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  1. Keyword Research: The Ultimate Guide for SEO and Content Marketing

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    keyword research the ultimate guide to seo

    Table of Contents

    + Introduction to Keyword Research
    + Keyword Research for SEO
    + Topic Research for Content Marketing
    + Other Keyword Considerations
    + Tools for Keyword Research

    When you search for information, you enter specific words and phrases into a search bar. Google (or a similar search engine) then fetches results based in part on site authority, but mostly based on the relevance to that given query.

    If you want to be successful in SEO, you need to understand what people are searching for, how often they’re searching for it, and why they’re searching for it.

    So how can you find this information? It all starts with keyword research, the process of uncovering keyword opportunities for your brand to rank higher in search engines.

    Introduction to Keyword Research

    Let’s start by covering the basics of keyword research. The concept, as usual in the online marketing world, is simple, but the execution is more complex; essentially, you’ll be discovering what types of queries online users are using in search, then using that information to optimize your pages in a way that makes them more likely to rank for those queries. But it’s not as simple as you might think, as keywords no longer work the way they used to.

    The Old Model of Keyword Research

    The old model of keyword research was quite simple, as Google’s search algorithm was relatively simple. It functioned on a one-to-one basis, separating a user’s query into its base components and finding where those components were featured most throughout the web.

    For example, let’s say you searched for the phrase “burger restaurant Denver.” Google would separate this query into keywords and keyword phrases, then look for pages throughout the web that featured these specific words and phrases. It wasn’t quite as simple as finding out which website used these words the most, because authority was also taken into some consideration, but it was close to that.

    Google might have taken a look at a page that features the phrase “burger restaurant” multiple times, as well as “Denver” a few times, and might have prioritized a site that featured the exact phrase “burger restaurant Denver,” in the text of the page, even though that phrase never naturally comes up in actual human conversation. Google did rely on synonyms, but again, only in a one-to-one relationship.

    The Old Model of Keyword Research

    Because of how Google worked, the old model of keyword research was based on finding these common keyword phrases, even if they were semantically nonsensical, and sprinkling them throughout a site. For example, you might create a page on your site titled “Burger Restaurant Denver” specifically to rank for these types of queries, along with variations of that phrase, like “best burger joint Denver” or “good burgers Denver.”

    The Hummingbird Update and Golden Age of Content

    Google fought back against such unnatural-looking attempts at ranking higher in search engines for these types of search queries with various algorithm updates, including the monumental content-focused Panda update in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2013 that the fundamental keyword basis of Google search was overhauled with the Hummingbird update.

    Hummingbird introduced the concept of “semantic search,” which looks at the context of a user’s search query rather than its exact keyword composition. Hummingbird sees a query like “burger restaurant Denver,” and is able to infer that a user is looking for a burger restaurant in Denver, Colorado. It then scours the Internet for websites of actual burger restaurants in Denver that have a high enough authority to rank for the query.

    That authority is calculated based on literally hundreds of factors, but in this case one of the highest factors for a local restaurant would likely be its reviews and ratings on review sites like Yelp.

    hummingbird update

    Notice how, in the screenshot above, that none of the results have the keyword “burger restaurant denver” anywhere in them.

    This difference may seem small, but it’s made the entire concept of keyword density –once an essential component of keyword optimization – practically obsolete. You don’t necessarily have to include the phrase “burger restaurant Denver” in your website at all to rank for that query, as long as Google understands that you’re a burger restaurant in its semantic deciphering of your content.

    This, along with Panda’s (another Google algorithm) favoritism for high-quality content, has helped to spawn our modern “golden age” of content.

    Well-written, quality, valuable on-site content gives you more opportunities to establish relevance for topics related to your brand, and cover a wide range of different potential searches.

    Okay, So Are Keywords Still Relevant?

    After reading this, you might think that keywords are no longer relevant. After all, Google no longer takes them into consideration when trying to match a query to a selection of pages. However, this isn’t quite true; keywords are still important for consideration, just in a different way than they used to be.

    Google still relies on keywords to help it understand the subject matter of various pages and websites. As a simple example, it might see the words “burger” and “restaurant” several times on a page and understand that this is probably a website for a burger restaurant.

    But this is even more important in more complex cases, such as when a user searches for something conversationally, like “what’s the difference between general relativity and Newtonian gravity?” Google can’t easily reduce this query to a single concept, but it can scout for articles that seem to use the phrases “general relativity” and “Newtonian gravity” in a comparative context, and will probably even favor a site that happens to use the exact extended phrase entered.

    Because of this, it’s still important to pay attention to your phrasing, but the majority of your keyword “matches” will arise naturally as long-tail phrases—as long as you have a solid content strategy. This has led to a differentiation between bona fide “keyword research” and “topic research” for content—two of the main sections of this article—but I’ll dig into those in a bit.

    Benefits of Keyword Research

    With an understanding of the function of keywords in a modern SEO campaign, let’s take a look at some of the tangible benefits you can get by conducting keyword research:

    • Search volume analysis. First, you’ll gain insights into what keywords are more popular than others. This can help you find more popular topics to optimize for, which will eventually lead you to higher traffic and a higher ROI. For example, take a look at the difference in search volume (the number of times a user has searched for a given query) between “how to bake a cake” and “how to build a particle accelerator.” The clear winner is “how to bake a cake” (and let’s be thankful for that), making it far more favorable to optimize for.

    google trends

    (Image source: Google Trends)

    • Competitive research. Competitive research can help you determine which keywords and phrases your direct competitors are already ranking for. From there, you can decide which ones are worth fighting for and which ones are worth leaving. For the most part, you’ll want to shoot for target keywords that none of your competitors are currently ranking for, as they’ll be easier to establish rankings for, but they aren’t always easy to find. Competitive research can also help you understand the general course of your opponents’ SEO strategies, so you can adjust your own to more appropriately combat them.
    • Content ideas and SEO direction. Next, keyword research will give you ideas for your content marketing campaign, and help you set the direction for your SEO campaign. With a solid “group” of target keywords in mind, you’ll be able to establish the meta data and body copy for the main pages of your site, and come up with an editorial calendar full of topics that are actually relevant to your audience. Keyword research not only helps you pinpoint competitive opportunities and popular topics, but also helps you expand your conceptions through a brainstorming process. You’ll see how this works in greater detail later.
    • Market research. Doing keyword research also helps you understand your key demographics better, giving you information you can use in other areas of your business, including other areas of your marketing campaign. For example, you may find that search patterns for a specific product tend to escalate in winter, giving you a critical marketing opportunity to push that product more during winter months. You may also be able to learn more about the average buying cycle, including what types of questions consumers tend to ask as they get closer and closer to making a final decision.
    • Ranking measurement. Finally, doing keyword research in advance gives you a concrete way to measure the progress of your SEO campaign. Personally, I’m a fan of using factors like overall organic traffic and conversion rates to measure SEO campaign progress, but being able to definitively chart your rankings for a handful of target keywords also lends accuracy and thoroughness to your campaign. For example, it’s helpful to know that AudienceBloom.com ranks #1 for the keyword phrase “link building seattle.” We started off completely unranked, and could watch as we gradually made our way to the top, with that growth being a signal that our overall SEO strategy was succeeding. In theory, your efforts will raise your rankings for thousands of potential queries, including ones you’ve never thought of, but pinpointing specific phrases gives you a window into this overall growth.

    google search results

    How to Use Keyword Research

    It’s important to know how you’ll be using keywords if you want to choose them appropriately.

    • The dangers of keyword stuffing. First, you need to understand the inherent dangers of keyword stuffing. It’s tempting to include your target keywords as frequently as possible throughout your site, but remember—Google doesn’t work based on one-to-one correlations anymore. Increasing your frequency of placed keywords isn’t going to help your rankings; in fact, it might earn you a Google penalty. Focus on including your keywords naturally, wherever you include them, and try to utilize synonyms. If you’re ever in doubt, read a selection out loud and see if it sounds funny to you—if it does, you can consider the usage of the keyword “unnatural.”
    • Title tags and meta descriptions. Your page titles and descriptions are some of the most important areas to include keywords for your campaign. These are considered highly important elements by Google, mostly because they’re the first things a search user sees when scrolling through the results. Including a head keyword prominently, early on in your titles and descriptions, helps Google categorize your site—just make sure that your keywords are relevant for the content of your pages. Take AudienceBloom’s title and descriptions as examples; “link building” and “content marketing agency” are two of the keywords we’re targeting, and both are appropriate to our brand. We don’t stuff in any more keywords than we need to.

    meta tags optimization

    • Dedicated pages. Because page titles are so powerful when it comes to evaluating relevance, and because each page is indexed separately in Google, it’s sometimes a good idea to create dedicated pages for each of your head keywords. For example, if one of your target keywords is “emergency plumbing repair,” you may wish to create a new page of your site specifically called “Emergency Plumbing Repair” in your main navigation. However, you’ll want to be careful here. If your page appears unnatural, or if its body copy is spammed with keywords, you could earn a ranking penalty rather than a boost.
    • Header tags and body content. Aside from the titles and descriptions, you’ll want to include keywords throughout the body of your pages. There used to be a rule that keywords should make up about 2 to 3 percent of the total volume of words on a given page (this was referred to as “keyword density,” but forget about that. Just include keywords occasionally where they naturally fit in, especially long-tail keywords, and especially in your header tags (h1, h2, etc.).
    • Ongoing content. Your ongoing content is your best place for the ongoing support of your target keyword phrases. If you’re developing multiple new posts for your blog a week, you’ll have multiple opportunities to optimize for new keywords, new pages with new title tag and meta description opportunities, and of course, plenty of body copy where you can include your keywords at a natural pace. I’ll dig deeper into the content side of things when we cover topic research later on.

    Keyword Research vs Topic Research

    Some SEOs have declared topic research as the “new” keyword research, while others have decried keyword research as an SEO strategy in general. I believe that keyword research and topic research for content are two distinct, yet highly related strategies that are both necessary if you want to be successful in SEO.

    Keyword research helps you find keywords and phrases to target in the technical infrastructure of your website and give you solid targets to rank for, while topic research is more about finding a strong foothold for your content marketing campaign (and appealing to your users as much as possible).

    I’ll delve into each of these topics individually, breaking down the research and execution process step by step.

    Keyword Research for SEO

    Let’s take a look at “standard” keyword research for SEO. The goals here are to find a selection of target keywords you can use to optimize the various pages of your site for specific user queries, then use your rankings for those keywords as a relative gauge of success.

    For the majority of this article, I’ll be calling upon Moz’s Keyword Explorer, one of the best all-around tools for keyword research. At the end of this article, I’ll be listing it along with other tools mentioned in this guide as a reference index for your future use. If you’re interested in fuller descriptions of these tools as we go along, be sure to reference it. Before we jump into the step-by-step guide, you need to understand some keyword research lingo: head, and long-tail keywords.

    Head Keywords and Long-Tail Keywords

    You’ll often hear about “long-tail” keywords in contrast with “head” keywords. Essentially, long-tail keywords are extended phrase search queries, such as “what is the best roofing company in Wyoming?” Compare that to a traditional “head” keyword or keyword phrase like “roofing company” or “roofing company Wyoming.” There’s no strict line to draw here, though generally, if a query is in sentence format, it can be considered as a long-tail phrase.

    Long-tail keywords are advantageous because they tend to have a much lower competition rating than head keywords; the catch is they also have much lower search volume. It’s great to use long-tail keywords to rank quickly for niche positions, but if you’re looking for some heavy-hitting rankings to build over the long-term, head keywords are better.

    Typically, SEOs use head keywords for title tags of the most prominent pages of their site, like Home, About, and Contact pages (as well as body copy), while long-tail keywords are reserved for blog article titles.

    Because each type of keyword has advantages over the other, I highly recommend pursuing both over the course of your campaign, balancing the two based on your current goals.

    Next, let’s dive into the step-by-step breakdown of exactly how to conduct keyword research for SEO.

    Step 1. Determine your goals and budget

    Generally, if you’re looking for fast results, you’ll want to choose long-tail keywords with a low competition rating; these are going to be your fastest road to rankings, but keep in mind high rankings here won’t always send much traffic your way; it depends on search volume for each keyword.

    Head keywords and higher-competition keywords are better for long-term results, assuming you’re also picking higher-relevance keywords with a high search volume. A bigger marketing budget would allow you to theoretically invest more effort in either side of the equation, allowing you to cover more ground and rank faster for your target terms.

    For example, take a look at the major difference even a single variant can have on a target keyword, between “content marketing” and “content marketing for law firms”, dropping the competition score from 91 to 42, and the search volume to “no data” (though Google’s Keyword Planner suggests it to be between 10-100):

    content marketing keyword research

    content marketing for law firms

    It’s hard to estimate exactly how much time or money you’ll need to rank for a given keyword, but these metrics should help you understand your biggest opportunities, and estimate the relative degree of effort you’ll need to invest in each to see results. In turn, this should guide the development of your keyword research.

    Step 2. Brainstorm your “seed” keywords

    You’ll start your keyword research by selecting what I call “seed” keywords. Seed keywords are those that you either already know your target audience is using to search for your services, or that you would use if you were a member of your target audience.

    For example, since AudienceBloom is a content marketing agency, I can easily guess that my target audience might search for “content marketing agency,” or perhaps one or more of the following variations of that keyword:

    • Content marketing services
    • Content marketing company
    • Content marketing firm
    • Content marketing provider

    Of course, AudienceBloom offers more than just “content marketing services.” We also offer link building services, social media marketing services, and blog writing services.

    If your company offers multiple types of products or services, then you’ll need to create a separate topical relevance group and brainstorm seed keywords for each of them. For example, here are the seed keywords I would use for the other services AudienceBloom provides:

    Link building:

    • Link building services
    • Link building service
    • Link building company
    • Link building agency
    • Link building provider

    Social media marketing services:

    • Social media marketing services
    • Social media services
    • Social media service
    • Social media management services
    • Social media marketing management

    Blog writing services:

    • Blog writing services
    • Blog creation services
    • Blogging services
    • Blog post services
    • Blog post writing service

    It took me a couple minutes to come up with the keywords above, and they were all off the top of my head. Write down these seed keywords, as we’ll conduct specific research on them in the next step.

    Step 3. Plug your seed keywords into Moz Keyword Explorer

    Now that you’ve got your seed keywords, it’s time to start gathering data on them. Start by plugging at least one from each group into Moz’s Keyword Explorer. Below is a screenshot of the results for my keyword, “content marketing services.”

    moz keyword explorer

    (Image source: Moz Keyword Explorer)

    Step 4. Download suggested keywords

    You’ll see a link that says “See all [X] suggestions.”

    keyword suggestions

    Click that link to be taken to a page that lists similar keywords to your seed, as well as relevance, and volume.

    keyword suggestions content marketing services

     

    Next, download the list of keywords into an Excel spreadsheet using the “Export CSV” link.

    export csv

    Use different tabs/sheets in your Excel spreadsheet to separate your keywords for each topical relevancy group.

