How We Mastered SEO and Dominated the SERPs

Jordan Wahl
Jordan Wahl  |  June 24, 2019

Let’s face it – building solid traffic numbers isn’t easy nor can it be done overnight.

It’s more than the work of one wordsmith, and it’s more than the success of one article.

To be quite honest with you, establishing a site as an authority on search engines takes time – it takes an army.

One year ago, that army didn’t exist at G2.

We had four writers – none of which knew anything about SEO and two of which had never written for a living before. We had no idea what we were doing.

One year and one million organic sessions later, and we have an army of 16 – all of which I can confidently say, know what they’re doing.

So buckle up. In this article, I’ll discuss exactly how we built an SEO strategy to take an entirely new subdomain and, in less than twelve months, bring in more than one million monthly organic visitors.

This is how we mastered SEO, and how you can, too.

This is part 3 of The Road to 1M Organic Visits: A Content Marketing Case Study

We did it wrong, so we could do it right

Through failure comes success (that’s the saying, right? Something like that). I wish I could say we got it all right the first time, but if it weren’t for our epic flop when it came to our organic traffic results, we wouldn’t have reevaluated our SEO strategy.

After a few months of writing and reaping little-to-no benefits, we sat down, took a look at our current approach, and decided that we needed to make some changes if we were going to hit the goals that were in front of us. To do that, we had to figure out exactly where we were missing the mark.

Here’s a quick recap:

We didn’t understand who our audience was, so we spent time writing about topics that we thought would appeal to them (whoever they were).

We thought we had two competitors (hey, Gartner and Capterra) when in reality we had thousands (anyone publishing similar content to us).

We didn’t know much about keywords or how to choose the right ones, so we went after those we had absolutely no chance of ranking for (that one time we tried ranking for “marketing,” HAHA).

ahrefs keyword research

 

Honestly, we did it all wrong. We didn’t understand SEO – and that’s okay! Because we do now.

Here are the steps we took to getting it right:

We did the research

Like I said, SEO started as a bit of a foreign concept to us. We knew what it was, we knew it was important but did we know how to “do” it? Not even in the slightest. So we took some time to actually start figuring it out. This is what we started looking into:

Understanding the audience

One of the most common mistakes you can make in your SEO efforts is not understanding who your audience is (aka, who you’re writing for).

Ask yourself: Who are we writing for? What are they searching for? How can I can best deliver the information they want?

If you’re not considering user intent when deciding what to write and for who, Google won’t recognize the information as useful to users. Therefore, your articles won’t generate any organic traffic.

What did this look like for us?

We took a step back and realized we hadn’t taken the time to really understand who our audience was and what they wanted from us. We were producing long-form content, usually with lengthy intros filled with bad jokes and fun little anecdotes, failing to realize that our readers were actually looking for short, fast answers to their problems. They didn’t want a story. They didn’t want to be entertained. They wanted answers – answers we weren’t effectively delivering.

With that, we made a shift from writing long-form content (anywhere from 3,000-5,000 words per article) to more short-form content (anywhere from 500-2,000 words per article). No more unnecessarily long, “captivating” intros; only short and to-the-point content.

In addition to working on making our content more clear and concise, we made navigating our longer articles easier by adding jump links and table of contents. We also added relevant internal links (interlinking) to other content that would enhance the reader’s understanding of the topic the article was covering. Combined, these create a better experience for our audience overall.

Understanding the competitors (and what they’re doing right)

You can’t compete for the SERPs if you don’t know who your competitors are and what they’re doing. So after figuring out who you’re writing for, you’ll need to figure out who you’re writing against.

This starts with a quick Google search.

For example, let’s say you’re going to be writing about digital marketing. Simply entering the search query “what is digital marketing” yields the following results:

search query example

 

All of these results – yeah, those are your competitors. So, what now?

You’ve got to analyze their content and figure out what it is that they’re doing to successfully rank on page one, and one-up them.

Read their content, and write yours better.

Study their page structure, and organize your article better.

Is their headline intriguing? Craft something that’ll perform better.

The bottom line here: Do it all better. Engagement does influence SEO and consequently, your traffic. Essentially, it comes down to this: who is providing a better resource? If it’s your competitors, they’re going to get the traffic. If it’s you, you’ll get the traffic.

What did this look like for us?

We noticed a lot of the same companies popping up in search results when doing some research on our audience. Because of that, we could assume they were doing something right. From there, we took a deep dive into their content. We studied their headlines, the way they were organizing their content, and how in-depth they were going on a topic. Looking at these things helped us identify how we could make our content better.

Often times, we’d create additional resources to go the extra mile for the reader. Whether that meant tips from experts, a cheat sheet, or a downloadable template, these all create a better user experience, and they helped us get the win a lot of the time.

Understanding keywords and how to use them

Keyword research is important to the success of your content and SEO strategy. Like I mentioned before, there is a particular manner of doing keyword research – you can’t go after the highest-searched terms early on and hope to rank.

In fact, I’d actually recommend the opposite when you’re getting started.

Instead, focus on long-tail and semantic keywords – these are where you’ll see the results and you’ll see them fairly quickly.

What did this look like for us?

After months of going after very high search volume keywords and literally ranking for none of them, we shifted gears to try something new. Guess what? It worked!

