If you’re like most content publishers, it’s been a rough 16 months in the world of organic search. Never before have we seen such turbulence and fluctuations in traffic driven from Google and other search engines.
What started in August 2018 with the “medic” update turned into a series of major Google algorithm changes that dramatically changed the composition of search engine results pages (SERPs). Companies have shut down because of lost traffic and others have been left wondering what can be done to recover from the massive hits and grow their search traffic in 2020.
In this post, I’ll share a few of my best tips to help smart content publishers get back on the right track and position themselves favorably for SEO success going forward.
This post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to SEO nor am I giving you specific advice for your site. While there are some guidelines that apply to most websites, SEO is not a one-size-fits-all strategy.
If you’re interested in getting advice specific to your site, I invite you to apply for an SEO Video Audit (free while it’s in Beta but full of value).
The Rules Of The Game Have Changed
Before I dive into the tips, I think it’s important to talk about the environment we’re in today and how different it is in a couple of major ways.
Big Sites Are Dominating Even More SERPs
For years we’ve talked about the concept of domain authority and the advantages that high authority sites have over other (often smaller) sites. Still, organic search democratized the web where great content by relatively unknown companies could compete with content from the largest companies around.
For many search results, that’s changed. Unfortunately.
Particularly in areas known as YMYL (your money or your life), it’s incredibly difficult for all but the largest and most well-known sites to claim the top spots in search results. YMYL topics are areas like health/medicine, finances, law, expensive purchases, and other areas where bad information could really cause a problem for readers.
So if a primary focus of your content is in an area considered YMYL, at this point it’s really going to be an uphill battle. Google has become incredibly careful about presenting content that might be controversial or of an “alternative” nature.
My suggestion is to consider whether there are other (non-YMYL) topics that you can create content around that will still engage your ideal audience and lead them to whatever conversion goal you’ve established.
What Best Satisfies Search Intent Has Changed
“Search intent” is a phrase you’ll likely be hearing more and more. It basically means “what is the searcher trying to figure out”. Providing content that satisfies search intent – in other words, provides an answer to the searcher’s question – has always been an important part of search engine optimization.
But I believe that Google is looking at content differently today when trying to determine if it meets the intent of a particular search query.
Years ago, we would optimize web pages around very specific keywords. Essentially, you’d identify a topic you were interested in, do some keyword research, and start creating new pages of content for essentially every term.
Google rewarded pages that super optimized (what we would now call over-optimized) around specific keywords. The URL had the keyword in it. So did the headlines. The keyword was used throughout the page over and over. And there’d be other pages created that targeted closely related keywords.
Then the algorithm changed. Google rewarded more in-depth content that covered a topic in detail. Instead of being optimized around a specific keyword, this content covered dozens if not hundreds of keywords and satisfied a broad range of search intent.
You could create a single piece of (long) content that answered many questions on a particular topic and would rank for a variety of keywords. It was a very efficient time in SEO.
I believe part of Google’s algorithm changes over the past year have moved us away from this long-form blog content to more specific content that directly and quickly answers the searcher’s question. And I think this is a good thing for the searcher.
We were seeing super long blog posts (15,000+ words in length) that covered a topic in great detail being served up for very specific questions. This was forcing the searcher to dig through a long article to find the answer to their question. It was very inefficient for the searcher.
We’ve found many examples of long blog posts now ranking for a fraction of the keywords they were ranking for before June 2019. And in their place, we’re seeing much more focused content. So today, for some search queries, I think we’ve gone back to having content that succinctly and quickly answers the searcher’s question being awarded top results.
Grow Your Organic Search With These Tips
With those two key points in mind and based on a great deal of analysis over the past several months, here are some of my favorite tips to get the most out of your organic search strategy and gain an unfair advantage over the competition.
Understand what pages have lost traffic and why
If you’ve been hit by algorithm changes, it’s not just that your website has lost traffic from organic search. It’s that specific pages of your site have lost traffic. And, they’ve likely lost traffic around particular search queries (e.g. keywords).
So a good first step in recovery is understanding which pages lost traffic for which keywords and why.
We like to use Semrush for this but you can also use Google Search Console. In Semrush, you can run an organic research report and see what URLs were ranking for specific keywords along with their position. Run the report with the current date and again using a historical date that just precedes the date you started losing traffic.
With a little Excel or Google Sheets magic, you’ll be able to get an accurate picture of the pages and keywords for which you took a hit in traffic.