    Ubersuggest is another fantastic tool for generating keyword ideas based on a single seed keyword. Enter one seed keyword, and it will automatically generate a list of potential keyword opportunities. Try it out with at least one of your seed keywords from each group, and add its suggestions to your keyword spreadsheet.

    ubersuggest

    (Image source: UberSuggest)

    Step 5. Add keywords that the tools may have missed

    As we all know, software tools don’t always cover all the bases. Use the following strategies to think of more keywords that you can add to your spreadsheet that the tools may have missed:

    • Competition and environment. What do you imagine your average customer searching for when they look for a company like yours? What kinds of phrases are your competitors using throughout their websites?
    • Free association. Once you’ve run out of ideas in this first stage, you can move on to free association. For this, I find it’s best to use a pencil and paper. Instead of deliberately aiming to develop keywords, you’ll write down a basic topic, like “sales,” and you’ll write down the first thing that pops into your mind. Then, write down whatever you associate that next term with. Keep going until you build a chain of terms outward, and if you like, return to the center to build another branch of the web. This will help you break your linear thinking and come up with some novel topics.
    • Forums and blogs. You can also cruise existing blogs and forums that your target audience might frequent, in or out of your industry, to see what types of topics are popular. Are there any words or phrases that seem to be frequently visited or discussed? What kind of focus do these blogs and forums have? You can also crawl these areas to see if there are any topics your audience is curious about, but haven’t been sufficiently covered by any authors.
    • Interviews. It’s easy for an individual to get tunnel vision in keyword research, so start talking to the people around you for newer, fresher ideas. Ask your coworkers what keywords and phrases they’d associate with your business, and ask your clients and past clients directly what they would search for if they were looking for a business like yours. These are valuable insights, and you should keep track of them.

    Step 6. Evaluate your keywords

    You should now be looking at a spreadsheet that contains a bunch of keywords – possibly thousands or even tens of thousands.

    Now, it’s time to pick which ones you’re going to use for your campaign. There are three main factors you’ll want to bear in mind for each keyword you select:

    1. Relevance. The relevance of a given keyword is a subjective measure of how useful the keyword is to your brand. Obviously, you’ll want to include keywords that are more or less in line with your brand. But even within your niche, some keywords and phrases will be more valuable than others. For example, if you sell bookshelves, the keyword “where to buy bookshelves online” will tend to attract customers interested in buying bookshelves, while “how to build a bookshelf” would attract DIYers who probably aren’t interested in making a purchase from you. Unfortunately, my experience with Moz’s Keyword Explorer for measuring this has not been very reliable, since it’s almost entirely subjective, so you’ll probably need to rely on your own intuition and experience to determine relevance for each keyword in your list.

    2. Volume. The search volume for a given keyword is a rough estimate of the number of times that keyword has been searched for, within a given population, over a certain period of time (usually a month). You can use this as a relative gauge of the keyword’s popularity, though it doesn’t specifically tell you about the keyword’s click-through rate or user intent. Still, it’s a valuable at-a-glance metric that can help you determine which keyword rankings will bring you more traffic than others.

    If you plug a keyword into Keyword Explorer, you’ll see a volume measurement for it and a number of other related terms:

    keyword explorer

    (Image source: Keyword Explorer)

    There’s variation because keyword searches fluctuate from month to month. For example, taking a look at the screenshot above, you can count on the keyword “content marketing” to earn between 11,500 and 30,300 searches each month.

    There’s no rule for what search volume you should target; obviously, higher is better, but it usually comes with the tradeoff of higher competition, which makes it more difficult to rank for.

    If you’re looking for keyword ideas with at least a certain search volume, you can bring up the     suggestions menu and filter by volume:

    search volume filter

    You could also use Google’s Keyword Planner to perform this search, but since Moz’s Keyword Explorer pulls much of this data, you run the risk of redundancy. Also notice that Google’s Keyword Planner offers much less specific ranges of search volume:

    search volume google keyword planner

    (Image source: Google Keyword Planner)

    SEMRush offers similar features, but strives for a volume count with pinpoint accuracy. This may be useful in the short term, but if you want better long-term projections, it’s better to rely on a range.

    semrush

    (Image source: SEMRush)

    3. Competition. Finally, you’ll want to take a look at the competition rating for each keyword. Again, Google’s Keyword Planner will be able to tell you this, but unfortunately, this data is less objective (giving you only “Low”, “Medium” or “High”) and much less precise than search volume.

    Reference the screenshots above, and you’ll see each of these tools offers a different evaluation of the level of competition of our keyword, “content marketing.” Google, for example, lists content marketing as “medium” competition, while Moz Keyword Explorer attempts to offer a more precise score—in this case, 91 out of 100, which most would consider “high.”

    SEMRush offers 0.81, at least in the context of paid search, which you could roughly translate to 81 out of 100. Confused yet? Competition is hard to precisely calculate, so take an average, qualitative value here. Based on these competition evaluations, I’d consider “content marketing” to have high competition, and thus, be a very difficult keyword to rank for.

    You should eliminate the high-competition keywords from your list unless you’re ready to fight tooth and nail, or you have a massive budget that can help you blow through almost any competitive obstacle. It would take you months of consistent effort to earn rankings for these, and even after all that effort, it’s unlikely that the traffic payoff would be worth it. If you must, include only a couple.

    Relevance is up to you to figure out without the help of tools, but volume and competition are objective factors that you can gather with the help of tools.

    Once you’ve grouped your keywords into the spreadsheet, remove all the ones that aren’t relevant. Again, this will be a subjective determination that you need to make, based solely on your knowledge of your industry, so just do your best here. This step can take a long time, as you’ll need to manually go over each keyword and determine whether it’s relevant or not.

    After you finish removing all the irrelevant keywords, you’ll be left with a list of keywords that are relevant and have some measurable amount of search volume and competition.

    Step 7. Conduct competitor research

    Next, you’ll want to take a closer look at the competition, and what types of strategies they’re using in their search campaigns.

    There are a few reasons you need to learn about your competitors:

    • Inspiration. If you can understand how they’ve optimized their websites, where they currently rank, and how they’re getting more relevant customers to their sites, you can adopt some of these techniques for yourself.
    • Understanding competition levels. Second, you’ll be able to gauge what level of competition you’re in for. Are your competitors all fighting viciously for web real estate, or is it an open field?
    • Discover weaknesses and opportunities. Are there certain niches that your competitors haven’t been able to touch? Are there opportunities for development they’ve missed?

    SEMRush is a fantastic tool for conducting competitor research, automatically listing some of your “main organic competitors” once you enter your website domain name:

    organic competitors semrush

    (Image source: SEMRush)

    You’ll get to see their names listed, as well as their relative competition “level,” and what keywords they’re competing with you on.

    You can use a tool to help you understand where and how your competition is ranking for various keywords—and I’ll be getting into those at the end of this guide—but for now, you can get an “at a glance” look by searching, in Google, for some keywords you think an average prospect in your target market might use.

    As an example, I performed a search for “online time tracking software,” a typical keyword phrase that might be used by someone looking for such a product. You can see a number of time tracking tools ranking for this, many of them using that exact phrase.

    But you’ll also find inspiration for tangential keyword phrases, like “employee timesheet,” which seems popular. Look at the titles (in blue), and descriptions (in black), to get a feel for what kinds of keywords they’re using.

    keyword research result

    You can also use Keyword Explorer to project how the search engine results pages (SERPs) look (found in the “SERP Analysis”  tab), which will even rate page authority, domain authority, shares, and links for you:

    SERP analysis

    Step 8. Choose your keepers

    After adding new keywords you got from your competitor research, it’s time to choose your keepers.

    The ideal keyword is one with high relevance, high search volume, and low competition, but these are hard to find, so you’ll have to make some strategic choices and balance your keyword selections.

    The number of keywords you select should depend on the size of your business, your budget, and your goals. Most small- to mid-sized businesses do well with a list of 20-30 keywords. Any more than 30, and you’ll either need a full management team, or you won’t be able to gain much meaningful momentum for any of them.

    You don’t have to limit the number of keywords you choose as your “winners” – in fact, the more relevant keywords you track in your keyword rankings, the better accuracy with which you’ll be able to gauge the progress of your content marketing or SEO campaign. Just be sure to only focus on building up a few keywords at a time, as anything more ambitious will likely dilute your efforts too much to be effective.

    Step 9. Input your winners into rank tracking software

    There are many important metrics to monitor in a full-fledged SEO campaign, including your organic traffic, social traffic, referral traffic, and conversion rates, but when it comes to evaluating your keyword progress specifically, there’s no better metric than your actual keyword rankings. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t explicitly publish this information, so your best bet is to use a tool to help you—AgencyAnalytics is what I personally use, but there are a ton of software options that do this, such as AuthorityLabs, RankWatch, and more.

    agencyanalytics

    (Image source: AgencyAnalytics)

    There you have it. This is the long and short of how to perform “modern” keyword research for SEO—and some tips on what to do with that information once you have it.

    Now, let’s turn our attention to the close cousin of keyword research and how it relates to your overall campaign—topic research.

    Topic Research for Content Marketing

    Though similar to keyword research, topic research has its own process, its own benefits, and its own best practices.

    Distinction From Pure SEO Keywords

    Topic research follows similar lines as keyword research, but it demands a closer focus on user behavior and content trends than search trends, specifically. For this reason alone, topic research should be treated as a separate entity.

    So far, keyword research has been executable and valuable for a standalone SEO campaign, but topic research can benefit you in far more areas; your content campaign, social media marketing campaign, and customer retention strategies can all benefit more from topic research.

    There’s some overlap, because both keyword and topic research are designed to bring people to your site, but topic research has a greater likelihood of keeping people on your site.

    From a pure customer acquisition perspective, topic research can help you take advantage of the semantic search that Google has been using since it launched its Hummingbird algorithm. Because one-to-one keyword matching can’t guarantee that keyword inclusion will help you rise for specific keyword queries, topic research helps you understand—and meet—user needs, essentially getting in front of more people out of necessity.

    As an illustrative example, take the search phrase “garbage disposal is broken.” Google interprets this phrase semantically, understanding that your garbage disposal is not working, and provides content that doesn’t contain these exact keywords (i.e., “How to Fix a Garbage Disposal”), but does interpret and address your need. Topic research helps you find and solve these user needs.

    topic research

    Factors for Success

    The factors for success in a topic are slightly different than the success factors for keyword research, because you’re after a qualitative user experience rather than quantitative benefits.

    • Interest. The first major factor is interest. Your users need to have a vested interest in the topics you produce. What does that mean for your brand? There are a few fundamentals, but ultimately every brand and every audience will have a different answer. For example, one of the most important qualities of “interesting” content is that it’s unique. Your topics can’t be ones that competitors have already covered. You can publish new versions, or different angles, or follow-ups, but it needs to be original. Beyond that, you’ll have to rely on what you know about your demographics, including their wants or needs.
    • Value. Another important factor is value, and oftentimes this translates to practicality. Your topics should serve some kind of function for your users, giving them instructions they need in a certain situation, or information they need to consider some broader ideas. How-to articles and tutorials are exceptionally popular, but remember, these need to be unique. Also keep in mind that your topics don’t have to be practical to be valuable—the best example of non-practical, valuable content is entertaining content, though obviously this won’t work for just any brand.
    • Timeliness. Unlike the interest and value factors, timeliness isn’t an absolute necessity, but it can be helpful. New topics, such as those covering a recent event or update in your industry, tend to be highly popular in the first few days and weeks after their release. Trending topics can also be taken advantage of for additional search visibility. However, “new” topics and appropriately timed topics shouldn’t make up the entirety of your focus; you’ll also need “evergreen” topics that will presumably stay relevant indefinitely. Balancing your topic spread between these two types of content timeliness will give you the widest possible spread, helping you take advantage of news topics without sacrificing the longevity of your campaign.
    • Catchiness. Again, this isn’t a necessity, but it helps if you find topics that are “catchy”—that is to say, topics that have a high likelihood of getting shared or going viral. Content pieces that are shared virally tend to attract far more backlinks, helping them earn more authority and rank even higher for your SEO campaign. A major factor for catchiness is uniqueness, which you’ve hopefully already covered in the “interest” category. Beyond that, you need some kind of emotional “hook,” such as something surprising, or something otherwise emotionally charged.

    Phase I: Market research

    When you first start the topic research process, you’ll need to dig deep to gain a thorough understanding of the types of people who will be viewing your content. Remember, keyword research allows you to be more quantitative in your approach, calculating things like competition and search volume, but topic research demands a more qualitative approach, forcing you to understand the hows and whys of customer interaction with your material.

    • Buyer personas. One of the best ways to start is by developing specific “buyer personas” that represent the main demographics you intend to target with your content. Rather than making assumptions or guesses about your audience’s needs, this method will force you to sketch out a portrait of your “average” customer, including their basic information, disposition, interests, family life, professional life, wants and needs. Treat it like you’re developing a fictional character, and interview some of your existing customers to get a better feel for who you’re working with. If you need a good template to build your buyer personas, Hubspot has a great one.

    buyer persona hubspot

    (Image Source: Hubspot)

    • Buying cycle. In addition to buyer personas, you’ll need to get a better understanding for the buying cycle of your average customer. What are your customers thinking when they first start the research process? Where do their interests turn as they become more familiar with your brand? You can use this information in several ways in the course of your topic research. For example, if you want to specialize in one area—such as finalizing potential customers already familiar with your brand, or merely increasing brand familiarity among people unfamiliar with your brand—you can do so by favoring those topics. You can also opt for a more homogenous blend of different target topics.
    • Social listening. Social listening will help you kill multiple birds with one stone. The basic idea is to “plug in” to social media channels to find out what your key demographics are talking about—what topics they seem to be sharing, what keywords they seem to be including in their posts, and what hashtags are trending. On one level, you’ll be able to learn more about your target demographics—how they behave, what’s important to them, and what they’re interested in. You’ll also get a peek at what types of topics might be good to start producing.

    smartinsights

    (Image Source: SmartInsights)

    • Blogs and forums. Similar to social listening, you can browse blogs and forums to get a feel for what your target market is talking about and interested, and milk them for topics directly. You can use a blog reader for this, but it’s easier to run a quick search for blogs and forums in your industry and go through them manually—you’ll comb through the topics in finer detail that way. BuzzSumo is one of the best tools to use here. With it, you’ll be able to find some of the most shared and linked-to articles in the central topic of your choice. All you have to do is enter a topic and hit search:

    buzzsumo results

    You can then use the “sort by” function in the upper-right corner to filter by total shares, or          specific types of shares. You can also use advanced search functions (under the search bar) to       rule out certain phrase, narrow down your domain criteria, or filter by domains, and use the    “content type” filter on the left-hand side to look for specific types of content:

    content types

    Phase II: Competitive research

    Next up, you’ll need to perform some competitive research. When you performed competitive research for keywords, you took a look at the titles and descriptions of their main pages (and possibly used a third party tool to spy on their current rankings).

    Here, you can rely on similar tactics to identify your competitors in the first place. For example, you can run a domain search for your own domain in SEMRush and get a list of some of your fiercest organic search competitors.

    competitive research

     

    (Image source: SEMRush)

    Then, you can drill into individual domains to see what they’re ranking for, and what keywords they’re targeting.

    competition research keywords

    (Image source: SEMRush)

    You could also use Moz Keyword Explorer to generate a list of people ranking above you in the SERPs for a given topic query:

    moz keyword explorer results

    (Image source: Moz Keyword Explorer)

    Take a look at your competitors’ content marketing strategies and see what’s working and what’s not.

