Search engines have been a game changer in many different areas of modern life. Information is no longer hiding away in the pages of an encyclopedia, on the shelves of some library or in the blurry images of microfiche (remember microfiche?). Virtually all human knowledge is available at our fingertips, thanks to search engines like Google.
And while this does change the dynamic of daily life for the layperson, it also presents an incredible opportunity for business owners and marketers. No longer are there mass media gatekeepers like the Yellow Pages or TV advertising goliaths to hoard all the customers. We can now reach customers through the publishing of digital content.
But how do we determine what content to publish, how best to promote it and how to leverage the audience it generates? This guide will help you do just that.
Below we will walk through the three stages of determining the perfect content strategy for your search-engine optimization (SEO):
Try to read through the entire guide before applying the advice right away; there may be some useful bits at later stages that can help you be more efficient in your research and vice versa.
So, without further ado, let’s dive in!
Stage #1 – The Research
Stage one is all about research. We will use a suite of tools to pull together a big list of potential keywords and topics that we will help us create content. This feeds into the next stage, where we analyze precisely what (and why) we will publish.
There are plenty of SEO analysis tools you can use for keyword research, ranking information, topic virality and more. Some argue that the most accurate data will come straight from the horse’s mouth, i.e., Google itself. And so, we start with the most obvious and most commonly used, Google Adwords Keyword Planner.
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Google Adwords Keyword Planner
This tool has gone through a myriad of changes over the years, and these changes almost always have made it harder for tactical SEOs to gain insights. The most recent example of this is Google not giving keyword volume data (i.e., how many searches per month) to non-paid Adwords. Boy, did that cause quite the uproar.
Nevertheless, it’s an excellent starting point when laying down the foundation for a digital strategy. It won’t give you the granularity or discoverability that some of the other tools will, but it’s a good place to begin.
I follow a pretty simple process:
- Enter your main keyword (high-level product or service).
- Make a note of keyword volume, select any related keywords that are also relevant.
- Enter related keywords.
- Rinse and repeat.
Through this process, you’ll start to see opportunities appear and get a general idea of the niche’s “ecosystem” when it comes to keywords.
Google Search Console
If you already have an established website, Google Search Console can give you a wealth of information about the queries that users search to find your site. The “Search Analytics” portion of the console provides the top one-thousand queries or pages, along with juicy data like search position, impressions and click-through-rate (CTR).
This is great for capturing longer-tail queries that you missed through other channels, for spotting areas where your rankings aren’t that high, or seeing where you CTR might be lacking (i.e., where you might want to work on meta descriptions and title tags).
Google Adwords Search Terms
If you have an active PPC campaign with Google Adwords, and particularly if you use a lot of broad match keyword targeting, the “Search Terms” section of your Adwords dashboard can provide a wealth of opportunities for SEO content targeting.
Find it by going to “Campaigns” (Top Navigation) > Keywords > Search terms.
The great part about this data is that you don’t need to be an established site (like you do for organic ranking data), you just need to have an active Adwords campaign.
Search Suggest Tools
In diving further into the long-tail, we arrive at Search Suggest tools. These tools aggregate all the data from Google Suggest, which can surface lower-volume, long-tail keywords and do so at scale.
Google Suggest was introduced in 2008 (I honestly don’t know how we ever lived without it), and it helps users by suggesting ways they might finish their query, and then auto-completing it. The suggestions they provide are listed based on various factors, most probably search volume (i.e., how many people search for the suggested term in a given month).
This means that these keywords are all valuable targets for a content strategy. Volumes may differ (and some are naturally lower-volume than others), but the fact remains that they are regularly searched.
What these tools do is “scrape” all those keywords to give us a giant list of variations starting from our seed keywords.
If I started with “email marketing,” Google Suggest provides the following:
- email marketing
- email marketing software
- email marketing services
- email marketing tools
- email marketing strategy
- email marketing templates
- email marketing examples
- email marketing best practices
- email marketing jobs
- email marketing campaign
- email marketing manager
To get even more results, add letters "a" through "z" to the search suggest tool:
- email marketing automation
- email marketing agency
- email marketing apps
- email marketing average open rates
- email marketing analysis
- email marketing affiliate programs
- email marketing articles 2017
- email marketing analytics tools
- email marketing association
You get the idea.
