You know that feeling when you’re asked “What do you want for dinner tonight?” and you’re paralyzed by the endless opportunities available to you?
It’s not that much different when you’re given a blank blog and told: “Okay, write something.”
A lot went into choosing the right content that is now featured on our beloved Learning Hub. We definitely didn’t start out with the “right” or most efficient content, and we certainly had to switch gears a couple of times. We didn’t always have the right audience in mind, didn’t have the resources we needed, or the strategy figured out.
All we knew is that we had to write content that would draw a reader (hopefully, many readers) in enough that they wanted to check out the main G2 site.
Easy enough, right? Finding the content our audience and Google wanted felt a lot like throwing a dart in the dark... or, you know, figuring out what your significant other wants for dinner.
But then we discovered keyword research.
|This is part 4 of The Road to 1M Organic Visits: A Content Marketing Case Study.|
What is keyword research?
Keyword research is, in a way, looking at the inner workings of Google. How many people are searching for a term? How many other blogs and websites have covered that term? How hard would it be to get on the first page of Google (which let’s face it, is the only page anyone cares about) for that term?
Keyword research tells you all that and more.
Keyword difficulty (KD) gives you an idea of how hard it would be to get on that coveted first page. Keyword search volume (KV) shows the average monthly searches for that term.
We use ahrefs for our keyword research, and here’s an example of that data.
As you can see, press release has high search volume but is also pretty hard to rank for. Any keyword with a KD over 50 is going to be difficult and time-consuming for your new article to rank for, especially if your domain authority isn’t high. Ahrefs also offers an estimate on how many backlinks it would take for Google to recognize an article targeting this keyword as an authoritative source.
Today we have a great keyword research method that helps us ideate articles that will rank on Google. This research helped us decide what content to write, which then helped us reach the one million monthly visitors we enjoy today.
But we aren’t perfect, and there was some trial and error first.
The early attempts
There’s a shocking amount of data and information available on ahrefs. You can — and each one of us has — get lost in it for hours. There’s always more to discover and learn.
That learning curve aside, here are the well-intentioned methods we used in the early days as we tried to get this blog off the ground.
We wrote articles close to our mission
As a business software review platform, it seemed obvious our first pieces of content should be on the importance of customer reviews. What better way to get across our message?
That, and articles about SaaS, consumed us for weeks. And while it undoubtedly needed to be written, we simply didn’t have the domain authority for Google to take us seriously on these high KD topics. We also didn’t know what we do today about keyword research, so we weren’t doing much planning or on-page SEO optimization. It just wasn’t working.
We looked at competitors
What did Gartner and Capterra cover in their blogs? If we were going to compete with them for business, shouldn’t we compete with their content? We ran both of their blogs through ahrefs and looked at top performing pages. For the most part, their highest ranking articles were trend pieces and free software lists.
Okay, we can do that, too! we thought. And we did, we wrote about articles like free floor plan software and covered software-specific trends like “Digital Platform Trends in 2018.” Both of these content types were easy to pitch in our link building campaign, which in turn helped build our domain authority. The Atlantic even linked to that specific digital platform trends article — a big win!
However, these pieces weren’t bringing in sustainable traffic. The trends pieces, especially, did well at the beginning of the year but bottomed out later on.
It was around this time, too, that we realized we were looking at the wrong competitors.
Content competitors vs business competitors
The Learning Hub is meant to be a comprehensive source of business knowledge. That might seem like far too large a goal, but think about it: we are a business software review platform. Anyone who uses business software is our audience. We are trying to reach HR professionals, real estate agents, product marketers, website designers, and business development representatives, to name a few.
Writing solely about how software impacts these people and their jobs limited the content we could cover. Plus, it limited our audience. Only people who knew they needed software would click on our articles.
We had to be writing top-of-funnel content — the content people need early on in their journey of searching for solutions. Instead of appealing to the professional who is already well-situated in his or her job and needs software help, we wanted to appeal to professionals who just started their jobs, didn’t know how to do a basic job function, or wanted to better understand a strategy on the job.
Basically, we wanted to be their guide, their helping hand, a reliable resource they could always count on.
Gartner and Capterra weren’t exactly writing that kind of content. But blogs like HubSpot and Hootsuite were. So we turned our attention on them and studied their strategy. We ran their blogs through ahrefs and looked at the top pages to help us understand what was working for them and what wasn’t.
What do HubSpot and Hootsuite write about best? You guessed it — marketing! Marketing is such a wide field, we knew there would be plenty of ground to cover. Plus, many of our writers had marketing backgrounds, so it would be easy for us to crank out some articles.
But we hadn’t quite mastered the connection between keyword research and writing high-performing content.
Oh, pillars. Wherefore art thou so long?
A pillar is an article that briefly touches on all facets of its topic. It should be able to stand alone as a resource, but it also offers the opportunity for readers to learn more from the in-depth, specific articles that are linked in the pillar.
Don’t get me wrong, pillars can and do work. They work well as a way to tie all of our content into a neat bundle. They work well for interlinking and showing Google we are a great source for that specific topic.
They don’t quite work when you make them unnecessarily long, which we did in the beginning.
For example, we wrote an article about social media marketing that was 10,529 words long. Fun fact: that’s about one-fifth of the way to a teen novel!