    You can use BuzzSumo for this. Just enter your domain to see what content is performing the best on your website, and enter your competitors’ domains to see their top-performing content:

    competitor content marketing

    (Image source: BuzzSumo)

    BuzzSumo also allows you to see the most popular content that links back to your site as well as your competitors’. This can be useful for assessing the value of your competition’s off-site content marketing efforts. Just use the “Backlinks” tab in Buzzsumo, then type in the domain/URL of your site or a competitor site.

    most popular content buzzsumo

    (Image source: BuzzSumo)

    Use these tools to identify competitors and find out some of their biggest strengths and weaknesses, then rely on your qualitative analysis to make further conclusions.

    Browse through your competitors’ blog content, and see how many comments and shares each of their articles are getting. Take note of their most popular content topics, as well as any topics they have that seem to generate no momentum.

    Don’t copy these topics directly; instead, use them as jumping-off points to guide your own work. For example, if a competitor seems to get lots of popularity with “how to” articles, consider creating some of your own.

    You can also look for topics that seem to be underexplored or underutilized, such as exploratory topics that don’t tell the full story, or articles with inaccuracies or those that lack substance. These are key opportunities for you to create your own versions, hopefully generating more attention and more links, and giving you the opportunity to outrank your competitor for those related inbound queries.

    Phase III: Establish regular and evergreen features

    At this point, you’ll have insights into the behavioral patterns of your average customer, social media, blog, and forum trends, and a glimpse into your competitors’ strategies.

    Combined with some of the long-tail keyword research you performed in the last section, you should be able to compile a list of popular, interesting, valuable topics that you can introduce to your blog. One of the best strategies to do this is to establish a regular pattern of features.

    You don’t want to repeat yourself, but you can leverage certain frameworks multiple times for different facets of your brand. For example, in the online marketing industry, if you find that “top 10” lists are popular and underutilized (this isn’t the best example because top 10 lists are overused, but it works), you could write up a series like “the top 10 benefits of content marketing,” “the top 10 benefits of seo,” and so on.

    The key here is to find some frameworks that are repeatable as evergreen content. When your topics are semi-repeatable, you’ll be able to produce a greater volume of content to increase your relevance for those terms, and when they’re evergreen, you know they’ll stay relevant indefinitely, rising in rank as your overall domain authority grows.

    Phase IV: Set up news monitoring

    With some threads of evergreen content in place, your next step is to set up some kind of news monitoring program. Your goal here is to receive regular updates about what’s happening in your industry or geographic area.

    When you see a topic trending, or a new topic emerging that’s relevant for your brand, you can jump on it.

    There are three great ways to monitor news developments in your industry.

    • News subscriptions. First, there’s straightforward content subscriptions. You can use an RSS feed, or subscribe to each brand’s content newsletter, but for me, the best thing to do is head to a blog reader site like Feedly and browse through sources related to your industry. You can go as broad or as specific as you’d like here, and segment your sources however you’d like. Then, whenever you want to look for news, you can head to this singular source and pull from major topics that seem to be trending.

    feedly

    (Image Source: Feedly)

    • Social media lists. Next, you can create lists of major brands and influencers on your social media platform of choice. For example, on Twitter, you can create custom lists of certain types of accounts and access them to see what they’re talking about. This is a great way to collect your news sources in one area. In combination with your social listening practices, it’s highly effective for cultivating new potential topics from the news. Twitter offers one of the best ways to do this; click on “Lists” in the settings menu, and you’ll be able to create a new list in a few clicks.

    social media lists

    • Competitive monitoring. You’ll also want to bookmark the blogs of your main competitors, and check back occasionally to see what types of new content they’re developing. Again, this isn’t so you can copy their strategy—instead, scout it for inspiration and for weaknesses that you can exploit in your own topic collection.

    Phase V: Execution

    By now, you’ve noticed that topic generation isn’t as precise as keyword generation. You won’t have as much quantitative data to work with, and you won’t be generating a list of exactly repeatable phrases.

    So from here, it’s best to move straight to execution.

    • Build an editorial calendar. One of the best ways to keep your topics fresh, organized, and visible to your entire team is to keep them confined to an editorial calendar. This doesn’t have to be a fancy or formal document; in fact, a simple spreadsheet works fine. If you’re looking for a template, I recommend the one that the Content Marketing Institute offers. It gives you enough space to list your headline, author, status, call to action, category, and any other notes you might have—and that’s really all you need to get started. Keep a close eye on your headlinese as you develop this calendar, both to draw inspiration from past posts and make sure you don’t ever repeat yourself.

    CMI editorial calendar template

    (Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)

    • Leaving space for news. Don’t schedule your content so far in advance that you can’t do anything when a news topic starts trending. Leave yourself some blank spaces, with the assumption that your near-constant news monitoring will allow you to fill in those gaps with timely posts. Remember that your timing is an important element in how your topics are received by a searching public.
    • Targeting the right audience. When you start drafting your content, don’t forget that you’re writing for a very specific audience. Keep your brand voice consistent and make sure your tone, vocabulary, and structure are all appealing to the type of searcher you intended to target with your content topic. For example, if you’re writing a basic instructional article like “how to clean an air filter in an air conditioner,” you’ll want to avoid getting too technically complex.
    • Content quality. You’ll also want to make sure that the content you create is “high quality,” which is a frustratingly vague term that refers to your level of depth, your style of writing, the types of media you include, and how much detail you bring your readers. The better your content, the more likely it’s going to be to rank for users’ queries, thanks to its propensity to earn more links and its adherence to Google’s content standards. I outlined 12 elements of high-quality content in my article at Forbes.

    Phase VI: Ongoing Adjustments

    Like with keyword research, it’s not enough to perform one round of topic research and be done with it. You’ll need to monitor your progress in your topics, and use that information to adjust your campaign in the future.

    • Traffic. Use Google Analytics to see how much traffic your blog posts are generating. Though here, topic research is used mainly as a way to facilitate an SEO campaign, you can actually measure your articles’ popularity in terms of organic (search) traffic, referral traffic, and social traffic. Take a look at your top performers and ask yourself—why are these bringing in more traffic than the others? Similarly, take a look at your worst performers, and avoid topics like those in the future.

    blog posts traffic

    • Links and shares. You can use a tool like Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, or URLProfiler to check and see how many inbound links each of your pieces of content has earned, and use your own website to check how many shares you’ve gotten. More links and shares will lead to higher organic search rankings for your individual content pieces and will boost the domain authority of your entire site, but more importantly, these are an indication of your topics’ popularity, effectiveness, and shareability.
    • Engagements. Finally, take a look at the engagements your topics generate. How many are people responding to them? What kinds of comments are you getting? Are you sparking discussions? Are you inspiring rebuttals or follow-up posts?

    Balancing Keywords and Topics

    Though SEO and content marketing are often considered separate strategies, the reality is they’re almost indistinguishable. In the words of Neil Patel, “They go together. They just fit. They work well together… SEO is actually all about content marketing, and vice versa.” Both keywords and topics will help you in both areas, so you’ll need both if you want to continue making progress.

    Other Keyword Considerations

    There are just a handful of additional considerations you should bear in mind when moving forward with your keyword and topic research strategy.

    Local Keywords

    Google’s local search functions on a separate algorithm from its national search. Currently, Google offers a “3 pack” of local results, above the fold of organic search results that features the three most relevant local business it can find for a query.

    local keywords

    There are many factors that go into these 3-pack rankings, including conventional SEO authority factors like your link profile, but also your presence in third-party directories and the number of positive reviews your business has received.

    If you’re interested in boosting your local relevance, it’s worth considering throwing some local keywords into your campaign – keywords that include a geographic indicator, such as your city name. This can help you expand your relevance for potential searches in your surrounding area, and create more targeted pages for your key demographics.

    You’ll want to avoid using clunky phrasing in your keywords, like the “burger restaurant Denver” example I used earlier, but you can still incorporate local keywords into your content more naturally.

    Try to use synonyms and alternative descriptions of your area if you do this; for example, a business outside of Cleveland could use terms like “Cleveland,” “Northeast Ohio,” “Greater Cleveland area,” or “Cuyahoga county” to describe its location.

    Note that local keywords aren’t necessary to rank; they’re merely an added bonus for local businesses that want the boost.

    Rich Answers and Structured Data

    Rich answers are becoming an increasingly present feature of Google search; these are informative boxes that pop up above organic search results in response to certain easily answerable queries. For example, the phrase “what is wave particle duality” returns a shockingly concise explanation in paragraph form, drawn from the Wikipedia article on the subject.

    rich answers

    There are some fears that these answers, as they become more popular, could wick away some of your organic traffic. However, in the meantime, you can exploit the fact that Google looks to external sources for this information.

    As a primary strategy, you can target “answerable” keywords and topics for your campaign, and use a structured markup to feed your information to Google, giving you a chance at being the featured brand in this box. As a secondary strategy, you can target highly niche, hard-to-answer keywords and topics that don’t have a good chance of yielding rich answers in the first place.

    Bing and Other Search Engines

    Most of this article, especially the “tools” section, is focused on Google search results or information drawn from Google. Google is still responsible for more than two-thirds of all searches, but there’s still a third of all searches floating away from Google.

    It’s a good idea to hedge some of your research by exploring keyword data on Bing and other search engines you encounter, and keep watch to see how they develop over time.

    Hashtags and Social Media

    Hashtags function similar to keywords on social media, and if you’re engaged in a social media marketing campaign, they’re well worth your notice.

    “Trending” lists on various social platforms will help you quickly identify new potential keywords and topics for your on-site content, but don’t forget to also use them in your social media posts (provided you know how to use them appropriately).

    twitter trending hashtags

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    Amazon, eBay, and Other eCommerce Search Functions

    Your website isn’t the only place where you can optimize pages. If you have a company presence on Amazon, eBay, or a similar service, for example, you can potentially use search data on these niche platforms to optimize your product pages for potential searchers.

    Here, you’ll need to optimize your pages both for traditional search engines (i.e., Google), and for in-app searches. Just bear in mind that in-app searches tend to function differently than Google search; they depend heavily on product ratings and reviews to determine authority and rankings.

    Tools for Keyword Research

    I’ve already listed and explored a number of tools to aid you in your keyword and topic research, but this section is meant to organize, detail, and evaluate them individually.

    Some of these tools are better for some functions than others; for example, Ubersuggest is only good for generating more keyword ideas early on in your research. Consult this section to find the tools you need for the various stages of your research, and don’t be afraid to try out multiple tools in multiple ways until you find out what works best for you.

    Moz’s Keyword Explorer

    If I had to recommend one tool to you, it would be Moz’s keyword research tool—its Keyword Explorer. Keyword Explorer pulls in data from a number of different sources, including Google’s Keyword Planner (more on that next), Google Suggest, and a number of other sources. It compiles this information into easy-to-understand (and visual) metrics, and can even give you keyword recommendations. There’s also a handy import/export function so you can use it in conjunction with your previous work and your ongoing work with other tools.

    moz keyword explorer tool

    (Image Source: Moz)

    This tool gives you a lot of information, so what should you really focus on for your keyword research? Well first, you’ll need to plug in some central information—a keyword or keyword phrase that you want to target. Choose what you believe to be one of the most relevant keywords for your brand—as relevance is the one thing Moz won’t be able to measure for you, due to its subjective nature.

    From there, take a look at these metrics:

    • Volume. Keyword Explorer purports to have 95 percent accuracy when it comes to the national search volume for your given term. This should help you almost pinpoint how much traffic each keyword’s going to get.
    • Difficulty. Rather than relying on vague generalizations, Moz will give you a numerical score for the competition volume of a given word, helping you determine exactly what is and what isn’t too hard to rank for.
    • Opportunity. The opportunity measure is a subjective score based on the relative power of a given keyword, based in part on click-through rates. Some keywords may have a high volume, but a low opportunity due to significant searches but few engagements.
    • Potential. If you’re nervous about how to pull this information together into something meaningful, don’t worry—Moz has you covered. Its “potential” score combines the other three factors into a single value on a numerical scale. If you’re looking for one score to tell you whether a keyword’s worth going after, this is the one to view.

    In another section, you can use your base input as a way to generate new keyword suggestions.

    • Keyword Suggestions. This tool goes deeper than most of the others on this list. You’ll be able to select the type of keyword suggestions you receive, filtering by source, by proximity to your original keyword, or even choosing to get a mix between keywords and topics—which makes utilizing both sides of your research easily. You can also filter and sort them by factors like volume and “relevancy” to your original term.

    keyword suggestions moz

    (Image Source: Moz)

    • SERP Analysis. After that, you can use this tool for some competitive research (and to get a better feel for your actual ranking opportunity). This section of the tool breaks down what the SERP looks like for this given term, including any of your competitors who currently rank for it, whether there are rich answers present, and whether there’s a significant threat of visibility from existing paid advertisers.

    serp analysis moz

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Google’s Keyword Planner

    Google’s Keyword Planner is one of the most recommended and most talked-about keyword research tools available, but there are a few major downsides that you should keep in mind before using it. These aren’t deal-breakers, but they are considerations that can (and should affect) how you use and trust the tool. For example, Keyword Planner tends to round search volume data, and splits keywords into “buckets” of numerical data.

    google keyword planner

    (Image Source: Moz)

    You may also find that Keyword Planner gives you inconsistent, or “strange” recommendations that don’t seem to fall in line with your brand. This is subjective, but you’ll want to use a diverse selection of keyword idea generators if you’re looking for new recommendations anyway.

    There are four ways to use the Keyword Planner, but only three are going to matter for your organic SEO keyword research.

    keyword research google keyword planner tool

    (Image Source: Google)

    First, you can search for new keywords by using a phrase, website, or category. This function is relatively straightforward; you can enter any combination of different keyword phrases you’ve come up with, your own domain, a competitor’s domain, or a pre-existing category that Google has outlined for your industry. Google will then use this information to fetch new keyword suggestions that you can fold into the results of your own brainstorming sessions.

    keyword planner google

    (Image Source: Google)

    Second, you can dig into search volume and other types of data for a keyword list you’ve already generated. This is ideal if you’ve already got a spreadsheet full of keyword ideas and you’re just looking to fill in information like search volume and competition rating.

    search volume keyword planner

    (Image Source: Google)

    Finally, you can leverage one of the Keyword Planner’s most unique functions—keyword multiplication. Essentially, what you’ll do is provide two lists to Google, each of which represents one category of information. Google will cross reference these lists to generate a list of possible keywords and phrases for you to target. Check out the example they give below:

    keyword lists

    (Image Source: Google)

    Ultimately, Keyword Planner is best used for generating new keyword ideas and collecting consistent information on the keywords you already have, though Moz’s Keyword Explorer does seem to provide more accurate data.

    Google Correlate

    Google Correlate is an interesting niche tool; it won’t provide you with detailed numerical information on keywords, but it will help you uncover trends and patterns in search. For example, you can plug in some of your target keywords to see how their search volume changes with seasonal transitions, or how they compare in different states. There’s a lot to experiment with here, so reserve it for exploring your semi-finalized list of keywords in greater detail.

    google correlate

    (Image Source: Google)

    BuzzSumo

    BuzzSumo is a tool best used for topic research, rather than keyword research. With it, you’ll be able to search for a range of different topics, and explore some of the most popular stories within that topic. You can filter by date, language, country, and content type, then explore to see how each of these top-performing topics are doing.

    buzzsumo

    (Image Source: BuzzSumo)

    For example, you can check out how many shares a topic has gotten on each major social media platform, or evaluate how many links it’s gotten. This is great for checking to see whether your topic ideas have already been explored, how they’ve been explored in the past, and how popular those topics were. If you’re still in the ideation phase, you can search for more general topics and keywords, and browse through these lists to find inspiration for your own topics.

    social sharing buzzsumo

    (Image Source: BuzzSumo)

    Be sure to check out the monitoring, area, where you’ll be able to keep an eye on what your competition is doing in terms of content and SEO on a regular basis.

