In a lot of ways, 2014 was a landmark year for Google SEO. Hummingbird’s effects finally became tangible as it completed its global rollout. Panda 4.0 and Penguin 3.0 kept the pressure up on spammers, while Google’s human reviewers continued to dish out manual actions to suspicious-looking sites. These, combined with smaller updates, paved the way for the more nuanced and intent-responsive SERPs that we see today. While the search landscape still isn’t perfect, it’s certainly better than what it was years ago.
In the SEO community, studies have consistently shown that the craft of optimization is becoming more holistic. Technical health, keyword usage and backlink profiles are still very important ranking elements. However, the Big G is visibly getting better at gauging brand equity, social popularity and overall relevance to intent. Clearly, Google wants its SERPs to mimic the referrals that a very knowledgeable person would give you in the physical world when you ask questions.
That’s where a lot of SEOs struggle: some practitioners can’t seem to move on from classic SEO practices, preventing them from focusing on current trends that will reward them in the long haul. In GDI, this is very clear to us and we strive to keep up with changes that might impact the interests of our clients. My team and I recently sat down and identified the key strategies that we’ll be banking on in the year 2015. Along with our current practices, the following areas will get most of our attention in the next 365 days:
1. Topics Over Keywords
There’s a stark difference in the content creation strategies of sites that have legitimate readerships and those that rely heavily on SEO to generate traffic. Legitimate sites act like traditional publishers who create content mainly on the basis of what they deem to be rewarding for their audiences. SEO-intensive sites tend to create content based on keywords that they’ve researched and deemed to have traffic value.
As such, legit online publishers tend to write comprehensively about all the aspects of topics that their readers are interested in. SEO-intensive sites tend to write landing pages that will represent their sites in the SERPs. The former lets their content assets promote themselves while earning links and social signals. The latter builds links and solicits social signals to make its content look relevant. See the difference?
In the diagram above, you’ll see how SEO-centric sites tend to create content. The theme of each page is dictated by a target keyword. These are either the exact terms that the site owner wants to rank for, synonyms that have sufficient search volume, close variants that searchers might enter as alternatives to the main keywords and related industry terms. In a website that sells men’s shoes, that would translate to something like this:
The drawback to this model is that content quality and user experience take a back seat to the desire to rank. Content tends to get rehashed a fair bit and that’s what Google is trying not to reward. All indications suggest that Google’s direction is set towards giving more visibility to legitimate content publishers who care more about their readers than their search engine listing positions. These are the types of sites that cover topics in an in-depth manner while using natural writing patterns, receiving good usage signals and earning authority signals.
Applying this model to the same men’s shoes website, the content hierarchy would look something like this:
Notice that the topic-driven approach cascades in a more intuitive manner. It reflects the webmaster’s desire to provide a fulfilling session to as many visitors as possible by attempting to satisfy the intents that they carry when they enter the domain. It’s an outlook that most experts think Google is headed towards and smart marketers are preparing for a more semantic, intent-based Web.
While the SEO-intensive approach had the upper hand in the SERPs since Google launched, recent data shows that this is no longer the case. In the SearchMetrics’ 2014 ranking factors study, we saw that the correlation between keyword-intensive elements and high ranking placement continues to weaken. Meanwhile, sites that discuss topics with breadth and substance are gaining better traction.
The image above shows how the correlations between good rankings and keywords in domain names and URLs have waned this year.
The same goes for keyword-laced H2 text and descriptions. H1 tags seem to not have been affected by algorithm updates, though.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should stop using keywords. As Cyrus Shepard pointed out in his Moz post, keyword research is still a foundational phase that forms the base of your content. Knowing what terms your target audience are using and how they’re interrelated will give you clues on the kind of topics that you have to cover. Content assets don’t have to be built around them because Google is now smart enough to figure out what you’re talking about without using exact terms thanks to its Knowledge Graph.
2. Authors Over Writers
The overall relevance of a site’s content is determined not just by its quality but by how much authority it carries. Case in point: I can write a well-researched post about link building and it’ll probably generate some traction in the community. Now, if Rand Fishkin or Jon Cooper published the exact same content, what do you think would happen?
