When I started Four-Week MBA back in 2015, I had in mind a portal where people could find practical business insights they could readily apply. Opposite to the concept of traditional business school where you invest two years of your life with a full-time commitment, massive financial resources and get out of the job market.
I wanted to create a place where people could find easily executable and practical advice from other practitioners. I wanted it to be the farthest thing I could imagine from the purely academic world. Yet, even though I had managed to bring traffic and some awareness to the site, it didn’t generate enough organic reach. And in December 2017 the situation was quite depressing:
I made up my mind and as a New Year’s resolution. I decided I needed to create some traction for the blog. Yet as often happens with New Year’s resolutions I didn’t do anything about it for three months.
Until on March-April 2018, I started to experiment a bit to try to figure out how to make an amateurish blog, a professional one. In the last six months I accelerated the experimentation, and after many trials and errors this is where I got:
What lessons did I learn along the way? I want to show you a framework I used to get where I am.
Niche down like a Ph.D.
In a Ph.D. program, you need to focus on a single area of expertise for years. At that stage you won’t be satisfied anymore with a superficial knowledge of a subject; you’ll look for understanding. The step from knowledge to understanding is not an easy one. It requires years of research, study and thinking about that subject.
The reason why my blog hadn’t been successful was lack of focus. Thus, I asked myself a simple question, which would have massive implications on my editorial strategy “what topic would I be so passionate about to be worth my time for at least five-ten years of research?”
In short, I thought in terms of completing a Ph.D. program. When you decide to go for it, it isn’t a simple choice; you need to love it at the point of knowing you’ll be spending the next years researching into the topic. In my case, after a few weeks thinking about it, it came up, and it was “business modeling.” I knew I wanted to know everything about the topic and that I’d be willing to devote hours of research on the subject to master it at the point to be as good as a Ph.D.
The reason for narrowing down so much is to allow your blog to gain traction quicker. Indeed, you have to think of a blog just like you would with a startup or small business. For instance, when PayPal started out, it didn’t go for the whole market right away, but it identified a niche, a thousand power users that could help it gain traction, quickly.
From that focus, I started moving toward an editorial strategy.
Branding vs. traction
Early 2018, I was looking for potential keywords that could be part of my editorial strategy, and I fell into the “search volume trap.” In short, this consists of going after large volume keywords that though look hot in reality are not worth the effort in terms of real traction. Those are keywords that have a search intent that is purely informational. While this distinction is clear in theory, it’s often hard to catch in practice.
In short, when it comes to informational keywords, people look for how, what, when, where and why of things. And if you’re building a publishing business, but also a blog around your company’s products, many of the keywords might be informational.
Yet not all the informational keywords are born equal. Indeed, as we’re moving to the voice search world, many of those traffic opportunities that existed in the past are getting lost. A trivial example is about asking Google “today’s weather:”
In the past, weather websites gained millions of visits a day from Google. Those days are long gone. Thus, if you want to target an informational keyword that has a real value for the business you need to think in terms of what can and what can’t be answered fully via Google search results pages.
Therefore, your content will need to:
- Give a short answer accessible via Google as a branding strategy
- Elicit users to click through via a long, in-depth content
For instance, when I created a guide about business models, I targeted several keywords and a particular keyword “types of business models.” I did that for a simple reason. If I could trigger Google’s featured snippet on that query with a list, this was also a significant traffic opportunity. This is what happened:
Can you notice anything particular on this snippet? One critical aspect is that it does offer a list, but it is limited. In fact, in the guide, I offer 30 business models, while Google only shows seven of them. For those that wanted to learn more about the topic, it means clicking through the snippet. Not surprisingly this query has a 5.6% click-through rate (CTR) so far, which is more than double of the overall average CTR of my site, at 2.6%.
Yet even for those that are not landing on the page, this is still a critical keyword for branding my site in that topical area. Therefore, it is like Google is removing the noise for me. Only those most interested in the topic and more in line as my target audience will land on the site. The rest will see my website and have a touch point which helps build my brand.
Understanding the difference between branding and traction is critical as it allows you to structure the content so that you can use Google as your tool for leveraging the brand and bringing qualified opportunities to your site. That connects to the next point.
A barbell based editorial strategy
Back in the late 1990s, when Google started out, it was an overnight success as it was 10x better than most existing search engines in the space. What made Google business model successful was not just its ability to give better results, it was its distribution strategy. On the one hand, Google relied on a free tool used by a growing number of people. On the other hand, Google made money via businesses that wanted to get more visibility for their brand, by bidding on specific keywords.
This is what I call a barbell strategy. You have two opposite targets – that might seem unrelated in the short-run – but are tied together from an overall long-term strategy. Indeed, the more free users joined Google, the more the search engine acquired valuable data that could sell back to businesses. Those massive network effects made Google become the tech giant we know today, which as of 2017 still generated 86% of its revenue from advertising.
Going back to a barbell editorial strategy it would work in this way:
- Target established keywords with a large volume and low click-through rate only if they matter to your brand. In this case, success will be measured in terms of impressions
- Win those keywords without established volume or medium volume, but high click-through rate as those will allow your blog to gain momentum. In this case, success will be measured primarily via how many clicks you get
You need to identify established keywords with a large volume and low click-through rate which identified with the brand you want to build.
For instance, in my case “business model” identified with the brand I wanted to build. Therefore, I ranked what a few months before was a dead blog, right after Wikipedia, Investopedia, and Harvard Business Review on that keyword:
Ranking my blog there required a certain amount of effort, way higher than ranking on other long tail keywords. However, as of now, it has a meager click-through rate of 0.9%, well below the average for my blog.