    SEMRush

    As you’ve already seen, SEMRush offers several different functions, including a keyword research and keyword ideation tool similar to the ones offered by Moz and Google that will break down things like search volume, cost-per-click (which can be used as an indirect way to measure competition), and SERP appearance.

    semrush keyword research

    (Image Source: SEMRush)

    However, where SEMRush really shines is its ability to help you monitor and analyze your performance. You can plug in your domain or URL and immediately see a plethora of information about your site, including your organic and paid search traffic, your inbound links, and your organic keyword rankings.

    Since Google doesn’t provide this information and manual hunting is a tedious pain, having all your major keyword rankings in one spot is incredibly beneficial—it can even help you discover keywords you didn’t know you were ranking for!

    In addition to this, you’ll be able to plug in a list of your own keywords and monitor your performance for those specifically.

    semrush dashboard

    (Image Source: SEMRush)

    SEMRush also gives you the ability to compare your domain to another domain, highlighting competitive opportunities and evaluating your relative performance.

    compare domains semrush

    (Image Source: SEMRush)

    Ubersuggest

    Ubersuggest is one of the simpler tools on this list, but it’s highly valuable for generating new keyword ideas because of that simplicity. It uses Google’s suggest feature to come up with recommended variations of a target keyword or phrase that you enter—it’s a fantastic way to start general and work to more specific potential targets.

    ubersuggest tool

    (Image Source: Ubersuggest)

    All of these tools have strengths and weaknesses, and no single tool will provide you everything you need for a thorough bout of keyword and topic research. All of them are either free or offer free trials, so do yourself a favor and experiment with all of them.

    Regardless of what peripheral strategies you use for your campaign, keyword and topic research is essential if you want to employ your SEO and content strategy with any kind of direction. You can use it as intensively or as passively as you like, depending on your goals, as long as you keep in mind how Google functions with semantic search.

    Despite what you might hear, keywords are still very much a part of effective SEO—as long as you’re researching and implementing them properly.

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  2. 8 Types of Businesses That Need SEO the Most

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    I’m biased, and I’ll admit that, but I’m a firm believer that SEO is a good strategy for any business. Literally any company in the world can benefit from optimizing their site and online assets for visibility in search engines, and to a degree that’s both significant and cost-efficient. Still, I’d be lying if I said SEO had the same potential for every business. The truth is, some industries just have more to gain from SEO than others due to their competitive positions, key demographics, or propensity to influence consumer searches.

    These eight types of businesses are ones that have the most to gain from SEO—and the most to lose by neglecting it:

    1. Small businesses and startups. First, there are small businesses and startups, both of which have a limited customer base, limited resources and revenue, and occupy a space with a limited target audience. Why is SEO especially beneficial for them? For starters, it doesn’t take much for an initial investment—it’s actually one of the most cost-efficient marketing strategies there are. This eases the burden on your budget, but at the same time leaves you room to scale, which is especially important for growing startups. Small businesses can also get the edge over a bigger competitor by targeting smaller niches within their shared demographics.

    2. SaaS and online service companies. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies have grown in popularity over the past few years because of their lucrative and scalable model of operations, not to mention being tied exclusively to the digital realm. SEO is important here because early on, traditional advertising will do almost nothing for you. You need people on your website, trying your product, and that means you need a strong inbound flow of web users (which SEO provides). Plus, your software likely solves a problem for users, and what do users do when they encounter problems these days? They search for a solution.

    3. Niche companies. The term “niche” here is somewhat vague, but I’m referring to any company—big, small, national, or local—that performs a highly specialized function, or otherwise caters to a highly specific target audience. These companies have a huge advantage in the SEO field because they’ve naturally eliminated the competition. You’ll work with a smaller total potential audience and lower inbound traffic numbers, but the relevance of your audience will be much higher (and you’ll have far more competitive keyword opportunities). Use your best judgment here and ask—are there any other companies that target who/what you do?

    4. Locally exclusive companies. Local search actually operates on an algorithm separate from national SEO. You’ll notice this if you perform a local search (using geographic-specific keywords or enabling location awareness on your mobile device); you’ll see three entries above the “usual” organic search results.

    local search results

    As you might imagine, this triple slot availability gives you some incredible strategic opportunities. If you can make your site relevant enough to get to one of these slots, you’ll carry enormous visibility—and you don’t have to worry about competing with national players. For companies that operate exclusively for a local population, this is ideal.

    5. Medical professionals. Medical professionals, such as general practitioners, specialists, and physical therapists, have a number of advantages that other industries don’t. First, they have a specific field of specialization (for the most part), immediately reducing competition and providing keyword opportunities. Second, they operate locally, giving them an even better competitive edge in the market. Finally, most people end up searching for a provider when they’re experiencing symptoms or pain, putting search as one of the best ways to connect you with your target audience.

    6. Legal professionals. Legal professionals enjoy many of the same benefits that medical professionals do. They usually specialize in one key area, giving them a strong competitive advantage and fresh keyword opportunities, and their potential audiences are likely performing searches to find solutions to their legal troubles. Most lawyers and legal service providers also operate locally, giving them the opportunity to capitalize on local search as well.

    7. Maintenance professionals. There are dozens of sub-types of “maintenance” professionals; I’ve left this category vague and open for a reason. For example, a car mechanic could qualify just as well as a plumber or a roofer. The idea here is that these professionals help you when something physical is broken or in need of updating in your life. Why is this a good area for SEO? Because the item is physical, that implies a degree of locality, making local SEO a strong option. Because it’s broken, the owner will likely be searching for solutions, and because it may be an emergency, you’ll have an even higher likelihood of converting potential searchers due to their immediate need of assistance.

    8. Restaurants and bars. Restaurants and bars also need SEO. Even if they operate as part of a larger chain, they’re still tied to one physical location, which makes them ideal for capitalizing on local SEO. Depending on the nature of the business, specialized terms are a likely possibility for competitive dominance, and of course, most people search for places to eat on a semi-imperative basis. This creates a perfect storm of opportunity for search visibility, though the goal should be to get people in the door rather than onto a website.

    Again, these businesses aren’t the only ones that can benefit from a strong SEO campaign, but they do stand to benefit more than other types of companies. If you belong to one of these businesses and SEO isn’t currently a part of your marketing lineup, you need to seriously reconsider your strategic position, and soon—the longer you invest in SEO, the more of a payout you’ll see from it.

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  3. How Do Click-Through Rates Affect Search Ranks?

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    For as long as SEO has been around, search optimizers have debated how much “user experience” factors into a search rank. According to some data, qualitative factors like how long a user spends on a page can influence how that page ranks—but you could also make for a case of correlation influencing this relationship, rather than causation. On the other hand, you have classic “standbys” as ranking influencers, such as inbound link quality, with all other measurable ranking factors being secondary, correlational, or purely coincidental.

    Now, thanks to some insights from Google engineer Paul Haahr, we may have a clue as to whether one of the most hotly debated topics in the user experience debate (click-through rates) is just a myth, or if it truly does influence how your site ranks in Google.

    The Idea Behind Click-Through Rate Influence

    The concept behind CTR influence is pretty simple, and it’s likely the reason so many search optimizers have found it easy to believe that it’s a verifiable ranking signal.

    Google has an anticipated spread of CTRs for its various search results ranks. For example, let’s say it expects 1,000 click for the top query, 200 for the second, and 100 for the third. Now, let’s say after a while, the three sites in these positions offer a major discrepancy; the first site is only getting 400 clicks, the second site gets its expected 200, and the third gets 700. That’s an anomaly, and Google might come to the conclusion that this third entry is way more relevant than the other two. Accordingly, it may boost its rank.

    Google Click-Through Rate

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to account for this pattern in a controlled experiment, keeping all other ranking factors consistent.

    Negative Evidence?

    There have been some interesting and, admittedly, persuasive studies in the past that have seemingly disproven, or at least suggested evidence to the contrary of the idea that organic CTRs influence search rank potential. One in particular used a “click bot” to automatically click on certain results for a small range of keywords as a controlled experiment to see if additional clicks from searches alone were enough to move the rankings of a particular entry. The results, as you might imagine, were nonexistent. There was no upward momentum whatsoever.

    click bot

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    However, as others have pointed out, there’s a serious flaw in this study: it used click bots. Google is no stranger to the use of bots in manipulation of search ranks (and other online advantages), and it has precautions in place to guard against these negative techniques. While the experiment is interesting, it doesn’t offer conclusive proof that organic CTR isn’t a ranking signal.

    Recent Evidence and RankBrain’s Influence

    A recent experiment done by Wordstream (and published by Moz) illsustrates a very interesting relationship between CTRs and search, and it goes a step further by drawing in possible effects from RankBrain, which helps Google decipher and understand semantically complex user queries.

    Here’s the basic rundown of the experiment. Wordstream examined the relationship between CTRs for given search queries and how they relate to a given search position. The key here is that basic keyword “head terms” are plotted separately from long-tail keywords, which is a major focus of RankBrain.

    CTR vs organic search position

    (Image Source: Moz)

    As you can see, long-tail keywords tend to carry a higher CTR, on average, than their basic counterparts. The same keyword niche was used to attempt to isolate variables that may have otherwise influenced the difference—so what could account for this?

    You could make the argument that the big difference here is the fact that long-tail keywords have a higher likelihood of premeditated user intent, which in turn could influence higher CTRs in general. However, note that in high-position ranks, long-tail terms greatly outperform basic keyword phrases, while in lower organic ranks (10 and lower), the difference is almost negligible.

    Keep that in mind when looking at this graph of similar keyword terms in paid results:

    CTR vs paid search ads

    (Image Source: Moz)

    The same pattern is not visible here. In the top ranks, the differences between shorter and longer keyword phrases is much tighter together, following a much more linear path as the ranks get lower.

    What’s the key takeaway from this study? There’s something interesting going on with CTRs and specifically organic search ranks. There’s just one thing stopping us from certifying this as evidence that CTRs positively influence search rank.

    The Co-Dependency Problem

    The big problem is that CTRs and search ranks are co-dependent variables. Assuming that CTR does influence search rank, the two become mutually inseparable. Did a search rank increase because it got a higher CTR, or did its CTR grow higher because it got a higher search rank? It’s almost impossible to isolate the factors here.

    How This Affects Your Strategy

    As there’s no direct proof of causation between CTRs and organic search ranks, and because even if there was, there are dozens of factors that are more important (including site structure, content, and external links), this shouldn’t affect your strategy too much. Click-through rates are still a good thing, and you should still aim to optimize for them with compelling title tags and accurate meta descriptions, but they may not directly affect your search ranks. Until we have more information, keep user experience optimization as a strategy separate from your SEO, and improve both for the best possible results for your site.

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  4. The Future of On-site SEO (in 2016 and Beyond)

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    SEO is always in a state of fluctuation, but most of the updates and changes we pay attention to are ones that affect some small component of our overall strategies. For example, the Panda update of 2011 affected how the algorithm evaluated the quality of content, and the Penguin update the very next year changed how Google evaluated links. What if there’s a change coming that fundamentally overhauls one of the biggest pillars of successful optimization?

    The Role of Onsite Optimization

    “Onsite optimization” covers a lot of ground, but essentially, it’s a system of constructs, rules, and tactics that you can use to modify your site and make it more visible to search engines, as well as more authoritative in those engines’ eyes. Historically, there have been some significant changes to how onsite optimization works—for example, a decade ago, it was neither imperative nor even appropriate to optimize your site for mobile devices. Today, having a non-optimized mobile site is archaic, and can significantly stifle your potential growth. However, by and large, most onsite optimization factors have remained consistent.

    onsite optimization

    (Image Source: SearchEngineWatch)

    The bottom line for onsite optimization is that it sets your site up for the search engine rankings you want. If you’re interested in a fairly exhaustive guide on the subject of onsite optimization, you can check out AudienceBloom’s (Nearly) Comprehensive Guide to Onsite Optimization.

    Why Onsite SEO Could Be in for Massive Changes

    So why are we on the verge of a potential disruption in the world of onsite optimization? There are three factors working together here:

    • Different forms of search. First, you have to recognize that there are different types of search engines entering the game. Personal digital assistants, which would have been considered impossibly futuristic just a few decades ago, are now commonplace, and users are searching in new ways—mobile devices alone have had a dramatic impact on how people use search in the modern world.
    • Advanced data interpretation. If you’ve been plugged into any tech news in the past few years, you know the power of big data and how much insight we’ll be able to gather on users and systems in the near future. More user data means more sophisticated ways of evaluating user experiences, which could lead to further refinement of onsite ranking factors.
    • New types of “sites.” Finally, we have to recognize that what’s considered a “site” may be undergoing a significant evolution. I’ll touch on this more in the next section, but suffice it to say, the traditional website may be on its last legs. How can you perform onsite optimization where there is no site? We’ll explore this idea later on.

    With that being said, let’s explore some of the potential game-changers in the onsite optimization world, some of which could start having a massive effect on how we optimize websites as early as this year.

    App-Based SEO

    The first and potentially most significant trend I want to explore is the development of app-based SEO. Obviously, apps have permeated our society thanks to the popularity of mobile devices and the convenience of app functionality. Since apps don’t require the intermediary step of firing up a web browser, they’re becoming a more popular means of discovering online content and using online-specific functionality.

    What does this have to do with onsite SEO? Everything.

    Existing App SEO

    First, it’s important to acknowledge the amount of app SEO already relevant to today’s users. Apps are starting to serve as an alternative to traditional websites, occasionally offering what websites can’t, but more often offering what websites do, but in a more convenient, device-specific package.

    The fundamental crux of app SEO is optimizing your app to be indexed by Google (and other search engines), much in the same way that onsite optimization ensures your website is indexed. For most apps, this involves setting up communication between your app listing and Google’s search bots, so Google can draw in information like your app name, a simple description, an icon associated with your app, and any reviews. Google can then provide your app (along with an “install” button) in SERPs whenever a user types in a relevant query.

    mobile app seo

    (Image Source: Google)

    There’s also an app SEO feature known as “app deep linking,” but I’m hoping there’s a catchier name for it in the near future. This functionality allows you to structure links that point to interior pages or screens of your app, giving Google the ability to link to those pages or screens directly in search results.

    http url in app

    (Image Source: Google)

    There’s one limitation to this process: users must have the app already installed to see these deep links in their search results. But there’s a solution in beta!

    App Streaming

    Google’s latest brainchild is a functionality called “app streaming,” which allows users to access deep linked content within apps, and sometimes entire app functions themselves, without ever downloading the app to their devices. The premise is somewhat simple; Google hosts these apps, and allows users to use only the relevant portions of them, much in the same way that Netflix streams movies and shows as you’re watching them.

    app streaming

    (Image Source: TechCrunch)

    The concept is even expanding to advertising, which is great for companies that revolve around the use of mobile apps. Companies may allow for an in-results “trial” offer of their apps, giving users a chance to stream the app before they buy it:

    trial offer word search

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    So what does all this mean? It means that apps are developing their own “kind” of onsite optimization, unique from what we’re used to in traditional websites. For now, it might seem like a gimmick, but there’s reason to believe this change could be coming to all of us, sooner than we might think.