A name and a track record can do wonders in how many readers a content asset attracts, how many shares it generates and what kind of engagement signals it produces. In a lot of cases, the name of the author matters just as much as the message of the content itself. It’s human nature to gravitate towards people whose insights we trust. These are the people whose voices stand out amidst the noise of everyone else’s chatter.
In a nutshell, that’s the difference between writers and authors. A writer is a person who performs the act of writing. An author is a person who is viewed as having the knowledge, pedigree and cache to share knowledge on a given subject matter. Authors may or may not necessarily perform the mechanical part of the writing process but the essence and style of the content usually comes from them.
Here at GDI, we understand the benefits of being recognized as a legitimate author. We also know that Google is still making an effort to distinguish and reward authors despite discontinuing its Authorship program. That’s why we’re making a conscious effort to transform our writers into authors who will be recognized in the specific industries where they excel. It makes all the sense in the world from quality, promotional and thought leadership perspectives to have genuine experts crafting the material we provide our clients.
And yes, it costs more and takes a lot more effort to develop legitimate authors than it would to hire regular writers. However, we view the shift as an investment that will keep our business growing for the long haul.
In that regard, these are the steps we’re taking to develop our existing content development team into authors who can be trusted in the specific industries where we do a lot of work:
- Using your real name and a photo whenever possible in a byline.
- Producing creative, unique and useful content on a regular basis
- Being quoted in news stories
- Receiving mentions and links from other blogs
- Collaborating with known authors and personalities in your field
- Accepting invitations to speak at events like conferences, roundtables and expos
- Being cited by authoritative websites that belong to government, non-profit and educational institutions
- Building strong social media presences where our audience can reach out to us directly.
Making these activities habitual allows an author to establish his “cred” while earning natural links and valuable entity mentions. As credibility and natural SEO signals accumulate, an author’s influence on the SERPs becomes more palpable.
3. Robust Content
Having a big site that houses hundreds or thousands of pages offers several distinct advantages. With size comes more search engine representation, greater visibility for targeted long tail queries, more pages for other sites to link to and more assets to promote. If a big site scales its content growth the right way, it can leverage that into a dominant market presence that can impose itself on competing sites.
Of course, that’s a big “if.” In a lot of cases, scaling content production poses a threat to quality, creativity and diversity. It’s hard to be as productive as a sweatshop while maintaining artist-level excellence.
In GDI, we know from experience that growing a site’s content library is an essential step towards SEO success. In order to do this successfully, we follow a set of steps that help us grow with purpose and direction:
- Perform a content audit to know what kind of content already exists in the site, what the gaps are and what topics get the most engagement from the audience.
- Identify content assets that you feel will best represent your site in searches for the keywords they’re targeting.
- Track the types of content assets you have. In our experience, most sites have text and image content but hardly any rich media assets like video and audio. We explore opportunities to diversify the content we create so we can cater to more people with varying intents.
- Determine where the existing content resides within the site’s architecture.
- Determine where the new content will be added.
- Determine the metrics that indicate reader satisfaction. We tend to rely on this custom report to see if our core audience is responding to the content additions we’re making.
- Bonus tip: we like using at least 2 writers per site that we develop content for. This helps prevent literary fatigue on our content creators and it helps keep the content perspectives fresh in the eyes of our readers.
4. Fresh Content Ideation
As we head towards an increasingly semantic web, more and more marketers are realizing that content creation is a do-or-die affair. More and more sites are using blog posts, info graphics, videos and podcasts to capture their markets’ respective attentions and so far, that model has worked.
Here’s the thing, though: as everyone banks on content to power their marketing efforts, the growth of content on the web is starting to outpace the growth of searches around the world. In the video below, Rand Fishkin talks about the possibility of “content fatigue” which could change the marketing landscape if it does happen.
As everyone hops aboard the content bandwagon, regular content development and promotion tactics simply wouldn’t cut it. A site needs to have fresh and interesting content ideas that will help it stand out in the ever-growing sea of content in practically every industry.