Ubersuggest.io is the originator (as far as I know), but a few years back AnswerthePublic.com was launched, which makes more creative use of questions and prepositions to elicit more useful keywords. It also has a fun visual representation.
Support Tools – Keywords Everywhere
Remember when I mentioned that Google Adwords had started to limit the keyword volume data to only paid accounts?
This is true, but shortly after that announcement, the Mozilla/Chrome add-on “Keywords Everywhere” started to gain tremendous traction. The add-on utilizes the Adwords API to pull in keyword volume metrics and populates them on your Google search pages, right next to your keywords or related keywords.
And it does it for FREE!
And related keywords too:
You don’t need to have an Adwords account or even a Google account for that matter; you just need to download the Add-on.
What’s more, Keywords Everywhere integrates with UberSuggest to pull in volume metrics for all the suggested keywords. Sweet! Take a look:
With these tools, I barely even make use of Keyword Planner anymore.
Spying on Your Competition – SEMRush, Ahrefs and SimilarWeb
One last layer of research to speak to, and it’s a very important one. Thanks to the innovative tools of SEMRush, Ahrefs, and SimilarWeb we now have unprecedented insights into the digital publishing activities of competitors.
These tools allow us to see what terms they are ranking for in search engines, what keywords they are bidding on in Adwords, and what content they are publishing the audience is discovering.
Sounds pretty useful, right?
Let’s break down exactly how they do this…
Before you dive into in-depth analytics, you can also run a quick, free analysis to see how your website and your online presence stack up against competitors with a website grader tool.
SEMRush and Ahrefs
I bundle these two together because they are very similar (in this particular application).
What these tools do is run millions of keywords through Google and see which sites are ranking. They work to estimate what amount of traffic those websites might get (based on known keyword volume numbers).
The result can be incredibly insightful, taking a look at a random example of HomeDepot.com, we see overall traffic estimates, plus thousands of keyword variations, rankings and page URLs:
The advantage this approach has over other keyword research techniques is that it’s keyword independent.
It doesn’t rely on you starting out with a topic, which can be shortsighted or even completely off the mark, it merely spies on competition to see what they are doing.
This can open up a whole new world of topics and audience segments that you might not have discovered before using keyword-specific, niche-down approaches.
I will include a short mention of SimilarWeb because it’s a fantastic tool. It provides similar (but much more accurate) data to SEMRush/Ahrefs while capturing that data in a very different way.
Thanks to tracking codes they have on some 2 million devices online, they know exactly where those visitors go on the web, what keywords they search for, what actions they take, how much time they spend, even what apps they use.
Through machine learning algorithms they can take that activity data and extrapolate metrics for millions of the top websites online.
And trust me, the numbers are scarily accurate.
The only problem is that it costs about $25,000 per year, and that’s rarely, if ever, going to be cost-effective for small/medium-sized businesses.
Nonetheless, it does have some handy free features, including:
- Overall Traffic Volume
- Traffic Breakdown by Channel (Organic, Direct, Paid, Social, Referral)
- Traffic Breakdown by Country
- Top 5 Keywords
- Top 5 Referral Sources
- Top 5 Social Sources
The free version doesn’t help our content strategy or SEO (because keyword data is so limited), but it still deserves a shout because it’s handy in other areas.
Ok, that’s all I’ve got in the tools department.
Talk to your Client or SME
A sometimes underutilized method of keyword research is to conduct in-depth interviews with your client, subject-matter expert, or other stakeholders “on the ground,” i.e., close to the customer.
The advantage here is that you can learn much more from the business owners than you might think, which can go far beyond what you can garner from a few seed keywords and a keyword research tool.
In reality, this should probably be your first step, but I like to re-iterate it here. My suggestion would be, even if you’ve done some quick questionnaires with your client or partner, to consider going back for a second round of questioning.
Some questions you might consider asking:
- What are your clients' pain points when they call?
- What are supplemental products or services you offer (including upsells)?
- What is an example of a strange or unorthodox request you received from a client in the last year?
- Do you provide any subcontracted services to other businesses?
Questions will obviously vary from situation to situation. The point here is that you want to elicit more in-depth responses than the core offerings of a company. This will enable more variety of keyword inventory and content opportunities.
Stage #2 – The Classification
If you’ve gone through the first stage and utilized a few of the tools, you’ve probably come out with hundreds or even thousands of potential keywords to target. Without some prioritization, this list isn’t going to be helpful.