    Directional Shift

    The most important factor to remember here is the way consumer trends are developing. Mobile traffic has rocketed past desktop traffic, and there’s no signs of its momentum stopping anytime soon.

    global mobile users

    (Image Source: SearchEngineWatch)

    App adoption is also on an upward trend, correlating strongly with mobile traffic data (as you might have predicted). Because of this, users will demand more app functionality in their search results (however those results might be generated), and search engines will do more to favor apps.

    Could Apps Replace Traditional Websites?

    The most important question for this section is whether all these fancy app SEO features and rising app use could eventually replace traditional websites altogether. Conceptually, apps are just “better” versions of website. They’re locally hosted, so they’re somewhat more reliable, they offer more unique, customizable experiences, they can be accessed directly from your device, sparing you the intermediary step of using a browser, and there’s nothing a website offers that an app can’t.

    But just because apps “can” replace traditional websites, it doesn’t mean they inevitably will, especially with older generations who might be reluctant to adopt apps over the traditional websites they’ve known throughout the entire digital age. Still, even if apps don’t replace traditional sites entirely, they’ll still be significant players in how SEO develops in the future.

    Does Your Business Need an App?

    As a related note to this discussion, you may be wondering if your business “needs” to adopt an app, since they’re becoming so popular and influential in the SEO realm. The answer, currently, is no. Traditional websites are still used by the vast majority of users, and the cost of developing an app is often only worth it if you have a specific need for one as part of your business model, or if there’s significant consumer demand.

    Rich Snippets and Instant Answers

    On another front of development are rich answers, sometimes referred to as instant answers, or Knowledge Graph entries. These are concise answers that Google provides users who search for a simple, answerable query, and they come in a variety of forms. They may be a few lines of explanatory text describing the solution to a problem, or a complex chart, calendar, or graphical depiction, depending on the nature of the query.

    Take a look at these examples:

    google instant answers

    instant answers google search

    Note how the answer in the bottom example contains a citation, with a link pointing to the source of the information. Google draws all its Knowledge Graph information from external sources, and if yours is one of the contributors, you’re going to earn this visibility. Since users are getting the answers they’re looking for, you may not get as much traffic as an ordinary top position, but you will be the most visible in the results.

    The Rise in Rich Answers

    The most important optimization influencer here is the sheer increase in how many rich answers are provided. Google is developing this functionality at a fast rate because it understands the sheer value to users—getting the answer you wanted, immediately, without ever having to click a link, is the next generation of search engines. Just in the past year, there’s been a massive surge in the number of queries that are answered with rich answers, corresponding with Google’s increasing ability to decipher and address complicated user queries.

    growth in rich answers

    (Image Source: StoneTemple)

    Personal digital assistants, too, are capable of providing more direct answers to users. So what does this increased ability to provide direct information mean for onsite optimization?

    Structured Data as a Ranking Signal

    The first possibility is that structured data might become a ranking signal. Google and other search engines depend on websites to use a specific architecture, a structured markup, to provide information that can be used for such answers. Schema.org is a great resource for this, and even amateur coders can implement this markup on a site in relatively little time. Accordingly, Google may start rewarding sites that offer more completely adherent pages, or ones that offer better information.

    John Mueller addressed this recently:

    structured data

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    Competition and Complicating Factors

    There are a handful of factors to consider here that complicate the relationship of onsite optimization to rich answers:

    • The competition factor. There’s only one spot for the top position in a rich answer situation, which means competition is fiercer than ever. You have to provide not only the most relevant answer for a user’s query, but also earn the highest authority out of anyone competing for the spot. This demands more offsite optimization and authority-focused SEO.
    • The decline of organic traffic and traditional SERP entries. The provision of instant answers makes it somewhat less likely that users will click through links. They will also be less likely to see organic search entries further down the list, decreasing the significance of the “traditional” SERP layout, and possibly affecting the relevance of existing onsite factors like title tags and meta descriptions (more on this later).
    • Alternative targets. In the short-term, it’s better to target and provide complex information that Google may not currently be able to provide answers to. However, as the Knowledge Graph becomes more advanced, this will be harder and harder for businesses to do.

    The bottom line here is that directly provided answers are morphing the traditional SERP, the average user experience, and are changing what it takes for your site to be perceived as an authority.

    User Experience Factors

    The bottom line for search engines is to make users happy, and they’re going to evolve as they learn more information about what workers want and need. Technologies are becoming advanced enough to draw in big data about huge swaths of users; this will soon make it possible for Google and other search engines to learn even more about how their users interact with sites. This, in turn, will force webmasters to adopt more onsite changes that favor beneficial user experiences.

    User Behavior and Engagement

    Currently, user behavior serves as a peripheral ranking factor; longer time spent on page is a general indicator of a high-authority or otherwise high-value site, while higher bounce rates is an indicator of much lower authority. In the near future, Google may be able to look at even more specific usability factors as ranking signals, such as how quickly they scrolled through the site, whether or not it appeared as though they were reading content, and in what order they clicked your links.

    User engagement factors may similarly come into play. For example, how quickly a user moves to leave a comment on your blog, or what other apps the user connects to may indicate how authoritative your site is.

    Qualitative Optimization

    These new features, combined with other applications of big data, will make onsite optimization more qualitative in nature. In addition to hitting the mark with the “fundamentals” (some of which are described in the next section), your site will be required to qualitatively please your user base, which will require significant testing and adjustment. For some webmasters, this is nothing new; it’s what’s required for conversion optimization, but soon, search engines may demand it.

    Existing Factors

    So far, I’ve mostly been exploring how new technologies and trends will influence the development of new additions to the onsite optimization world. But what about the onsite optimization strategies that already exist? How are they going to be affected over the next few years? Will they remain the same? Disappear? Evolve? I want to take a quick look at some of the most important factors, and how they might develop with the times:

    • Basic functionality. The “basic” functionality of your site refers to users’ ability to access your site, load all of its content (including videos and images), and consume that content without any significant barriers, across all devices and browsers. As a general concept, this is going to remain identical—you’ll always need your site (or app) to perform. However, those performance standards might change with consumer adoption of new technologies, similar to how mobile devices spurred the necessity of “mobile optimization.”
    • Mobile optimization. This is the perfect segue for mobile optimization, another major tenet of modern onsite optimization. What’s going to happen to mobile optimization? For starters, it’s probably going to stop being a term. We’re a few years away from mobile devices becoming so entrenched in our society that we stop seeing them as “new,” and start seeing mobile optimization as a standard by default. From there, there will probably be even stranger devices and user experiences to start worrying about.
    • URL structures and sitemapping. Currently, search engines demand some level of sitemapping to easily categorize and interpret your site, and a URL structure that’s easy for users to follow (with appropriate names to help search engines understand your page intent). For as long as traditional websites remain alive, URL structures will remain important, and it’s doubtful these standards will change. However, apps will likely demand a new kind of infrastructural mapping, and a replacement for URLs (as all content is hosted within the app).
    • Internal links. Internal links make it easier for users to navigate your site, and help search engines understand the unique relationships between all your pages. I imagine these will remain important to some degree, but with increased emphasis on user experience, this will have to evolve. Your anchor text and link placement will need to be further optimized to improve user experiences (not just stuffed in to make your site a tighter network).
    • Site speed. Site speed is always going to be important, even if traditional websites die and apps take their place. Users are impatient and demanding, and I can’t imagine them becoming less so over time. Regardless of whether they’re trying to access a traditional page of web content or they’re trying to use your app, they need their experience to be immediately gratifying, and it’s up to you to provide that to them.
    • Encryption. User security concerns are growing somewhat consistently, thanks to data breaches and similar scares. Combined with increasing sophistication of cyber-security and ever-evolving threats from hackers, it’s likely that encryption and user security will become greater ranking signals over time.
    • Title tags and meta descriptions. Title tags and meta descriptions are features I’m divided on. On one hand, search engines needs some kind of concise data to let them know what a page’s intention is, and what kind of content a user might expect on that page. On the other hand, traditional SERPs may start to evolve beyond the need for any title and description entries. This is thanks to the rising trend of voice-based search and the provision of direct answers. There will probably be some form of titling and describing, but it may decline in significance since it will influence click-through rates less.
    • Onsite content. Finally, there’s onsite content, which is the amount and quality of content you have on each of your internal pages. Users will grow accustomed to faster content consumption experiences in the near future, so onsite content may start coming into play less when it comes to evaluating the quality of a site. It will always be important, but apps may make content less structured by necessity, and users may prefer more concise experiences.

    These are mostly speculative, based on historical patterns and possible technology developments, so take these predictions with a grain of salt.

    Conclusions

    Over the course of this article, we’ve taken a look at some of the boldest new technologies and consumer trends shaping the future of search, and how those changes could impact what we currently identify as onsite optimization. These may be enlightening, interesting, or amusing to you, but remember the only way to earn the practical value from this piece is to leave with actionable takeaways. If we’re truly on the verge of a new search disruption, you need to be ready for it. SEO favors the competitors who can adapt to the latest trends quickly, and that means taking action with every new development or revelation.

    Key Changes to Watch For

    In an effort to stay ahead of the competition, you need to remain vigilant and keep watch for how these onsite trends develop. Overall, the changes in onsite optimization will reflect a change in the role of traditional websites in general. In the next few years, this change will manifest in three key areas:

    • The rise of app importance. Apps are starting to become more important to users and search visibility in general, and that importance is only going to increase in the next few years. Eventually, that may lead to the demise of the traditional website, leaving “onsite” optimization to the realm of “app” optimization.
    • Prioritization of information. Users are hungry for faster, more accurate, more immediate information, and tech companies want to provide that. Rich answers and personal digital assistants are two examples of technologies attempting to bring this information to users, and future onsite optimization techniques will likely require some provision of this fast, concise, accurate information—even more so than today.
    • Sophistication of user insights. Search engines will have more information on users, which will make the process of onsite evaluation far more complicated (and rewarding for users). That means more experience-based ranking signals, and possibly more ranking factors beyond our direct control, such as greater SERP personalization.

    How Quickly Do You Need to Adapt?

    It’s hard to say exactly when or how these changes will develop—app-based SEO is already alive and well, and companies are starting to take advantage of it for their businesses, but we’re not in any immediate danger of traditional websites going extinct yet. Technology tends to develop faster than most consumers and business owners anticipate, and you certainly don’t want to get left behind, so err on the side of caution by hedging your bets. Invest in select new strategies you feel are pertinent for your site’s visibility, but don’t be too quick to abandon your old techniques. If I had to guess, these changes will probably manifest gradually over the next five years, so you have plenty of time to make your evaluations.

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  5. What Online Marketing Strategies Are Most Effective for SaaS Companies?

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    SaaS companies have their work cut out for them. In theory, the SaaS model is one of the most profitable and scalable types of businesses in the modern world. Assuming you have a good idea and a reasonable profitability basis, there’s nothing stopping you from scaling up a business to the point where your incoming revenue is practically limitless.

    However, most SaaS companies rely on large-scale user bases in order to achieve that level of profitability. When you get to the order of thousands of users, your app is stable enough and your reputation is strong enough that retention and acquisition become child’s play. But every business starts with zero customers, and something needs to close the gap.

    That “something” is marketing, but not all marketing strategies are equally effective, or equally appropriate for a SaaS brand.

    Defining an “effective” marketing strategy

    First, it’s important to understand what makes for an “effective” marketing strategy to begin with. There are many considerations for this, as the process for any given customer to make a purchase and remain a subscriber is fairly complex, and marketing strategies can operate at multiple levels.

    marketing strategy

    (Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)

    The chart above neglects the “retention” phase, after purchase, which is another important consideration for SaaS marketing strategies.

    Your goal, ultimately, is to earn a customer-related benefit that monetarily outweighs the capital you’ve poured into the strategy. This can happen at multiple levels, including:

    • Raising brand awareness.
    • Building a brand reputation.
    • Attracting visitors to your site.
    • Converting visitors to customers.
    • Retaining customers for the long-term.

    Some strategies target all of these goals, while others specialize on one or two. Marketing strategies also range in cost and in time investment. Ultimately, this guide will consider strategies that accomplish as many of these goals as possible, as consistently as possible, for the least amount of total investment (and therefore, highest ROI).

    Key considerations for SaaS companies

    There are some special considerations for marketing in a SaaS business, however.

    • Fast sales cycle. First, most SaaS companies have lightning-fast sales cycles. SaaS subscriptions aren’t necessarily an impulse buy, but they certainly don’t rely on the long back-and-forth exchanges that most B2B operations do. Most rely on immediate conversions, usually with the offer of a free trial (as in the example below). This means marketing needs to have an immediate draw and reach a wide number of users to be effective.

    Fast Sales Cycle Saas Companies

    (Image Source: Zendesk)

    • Customer retention. Customer acquisition is important, but retention is far more valuable. If your churn rate is too high, even a marketing strategy with a high propensity to generate new traffic and customers will fail. An ideal SaaS marketing strategy reaps the best of both worlds.
    • Brand differentiation. There are tons of SaaS companies out there, partially because everyone else has realized what a valuable model SaaS can be. Just take a look at this random sampling of specialized CRM SaaS platforms:

    Brand Differentiation

    (Image Source: Software Advice)

    Your marketing needs to have some mechanism for strongly differentiating your brand.

    • Long-term yield. Remember, SaaS is dependent on long-term gains and profitability over the course of years, not months or weeks. There are many marketing strategies that promise fast, short-term returns, but it’s better to invest in a strategy with a similarly long-term payoff.
    • The fast scalability of SaaS companies means you need to find strategies that can function feasibly well at multiple stages of your growth. Ideally, you’ll be able to adopt them at launch and grow them with your company to the final stages of your growth.
    • Niche specialization. Since there are many niches available for SaaS companies, there are some variations in which marketing strategies are effective for individual companies. However, this guide will focus mostly on strategies that can be useful for any specialized niche.

    With these considerations in mind, let’s explore some of the best all-around strategies a SaaS company can adopt.

    Content Marketing

    I’ve listed content marketing as the first and most effective marketing strategy a SaaS company can adopt. It’s difficult to prove this with numbers, since every campaign is different, but for your investment, content marketing is the strategy that offers the best long-term return in the greatest number of different areas. It operates on every level of customer acquisition—from raising brand awareness to converting visitors and even retaining your existing customer base—and it’s relatively cheap, since it doesn’t require much overhead or specialized technology. Best of all, it’s scalable—meaning it’s effective at every stage of your growth—and it’s perfectly positioned for long-term gains. In fact, the return you see on content marketing should increase exponentially as you invest more and more effort into it.

    Let’s take a look at some of the individual applications content marketing can offer. Keep in mind that some pieces of content will be able to fulfill multiple roles in this list.

    Inbound-focused content

    Inbound-focused content is geared toward getting the greatest number of users to your site. This happens in many contexts, such as building awareness and visibility of your brand, sparking the interest of potential visitors, and clinching the deal by earning an inbound click.