A few months ago, Jason Acidre wrote an excellent piece on how to do just that. In that article, he suggested the following strategies on how to capture audience interest:
- Learning from your competitors
- Elaborate and expound other people’s ideas/concepts
- Learning from other industries
- Learning from what people really need
- Conceptualize content based on other successful publications’ audience
These strategies are great for getting you closer to hitting the sweet spot with your target audience. Just be sure to apply ethical content promotion tactics to help extend the reach of the assets that you develop.
In GDI, we try our best not to resort to the typical “ how to” and “the benefits of” articles that are starting to saturate the Web. We’re transitioning towards a more diverse set of content types to provide a more holistic experience for our readers as well as for our clients:
- Developing Apps – Anyone can write a blog post, most people can create an infographic and a lot of people can produce videos that share information. These are all great but the one thing that trumps empowering people with knowledge is the ability to do things for them.
For that reason, browser-based tools, mobile apps and plugins stand out over other content asset types. It takes a novel idea, software development expertise and a good feel for your audience’s needs to come up with this type of content. The beauty of apps is the fact that they’re hard for competitors to replicate. Aside from providing rewarding user experiences, apps also generate traffic, backlinks and social signals for your site.
At my day job in Emerson Electric Co. we did something like this: we developed a tool that calculates the ROI of one of our data center software solutions. The app not just makes a great business case for investing in our product, it also helps us earn positive ranking signals that help our overall visibility on Google.
- Templates – Much like apps, templates are great content assets because they don’t just show the audience how to do something — they actually do part of the work for them. Granted, this type of content asset doesn’t fit every industry well but there are some niches that they’re great for.
Here at GlenDemands, I’ve created a couple of templates that would help SEOs in their day-to-day operations. One is a template for creating high-converting SEO service proposals and the other one is for creating professional SEO service contracts. Both assets pushed good traffic to my blog and they’re some of the top link-attracting pages for my site according to Google Webmaster Tools.
- Whitepapers – They’re not exactly new. As a matter of fact, whitepapers are very common these days among sites that want to grow their mailing lists. In GDI, we use whitepapers for that purpose but we also see their indirect value to SEO. Like apps and templates, really good whitepapers become traffic, link and social signal generators. A good example would be what Copyblogger is doing.
Copyblogger is great at using existing blog posts/articles, repurposing them and putting them together to create attractive whitepapers. The library has grown over the years to form a collection of awesome ebooks. Like I said earlier, this is the backbone of the site’s lead generation campaign but it also scores well in the SEO arena.
- News Aggregation – Some of us might monitor news in our respective industries closely, but most of our readers don’t. That means there’s value in sharing news that they’re likely to care about even if the content isn’t exactly original. It’s called news aggregation: it’s perfectly legal, ethical and valuable to the average reader.
As long as you credit the source, link back to the original story and add value that complements the aggregated information, this is fair game. For some of our clients, we aggregate breaking news in the clients’ industries, blog about them and share the content over social media. This gives us quick traffic bumps and social shares which expand our site’s reach and enables us to attract new readers.
A prime example would be boxing news aggregator PinoyGreats.com which achieved lofty PageRank, Domain Authority and Alexa global traffic rank levels just by featuring stories about Filipino fighters found in other sites.
Readers find the site’s one-stop shop approach valuable, earning PinoyHreats steady traffic and great SEO signals that have helped it rank well. Most of their content is not original, but you can’t argue with the results that they’ve gained so far.
- Content Curation – Content curation is the process of reviewing, organizing and presenting content from other sites based on a binding theme. It’s usually done to create list-type articles which highlight the best pieces of content that the author has seen over a period of time. Readers like curated content because it helps them find information they’re interested in without necessarily looking for it themselves.
My friend Fervil Von Tripoli uses this technique a fair bit to provide his readers with monthly inbound marketing content recaps. Follow this link to see what I mean.
- Event Blogging – here’s some simple SEO logic: events generate buzz and buzz generates links and social signals. If you want easy links and shares, adding event blogging in your content strategy makes total sense.
Trade shows, conferences, meet-and-greets and other social gatherings are prime examples of events you’ll want to cover. Previews, live-blogging and event reviews catch the attention of readers and cater to the intent of people who are interested in the gathering.
