We all know what happens to a small commercial website when Google slaps it with a manual penalty for unnatural links: rankings drop, search traffic is decimated, lead generation slows down and revenue ultimately suffers. Now imagine working hard to get that penalty revoked, rebooting your SEO campaign and then getting hit with another manual action just a few months later. Sounds like a deathblow, right?
Not necessarily. In some cases, a solid content marketing strategy can be a fallen site’s saving grace.
In GDI, we were faced with exactly this predicament when we took on a client who had a site that once dominated the SERPs for ultra-competitive keywords in the Italian tourism industry. The client’s site got there by hiring an agency that built hundreds of exact match anchor text links for it in very low quality sites. Eventually, Google’s web spam team caught on and they came down hard on the client’s business.
Content Marketing Overtakes Hardcore SEO
That’s when the client dropped his old SEO team and hooked up with us in an effort to recover the lost rankings. Long story short, we tried a more white hat SEO approach to try and win back Google’s favor. We applied the program but unknown to us, the old agency was still building spammy links to the site. Three months into the engagement, the site was hit with another manual action penalty and we had to work hard to get it revoked within 3 weeks.
The incident forced us to rethink our approach. It seemed that after the first penalty, Google’s had so little trust in the client’s site that any unusual activity could warrant decisive and adverse action. GDI made a recommendation to the client that we should take an approach that was less focused on link building and more concentrated on content, authority, branding and social signal buildup. The client agreed and we put together a content marketing strategy that eventually helped the site get back to pre-penalty traffic levels.
Here’s how we did it in eight steps:
Step 1: Set Measurable Goals
When we put together this strategy, we started by identifying a set of goals that will guide our efforts. When we set goals, we make sure that the goals are both actionable and measurable. After all, how do we know we’ve got an epic success story or an epic failure on our hands if we don’t have the numbers to back it up?
In the end, we knew we wanted to:
- Create unique and engaging content – Measured by content output, bounce rates, comments and social shares.
- Keyword Ranking Recovery – Measured by rankings tracked by Moz.
- Increase Leads Generated –Measured by conversion goal fulfilments tracked by Google Analytics.
Step 2: Plot the Goal Fulfilment Roadmap
Goals are nice, but if you have no idea how to accomplish them, they’re useless. For each goal, the team brainstormed and researched what methods we had to apply and which tools will enable the processes. As marketers, this was easy for us because we have the expertise to address the goals we listed above. However, it’s crucial to put all of this down in writing to make sure that the content marketing team and the client are on the same page on what it will take to get the job done.
It’s very important to match each goal with the techniques and tools that you’ll utilize. It keeps things organized and it’ll provide a quick reference when your team needs to regroup as the campaign runs its course. In GDI, we use a simple Excel table to get our goals, tactics and tools aligned:
Step 3: Create the Editorial Calendar
An editorial calendar is a document (usually in tabular form) that outlines your publishing plan. It has to account for all the content assets you’re producing and it has to provide all the relevant data that you and the members of your team should know. There are various editorial calendar templates out there and they can contain various sets of data in them. In GDI, an editorial calendar has the following columns to provide easy reference in one glance:
- Asset Title – Name of the content asset
- Content Type – Can be a blog post, a resource page, a whitepaper, a video, an image, etc.
- Author – Content creator assigned to the asset
- Approver – Person in charge of approving the asset. This can be an editor, a manager or the client.
- Due Date – Date when the author needs to submit the content asset to the approver
- Go–live Date – Scheduled date of asset’s publication
- Publish In – Online real estate where the asset will be published. This could be the blog, YouTube, SlideShare, Tumblr, Facebook, etc.
For this site, we agreed with the client that we’ll be running four content marketing campaigns a year with each campaign lasting three months. Each campaign would follow one central theme which will dictate the topics of each asset that we’d create.
We started with content marketing for this client in May of 2014 and it was just a month away from summer in Europe which starts in June and ends in September. Summer is a big tourist season in that country and we wanted to take full advantage of that fact.
We decided that summer in the Southern European country where the client offers tours would be the campaign’s central content theme and the whitepaper would be about the best beaches in that nation. The whitepaper would have detailed info on destinations, hotels, food, tourist spots, transportation and events during the country’s warm months. Our mantra was to make the whitepaper an all-in-one guide for anyone who wanted to have a good time in that part of the world at that time of year.