    Accordingly, there are some main considerations your inbound content should focus on:

    • Standing out from the white noise. Your first job is simply getting noticed. You can maximize your chances here by making your content visible in as many places as possible, and by coming up with truly original content topics.
    • Appealing to your target demographics. And your target demographics can’t be “everyone.” Find the target market most likely to buy your product, and gear all your content to them. Otherwise, you’ll attract lots of visitors, but only a fraction of them will be interested in making a purchase.
    • Offering some valuable, practical information. This will ensure that your users’ needs are met adequately, possibly driving them to that fast next step of actually converting.
    • Suggesting your product as a solution. Your content should be geared, in some way, to a problem that your target market faces. If your product is a solution to that problem, you can bet your content will be effective in driving a portion of your readers to a purchase.

    product as solution

    (Image Source: AudienceBloom)

    AudienceBloom is a proud user of inbound-focused content. In fact, you’re reading a piece of it right now! With unique content, focused on providing valuable information and making your readers’ lives easier, you’ll have no trouble attracting more people to your brand. From there, if your solution is valuable enough, the conversion and customer flow will be natural.

    Retention-focused content

    Content is also effective because of its potential to retain audience members who have already become customers. For this, you’ll have a similar but distinct set of priorities. Since you’ve already gotten these visitors to become active subscribers, you need to give them some kind of recurring value with content that features the following qualities:

    • Covering news and presenting new information. If you provide your customers with a stream of updates related to your niche, you’ll accomplish a few key goals in achieving higher retention. First, you’ll give them a value, which will keep them around longer. Second, you’ll showcase your position as a thought leader in the industry.
    • Encouraging further use of the software. Any article that implies, subtly or overtly, that users should keep using your software is a bonus. For example, if your company provides time-tracking software, you could cover topics that suggest the efficiency and value of time-tracking software use.
    • Showcasing share-worthy stories. You can also aim to spark a combination of customer loyalty and the attraction of new customers by posting share-worthy stories, like case studies of real users or some benevolent act your company has made.

    As I mentioned, there can certainly be overlap between these different content functions. I’ve only listed them separately to illustrate the different applications and benefits of content marketing.

    Help and support content

    As a completely separate section of content, your help and support documents will be imperative to keeping your customers around for a longer period of time. If implemented properly as part of your content marketing strategy, it makes your campaign even more effective by simultaneously giving existing customers the resources they need to continue using your software and showing potential new customers your commitment to user experience and customer service.

    SalesForce Support

    (Image Source: SalesForce)

    How you set up your help and support content section is up to you, but the goals are simple:

    • Give users exhaustive resources to navigate your software. Leave no stone unturned here; solve as many problems as you can.
    • Help users by providing multiple routes to solutions. One article hidden away isn’t good enough; feature search options, forums, and FAQ sections to supplement your work and make it as easy as possible to find a satisfactory answer.
    • Make your content visible to both existing and prospective users. This is necessary if you want to build both retention and acquisition.

    Every document you produce here is a permanent addition that bolsters both your acquisition and retention rates.

    SEO-focused content

    I’ll explore SEO a bit more in the next section, but I wanted to mention it in the context of your content marketing strategy, since it’s responsible for a significant chunk of content marketing’s value. If you optimize your onsite content pieces for SEO, with proper protocols for title tags, meta descriptions, headers, body content, etc., you’ll earn greater domain authority, you’ll rank higher for search terms related to your business, and you’ll earn more search traffic as a result.

    Overall return

    With all these angles, the power of content marketing should be clear. Requiring a minimum investment, lasting forever, and offering a compounding return as you grow your content marketing strategy, content marketing meets all the goals and accounts for nearly all the challenges I mentioned in the introduction. In the long term, it offers the highest ROI of any marketing strategy for SaaS companies.

    SEO

    SEO makes the list for many of the same reasons that content marketing did, and that’s no coincidence; the two strategies are fundamentally related. Content marketing serves as fuel for an SEO campaign, so with only a handful of additional strategies, you can earn powerful results on both fronts. Like content marketing, SEO is relatively inexpensive to execute, straightforward in its concept, and it offers compounding returns over time.

    The main idea here is to increase your domain authority so you achieve higher visibility in search engines. That higher visibility will lead to more search traffic, which will give your site more visitors. And since it mostly relies on digital constructs, these position changes are semi-permanent, and you’ll continue reaping the rewards indefinitely. Let’s take a look at the main points of the strategy.

    Onsite optimization

    Onsite optimization is all about making sure the main content and structure of your site meets certain thresholds and standards set by search engines. Doing this not only makes sure your site is seen and “indexed” by search engines, but also maximizes your chances of search engines “understanding” what your site is about, correlating it with appropriate keywords and topics.

    I’ve written about onsite optimization extensively before, so I won’t dig into the details, but know that with a handful of basic changes and some ongoing upkeep work, you can position your site to rank higher for relevant search terms.

    onsite optimization factors

    (Image Source: AudienceBloom)

    Ongoing onsite content

    Google likes to see sites with ongoing streams of content; it shows they care about their users. Not to mention it adds more pages of your site that Google can index, maximizing the spread of your potential search visibility, and it allows you to target specific keywords and keyword phrases that might be relevant to your audience. I already wrote about different goals your content has from a user experience perspective; here, your goals with content are earning prime search ranking opportunities, which could potentially send thousands of visitors per month your way.

    Offsite content and link building

    The third, and arguably most powerful element of an SEO strategy is offsite content and link building. I’ve written about link building extensively as well, but I want to touch on the value of the strategy as it relates to SaaS companies. The idea here is to guest post content on high-authority external sites. These links serve as third-party indicators that your site is authoritative, and help your site rank higher in searches. And, on a secondary level, they can send direct referral traffic from these high-authority sources to your site. As most of these links are permanent, you’ll reap these benefits continuously for several months (at a minimum) for every new offsite post you publish.

    Overall return

    Conciseness prohibits me from exploring the true value of SEO as a strategy, with all its complexities and variables you may encounter. But on a surface level, the takeaway for SaaS companies is this: with a relatively small investment, you can earn thousands of new visitors per month (and possibly build your reputation in the process, especially with high-authority external sources vouching for you).

    Social Media Marketing

    Social media marketing is another marketing strategy especially valuable for SaaS companies. It’s completely free to establish an organic presence on the vast majority of social media platforms, and there’s no limits or boundaries for the type of communication you can facilitate in the strategy. You can use social media to gain more brand visibility, cement relationships with your existing clients, build your reputation, and even provide support to your current customer base. It’s scalable, focuses on both acquisition and retention, and provides accumulated benefits over time—making it ideal as a SaaS-focused strategy.

    Even better, social media marketing exists in a complementary harmony with both SEO and content marketing. As you’ll see (and have seen), these three strategies complement and enhance each other. Separately, they’re incredibly valuable opportunities for acquisition and retention, and together, their effects multiply even further.

    Brand awareness

    One of the most important factors driven by social media is brand awareness. When you post actively and work to establish your presence in outside areas, you’ll start gradually attracting new followers to your brand. People who have never seen it before will start to become familiar with it at a distance, and the followers you do acquire will learn more about what makes your brand unique.

    unique brand value

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    It’s hard to get to 15,000 followers (or more) in a short timeframe, so instead try to focus on incremental goals. Set up an active, consistent posting schedule, then begin an outreach program. You’ll want to participate in conversations related to your area of expertise, work with influencers in your industry to achieve a higher level of visibility, and even engage with targeted individuals who might be a good fit for your brand. You can also use hashtags, contests, and viral content to earn more shares and become visible in alternative ways.

    The ultimate goal of visibility is to inch people down the stages of the buying cycle. Awareness gets them closer to a visit, which gets them closer to a conversion. Feel free to engage in tactics that push for these stages—such as calls-to-action that request user signups—but be wary not to overload your campaign with advertising, or your users will begin to distrust you.

    Content and SEO benefits

    Social media is also valuable as a tool to boost the effectiveness of both your content marketing and SEO strategies. First, let’s take a look at how it makes content marketing more effective. Your primary goal here is to use social media as an amplification outlet for your work; people won’t naturally stumble across your blog, so whenever you publish a new post, make the announcement on social media. You can also syndicate previous works in the future, maximizing their visibility and possible return. If your work is good, you’ll facilitate more social shares, which will amplify the reach of your content even further.

    The SEO benefits of social media marketing function along similar lines, capitalizing on this ability to make content more visible. Social shares of your content function as secondary signals to Google’s algorithm, but the real power here is the propensity for link building. The more high-authority links you have pointing to your domain, the higher your authority will grow, but it’s hard to earn those links naturally. Through social media syndication, you can maximize your chances of a piece of content on your site “going viral,” achieving thousands of shares and possibly millions of newsfeed impressions. In that pool of potential visitors, it’s inevitable that you’ll earn at least a few strong, natural links—as long as your content is link worthy.

    Customer service

    Many SaaS brands also user social media as a customer service tool, providing a convenient and functional alternative mode of support (and a proactive way to announce service schedules, downtime, and other proactive measures). Some have even created a separate, dedicated account for this purpose.

    The advantages of social media customer service are powerful:

    • You can be where your customers want to be. Your customers are already on social media, so adding a support channel means extra convenience for them.
    • You can address many concerns at once. By posting regular FAQs, helpful articles, facts, announcements, and other information, you can keep your audience in the know and update the majority of your users at once, helping you maximize user retention.
    • All your work is publicly visible. This is key, especially with marketing as our primary consideration here. Any time you work with a customer on social media to resolve an issue, every other social media user—even non-subscribers—can see it. Positive customer service interactions could be the tipping point in landing a final user decision.
    • You can get ahead of potential disasters. Things aren’t always going to go smoothly or perfect, but social media gives you an outlet to get ahead of those disasters by announcing what’s going on, answering user questions, and sometimes, just apologizing.

    Though veering slightly from the strict definition of “marketing,” customer service is a powerful angle to use in your social media strategy that lends strength to the overall approach.

    Community building

    SaaS communities are powerful for both customer retention and acquisition. When a user feels as though he “belongs” with your brand, he’ll never want to stop subscribing—giving him a sense of community facilitates the development of those feelings of belonging. An outside user looking in will see the comfort and advantages of the community (and at later stages, its sheer size), and may be persuaded to subscribe on that basis alone.

    You’ll see this as a common tactic in many SaaS companies, some of whom have created onsite forums and engagement platforms to encourage intra-community discussion.

    community building

    (Image Source: SalesForce)

    Still, the best way to develop a thriving community is through social media. Make people feel like they belong to your brand by engaging them one-on-one; respond to their comments, ask them questions, and personally thank them for their contributions. They’ll remember you, and other users will see your interactions. Over time, you’ll recruit more and more followers, all of whom can converse with each other as much as they converse with you, and your community will start to take shape.

    Overall return

    In the early stages, much like content marketing and SEO, you’ll be hard-pressed to turn a meaningful profit. However, if you remain consistent and focused in your strategy, there’s no reason why you can’t cultivate a community of thousands to engage with your brand. The enhancement benefits to your content and SEO strategies alone make social media worth the effort—but add in the customer service angle and the community building power, and you’ll calculate that even a few hours of work per day can be enough to earn you thousands of new visitors per month (and strengthened relationships with your existing subscriber base).

    Paid Advertising

    Paid advertising is a popular online marketing channel, so I wanted to address it and its possible advantages for SaaS companies. In paid advertising, you’ll select a medium (usually something like Google or Facebook, with prominent visibility and targeting options), they’ll post an ad, and you’ll pay a fixed price for every click you receive.

    This is a cool strategy, and one that can earn you a decent ROI, but there are a handful of disadvantages for SaaS companies that make it less than ideal as a long-term marketing solution:

    Competition.

    Most other SaaS companies are already doing this. Try to get involved, and you’ll have a hard time standing out in the crowd.

    Saas Competition Research

    (Image Source: Google)

    • Cost. Thanks in part to competition and in part to rising overall PPC costs, you’ll end up paying a hefty monthly fee to support your advertising.
    • Linear growth. No matter how much you scale, your investment will always return the same amount; you aren’t investing in long-term growth with PPC the way you can with the aforementioned strategies, because as soon as you stop paying, the ads are taken down.

    For these reasons, I don’t recommend paid advertising as a long-term marketing strategy in SaaS. However, it does have some powerful advantages at the start of a SaaS company’s growth, including giving you the ability to target a specific audience and ensuring a positive ROI early on in your campaign. It’s definitely worth considering as a short-term addition to your growth strategy.

    Conclusion

    There are a number of strategies I haven’t mentioned that can be valuable for SaaS companies, including email marketing and affiliate marketing, but the ones I outlined above are bigger and more important as overall constructs. Together, content marketing, SEO, and social media form a powerful, interrelated, complementary package of marketing tactics that provide the best long-term returns in both customer acquisition and customer retention. And while paid advertising often yields a positive ROI, it pales in comparison to inbound strategies when looking at the long term.

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  6. Everything a Blog Post Needs for Ideal SEO

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    You’ve got your blogging strategy in place, but are you doing everything you need to do for SEO?

    SEO doesn’t just “happen.” Yes, it’s true that having a content marketing strategy in place already puts you in a better position to gain rank for keywords relevant to your industry, as long as you stay consistent with your posting strategy. However, you can’t just write “any” type of content and throw it onto the web haphazardly. There’s an important series of steps and considerations you’ll need to take if you want to ensure your blogging strategy is doing everything it can for your SEO campaign.

    The purpose of this guide is to look at all of these “optimization elements” on a per-post level, guiding you in crafting perfectly optimized web posts every time you’re ready to publish a new article.

    Elements of an SEO Strategy

    First, let me take a step back and explain that SEO is a complicated, multifaceted strategy that unfolds over a number of different channels and tactics. Search Engine Land recently tried to condense this broad spectrum of factors to a single infographic:

    SEO Strategy Elements

    (Image Source: Search Engine Land)

    Ultimately, your onsite optimization, your onsite content, your offsite content, and your peripheral strategies (like link building and local SEO) will all factor into how you rank for keyword phrases relevant to your brand. That means your content is only responsible for a fraction of your overall results—a significant fraction, but a fraction nonetheless.

    Similarly, there are overall strategic factors that will come into play in your content strategy that aren’t covered here, such as where you publish your content, how you set up your blog, how you syndicate your posts, and so on. This guide will tell you how to optimize your individual posts to maximize their success—but that alone is only one part of your overall SEO strategy.

    With that in mind, let’s start digging into what is it that makes any given blog post “optimized.”

    Basic Strategy

    Before I start looking at the individual content and technical factors that make an individual piece optimized, we need to know what we’re optimizing for, specifically. A handful of optimization factors are standard best practices you can apply to any post exactly the same way, but the majority of them are dependent on your specific targets. Accordingly, you’ll need to outline what it is you’re trying to achieve before you start trying to achieve it.

    • Choose the right keywords. Your first job is to target the right keywords. Now, keyword strategy has changed significantly in the past several years, so don’t jump into this with an old-school SEO approach. Your goal here isn’t to choose a specific keyword target, stuff that keyword into your articles with reckless abandon, and stop at nothing until you rank for that keyword. Instead, thanks to Hummingbird and semantic search, you’ll need to take your keyword targets with a grain of salt. Hummingbird interprets the intention behind a user query, rather than looking for an exact match keyword, so you can’t rely on one-to-one matches and repetition to earn you a keyword rank. Instead, you’ll use keyword research to identify areas of high search volume and low competition that present valuable ranking opportunities. Then, you’ll integrate those keywords (along with synonyms and related terms) into your articles—which I’ll cover in more detail later. Google’s Keyword Planner is great for this.