Personally, I’ve done this for MORCon, the GDI SEO Training Camp and the SEO Summit 2014. All of the posts I did were received pretty well with lots of visits, shares and quite a few links to show for.
- Collaborations – Content created exclusively by a site’s authors is nice. Content created by the authors of a site in cooperation with other industry experts becomes even more special.
Let me put it this way: Batman and Superman are great stand-alone characters. When news breaks out that they’ll get together for an upcoming movie, it sets the entertainment world on fire. The fan bases of both entities converge and the publicity shockwaves grab the attention of even the most casual fans.
If you’ve got friends in the industry who are open to doing content with you, gran the opportunity right away. Cooperation usually yields mutual benefits. A good example would be the partnership that Emerson has recently forged with fellow IT giant HP. Our friends at the other side have already started talking about our cooperation and what it means for the data center industry. They’ve started blogging about it, earning us some good press and valuable brand mentions. This post is just one of many examples:
And you don’t have to be a Fortune 500 company to start working with influencers in your niche. Co-writing whitepapers, appearing together in informational videos and doing podcasts can be very effective for small to medium-sized brands.
- Commentary – Content doesn’t always have to be all factual all the time. Opinion pieces can get you just as much traction online and help establish your brand as a thought leader in your industry. Editorials, reviews and reaction pieces are all great especially if you can deliver them in entertaining ways.
One of my favorite examples is the case of Zero Punctuation, a video game review series by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of The Escapist, an Australian gaming website. Using stick figure animations from Windows Movie Maker, fast talk and salient points that go against popular opinion, Yahtzee caught the attention of the gaming industry and he’s been ranking very well in the SERPs for some high-traffic keywords since 2007.
Helping people make sense of the facts and form solid opinions is secretly one of the Web’s top commodities. If you have the expertise and the eloquence to voice authoritative takes on your industry’s hot topics, this is a content creation angle that you should explore.
5. Entity Optimization
If you’ve been paying attention to SEO news in the past two years, you’ve probably heard that Google is heading towards a more semantic future. In essence, it wants to grow from being a keyword-based search engine to more of what Paul Bruemmer calls an “answer engine.” By expanding Google’s ability to understand relationships between words and using that as a synergy to its Knowledge Graph, it can better interpret user intent en route to serving up more accurate results that may or may not necessarily contain the keywords entered by a searcher.
At the heart of semantic search is the concept of “entities.” In a nutshell, an entity is a noun: a person, place, object or event. They’re the operational terms of every query and having a better understanding of them allows search engines to serve up more accurate results. However, that’s easier said than done. One word can mean different things and carry different intents depending on the context of the search.
For instance, the word “Jordan” can represent at least four separate entities. It’s either the country, the river, the basketball player or the sports apparel brand. A query on “Jordan stats” could be about statistics on the nation (population, GDP, per capita income, etc.), stats for the player (points per game, games played, assists per game) or stats for the apparel brand (sales, number of outlets, number of SKUs). Notice what kind of results come out when that query is entered in Google:
The results are all about Jordan the basketball player and his stats — not the stats of the nation or the sports brand. This is likely because the entities “Jordan” and “stats” are found together in a lot of web documents within a lot of credible domains. This tells search engines that when a person searches for stats about Jordan, they’re usually referring to the basketball player. In this case, the entities “Jordan” and “stats” are found in a lot of noun strings, establishing a strong relationship in the eyes of Google.
So what does that mean for your SEO program?
.A lot. It means that for you to rank well for your target keywords, Google needs to understand your brand and its relationship as a prominent entity that’s strongly related to your industry. You can help Google make that connection through implicit and explicit clues in your own content as well as in documents outside of your domain. It’s the basis of concepts like co-occurrence, brand mentions and co-citation which in themselves are important in today’s SEO landscape.
For my blog and the sites of our clients, we follow a few simple guidelines in entity optimization:
- The use of Schema.org Markup – we used StudioPress’ Genesis framework for WordPress to make implementation easy.
- Consistent Messaging – We try to be consistent with brand introduction and messaging i.e:
- Entity Proximity – Getting our branded entities (Glen Dimaandal, GlenDemands, GDI) mentioned close to target keywords like SEO, content marketing, etc. in relevant sites within the same industry like this, this and this.