Start with the keywords where you’ve lost the most traffic and search for them in Google using an incognito browser. Look at what’s currently ranking. Are they all massive sites? How is their content different than yours? Reverse engineer what they are doing versus what you’re doing.
High Quality Content
We look at the overall quality of a site’s content as well as the quality on a page by page basis.
For overall quality, we suggest a thorough content audit where you are looking for issues like thin content pages (very little text), duplicate pages (or substantial portions of pages), broken pages (404 errors), and cannibalized pages (two or more pages competing for the same keywords).
Also take a look at the organic search traffic coming into your pages. Do you have a large percentage of pages with little organic traffic? If so, that’s an issue. It’s possible that you would benefit from content pruning – actually removing or noindexing low-quality pages from your site.
For your most important pages, make sure they are error-free – no spelling or grammar mistakes, proper formatting, high-quality images, etc. If you were reading this content for the first time, would you share it with friends? If not, what needs to changed?
Satisfying Search Intent
One of the most important keys for SEO success is making sure your content is satisfying the search intent for the search queries it’s targeting. Is it actually answering whatever questions the visitor has that brought them there?
As I mentioned previously, this is an area which I think has changed dramatically in the past year – not that search intent is all of a sudden important (it’s always been), but that the way Google is determining whether the content satisfies search intent has changed.
One of the ways we figure this out is by reverse engineering what’s currently ranking for search queries we’re targeting. Google the keywords that the page is optimized and see what’s ranking. How similar is your content? Is it covering the same areas? Answering similar questions? Has a similar depth of coverage?
We’re not suggesting that you have to exactly replicate the pages that are ranking. You need to offer your own perspective and style while standing out in often crowded search results. But if your content is wildly different than what you’re seeing in the top 3 positions, you might need to refresh and update that content.
Demonstrate Topical Authority
We are big believers in becoming and demonstrating your authority in the topics that are most important to your audience and in turn most important for success with organic search.
Google is concerned about ranking pages that provide bad or even false information. That’s not good for searchers which means they would lose confidence in Google if they keep seeing poor results. And if that happens, they’ll use Google less frequently which leads to less revenue for Google.
Some sites can get away with covering a broad range of topics because of their domain authority. They are simply a monstrous site with often high editorial standards and can usually be trusted to provide good information.
For the rest of us, we need to be focused and develop topical authority. We need to be recognized as an expert in the topics that our audience cares about and that are aligned with our business goals around the products & services we offer.
This requires a deep & narrow approach to content. Identify the most important topics (and on smaller sites that might begin with a single topic). Research them and understand all of the questions people want answers to relating to those topics. Answer their questions with great content.
I’m not suggesting that you can never write about other topics. But the more topics you’re writing about the harder it is to send the right signals to Google that you’re an expert in any.
Another important area to not overlook is how you are connecting your topically related content within the site. At a minimum, you need to be linking between related articles. We’re surprised how many sites don’t do this and in some cases, it can really lift the search value of the entire site.
If you’re writing on multiple topics or are writing on a larger topic that can be broken down into sub-topics, consider content hubs. This typically revolves around creating a pillar or hub page that covers the topic broadly and links out to other content within that topic or sub-topic.
Objectivity & Affiliate Links
You need to run a profitable business and that means you often need to promote products & services within your content. Maybe it’s a product you sell or perhaps it’s offered through an affiliate.
Depending upon what search queries you’re targeting, this might be problematic. We believe this to be a main culprit in lost rankings and traffic for many sites in YMYL niches.
Think about it . . . if your article is about how turmeric can cure cancer and selling a guide called “Turmeric: The Ultimate Cancer Cure”, can the content of the article really be trusted. Sure, it’s possible. But chances are it’s not truly objective.
When your content is about topics like health, finances, and legal issues if you aren’t being objective you’re going to have a hard time ranking. That’s one reason why sites like Healthline and WebMD have thrived recently. You might not agree with what they’re saying, but they present information in a seemingly objective manner.
The same goes for affiliate links. It’s perfectly fine to have affiliate links in your content. But if your articles are plastered with affiliate links, or if the links are presented in a deceptive manner, it might make ranking that content more challenging.
Expertise – Authority – Trust
After the “medic” update in August 2018, expertise – authority – trust (EAT) was touted by many as the path to recovery. We agree that EAT is incredibly important, especially in YMYL topics, but we think this concept is still misunderstood.
First, you either have EAT or you don’t. You cannot create out of thin air expertise, authority, or trust. But you can demonstrate your EAT more effectively.