    Google Keyword Planner

    (Image Source: Shout Me Loud)

     

    • Choose the right topic. Because semantic search makes long-tail keyword phrases and user interests more important than individual keyword mapping, you’ll also have to take a step back and consider what topics you want to write. Take a look at your competitors, industry publications, and your newsfeeds overall. What are people talking about? What aren’t people talking about that they should be? Are there any topics that seem especially popular and ripe for coverage? Are there any alternative angles you can take or new data you can present? The main question in the back of your mind should be, “what would I want to search for if I was in their position?” The best topic ideas tend to be ones that are original (so there’s low competition), valuable/practical (so it appeals to a wide audience), and topical (so there’s lots of people searching for it, or something similar).
    • Write for your audience. Finally, remember that you shouldn’t write primarily for search engines. As much as it’s valuable to find keywords and topics with a high potential return and frame your posts in a way that maximizes their visibility in search engines, your users still need to be your first priority—or you’ll turn them off of your brand and all your efforts will be for naught. When you’re shaping your lists of keywords and topics to explore, keep this in mind, and be sure to make changes as appropriate. During the course of writing, editing, and publishing, you’ll also want to strike a balance here—don’t get too carried away by focusing exclusively on search optimization.

    At this point, you should have a good idea what keywords, topics, and demographics you want to target, and we can start looking at how to optimize for them.

    Content Features

    First, let’s look at the content features of your post. These are somewhat more approachable for novices, as they can be controlled during the writing and production process, and require virtually no technical expertise.

    Write a concise, powerful headline

    Your headline is going to serve a number of important functions, so you need to nail it. It’s one of the first things Google looks at when evaluating the topic of your piece, but even more importantly, it’s what most users will see when they encounter your article for the first time. In search engines, you’ll have more control over this “first impression” with title tags (which I’ll get into in the technical section), but don’t forget, users will be encountering your blog post on your actual blog, and on social media as well.

    Generally, you’ll want a headline that:

    • Is unlike any other headline out there. Otherwise, it won’t stand out.
    • Accurately describes your content. Otherwise, Google won’t index it properly and users will be disappointed.
    • Features one or more of your target keywords. This helps you rank for your targets.
    • Imply some value. Users only click on content that appears valuable in some way.
    • Conveys a sense of urgency. Get users to click immediately, or you’ll lose them forever.

    Powerful Headline

    (Image Source: AudienceBloom)

    Take a look at the headline I’ve cited above; it’s unique, offers a concise description (with a target keyword phrase), a value (for agencies), and urgency due to its importance.

    Include headers and sub-sections

    Your content should be broken down into sub-sections, no matter what your primary focus is. Even a short-form post should have at least a few paragraphs, and those paragraphs should be marked by headers. These headers and subsections help users visually identify how your article is organized, and help them skim your content; skimming isn’t ideal, but they’re going to do it anyway, so you might as well help them out. Your headers will also come in handy for helping Google to understand what your content is and how it’s organized—more on this when I touch on H1 header tags in the technical section.

    Prioritize introductory sentences                      

    The first sentences of your paragraphs and sub-sections get extra priority when Google crawls your content, so make them count. Take the one in this sub-section as an example; it clearly describes the main point without giving everything away up front. Include a keyword or two if you can, but focus most of your attention on setting up the sentences that follow. This is also important for users who are trying to speed read your article to get the gist of what you’re saying.

    Include images and videos

    Visual content is a major trend in the content marketing world, and for good reason. Posts with images and videos get far more shares and click-throughs than posts without them, users are increasingly spending time seeking images and videos rather than written content, and since visual content is harder to produce, there’s still a competitive advantage in being one of the few companies in your niche to pursue them. Having visuals in your content will make your piece bigger, better, more visible, and with a higher potential for going viral. Try to include at least one visual element in every piece you publish, preferably something original.

    Include your keyword phrase and conversational variations throughout your text

    This is a bit tricky, since there’s no “golden rule” for keyword inclusion. Generally, you’ll want to include your target keyword phrases at least a handful of times throughout the course of your document, but you also don’t want to run the risk of keyword stuffing. To avoid this risk, please your users, and make the most of the Hummingbird algorithm all at the same time, rely on conversational variations of your keyword phrases instead. Try to incorporate general terms for your target keywords, and talk about them in natural ways. Think of it like a date. Don’t try so hard to impress Google that you end up seeming awkward; just be yourself.

    Aim for long-form content when you can

    There’s no single rule that dictates the “ideal” length of a blog post, though we’ve taken a stab at trying to figure this out before. The truth is, both long-form and short-form content have advantages in SEO. On average, standout short-form pieces are more likely to earn links and shares. However, standout long-form pieces are more likely to, when they earn links and shares, earn far more links and shares. That’s a mouthful, but the takeaway is this—each has unique advantages and disadvantages, but if you do the work necessary to make a long-form piece successful, long-form has higher payoffs. Strive for length, as long as you can make that length valuable (no fluff).

    Proofread

    This is such a basic step I shouldn’t have to mention it. But the sad fact is, I do have to mention it. Though Google doesn’t penalize things like grammatical inconsistencies and poor spelling, these errors can have an indirect effect on your rank. Plus, if you’re suspected of using unnatural language, you could earn a direct penalty, and that’s not even mentioning the poor user experience effects it can have.

    Meta Data and Technical Factors

    Now, let’s look at some of the more technical factors of post optimization. These aren’t as technical as, say, creating a new navigation, or trying to optimize your site for mobile devices, but they have more to do with how the post is structured and interpreted by search crawlers than they do with your actual content.

    Write a catchy title tag

    Your title tag is what appears in Google search results as the blue hyperlinked text in every entry. Here’s a perfect example:

    Title Tag

    (Image Source: Google)

    As a general rule, as long as you have a good headline, you can use your headline as a double for the title tag. You might also want to include some text at the end, the way the example uses “REI expert advice” to optimize for a brand term and some peripheral keywords after the relatively short title. Feel free to include an addition keyword here, but be mindful that you aren’t over-optimizing.

    Generally, your title tag should be 50-60 characters. Any more than that, and Google will cut you off. Remember, you’ll also want to optimize your title tag for inbound users, making your title as appealing as possible to maximize click throughs.

    Write an accurate, descriptive meta tag

    Your meta description is a tag-team partner for your title tag. Here, you’ll have 150-160 characters to work with, so you get more breathing room and more opportunities to naturally include some of your target keyword phrases. This is the written text that appears under the title and link (see the example in the preceding section), so it’s another opportunity to capitalize on user interests on SERPs. It’s not as important as a title tag, for search engines or for users, but don’t neglect it.

    Include H1, H2, H3, etc. tags

    In my section on content considerations, I outlined the importance of including sub-sections with clearly marked headers. There’s also a technical component to this—you’ll need to include these bits of information with header tags for search engines to index and understand your content properly. Include an H1 tag for your first header, an H2 tag for your second, and so on, and remember to be as descriptive as possible.

    Header Tags

    (Image Source: Hobo)

    Ensure your URL is appropriate

    Most modern platforms will take the title of your article and make that the URL; this is good enough for most SEO strategies. There are just a handful of bad practices you’ll want to avoid to ensure your URLs are optimized for search engines and for users. For example, you’ll want to avoid excessive numbers and characters at the end of your URL string; these are incoherent and make it hard for users to share or remember links. You’ll need to include a breadcrumbs trail (though this is usually not an issue), and you’ll want to include at least one strong keyword in a useful description at the end of your URL.

    URL Rewrite

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Optimize your visual elements

    You know you need to include images and videos for SEO, but you also have to optimize them so search engines can understand them. These optimization tactics won’t increase the rank of your page directly, but will help your images and videos achieve higher visibility, which will indirectly drive more traffic to your page (and site).

    For images, this means giving the image an accurate title, resizing it so it can load quickly and properly, using alt tags to describe the image, and including a caption so your users know why you’ve chosen the image in the first place. It also helps to align your images with the edges of your piece.

    For video, this can be more complicated or less complicated depending on your goals. For example, if you’re merely embedding another person’s YouTube video, you don’t really have to do anything other than embedding it. However, if you’re running your own video content marketing strategy, you should engage in separate best practices for optimizing video so they can be found through search.

    Interlink your piece with other content you’ve written

    This is a seemingly minor step, but it’s an important one. Reference other posts you’ve written and other pages of your site in the body of each blog post you publish (within reason; usually three to five is plenty). Google favors sites whose pages are easy to get to; as a general rule, no page should ever be further than three clicks away from any other page. Interlinking helps strengthen the navigational “tightness” of your site, and furthermore, encourages users to spend more time on your site by leading them to different areas.

    Ensure your content is compatible and loads quickly on all devices and browsers

    This is another basic step, but you’d be surprised how many people miss it. Especially with embedded images and videos, you’ll want to do a “dry run” of your content and make sure it loads correctly on all types of devices and browsers. There are many tools for this, such as BrowserStack, so there’s no excuse not to investigate before finalizing your publication.

    Encourage subscriptions and comments

    The more your users engage with your piece, the more they’ll be willing to share it, the longer they’ll spend reading it, and the more authority you’ll earn for your efforts. Encourage your users to engage with your material by making it easy for people to leave comments (and by writing material that facilitates discussion in the first place).

    comment box

    (Image Source: AudienceBloom)

    You’ll also want to encourage your users to subscribe, to build your recurring readership and give a visibility boost to any pieces you write in the future. These can be RSS feeds or email newsletter subscriptions—anything that keeps your users coming back for more.

    Include share buttons

    Contrary to popular belief, social shares don’t pass authority the way that backlinks do. There’s some evidence to suggest that social signals are correlated with higher ranks, but it’s more likely that social shares are an indirect ranking signal. The more users share your piece, the more visible it becomes, and the more links it’s liable to earn. Those links are what are actually passing the authority. Because of this, social shares are important for SEO, just not in a direct way. It’s still in your best interest to capitalize on this correlational phenomenon, so make it easier for your users to share your content by including social share prompts at the bottom of every post.

    social media share buttons

    (Image Source: AudienceBloom)

    Offsite Content Considerations

    Up to this point, we’ve been examining considerations for onsite posts, but don’t forget that onsite content should only be one part of your SEO and content strategy. You also need to focus on optimizing your offsite content if you want to be successful.

    Fortunately, the same rules I’ve extensively outlined above are going to apply here (for the most part). For example, you’ll still need a good topic, a catchy headline, proper formatting, etc., but many of the technical factors are going to be out of your control. If you’re working with a high authority publisher, you can pretty much rest assured that these technical fixtures will be taken care of for you. However, there are a handful of special considerations you’ll need to bear in mind when producing and submitting offsite content:

    • Choose topics relevant for your publisher. When you choose topics, you’ll have to bear your audience, your goals, and your brand in mind, but when publishing offsite, there’s another variable you’ll have to consider—the publisher. During the early stages, this isn’t much of an issue; you’ll be primarily focusing on lower-authority publishers who won’t be picky about the types of content you submit and publishers well-aligned with your industry. But as you gain more experience and start working with publishers who have audiences in the hundreds of thousands or more, be prepared for some pushback and a delicate balancing act in optimizing a post that will still be accepted.
    • Include one strong link back to your domain. For the most part, one link is plenty. Google judges backlinks from any given domain on kind of a sliding scale; the first link from one source passes a ton of new authority, but any subsequent links on that same source will pass lower amounts of authority. Even worse, if you try to deliberately stuff your article with backlinks, you’ll either be rejected by the publisher outright or you’ll be penalized by Google for spamming links—not a pretty picture. Instead, make sure your link is valuable and relevant for your audience.
    • Optimize your link’s anchor text. You’ll also need to optimize the anchor text for your link—the text in which your link is embedded. Old-school SEO practices dictate that you should include your keyword phrase here, but this practice is somewhat obsolete. Instead, your text should be optimized to describe what it is your link is pointing to. For example, I could introduce another blog by saying, “I discuss more about content marketing in my recent blog post on finding competitive advantages with content.” Notice how the hyperlinked text is overtly and sensibly descriptive, and naturally contains a couple of keywords that could be associated with the piece.
    • Be aware of special meta data considerations. Your source of choice may have certain preferences or certain systems that prevent you from creating your own meta data or otherwise have strict standards on what data can be created. For example, they may mandate you create a tagline, but take charge of providing all titles and descriptions themselves. This isn’t as important as you might think, since this is an article on their site, not yours, and they have a vested interest in getting as much traffic as possible. Don’t be afraid to relinquish some control here.

    You’ll also need to be aware that different publishers will have different systems, processes, and standards. You’ll have to adapt if you want to make the most of all of them.

    Consistency and Adaptation

    Now that you know the ins and outs of how to optimize a blog post for SEO, there are just two more general rules you’ll need to follow to be successful. The first is a rule of consistency. You can’t pick and choose when you follow these best practices, or only follow some of them, if you want to succeed in the long run. You need to apply these optimization tactics to every piece you publish, no matter what. Overall, these tactics will help you write better, more valuable user-focused content, and the few technical tweaks you need to make should only take you a few minutes each to complete. It’s well worth the extra investment, but only if you do so consistently.

    The other rule is one of adaptation. People don’t produce perfect content on the first try, ever. You won’t write perfect titles or meta descriptions, and you won’t target the “perfect” set of keywords in your first run. Give your strategy some time to marinate and prove its worth, but if something’s not working, you can’t be afraid to change it. Pick a variable, make an adjustment, and see if things approve. Repeat as necessary until you start seeing the results you want.

    With all these practices in place, you should have complete control over your blog optimization strategy. Though it’s only one piece of the SEO puzzle, it’s a powerful one, and you should start to reap the rewards in mere weeks.

    Want more information on content marketing? Head over to our comprehensive guide on content marketing here: The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy.

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  7. Are We on the Verge of the Next Great Search Disruption?

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    Okay, so we all know that the search world is constantly evolving. It’s changed, radically, in many different ways since its general inception in the mid-1990s. Most of these changes, however, have been slow and gradual improvements to the core, original search engine algorithm. Search experts and marketers were quick to note when these things happened; for example, when Panda was released, 11 percent of queries were affected, and marketers couldn’t help noticing this extreme volatility because they were watching their ranks closely.

    Panda Effect

    (Image Source: Search Engine Land)

    But users didn’t really notice this volatility—to the average user, the changes and improvements in search are so gradual they’re barely noticeable, the same way it’s hard to tell when a child is growing when you see him/her every day.

    What Constitutes a Disruption?

    Because of this incremental phenomenon, it’s tough to categorize what might count as a search engine “disruption.” Usually, a tech disruption happens all at once—when a new product is released, a new trend takes off, or a new company emerges to challenge the norm. Now that all the norms of search are pretty much in place, the minor “disruptions” we’ve had so far (usually in the form of Google updates) can’t really claim to have that much impact. User search behavior has changed much in the past 20 years, but again, it’s done so incrementally.

    Still, knowing that, the search world may be on the verge of a major disruption in the truest sense—a new set of phenomena that may turn the nature of online search on its head. And it’s already starting to take place.

    Artificial Intelligence on Two Fronts

    Disruption is coming in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), and in two distinct modes of operation, it’s already here:

    • AI is powering diverse new types of virtual assistants. These include programs like Siri, Cortana, and Google Now, and are becoming more popular modes of search at an astounding rate.
    • AI is beginning to handle more search engine updates. Machine learning algorithms like RankBrain are finally starting to emerge as the future of search engine updating.