Some people call this process “content layering,” and this makes more sense if we go back to the old standard, the purchase funnel.
- Use Case: Immediate Purchase or Lead Gen
- Competition: Moderate to High
- Tactic: Conversion Optimization to increase sales.
We are starting at the bottom of the purchase funnel because this is where keywords are going to be the most valuable in terms of immediately converting customers, and usually there will be much fewer keywords (allowing for easier identification and prioritization).
Classic marketing theory calls this section of the funnel the “evaluation” and “purchase,” or “shop/buy” funnel.
This is generally the first set of keywords I search for when launching a new site. If you have already launched a site or are working on an established site, these will probably be targeted already, but you never know!
Some examples of these keywords include:
- Plumber NYC
- Ergonomic Office Chairs
- Boats for sale
As you can see they aren’t all cut from the same cloth, the content to provide is going to be very much dependent on the individual keyword. The critical thing to consider here is “user intent.”
These keywords indicate that a user is probably very close to making a purchasing decision, and is looking for a company to contact or a product to buy.
These are generally going to be your end goal concerning SEO rankings, but won’t be a huge part of your content strategy (simply because there are so few of them).
- Use Case: Potential Purchase/Evaluation
- Competition: Moderate to High
- Tactic: Longer-tail keywords rank easier, CRO to induce sales.
This next segment targets users that are aware of the product or service they want to buy, but are looking for more information before making a decision.
These can include the “best” or “reviews” style keywords that many affiliate marketers target. Depending on the niche and volume associated with them, these can range from very competitive to moderately competitive.
For e-commerce, this might be a good segment to target while working on your “buy” keywords to start ranking.
- Use Case: Information Gathering
- Competition: Moderate to Low
- Tactic: User nurturing (Social Media Retargeting, Newsletter Subscriptions)
These types of keywords target almost anything remotely related to our niche. The point is to get our content in front of users that might not even know they need our services yet.
While the list of these types of keywords is almost infinite, we can take some examples from our previous screenshot of HomeDepot.com’s content targeting:
- what is pressure treated wood
- what size tankless water heater do I need
- what is a brick mold door
- how to grout tile
These queries serve a purpose to inform and educate the user, but not necessarily sell them anything.
This is the widest portion of the funnel where we are going to be putting a lot of effort into our strategy, for a few different reasons:
- It casts the widest possible net for capturing users, which can then be nurtured and retargeted until they become customers.
- The content opportunities are almost endless.
- The competition is very low (usually) and rankings can be achieved relatively easily.
- Casts lots of bait for potential links.
- Provides semantic relevance, which is a positive organic ranking factor.
Now that we’ve defined what each of the categories of keywords should be, you’ll need to comb through those big ol’ keyword lists from stage one and make your classifications.
Once you’ve got that done, we can consider how we’ll implement them on our site.
Stage #3 – The Implementation
Great, we’ve got our keywords all researched and classified into the various stages of the buying cycle. Now what?
Now we’ve got to get the content written and published on your site in a way that will optimize the value, both from an SEO perspective and a user experience perspective.
In essence, this comes down to three areas:
- Publishing (URL structure and internal linking)
- Content (on-page SEO and user need)
- Copy and design (conversion rate optimization, i.e. CRO)
Let’s take a look at how to handle each of these:
Publishing (URL Structure and Internal Linking)
URL structure and internal linking are a big part of how Google will ascertain the topical relevance and authority of your pages, so you should be thoughtful with how you implement it. Don’t assume it will all work itself out.
URL Structure - Silo
There are a couple of different ways you can handle the URL structure.
One way, which comes recommended by many top search engine optimization specialists, is to try and keep your content within “silos” of your URL structure. An example:
- http://www.example.com/dog-trainers/ - Purchase Segment
- http://www.example.com/dog-trainers/best-dog-trainers-in-nyc/ - Evaluation Segment
- http://www.example.com/dog-trainers/why-does-my-dog-destroy-furniture-in-the-house/ - Awareness Segment
The reasoning here is that:
- Google inherently assigns semantic value up and down the directory structure.
- Users can choose to navigate up the chain on their own.
However, with large publishing endeavors, this can become quite messy.
Furthermore, if you decide to change the target keyword of a high-level directory, you break every URL down the chain and have to rely on 301 redirects, which can be costly to your position in search results.
URL Structure – Flattened
The other option is to use a more “flattened” silo structure and rely more on internal linking to establish the topical relevance and authority.