We also knew that the whitepaper would not be well-received if we didn’t use other content assets to support it. With that said, we wrote six blog posts per month which were also about summer attractions and activities in the client’s offered destination. Each one had a call to action and a link towards the end that encouraged people to check out the whitepaper. We upped the ante by also creating 2 videos per month along with two SlideShare decks that we embedded into extra blog posts.
In that three-month period, we plotted the following deliverables in our editorial calendar:
- 1 whitepaper
- 18 blog posts
- 6 videos
- 6 SlideShare decks
- 1 Squeeze page copy
- 1 Lightbox copy
- 60 social media posts per channel
Step 4: Create the Content
Once the assets were plotted on the editorial calendar, we started content production in earnest. We produced all the assets that were supposed to go out on the first month of the campaign one month ahead of schedule. This gave us the flexibility we needed to publish the assets on time and still have enough time to promote them as they went live on the web.
When creating the assets, we followed several key principles including:
- Making the content as evergreen as possible
- Optimizing each asset for at least one main keyword that’s relevant to the campaign’s theme
- Keeping the voice of the content consistent. We only used one writer in this campaign to keep things uniform. Of course, if it was a larger campaign, manpower would have to scale up.
- Keeping the look and feel of the assets consistent with the brand. The logo has to be present in our assets and the site’s color palette was followed in the whitepaper, slide template and the video’s overall design.
- Every content asset surrounding the whitepaper has to have a call to lead users to our squeeze page.
- All assets published on the site have to internally link to each other.
- All videos were uploaded to YouTube but were also embedded into video blog posts. All video blogs have the transcript on their pages to increase search relevance.
Step 5: Set Up the Content’s Technical Foundation
Creating content is the core of content marketing, but your text, audio and video assets won’t do your business much good if your target audience can’t find and access them. To make that happen, you’ll need to make sure that your website is equipped with the right kind of people and tools to support a dynamic content marketing strategy.
For this project, the client already had his site running on WordPress which makes things easier for us. They also had a highly skilled developer who was familiar with content marketing operations. That said, we had a smooth time implementing the following technical prerequisites to running the summer campaign:
- Whitepaper squeeze page setup – the squeeze page had to hold images, text, name and email entry fields,, a submit button and a Thank You page with Google Analytics goal tracking code embedded.
- Lightbox creation and configuration – The lightbox had to pop up and fire cookies to the user’s browser. That way, it would only show up when a user is coming from an external page or visiting the site directly. The cookie expires in an hour, in which case the user will see it pop up again if he hasn’t opted in yet. If a user has already opted in, the cookie will stop the lightbox from popping up in the next 365 days.
- Infusionsoft Configuration – After the user opts in, he should receive an email with a download link for the whitepaper. This is done via our email marketing and sales platform Infusionsoft. This platform also saves the email addresses we extracted and it’ll be responsible for sending out emails later on. Our developer took care of this for us but it can be done by a non-coder who reads the setup guide carefully.
- Technical and On-Site SEO – Because the site is coming off of two penalties, we are focused on helping it gain back its lost search engine traffic through richer content and on-site SEO soundness. There’s a lot that has to be done to establish a great SEO foundation for a content marketing campaign and you can read all about it by clicking on the linked text. From optimized pages to adding Schema markups, it takes some skill and a fair bit of work to make sure your pages are stable and easily crawlable by search engine spiders.
Step 6: Publish the Content
This is one of the easier parts of the campaign. Follow your editorial calendar religiously to ensure a smooth workflow. Publishing on a timely and regular basis allows you to set expectations among the members of your audience and it also gives search engines a better idea on how frequently to crawl your site and when the best times are to do it.
Most CMS systems will allow you to schedule go-live dates and times for your content. Take advantage of that. For social media content, you can use tools like Buffer and HootSuite. If you work for a large enterprise, WildFire and Shoutlet are some of the better ones out there.
In this campaign, we relied heavily on HootSuite because it’s simple, effective and free. I’ve heard a lot of great things about Buffer and we’re looking forward to trying it in our next runs.
Step 7: Promote the Content
As good as we felt about our content and as much optimization as we did on the site, we knew that everything could go flat if we weren’t able to properly promote our assets. With a weak organic search presence and no budget for paid search and social media ads, we were put in a position where we had to be resourceful with how we let our target audience know that our content exists.
We had a significant amount of visitors who go to the site directly and we let them know about the whitepaper through our lightbox. We also had a good Facebook following (at that time 48,000 strong) which drives visitors to our blog posts where the lightbox also pops up. If the lightbox doesn’t entice them to opt in, we would rely in the CTAs of our text and video posts to drive them to our squeeze page and try to opt them in.