Anyway, our target keyword for the piece was “social media marketing.” Which was the first misstep, as it had a KD of 80. To twist the knife a little more, we threw in as many related high-volume keywords as possible and made them headers. Those keywords should’ve been given the honor of their own individual articles. For example, LinkedIn marketing, Instagram marketing, social media marketing campaigns, social media marketing jobs, etc. all have high keyword volumes.
Now those keywords are diluting the already difficult social media marketing keyword and weighing down the article.
A pillar without anything to hold up can’t quite serve its purpose, and to this day that 10,529-word article sees under 100 organic traffic views a month. The LinkedIn Marketing article, which we published nearly a year later, saw that amount of traffic in the first month of its publication.
The holy grail
It took us a while to get there, but we did it! We figured out what works.
We found the keywords with low KD and high KV, and focused our efforts on those.
Let’s stick with our social media marketing example. We realized it was too long and broke it apart into sections, deciding we wanted to cover Twitter marketing. That term has a 55 KD and 1,800 KV. The difficulty is a little high for the return on investment (or volume).
So we broke it down further. What if someone wants to begin a Twitter marketing campaign for their business, but they know nothing about Twitter itself? We looked at the term “what is Twitter.” Okay, okay, it’s getting better! 39 KD and 10,000 KV.
We could write that (and we did), but let’s say we wanted to write something that would get traffic fast. Break it down even more. Think about basic functions on Twitter that someone might find useful. Ah. How to pin a tweet.
That term has 8 KD and 3,300 KV. Now we’re talking. A keyword with that low of difficulty would give us a fighting chance to rank quickly and gain that traffic. It also provided an opportunity to get our featured snippet in “position 0” — the call-out box that appears on Google when you search for a term.
We focused a lot of effort writing these quick-win pieces, then circled back and wrote the pillars to support them. We spent the time to carefully interlink the content so by the time we’d written everything there was to know about Twitter and Twitter marketing, the topic cluster could stand on its own, like a beautiful content colosseum.
Keyword research in action
Wondering how exactly we found keywords? Besides the exercise above with Twitter marketing, where we just think about topics that obviously need to be covered, there are other methods we use often.
Long-tail keywords. These are longer and more specific keyword phrases. It’s what people search when they know exactly what they’re looking for. And often, they are much easier to rank for. Take, for example, the keyword “accountant.” It would be rather difficult to get on the first page, with a KD of 58 and KV of 57,000. The longtail keyword “what does an accountant do,” on the other hand, has a KD of 4 and a KV of 5,200! That’s much more feasible for a new article to swoop in and claim a top spot.
Look at the Keyword ideas section. This is my personal favorite way of ideating, and often long-tail keywords can be found this way, too. For example, if you search “LinkedIn” in ahrefs, you’ll notice an obscenely high KD (and KV, of course). But, check out the related keyword ideas. Each of those could be a separate article!
And that’s just a preview. If you click in to your SEO software to view all, you’ll see even more keywords waiting to be found.
See what keywords your competing website ranks for. We already talked about this idea early on, but it’s a method we still use today. If we’re writing about HR and trying to find all high-volume keywords in that realm, we can run an HR blog through ahrefs and check out what keywords they’re picking up. Often, they are ones we want to target as well.
Now that we have several topic clusters built out, a steady stream of traffic, a link building strategy that improved our domain authority, and a larger team of writers, we don’t have to be as picky with our keywords.
Now we have a fighting chance to rank for those high difficulty keywords. Now we see traffic in days instead of months on new articles.
As we set ourselves up to be a well-rounded business guide, we need to write about as many professions and aspects of business as possible, including those that might not have the most high-volume keywords. And that’s okay! While one writer is covering a lower-volume topic such as internal communications (which, despite its low volume, is integral to business operations), her desk neighbor is covering advertising, a high-volume topic.
When we were a team of 7 writers, we didn’t have to worry too much about accidentally writing the same keyword at the same time. We simply communicated what we were writing that week and went for it. With 16 full-time writers now on the team, that laid-back approach no longer works.
Today, we assign each writer a specific topic or industry to cover. We have three pods of writers on the team, with each pod focusing on a different area — one covers management topics, the other tech and the third growth.That way, the chances of two writers covering the same keyword is significantly lower.
We front-load our keyword research as much as possible. After receiving their assigned topic, each writer spends a day or two conducting keyword research for it. When they find a good opportunity for an article, they add it to an ongoing spreadsheet. Eventually, they’ll notice patterns in the keywords and cluster them under a specific pillar, or as we’ve been calling them lately, chapters. For example, in the HR topic “talent management” would be a chapter, with all the related keywords falling under it.
By collecting all the keywords, we can not only predict traffic for months to come, but the writer also builds out their own editorial calendar.
We refer to this early keyword research as content mapping.
The future is bright
The gains we’ve made in keyword research helped us choose the right content. It also helped us write better content, using secondary keywords and featured snippets to our advantage in the article itself. Altogether, it truly launched us into the success we see today.
It’s mind-blowing looking back at our Learning Hub a year ago and seeing how far we’ve come. It’s been an incredible journey, and it’s not over yet! We continue to find keywords, write valuable content, grow as a team, and put our readers first, always. It’s inspiring looking around at the writers and problem-solvers that surround me every day.
I look forward to seeing what we accomplish and discover a year from now!