In high competition spaces like finance, disease, gambling, and adult entertainment, every aspect of your website matters. Especially if your site is technically sound from a rendering standpoint and you have every “high-quality” backlink available. Small things like a trailing slash on a canonical link when your URL structure doesn’t match, or sitemap links that go into a redirect make an impact. I got laughed at when I called that out at a conference in Australia, but our clients have seen the little things make a large difference. They’re not “flashy”, they’re not “ingenious”, “fun”, or “creative”, but they matter.
Another example of something not flashy is checking title tags and descriptions that don’t properly reflect the experience on the page. Or they blend in from the titles and descriptions above them. Changes to these may not move you upwards in position, but they can increase click throughs and revenue off of the same position in the search results.
This client came to use because they had trouble increasing traffic and gaining non-branded keywords in search, and they’re in a super competitive space. We’re talking mesothelioma keyword competition levels. We were told no link building, and we also could not produce new content for other pages or guides. And the site has minimal links pointing to it, so we had to remove part of the strategy we felt was important. The challenge was set, and we accepted.
Below is the result and the project is over. SEO is back to the in house team with a road map on how to move forward. I’m proud of the work we did, we accomplished the goals, and the team said they would like to hire us again in the future. The project is ending in the best possible way. Here’s the results of our work, and the steps we took to increase flat SEO traffic in a highly competitive space.
Screenshots with explanations of the results first, then the details.
You can see the climbs in impressions in the screenshots below as we were making the changes and implementing the results from our tests. The climbs are the signs we were on the right path.
In this next screen shot you’ll see the average position dropping as impressions increase. This is because we added a lot of new keywords and phrases to the indexes and we were gaining exposure. This post explains why average position dropping in search console can be a good thing. It is exactly what we wanted to see. Google better understands our site, our pages, and which ones matter for specific queries. Now we can begin moving the high-intent and topically-relevant phrases up to the top 5 positions.
In this third screen shot you can see that traffic did increase, and as they increase their positions for the new keywords, it’s about to skyrocket. I can’t wait to watch from the sidelines. Some of the increases are from updating titles and descriptions only. Others are new keywords climbing up. The client is likely going to see a traffic climb in the next couple months too which is going to be exciting. I was not given permission to share a year over year, but there is a substantial difference from the previous year.
Here’s how we did this.
- Update copy and topical elements
- Deploy schema
- Fix on site tech issues
- Delete thin copy
- Update internal links
- Update copy again
Update Copy and Topical Elements
One of the first things we did was update the copy on the main pages so it became topically relevant to what the user was searching for.
Note: When most of the traffic on a site is branded (making a general statement here, not client specific), chances are the search engines are having a hard time understanding what you do. The pages on this site were all crawled, indexed, and rendered perfectly, so content relevance was our most logical first step.
We researched entities, keywords, the jargon people used in forums and when talking to customer support, etc… Then we looked at topic building elements. Topic building elements are things that help search engines understand what the pages and sections are about (the topic of the page and the sub sections within them). They include:
- Title tags
- Words used on internal links
- Breadcrumb wording
- Image and video names
- Menu item names
From here we mapped out what each page should show up for by user intent so we could meet the consumers needs at every step of their journey. User intent mapping is an evaluation of which phrases are best for conversions, research, or a mix of the two. I give an example under the next header.
If the query is direct conversion term, we bring them to a product or service page with a call to action (add to cart, form fills, contact us, etc…). If it is a mix, we take them to a detail page that has information, and the option to convert. If it is informative in nature, we go with blog posts, e-books, guides, podcasts, and other forms of content that build trust, create exposure, and keep us in front of the consumer until they are ready to convert.
By making sure the content matches the needs of the searcher, we make it easier for search engines to know what each page is about. This in turn helps prevent cannibalization because although the pages are similar, they serve very different purposes and have clearly set goals. Most of the times there is an easy answer, and when it is middle-of-the-road, I do the yes or no test. The first response that pops into our heads decides where the content and topic goes. If it’s a “maybe”, “could be” or “it depends”, that’s a no. And we make no exceptions with this.
Pro-tip: Use site structure with internal links to further help search engines understand each page.
Here’s a generic example in a totally separate space so I don’t give the client away.
Someone looking for which materials are best for running shirts isn’t ready to purchase, they want to know what to look for. But we don’t know the types of running they do, or why they need a special running shirt. For this query I would create a guide to the fabrics and share multiple common situations and solutions by fabric type.