The good thing about publishing a lot of blog posts derived from the central content theme was that we got a lot of visits via long-tail keywords. Today, our fat head keywords still haven’t returned to their page 1 glory but we are back to roughly 75% of our pre-penalty organic search traffic levels thanks in large part to blog pages performing well for long tail search terms.
Another game-changing move we made was the introduction of Rich Pins to our pages., Pinterest’s awesome features allow us to auto-pin our latest content assets and have them display with more robust info compared to regular pins. Right now, social media is our biggest traffic driver and Pinterest is a big reason for that.
There’s a bunch of other ways we were able to get our content noticed without much SEO power. Click on the link to see an in-depth post I did recently which talks about 10 of those techniques.
Step 8: Measure and Refine
As the analytics cliché goes, you can’t improve what you can’t measure. We did a lot of work on the content creation and promotion side, but it would all mean nothing if we didn’t fulfil the goals that we set for our campaign from the very start. As I write this, we still have 23 days before the three-month campaign ends but what we’re seeing is pretty encouraging.
Here’s how the campaigns are shaping up using KPIs that we’ve set to measure our success with each goal:
Create unique and engaging content
There are two parts to this goal: the creation of the content and its ability to engage our target audience. The first part is easy to gauge: we just need to look at our editorial calendar and see which items have been delivered, which ones are past their due dates and which ones are pending approval. Accountability can be directly laid on the authors and approvers, making the process a very straightforward one.
Engagement is the more challenging part of the goal to deliver. Our editorial decisions and promotional activities had to be spot on for it to click. To measure engagement, we used the following metrics:
- Traffic – Visits on the site increased significantly from the start of the calendar year to August 6th. Visits rose by 64.21% year over year. Search engine traffic was also up 71.15% percent from pre-content marketing levels to current levels. Social media was the biggest winner as we experienced a 784% increase in referred traffic year-over-year. Social traffic has grown so much that it now narrowly edges organic search as our leading traffic source.
- Bounce Rate – Of course, traffic numbers can be misleading. It’s not too hard to drive traffic by the thousands. The real challenge is driving targeted and engaged visits while you grow your traffic numbers. This campaign was able to do that thanks to a well-thought-out content theme. The topics of our content assets were spot on and the content creator did a great job in keeping the material both interesting and informative.
We measure engagement primarily with bounce rates. As Avinash Kaushik says, it’s “the sexiest metric ever” because of its simplicity and significance. Google Analytics shows that none of our referring channels even touched the 50% bounce rate mark which is a pleasant surprise.
Keyword Ranking Recovery
Among the three goals, this was the lowest in priority but we knew that creating quality content and successfully promoting it to an engaged audience would yield SEO benefits. As stated in the previous section, we experienced a 71.15% organic search traffic growth after more than two months of content marketing. It also translated to ranking improvements for the great majority of keywords that the client wants to target as this Moz report shows:
We fully expect this trend to continue as we build more linkable content, gain more social signals and bolster our image as a legitimate, thought-leading brand in our niche.
Increase Leads Generated
Generating conversions is the most important of all the goals we set. We can get all the traffic we want, we can get back to ranking high on Google, but if these gains don’t translate into business benefits, everything would have been a waste of time and money.
We set up conversion goals for Google that would measure how many people opted into our mailing list by downloading the whitepaper. After just a month live, we were pleasantly surprised to see that the number of downloads exceeded all our expectations, Conversions were up by 209% while the site’s conversion rate jumped from 1.41% to 3.31%. We were pretty stoked because we knew that the average conversion rate across the web for every industry is around 2%. That means the campaign is performing better than the web-wide average and we’re just getting started.
Right now, we’re looking at elements that we can tweak to help future campaigns perform better. Tweaks in headlines, copy, design and calls to action are all in order. Moving forward, we know we have a model that works and it’s just a matter of refining and evolving what we have.
Overall, this case study shows that a content marketing campaign doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be very similar to content creation efforts you’re already doing for your SEO operations. The main difference of what we didn’t create and promote content with search engines in mind. We did it for the people in our target demographic and the campaign worked very well for us.
The campaign also proves that SEO gains can be enjoyed even if you aren’t going hard after search rankings. Positive user experiences achieved through the ethical promotion of quality content is at the heart of every Google algorithm more than ever.