Yet, I don’t judge this keyword on the amount of traffic it brings, but rather on how many times people see my blog on that page, associated with Investopedia and HBR. In short, according to my barbell editorial strategy, this keyword is not meant to bring much traffic, but to generate awareness about my brand. To give you a bit of context in the last three months almost eighteen thousand people saw my blog related to the keyword “business model” right after Investopedia and HBR!
Instead, other keywords are meant to do the opposite. Even though they might not have any search volume yet. Those will allow you to gain momentum. For instance, when I covered the “DuckDuckGo business model,” I knew I wouldn’t create much buzz, but I knew I was going to create qualified traffic from people highly interested in the topic.
The keyword “duckduckgo business model” – that as of now doesn’t have yet established volume on Google – is among the ones that brought most traction to the blog with an astonishing 52.7% click through rate!
If you were to ask an average SEO, he would tell you to avoid targeting this kind of keywords as they don’t have volume and might not be necessary for your editorial strategy. However, a smart SEO expert would ask you first “what’s your gut feeling about this keyword?” “do you think people will want to search for it in the next years?” and if so he’ll suggest going after it.
Indeed, you will be the first in the space to be there. Second, you will avoid competition and gain traction. Third, people coming to your blog via those keywords might be your real audience base.
Voice search is here to stay
A morning back in March 2017, It seemed a regular day, if not for a scene that has changed forever the way I thought about the web. Crossing the door of the office, I saw Andrea Volpini, founder of WordLift, talking to a Google Home device we had at the office.
He was talking to it just like a man speaks to a kid, slowly to have it understand and process the information. After a few trials, finally at the question “what is WordLift” Google Home answered with a nice and clear voice “WordLift is a start-up founded in 2017 and based in Rome, Italy. The company has developed the homonymous WordPress plugin which, through the use of semantic technologies…”
At that point, I asked him – just like you would with a magician – to show me the trick. How did he do that? Andrea’s answer puzzled me; he said: “it’s the snippet!”
In short, a so-called featured snippet showing on the Google search results got also used by Google to reproduce an answer in the search device. While I was already familiar with featured snippets, I didn’t realize how powerful they were, especially going toward voice search. That day I got obsessed with them. I wanted to understand what made them possible, why Google triggered them and most importantly how they could help to make the jump from traditional search to voice!
Going back to the example of “duckduckgo business model” when I ask the Google assistant “how does DuckDuckGo make money?” this is what I get:
After over a year and a half of studying, implementing and gaining featured snippets I realized a few key lessons, which I summarized below:
- Use an entity-based content model, where primary pages become entities
- Identify long-tail keywords opportunities that can trigger featured snippets
- Use structured data as the foundation for your featured snippet strategy
- Use visuals and infographics to make your content more appealing and steal featured snippets opportunities
- Set up redirections from those images toward the blog post to which they belong
- Brand those infographics to generate search volume around your branded keyword
These guides we put together will help you through the process:
- Why The Knowledge Panel Is Critical For Your SEO Strategy
- How to gain Rank Zero position with original images and improve your SEO – smart strategies for a steady growth
- The Ultimate Checklist to Rank in the Google Top Stories Carousel
The search experience in the coming years might look completely different. Rather than a person going on the Google blank page looking for something. It might probably be skewed toward a device which pushes that information to you even before you type it. Where algorithms will become better and better at predicting what we want, those same algorithms might give us an answer before we ask it.
In that scenario, voice search will play a vital role in the transition from search to discovery!
Bet on the future with a Moonshot thinking approach
If you look under the hood of Google (now Alphabet), you’ll find out the company isn’t just a massive advertising machine. The company has been widely investing in other bets. Those comprise companies that span from life science to self-driving. In short, Google isn’t just waiting for the future to happen; it is shaping it.
This is what they call a Moonshot thinking approach matured by the Google X factory, which tries to “create radical new technologies to solve some of the world’s hardest problems.” Going back to your business and editorial strategy, if you just follow what Google tells you is relevant right now you’ll end up in a competitive space where everyone is trying to run for the same piece of land.
Instead, to be successful on the long-run, you want to be creative and get out from looking at just metrics and Google data and trust also your gut instinct and your understanding of an industry. Also, you might want to go for those key results that might give you a 10X advantage rather than an incremental one.
Thus, the question you need to ask over and over is not “how do I get a 10% increase” but rather “how do I gain that featured snippet?” or “how do I go from position 100+ to page one in four weeks on a competitive keyword?” (which is what I did, but we’ll leave this story for a later article).
When you change the mindset, you’ll also change the way you tackle the issue.
When I did a New Year’s resolution back in 2017, I thought that revamping my dead blog would have been an easy win. It took me three months to understand that if I really wanted to make it though I needed to be on top of the game in the area I picked, and I needed to commit and focus.
As pointed out by a post from Rand Fishkin on SparkToro blogging is still worthwhile if you are:
- In the top 5% of content producers who blog in your field / to your audience
- Able to work for months or years to become in the top 5% of those producers
- In a field with very few decent, online content producers
- In possession of a large, loyal fanbase that will consume what you produce even if it’s not particularly good
Overall I think the effort is worth it for a simple reason: a blog is still the place on the web where you have total control. Social media and other distribution channels are good to integrate into your digital strategy, but you don’t’ control any of them. Also, a blog is the place where you’ll be able to transition toward voice search!
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