Think about it from a visitor’s perspective and try to answer a few simple questions:
- Who is the company behind this website and can I trust them? If I Google terms like “XYZ Company reviews”, “XYZ Company scam”, “XYZ Company fraud” what do I find? Are people saying good things about this company? Are people talking about this company at all?
- Does the company as a whole have expertise in this area? Do they have an obvious ulterior motive? Can I trust what they are saying?
- Who is the author of the content? Are they a subject matter expert? Why should I believe them?
External Links To Your Company & Content
Links from other websites are important. There’s no way around this. Why?
Think about EAT and what you can do on a website and web page to demonstrate EAT. People talk about the importance of about pages, author bios, trust symbols, testimonials, etc.
Yes, all of those are important. But they can all be either 1) easily manipulated or 2) difficult for an algorithm like Google’s to understand.
On the other hand, links from reputable and authoritative websites are more difficult to fake and much easier for Google to evaluate. While it’s certainly possible to utilize unscrupulous link building practices, Google has gotten pretty good at identifying what makes a link high-quality as well as the sentiment behind that link (is the content around that link talking favorably or unfavorably about the company).
So while there are things you can do on your own website to better prove your EAT, high-quality links still carry a lot of weight when it comes to SEO.
Page Speed and User Experience
How fast your web pages are loading is a direct ranking factor for Google. Having a good (or bad) user experience is likely an indirect ranking factor.
Take a look at the new Google Search Console and specifically the Speed report under Enhancements. It very simply categories web pages as Fast, Average, or Slow. This is a very easy way to get insight into how Google looks at your web pages from a page loading perspective. Make sure you look at both desktop and mobile reports.
If you have pages deemed “Slow” in the Search Console report, you’ll be at a disadvantage to faster pages. You’ll need to work on improving loading times. Some of the biggest issues causing slow pages are:
- Slow servers
- Unnecessarily large images
- Big video files
- Improper use of caching
- Loading unnecessary files like CSS and JS often as a result of bloated plugins
- Poor performing ad networks
Having a good user experience is much more subjective. That’s why we don’t think it’s a direct ranking factor. But if users are coming to your site and having a bad experience, going back to Google and looking at competitive pages, that’s eventually going to catch up to you.
A few big items that make for a poor user experience include excessive ads, difficult to read or improperly formatted content, and display issues on mobile devices.
If you’re using ads to generate revenue, it’s important to keep in mind that not all ad networks are created equal. We recently did an analysis of several big ad networks and were shocked to see the difference in page speed and user experience. Feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to know my favorite.
Indexing and Crawling Issues
This likely isn’t going to be a big problem for most sites. If you have hundreds of pages, you shouldn’t be having crawling and indexing issues. If you have tens of thousands of pages (or more) than it can be a critical issue.
For smaller sites, just check and make sure that the content you are creating is being indexed in Google. Check the Index Coverage Report in Google Search Console and make sure there are no issues. Google your content with the title and make sure it’s showing up in search results.
There was a lot of talk in the content publishing community a few months ago about log file analysis and seeing how Google is crawling your pages. I’d be more concerned with the misuse of noindex tags, server errors, and similar issues than whether Google is having a hard time crawling your content (again, this is for smaller sites).
This is an incredibly complex topic but one that’s playing an increasingly important role.
Think of “entities” as the “thing” being discussed on a page. They are the answers to the Who, What, Why, Where, How types of questions.
Entities describe things, help organize content, and can provide contextual information to clarify what’s being discussed.
If you have a page on “apple”, there’s a huge difference if you write about entities such as Steve Jobs, iPhone, and Cupertino versus Granny Smith, fruit, and farms.
For now, my tip is to start paying attention to the concept of entities in SEO. This is going to be discussed more frequently in the near future. We’re already doing some very advanced analysis and optimization around the concept of entities and with advancements in technology like natural language processing and Python there’s serious potential in this area.
Organic search is constantly evolving. In any given year, Google updates its algorithm over 3,000 times. Yep, that’s on average over 8 times a day. A few of those updates create shockwaves throughout the industry. Most are small tweaks that go unnoticed.
Every website is different but I hope that some of the tips above can set you on a solid path to increasing your organic search traffic, converting more leads, and boosting revenue.
And don’t forget to take advantage of our SEO Video Audit service. As of the time of this article, we’re offering it at no charge to qualified companies with the hopes of getting feedback from them as we launch it as a standalone offer.