- Entity Mentions on Social Media – Proactively using social media to grow our brand and attract targeted traffic. Natural social media traction is correlated with brand equity and success in the SERPs.
6. Thematic Internal Linking
From 2003 to early 2011, link building was far and away the most dominating facet of SEO. During that era, it hardly mattered how crappy your on-page SEO and content were. With enough links, you can help practically any page rise through the SERPs for the most competitive keywords.
Thankfully, the Penguin and Hummingbird updates rolled out and the playing field became more even. Today, links are still very important for a site’s SEO success but it’s undeniable that on-page SEO is making a strong comeback. The accessibility, crawlability and structure of your site matter a lot again and it’s an area that we at GDI are trying to capitalize on.
We do all the regular stuff: title tags, headline tags, sitemaps, dealing with thin pages – the whole shebang. However, one of our primary focus areas has become the application of thematic internal linking to the sites that we optimize. Using links to form content silos allows search engines to better understand what our content is about, what our site represents and ultimately, what queries we should rank for.
Silos can be set up in one of two ways: the traditional way is by grouping closely related pages together under the same directories. This method is also referred to as a “physical silo.” However, there are cases when related pages need to be placed in separate directory folders which makes physical siloing impossible. When faced with something like this, we apply what’s called “virtual silos” or thematic internal links.
Essentially, a virtual silo can be created by finding a page that’s high up in your content hierarchy (such as a category page or a landing page) and finding low-level pages that talk about that page’s subtopics. The lower-level pages then need to link up to the higher-level page and to each other to show search engines that they’re topically related. It also highlights the importance of the higher-level page, giving it a better chance of doing better in the SERPs. The diagram below visually represents the concept:
I wrote a detailed post on SEO silos/thematic internal linking schemes a few months ago. Follow the link if you want to learn more about the topic.
7. Link Earning
- For over a year now, my team and I have all but stopped using standard link acquisition techniques such as guest blogging and broken link building. We feel that scalable, outreach-based link building’s days are numbered and the recent guest blogging penalties we’ve seen are just a taste of things to come. Heck, we hardly even use the term link building anymore in the GDI office. We prefer the term link earning because that’s just how the Web is supposed to work. Sites earn links because they’re good and good sites don’t stay down in the SERPs for very long.
As such, we encourage the natural growth of our clients’ link profiles using an array of future-proof methods that yield not just links but also valuable brand mentions and reputation boosts, too. These are:
- Building linkable assets – Linkable assets are high-value content pieces that people reference and grant editorial links to. As mentioned earlier, content such as apps, whitepapers, templates, articles and blog posts all have the potential to become link, brand mention and social signal magnets. Be sure to build and properly promote them.
- Linker Outreach – This is a technique whose name was coined by Jason. Linker outreach is essentially the process of finding people in content communities who have a high tendency to link to the kind of content assets that you create. These people usually have significant followings in content communities like Delicious, Reddit and StumbleUpon as well as in their own blogs. The idea is to get into the minds of these people and figure out what kind of content gets them excited.
When you have that figured out, you’ll want to interact with the person by supporting his content and commenting on them. Once some rapport is established, a pitch where you bring your own content to his attention ensues. If successful, the linker will include your link in his next posts, giving you a great opportunity to earn natural links from him and his followers.
The same principle can be applied when you want to earn some links from content blogs that curate content in your niche. Observe what themes and commonalities in the content that the author shares and see if you have existing content assets that belong in the same category. If not, you can always create new content assets that the author might be happy to add to the pages he links to.
- Link reclamation – There are just a few outreach-based link acquisition techniques that I still use: this is one of them. Link reclamation is the process of finding existing but broken links pointing to your site in external domains. If the inbound link is from a reputable, topically-related site, I contact the webmaster and ask for the link to be fixed. If necessary, I’ll provide advice on where the link can best be pointed. Microsoft Excel and Open Site Explorer are the tools for this task. You can learn more about its specifics in this Whiteboard Friday video.
