination of leveraging off-site channels like as micro influencers on social media, drumming up authentic PR, and creating email marketing campaigns.
Last tip: Make sure your most fabulous content lives on your domain (.com); there’s nothing worse than driving traffic and eyeballs to a place that’s not owned and managed by your brand.
Q: Can you briefly describe best practices for internal linking and benefits for SEO?
Links are votes of confidence on the web. Internal links help visitors find content that’s related to the reason why they’re reading your blog or browsing your site.
Best practices for internal linking gets into taxonomy and site hierarchy. A few top level things to include are:
- submitting XML and HTML sitemaps to GSC so crawlers have a roadmap of all your site pages
- evaluating and creating unique anchor text enhances the link value
- running crawls on the site to evaluate which pages are strongest and should therefore link out to other internal “weaker” pages.
The benefit of having a clean, internal linking structure is an SEO benefit in two ways. Firstly, it helps search engines to crawl and index the most important pages of your website (very important when you have thousands of pages). Secondly, it contributes to a good user experience because it means humans can easily navigate your site finding and consuming content they’re interested in.
If you’re still reading, I love you. You deserve a cookie. Definitely a good stretch after consuming so much (great!) content. 🙂
Now it’s over to you: What did I miss? What is your $0.02 and feedback for me? How would you answer these questions differently? What was helpful or sparked some ideas for how you’re navigating SEO and content production?