If they search for which is better X fabric or Y fabric, they may be ready to make a decision, but are still researching. For this user, a comparison table between the two, examples of situations where one is better than the other, and calls to action where the person can find our selection of each is a great user experience. It’s informative, builds expertise, and can drive revenue if we educated the visitor enough.
When the person types in Red X Fabric Wicking T-shirts for Long Distance Runners, they’re in shopping mode and I bring them directly to the product category or product page. On this page we make the copy all about the useful situations and have a sales focus with trust builders like testimonials, reviews, money back guarantees, and as seen in PR bars.
An easy win for us was to deploy schema. Schema is a quick win for SEO. It is a form of code that defines what each element on the page is, and helps search engines know when to show the page or portions of the page in search results. Schema can be used to define products are for sale on the page, the user will find answers about those products by visiting, or how-to guides. If you sell software or enterprise systems to the government, or do Botox injections at specific locations and during set hours, this can be defined by schema for search engines. Same with in person or online events (and ticket sales), medical information, and reviews.
Schema is fast and easy to do. We deployed to the entire site in under 3 hours including unique elements for page features. Depending on the platform you’re on, there are effective and efficient plugins that deploy common schema site wide. From there its a matter of adding the unique fields and additional types for your most important pages. Just don’t overdo it or worry about schema types that aren’t recognized or used any longer.
Fix Onsite Tech Issues
Rendering and caching were not an issue here, but getting the most important pages found and refreshed was. So we needed to find out why our core pages were not being found as often. Then once fixed, making sure we set them up for future success. Because this was a crawling issue, we spidered the site with a few tools, then compared the results and created a site hierarchy plan.
Bonus-tip: This particular client was not a Shopify store, but this is the same thing we do with Shopify like in this SEO case study. Shopify is a flat structure so you need to build it on your own. That includes using their blog feature, even though it lacks the functionality of wordpress and other competitors.
To create the right paths and make them as easy as possible to follow, we updated the following:
- Changed relative URLs to absolute
- Matched all canonicalized pages with canonical links, sitemap, internal links, menu items, and social media tracking links (Google can and will come to your website through links shared on social media). When Google comes through, don’t make them go through redirects and non-canonicalized pages if it from organic shares on your own “same as” referenced social media accounts.
- Added breadcrumbs
- Reduced excess items from menus, blog categories, the footer, etc…
Pro-tip: When looking at removing category and menu items, make sure they aren’t competing with each other. Many times I’ll find a blog category that competes directly with a main site category. The blog is going to have more pages and more content, and that could give a signal it is more important than the revenue generating pages. Blogs are informative, your site is conversion, keep the two separate and keep the intent of the pages defined properly.
Now comes the hard part, reducing copy. In a lot of the case studies you see here, and audits I do, we have to delete content. Especially content that was paid for or done by PR, branding, and the C-suite.
If more than 1 in 10 posts in a blog or your website are self-serving, there is no reason for someone to visit your blog or your website. It is about you and has no value to people outside of your company. You may disagree, and your HR, branding, and PR teams will definitely disagree. But if the goal of your company is to grow revenue, build an audience, and increase awareness, you’re going to have to pull back on the self-serving content.
This is especially important for Google and what they see as “helpful” content. Consumers don’t need to know or care to know about how many corn on the cobs Jane ate at the company picnic, or that Jessica’s team got promoted. Consumers want to learn how to improve their lives by finding solutions to problems, learning more about new offerings, and being educated on topically relevant subject matter. And that content needs to be on topic with your products, services, or core website themes. More important it has to be unique and add value.
Google’s helpful content update is looking at your site as a whole and not individual pages. That’s why 1 in 10 posts is important. 1 in 10 is a number I made up and not from Google or a best practice, but it is a good rule of thumb. If you can go 1 in 20, even better. If not, don’t worry, there’s a solution below.
I’ll use blogs here as the example, but this applies to press rooms that aren’t updated, and product or collection page copy too.
Blog posts that are thin and hurt both SEO and UX include:
- Company announcements like event coverage (conferences, corporate, office/holiday parties), hires and fires, anniversaries, team member recognition, etc…
- Product or service updates – if these take up more than 10% of the posts
- Product updates do provide value and are relevant. But they can also exist inside a company portal or on a separate blog (maybe in a subdomain blocked by robots.txt so you don’t waste your crawl budget, but they can still be indexed) which is healthier for your site.
- New visitors and potential customers don’t need to know about these new features in the discovery process when they’re not ready to convert yet. More important, they’ll find them on your sales, marketing, FAQ, and pricing pages which is where product features belong. That is why those pages exist. It is not for your consumer/lead blog to feature if customer acquisition and growth are important.