In this example the directories wouldn’t be nested based on category, i.e.:
- http://www.example.com/dog-trainers/ - Purchase Segment
- http://www.example.com /best-dog-trainers-in-nyc/ - Evaluation Segment
- http://www.example.com /why-does-my-dog-poop-in-the-house/ - Awareness Segment
In my opinion and experience, this is perfectly fine to do, so I wouldn’t kill yourself trying to make the nested URLs work.
Internal linking is a huge part of large scale content publishing. It plays a significant role for search engines and users. It allows search engines to:
- Discover and index content (they can’t rank what they can’t see)
- Establish authority
- Establish topical relevance
And when done correctly, it allows users to:
- Discover additional interesting content to consume.
- Navigate easily to lower levels of the funnel (i.e., become a customer).
While the UX portion of this can be considered to be a conversion optimization play, you might be surprised how many people will click a small little hyperlink in the middle of a long article, so be thoughtful with where you send them to.
The basic principles you want to achieve:
- Link from within the body text with relevant anchor text (one great way to do this is with the Wordpress SEO Auto Linker Plugin). Matthew Woodward has a good tutorial on how to do this without over-optimizing.
- Make sure your sidebar navigation has relevant related links as well. Wordpress does a good job of this by default, but you may need to create custom menus to get it done correctly.
- Each page should have a primary goal, so make sure you have links that work towards that goal, whether it’s for SEO or otherwise.
Of all the 3,500+ words in this guide and I haven’t yet talked about the actual content. Odd, no?
Well, not so strange when you consider there is no cookie cutter way to make every piece of content on the web. Subject matter experts will know what makes a useful article, and what best serves the user need, and this is the most important aspect of “great content”, including the visual content types worth creating.
Nonetheless, there are some basic rules you follow for optimal on-page SEO, and some things you should avoid.
There are entire guides written for on-page SEO alone, but following a few basic rules should get you on the right path:
- Content should follow a hierarchy (H1, H2 … H6 tags).
- H1 includes main keywords
- H2 includes sub-topics
- H3 include sub-sub topics
- And so forth.
- H1 Tag should include the main keyword + some filler words.
- Title Tag should be slightly different from the H1, and include main keyword + sub-keyword variations in a natural, human readable sentence.
- All images should have an alt text that properly describes the content.
- Link internally to related and supportive content.
- Link externally to authoritative and supportive content.
* While we’ve covered some of the above points in greater detail, you can explore the easy step-by-step guide to link building by our friends at LeadHackrs.
Every page should fill a specific user need and create a desired action. I cover this a bit more below, but it should obviously be a consideration when drafting the actual content.
Some examples of this include:
- Lead generation - the user needs to contact a service provider. They don’t want to read a 1,000-word article on the intricacies of plumbing inspection.
- Informative/long form – the user wants to get educated thoroughly on a topic. Don’t try to sell them what they don't need.
- Evaluation/reviews – the user looks at reviews for various products and reads opinions, making it easier to browse and find what they need.
Copy and design
Now, I’m not going to profess to be a copywriter or a designer, but I do know the importance of both those disciplines. If you don’t know what CRO is you can read this brief primer or, if you are ready, read this incredibly valuable book for a deeper dive.
The fact of the matter is that you need each page of your website to have a primary goal. For example, that goal could be:
- Make a purchase
- Sign up for a newsletter
- Consume more content
- Share content via social media
When you are ready to publish all your content, you need to have clear goals in mind for each class of content (which is why classifying the content in stage two is a valuable exercise).
These goals then need to be supported by the copy of the page and the design of the page.
There is so much deep research and experience with both copywriting and CRO that I’m not going to attempt to scratch the surface, that will have to wait for another article. However, if you take a clear view of what the user intent is for a page (based on your research) and how your desired goals match up to that, it should paint a clearer picture of how to treat design and copy.
Developing an optimal content strategy for your SEO initiatives will take time, research, and analysis, but there will always be opportunities to leverage content for increased exposure in the search engines. Whenever I take on a new project at Darby Hayes, I use this combination of tool-based analysis, competitive analysis, and customer/client insights to provide a wealth of potential. Following this guide, you can do the same.
Combining the ranking potential with the thoughtful treatment of the user experience will allow you to fully leverage the exposure which the content enables, which can lay the groundwork for significant audience growth down the line.