    So on one hand, you have AI interfering with the way users are searching, and on the other, you have AI taking over the updating process for search engines.

    Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and how they could be considered disruptive.

    Virtual Assistants

    Chances are, you’ve used a virtual assistant at least once in your life, and in the near future, you’ll find yourself using them even more. Consider how these programs could cause the next major search disruption:

    • Voice search popularity. First, it’s important to address the rising popularity of voice search in general. By some estimates, voice-based searches have gone from zero to over 50 billion searches per month. That’s a huge jump, and it’s only going to get bigger. That means more people are using colloquial phrases and forgoing traditional search engines entirely.

    LSA Insider

    (Image Source: LSA Insider)

    • Cross-realm search. It’s also important to realize that most virtual assistants aren’t limited to one realm of search. For example, Cortana and Siri will search the Internet, your local device, your online accounts, and even files within your local device for your search queries. Search is no longer exclusively online, and the lines between online and offline are starting to blur.
    • User intent and semantic capabilities. Virtual assistants are also becoming more adept at recognizing natural language and user intent, which means it’s going to be harder than ever to “optimize” anything in specific ways, and users will have hyper-focused intentions when looking for solutions or content.
    • On-the-go searching. Virtual assistants are also driving more mobile and on-the-go searches, which is changing the way people form queries. They need more immediate, location-based answers, rather than the products of premeditated keyword-based research queries of old.

    Machine Learning in Search

    On the other front of AI development, you have new machine learning algorithms working to replace the previously manual job of improving search engines. This has started out small, with a modification to Hummingbird known as RankBrain, but we can expect to see bigger, better versions of these machine learning algorithms in place in the near future. There are three key ways it could be a disruptor:

    • Micro-updates. RankBrain doesn’t come up with major changes and then push them to a live environment. It runs through tons of micro-updates on a constant basis, meaning that incremental improvement is going to happen on an even more transformative level.
    • Unpredictable paths of development. Since human beings won’t be in control of algorithm updates forever, machine learning algorithms could take searches down new, unfamiliar paths of development—some of which may look very different to today’s average user. Entire constructs and norms may be fundamentally overwritten.
    • Rate of change. Perhaps what’s most scary about the idea of machine learning is the sheer pace at which it can develop. With algorithms perfecting themselves and perfecting how to perfect themselves, the pace of development may skyrocket, leaving us marketers in the dust.

    Key Takeaways

    Since these technologies are still being developed, it’s hard to estimate to what degree they’ll be able to redefine the norms of user searches. However, early indications show these two forms of AI to be powerful, popular, and for lack of a less clichéd phrase, game-changing. As a marketer, you can’t prepare for the future in any concrete way, since even the technology developers aren’t sure where it’s going to go from here, but you can prepare yourself by remaining flexible. Hedge your bets with lots of long-term strategies, try to jump on new trends before your competitors can, and always be willing to adapt.

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  8. 7 Problems Facing Small Businesses in Modern Online Marketing

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    It’s almost impossible to survive as a small business in the modern world without some kind of online marketing strategy, even if that’s just a website and a basic social media presence. Assuming you could build up enough foot traffic and reputation in the physical world, you’ll still have to deal with competitors who offer everything you do, plus the online visibility component.

    But getting started with an online marketing strategy (and managing one long-term) isn’t exactly straightforward, nor is it easy, even for an experienced entrepreneur. The truth is, small businesses are facing some hard challenges in the online marketing world. Fortunately, there are always alternatives and workarounds:

    1. Budget.

    First off, marketing can be expensive. There are many cost-efficient ways to market your business, but even then, you’ll be spending hundreds of dollars a month at a minimum to start seeing results. For many small businesses, especially newer ones, this is a crippling additional expense. Plus, in the first few months of your execution, you may have to deal with a negative ROI or break even until you learn how to make the changes necessary to become profitable. Don’t write off marketing because it seems like an unnecessary expenditure; even though it demands additional investment up front, it will pay off if you’re willing to grow your strategy. This is an investment, not an expense.

    2. Strategic Basis.

    As a small business owner, you’ve decided to start online marketing. You have a budget of $2,000 per month, and you’re excited about the potential benefits you’ll see. But what exactly do you do with that money? Do you start with a website and start building arms of your strategy around it? Do you distribute that money evenly across many strategies, or invest exclusively in one to maximize its potential payoff? There’s no one answer to these strategic questions, especially at the beginning of your campaign, when you don’t have any historical data. Though it might be scary, the best thing to do is pick a direction and run with it—you’ll always have time to change later.

    3. Time Investment.

    The time investment is another concern of small business owners, on two levels. On the individual level, it takes several hours to plan, execute, and even understand a marketing campaign. Even if you’re working with an agency or another external partner, the time burden can be significant. On a broader level, most online marketing campaigns only pay off significantly in the long-term; for example, it’s usually several months before a content marketing strategy or SEO campaign starts to pay off. For small businesses in need of more immediate revenue, this is disconcerting.

    4. Trusting an Expert.

    There are thousands of self-proclaimed marketing experts available on the web. Some are individual consultants, some are freelancers, and some are agencies. Each of them claims to have the “secret” to marketing success, but each offers a different price level and very different range of services. As a small business owner without much dedicated expertise in this area, it can be challenging to sort out what constitutes a “good” marketing strategy from a “bad” one. Schemes are always a problem, to the point where Google has several support pages dedicated to helping users understand these schemes.

    Link Schemes

    (Image Source: Google)

    5. Competition.

    Online marketing is popular for a reason; it’s effective. If you’re entering the game for the first time, you’re going to face a wealth of competition, the most concerning being from well-established businesses who have longer histories and bigger budgets than you do.

    Finding a way to beat these competitors can be tough, especially when you’re just starting out.   You may need to be selective about the strategies you use, or find a specific niche to get a good angle. Otherwise, your already-tight budget is going to be stretched thin, and you’ll have a hard time breaking a profit.

    Competition Research

    6. Analysis.

    Small business owners are usually inexperienced when it comes to marketing analysis—they may look at a statistical report and not know what questions to ask, or how to make sense of the data. Because of this, it’s easy to misinterpret the data, or even to draw the wrong data in the first place. To make matters worse, you won’t have much historical data on your company at all, giving you no basis for comparison. The best thing you can do here is rely on multiple external sources and don’t be afraid to experiment.

    7. Adaptation.

    The marketing realm is changing all the time, with new trends and technologies to consider. The most successful marketers are the ones who see these changes and are able to adapt to them, even though it’s easier to stick to the same old strategies you’re used to. Since your attention will be on developing your small business, it’s hard to dedicate enough focus to adapting your marketing strategy to new circumstances, but it’s a major priority if you want to succeed.

    If you’re facing some—or all—of these online marketing challenges as a small business owner, you can at least take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone. Again, these problems won’t go away immediately, and there are no shortcuts to fix them, but they can be addressed, and reasonably, with the right ambition and direction. One by one, as you correct or compensate for these challenges, you’ll find your marketing potential growing in a concretely measurable and consistent way.

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  9. Why Are Local Business Cards Showing Up in Search Results?

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    Google never stops coming up with new improvements, but its latest addition to local search is somewhat surprising. Just last year, Google revolutionized local search by streamlining the “3-pack” format across both desktop and mobile devices, and now it’s tinkering with new functions, such as purchasing plane tickets and discovering tourist attractions in new cities.

    So what’s the latest and greatest that Google has to offer?

    Local Business Cards

    Try not to take the title too literally; Google isn’t pulling in business card information from local realtors and professional networkers. Instead, there’s a new kind of image- and information-based carousel that provides searchers with a more in-depth look at local businesses.

    Local Business Cards

    (Images Source: SearchEngineLand)

    Notice the carousel of small information cards just below the traditional link, and to the left of the Knowledge Graph box. Each of these boxes is filled with company-submitted information, including still images, animations/videos, copy, and links. It appears to be updated based on time, the way Twitter feeds used to, and it’s been confirmed that Google is not drawing this information from MyBusiness, social feeds, or anywhere else. The feature works on both mobile and desktop devices, though it was designed to appeal specifically to mobile users. In the mobile format, these “business cards” appear under the Knowledge Graph box, rather than to the left of it. Users may also “share” the content available in these cards.

    It should be noted that this functionality is currently a test, possibly stemming from a similar feature, Candidate Cards, which rolled out just a few weeks ago. However, if the test goes well, it’s likely that Google will implement this on a full scale.

    Unanswered Questions

    The big unanswered question for this feature is whether or not Google will decide to roll it out to all local businesses. But let’s assume for a minute that it will.

    • Will this be available to national or large enterprises? This will likely apply to the independently owned local coffee shop, but what about the local Starbucks across the street from it? Both companies will have Knowledge Graph boxes and will appear somewhat equally in other areas of search visibility, but it seems unfair and maybe even a little inappropriate to give national franchises or large corporations access to even more visibility.
    • What limitations will there be on provided content? Google’s candidate cards struck up some major controversy because of the way candidates were using them. While some candidates used them as intended, as simple messages or arguments during a debate, others used them as an advertising platform, requesting direct donations from users. This is significantly more complex in the political realm, but what would happen if local businesses were given free search advertising features like this? Would our search results start becoming littered with these ads? This leads me to my next question.
    • Could this be a paid feature? Though candidate cards were rolled out for free and for users’ best interests, it’s not unthinkable to imagine these business cards as a paid advertising feature. They’re displayed prominently, there’s a lot of room for creativity and flexibility, and it gives brands a guaranteed number of impressions. My gut feeling on this is that this won’t turn into a paid feature—somehow I can’t imagine Google striving to give users more information like this, only to squeeze a profit out of local business owners to get the job done.
    • How can this integrate socially? Right now, the share button offers integration with Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and email, but what other forms of social integration might Google be able to offer? Will brands be able to tie their own social media activity into business cards in a reverse of the process?
    • Will this only apply to branded searches? Currently, business cards are only known to appear for branded searches of the companies they’re appearing for. As this is a highly limited test, it’s uncertain whether this limitation would remain in the future. If these business cards can be used for direct advertisements, it seems unlikely that Google would allow them for non-branded searches (at least not for free), but Google has surprised us many times before.

    Clearly, there’s a lot of potential for a feature like this, but a lot of difficult problems to work out. The big test will be to see how users respond to this initial rollout; as long as reactions are favorable, the rest of the problems may work themselves out naturally.

    Predictions and Conclusions

    It’s too early to say definitively whether Google will roll out this feature to all local businesses (or which businesses will “count” as local), but if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s fairly likely. Given that candidate cards have been deemed successful already, and this is basically just an extension of that, combined with the fact that Google has been consistently tinkering with local search results for years, it seems reasonable to suspect that this update will make the final cut.

    When it does, I encourage you to be ready to take full advantage of it. Have images and videos ready for your pop-out business cards, and ideas for both commercial (such as product ads) and non-commercial (such as informative content) applications. Don’t be surprised if this turns into a paid feature, but given Google’s long history of supporting local businesses, don’t expect it.

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  10. What’s the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Ranking Signals?

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    Depending on how you classify SEO, there’s really only one primary goal: attain higher ranks in search results. Yes, all the tangential brand and customer benefits from content marketing and other peripheral strategies are nice bonuses, but in strict terms, ranking is the bottom line. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that most modern tactics evolved to take advantage of what we know as “ranking signals,” which are actions or constructs that send a message to Google’s evaluative algorithms that your site is an authority worth ranking. Get more ranking signals, move up in rank. It’s that simple.

    The complexity comes from the fact that not all ranking signals are fully understood (since Google doesn’t publish its complete ranking algorithm) and from the fact that there are actually different types of ranking signals. Today, I want to address a critical difference you may not have known about: direct ranking signals versus indirect ranking signals.

    Direct Ranking Signals

    If you’ve spent any significant time in the SEO community, these are probably ranking signals you know about. They come in all shapes and sizes, but are all ultimately the product of an action or improvement that makes your site perceptibly more authoritative. For example, a new link pointing to your domain is a ranking signal; depending on the strength of the source, it could pass a little or a lot of authority to your site. Similarly, but to a much lesser extent, the loading speed of your web pages can serve as a ranking signal:

    Direct Ranking Signals

    (Image Source: Google)

    Ranking signals also come into play when it comes to relevance. For example, if you create a page that targets a keyword phrase like “garden salsa,” it could help you rank higher for queries containing the phrase “garden salsa.”

    For the most part, direct ranking signals are adequately published, and because the majority of them can be executed intentionally as part of an SEO strategy, there isn’t much mystery surrounding them, other than the fact that there are a lot and they change somewhat frequently:

    study of google search results

    (Image Source: Search Metrics)

    Indirect Ranking Signals

    What, then, counts as an indirect ranking signal? Like their direct counterparts, these are constructs or actions that can influence your rank—but they don’t do so directly. In fact, they have no direct bearing or influence in Google’s algorithm at all. Yet at the same time, they can increase your ranks in strong and sometimes unexpected ways.

    For example, let’s say you’ve written a fantastic article about how to buy a perfect pair of shoes. It doesn’t get much traction at first, but one day, a major influencer in the fashion industry happens upon it and shares it with her audience of 100,000 followers. This action has no direct influence on your ranking whatsoever (contrary to popular belief).

    However, imagine a few possible results of this action. A handful of users may read your article and link to it on their own blogs, establishing “direct” ranking signals as a result of an innocuous event. Others may specifically search for your brand in combination with shoe-related keywords, strengthening the correlation between your brand name and shoe-related words. Many of those 100,000 followers may share your article even further, multiplying these positive effects across other demographics and audience segments.

    This is an “indirect” ranking signal, and there are many examples of how these can come to pass. Social shares, interviews, referrals, brand mentions, and even in-person discussions can all constitute indirect ranking signals.

    Is It Worth Pursuing Indirect Signals?

    This leads to an interesting question: if indirect ranking signals don’t pass authority, are they worth incorporating into an SEO strategy? Our example above is a pretty optimistic scenario, and arguably one worth pursuing. Having your article shared with 100,000 people, for most brands, is an incredible opportunity. However, there’s no guarantee that it will lead to measurable benefits; what if the share falls flat? What if lots of people read it, but few people take any course of action that results in a direct ranking signal?

    The answer is pretty simple. Yes, indirect ranking signals are less concrete and less predictable than their direct counterparts, but if you look at averages, they’re definitely worth pursuing. If 10 influencers, each with a similar profile of 100,000 followers share your article, all it takes is one to hit home to generate tons of new direct ranking signals for your domain. Therefore, it’s a good idea to pursue indirect ranking signals, as long as you’re also incorporating direct signals into your strategy.

    Indirect Ranking Signal Adoption

    There’s some good news if you’re interested in incorporating more indirect signals into your strategy—you probably don’t have to change much. If you write content that people want to read, you’ll naturally earn more shares and generate more discussion. If you get active on social media, you’ll naturally earn more brand mentions and generate more attention for your work.

    If you want to dig into semantics and get technical, than indirect ranking signals should not be a part of SEO. But they’re a natural part of many peripheral strategies that are closely related to SEO, including content marketing, guest posting, relationship building, social media marketing, and even in-person professional networking. Any positive PR for your brand, at any level, could contribute to attaining a direct ranking signal, so work to unify your strategies under a common vision for ranking growth.

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