- Press coverage (put this in your PR room)
- Holiday messaging and well wishes, or office and store hour updates
- This goes on your contact page, about us, and social media
- Testimonials and reviews
- Some exceptions should be made for this.
Some of the above is ok, just make sure it is less than 10% of the content. But remember, 10% is on the very high end, and a scary number. If you cannot avoid the thin content, place thin content in a folder about the company and block the folder in robots.txt from being crawled, and/or mark the posts in that folder with meta robots “noindex, follow”. For the rest of it, keep the posts on an internal blog for your employees and vendors to see. This is who the content is for, and that is where they can find it so that it does not impact your revenue and growth potential.
We went though four figures of pages of content and deleted most of it. In a few cases we combined. Just like you’ve seen in other case studies on this site. For years people published copy because they thought more content means better SEO and more traffic. This is not true.
Publish content when there is a purpose and a need, not because you feel like you’re supposed to. And when you do publish, make sure it solves your current and future customers needs, not because it is fun or makes someone happy. If it isn’t helpful to your audience, you just wasted your audience’s time.
Pro-tip: Proceed with deleting content carefully. Deleting these pages changes your site structure and internal linking. Keep track of this. I share how in the next step.
Example of Helpful and Topically Relevant Content
If you run a mechanic shop and teach guides for aspiring mechanics, or use the blog to cross-sell tools that solve problems, don’t talk about hobbies. Yes, the audience is the same and they may be interested in your recipe for a dry rub on a brisket for the smoker, but that recipe is topically irrelevant to vehicle repair and throws the site off. Send the recipe out as part of a newsletter and keep your blog focused on repairing cars, boats, and trucks.
The recipe post may get a lot of traction because there is an audience match. This is the slippery slope.
The excitement that comes from getting comments and shares leads site owners down a spiral of writing more recipe and similar content to replicate the excitment. It becomes addictive, and much like addiction, when left unchecked can destroy your site. Remember, you are a mechanic shop and not a BBQ joint or cookware company. Writing BBQ rub recipes and smoker tips will de-topic your site and chase away your loyal user base that was coming to you to buy tools and supplies. They want to improve their trade and niche, not become a pitmaster. You will lose both your customer base and your organic traffic. When the customers stop reading, they stop shopping through the links. When search engines decide you’re now a recipe site, you lose your authority on car repair and your revenue driving traffic.
Update the Internal Links
Now that we audited the site, deleted the copy, and rebuilt core site structure, it was time to finish the crawl paths and see how Google’s spiders find and refresh our pages. I started by using the spiders again and watched their paths. Then I compared them by using the keywords linked off of and the landing pages they linked too.
Put the internal links in a spreadsheet:
- Column A – Keyword or phrase with an internal link
- Column B – URL it is found on
- Column C – URL it links too
- Column D – Where it should link to
Now you have an easy way to see where there is competing keywords and which to adjust quickly and easily.
We adjusted the links so they did not send conflicting signals, linking off the same or similar intent words to different pages.. Then we did another round of crawls with our spiders and looked to see how the new structure looked both from a keyword and a priority perspective. From there we took a few specific pages, updated the copy a bit. These specific pages linked to other core pages where the links changed so we could hopefully have our most important pages recrawled through the new site structure. Then we requested a crawl from search console and watched Google come through, and it worked.
The new copy began indexing and getting crawled more frequently, and then began getting displayed for new phrases. I used a third party tool to see how many keywords are in the top 100 positions. Most SEO software systems do this nowadays. I have my preferences, but go with the ones you can use the best. That is what matters most. If you want to know my preferences, reach out through the contact page.
Updating the Copy Again
The last and final step was to once again update the copy. We learned a lot about our pages since the first round, and about our customer intent. Normally this would be a bad idea, and it is not easy to explain to legal, branding, the C-Suite, and PR why you’re rewriting your website copy again. But when you realize something was off or missing, or the intent was wrong, it is needed to continue to grow. Other times it is the above people that want you to update, and although that is stressful on you, it is also an opportunity to get improvements from your learnings.
We updated the copy and by sharing data got less branding and more function added in. The result was another climb. It is the same work we already did multiple times, and when it makes sense to update and when it is done correctly, it can lead to gains. But you also risk losing traffic, so do it wisely and always set positive and negative expectations so everyone knows the risks.
And that is how the project went. It was successful for the client and we’re proud of the work we did. If you’d like to learn how we can help you with SEO, affiliate marketing, conversion optimization, email funnels, etc… click here to contact us today. And since this project is over, I have time for an audit or two until we replace the client.