Our first “hack” to getting traffic and getting it fast is to focus on long-tail keywords. These are usually longer (hence the name) and more specific keyword phrases. Take, for example, “how to delete instagram account”. The person searching this is there for one thing and one thing only: to figure out how to delete their Instagram account.

After recognizing that these terms are often easier to rank for, we took a stab at a few and voilà! 

page one google results
 
 

Page one AND a featured snippet? That’s traffic, baby.

featured snippet example
 

My second hack, and a personal favorite I like to constantly remind our writers about (go ahead, ask them), is the use of semantic keywords. Semantic terms are generally related to the direct search query, and they give you great insight as to what other information users might be looking for.

Seriously, it’s Google giving you free insight as to what readers want to know in addition to the search query that was entered.

For example, someone searching “what is digital marketing” also may be interested in examples of digital marketing or digital marketing channels.

semantic keywords

 

If you can use this information and answer these questions in your digital marketing piece, Google will see that your content is the ultimate resource for those sought out answers, and you’ll have a better chance of ranking with its algorithm.

Understanding the importance of on-page SEO tactics

Creating relevant, helpful content that aligns with user intent plays a huge part in ranking on search engines, but there are on-page SEO tactics – tactics used to optimize content to maximize organic SERP – that play a role in people finding your content, too.

While we worked to prioritize providing the best information and experience for readers, we also took this tactical approach to ensure our content was being indexed by Google.

What did this look like for us?

Along with studying the actual content of the articles that were ranking well on Google, we studied how they were using on-page optimization in their content. After looking at a lot of different article types and reading up on best practices, these were a few we decided to focus on to start:

Anchor text – Anchor text is important in ensuring that the reader understands what they will be redirected to if they click on it. Our writers practice exact match and partial match anchor text when linking to other articles.

URL structure - While URL structure isn’t a huge ranking factor, keeping it clean does make interlinking easier and user experience better. Our team practices making the primary keyword the URL.

Title tags – A short, but effective title tag that includes the primary keyword is a must. I will not allow any writer’s article to be published if the title 1) isn’t clickable and 2) doesn’t have the keyword.

Page speed – Slow page speed leads to poor user experience, and poor user experience leads to higher bounce rates. What do we do to help page speed? I’ve given the team image size restrictions and encourage them to use the appropriate file format when applicable.

Alt text – Alt text is important for accessibility and additional visibility. I won’t allow anything to be published if all images don’t have proper alt text.

While these are just a few of the things we look at before sending a blog post to go live, we had to establish standards to make these changes easier on writers moving forward. And that’s what we did next:

We established standards for our writers moving forward

We were lucky enough to find a team of highly-skilled writers to add to our already stellar team, but scaling from four to 16 full-time writers in the matter of a few months was a task in itself. Just as we’d finally gotten the whole team up to speed on our “SEO best practices,” we had to turn around and do it again with 12 other writers.

SEO is ever so gray. There are no black and white rules that you can follow to get it right every time. Every case is different. And at the end of the day, you’re pretty much playing a game with Google.

So how do you win?

Understand that not everyone will be able to learn in the same way and at the same speed. Like I said, it’s a theory – one that doesn’t resonate with some in the same way it does with others (or at all, for that matter).

Ask yourself: What does your team need from you to do their jobs effectively, frustration-free, and confidently? How do you enable them to write with SEO in mind?

What did this look like for us?

We learned the hard way that when writing without an end goal – without understanding how you’ll actually bring traffic to that page – you’re essentially wasting your time. We didn’t want any of our new writers to feel the way that we had, so we took steps to share everything we’d learned in the past few months.

We did our best to make SEO as simple as possible in an attempt to help the team understand these foreign concepts.

For us, that meant doing things like giving them a checklist of these standards to remind them how to optimize their content, creating specific communication channels where they can ask me questions specifically about SEO, and hosting “office hours” bi-weekly to collaborate and talk through problems they were running into. Essentially, I wanted to make myself readily available to answer any questions that came up for the team.

Let me reiterate that this is a process, and it takes time to effectively train a team on a concept that many people may never understand. Whether you choose to implement a system like I highlighted above or not, my one piece of advice to follow in this stage is to have patience and understanding – it can make or break your success.

Set it, but don’t forget it

Unlike the ShowTime Rotisserie and BBQ Oven, one cannot simply set it, and forget it (I laughed at myself for this.. I'm sorry if you didn't).

showtime rotisserie and bbq oven

 

With any new strategy, you’ll always want to take a moment to pause, look at pain points, and refine the process. Know that this won’t work forever; it’s an ongoing initiative.

Admittedly, this is something we are still figuring out. While establishing “rules” and processes has helped us learn and excel quickly, SEO is ever-changing, and we need to keep up.

That said, we make sure we are proactive – not reactive – and we work to continually educate ourselves on SEO, how best to train our writers, and how we can succeed moving forward.

And that is how we dominated the SERPs this past year.

Wondering what else we’ve been up to while building our traffic machine?

Read on to learn how we’re building links, creating a community, and driving revenue.

Increase your traffic and build ROI with the full Road to 1 Million case  study.   Get the full story →

Jordan Wahl
Author

Jordan Wahl

Jordan Wahl is a senior content marketing and SEO specialist who joined G2 after graduating with her BBA in Marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She loves anything that puts her in her creative space – including writing, art, and music (her absolute favorite).