By the same token, we also still perform phrase searches for our brand name. This helps us find sites where we were mentioned. We check the content whether there’s a link back to our site and if there isn’t, we politely ask the site’s admin if we can get our brand mention linked to one of our pages.
- Relationship building – The main flaw of scalable, outreach-based link building is the fact that it trivializes webmasters as mere link prospects that we want to get lucky with. In this day and age, finding a site with the right metrics, sending its administrator a templated message and asking for a link opportunity is hardly ever good enough. Outreach fatigue on the part of webmasters is evident and a lot of them are starting to tune out this type of tactic.
In our experience, meaningful link opportunities are much easier to gain when you build a relationship with a site’s admin first. Rapport and trust will give a site owner a hard time saying no to you. The challenge, of course, is getting the relationship started.
The best way is still to meet people in person. Being introduced by common friends is a nice shortcut. Attending conferences and trade shows where people freely exchange business cards and engage in small talk is another. When real world interactions are difficult to set up, you can take the longer online route.
Following an influencer over social media is a starter. Share his or her posts and provide meaningful comments. When you use the influencer’s site as a source, be sure to give it proper attribution as well as a link. Let the influencer know via Twitter that you wrote the piece and thank him for the inspiration. This, along with a trackback, helps you gain precious name recall in the mind of an influencer.
Over time, the author could start responding to you. Don’t ask for a link-related favor just yet: keep on nurturing that relationship until you’re sure you can get engagement from the webmaster on a regular basis.
Granted, this approach takes a lot more time investment than traditional link prospecting and outreach. However, it does have a much higher success rate and the links that come out of it are of a much higher quality. For GDI, it’s a lot better to fire high-percentage shots than to spray and pray, but that’s just us.
- Press Release Submissions – Press release submissions, when used right, can still produce tons of natural links from reputable news sites. The first step to having success with PRs is having something newsworthy to share in the first place. Launching a new product, opening a new store or announcing major organizational moves (if you’re representing a big corporation) can all get your release picked up. We generally use paid services like PRWeb for distribution and we get great traction just about every time.
There’s a myth that press releases are only good for big companies, but that’s just not true. Even startups can use it to tell the web about things like innovative projects they’re working on or investors agreeing to fund them ,
- Get interviewed and sourced – Creating uniquely useful content and maximizing its reach with savvy promotional activities can establish you as a thought leader in your niche. This status not only has reputation benefits: it also yields some excellent link earning opportunities.
Getting interviewed by bloggers, sourced by news sites and referenced by scholarly publications are just some of the link-earning perks of being a thought leader. Of course, the challenge here is becoming a credible thought leader in the first place.
It’s an area with very few shortcuts, really. It takes consistent creation of unique and useful content to prove your knowledge in your industry. Doing some smart promotional activities to maximize the reach of your content also helps grease the wheels. If you want to jump on the fast track thought leadership, using Help a Reporter Out, pitching to speak in industry conferences or organizing your own events are some of the ways to go.
- Doing Favors for non-profits and educational institutions – Nice guys don’t always finish last. A lot of times, good will is rewarded quite well. This is true in SEO especially if you leverage your acts of coolness into link-earning opportunities.
A prime example would be lending a helping hand to schools, You or your client are bound to have a high degree of expertise in your field and there are times when educational institutions invite some professionals to share their knowledge about the industry. Career talks, seminars, symposiums and debates are just some of the events that you should keep an eye out for. When you see an opportunity to become a resource for these, volunteer your time and knowledge.
Ask for nothing in return except maybe for a link in the school’s site to give you a little credit. J The same principles apply to school publications. If you own an accounting firm, let the editorial team of a school that has a good accountancy program know that you’ll be a willing resource if they ever run stories which fall under your field of expertise. Most of these publications will be glad to give you a link for credit.
If you’re making substantial donations to non-profit organizations, you probably aren’t expecting anything in return. However, if the organization’s officers insist on giving you credit, you can tell them that a link from their site would be nice.
There are other areas in SEO that you can focus on to get nice lifts in your organic rankings. These seven areas are just the ones that my team and I are looking at for long-term gains. Let me know in the comments section what your SEO plans are for 2015.