Throughout all of 2017, HubSpot experienced something that had never happened before — our blog’s monthly traffic flattened. Even worse, it started to decline. So after months of stressing over the mysterious cause of our blog’s traffic plateau, we decided to sit down, chug a bunch of coffee, and find the culprit.
What we discovered is that our editorial strategy of brainstorming topics and relying on our intuition to determine our audience’s content preferences didn’t suffice anymore.
Coupled with almost every social media platforms’ unwillingness to direct users off their website and the ever-growing mountain of emails piling up in people’s inboxes, we decided to pivot and focus our energies on the channel that has consistently generated the majority of our blog’s traffic for its entire existence — organic search.
Today, years after we adjusted our organic strategy, we’ve exceeded the majority of our monthly traffic goals and even broke some monthly traffic records. Needless to say, we’re thrilled (and relieved) that our organic strategy fueled our traffic boost and shattered the great traffic plateau of 2017 — and we’d love to share the essential SEO tips that helped us devise this strategy.
1. Spend as much time on the SERPs as you do in tools.
Even though an algorithm dictates the rankings of a search engine’s results page (SERPs), the algorithm is meant to reward web publishers that craft the best content on the internet.
That’s why it’s important to understand search intent. To accomplish this, we analyze a keyword’s search engine results page and determine the problems users are trying to solve when searching for this query.
Aja Frost, the head of SEO content at HubSpot, says “Yes, tools offer us a ton of information. But that information is often based on incomplete, out-of-date, or biased data sets. I encourage SEOs to combine the insights they’re getting from their tools with real-time clues on the SERPs. Every time you decide to target a new keyword, refresh a piece of content, or diagnose a page or section of pages with irregular traffic, take a look at what’s coming up for the main queries on Google.”
Depending on your goal, Frost says to pay attention to:
- Search features
- The type of content that’s ranking (product pages, listicles, tutorials, etc.)
- The websites that are ranking (databases, businesses, media sites, directories, etc.)
- How far down the page the first organic result appears
- How your page shows up (title, meta description, date, jump links, schema if applicable, etc.)
When you do this search, “Don’t forget to use an incognito window, frequently clear your cache, cookies, and history, and run your searches on both a desktop and phone,” Frost adds.
2. Master the SERP overlap test.
While you’re on the SERP, Frost uses this time to conduct the SERP overlap test.
She says, “I use this test all the time to determine whether or not to target two-plus queries with a single piece of content.”
Now, you might be wondering, “What’s the SERP overlap test?”
Frost details the steps below:
- Do a quick search in incognito for Keyword A and a separate search for Keyword B.
- If the SERPs look fairly different (i.e. the top ranking pages are different, or #1 for Keyword A is, say, #9 for Keyword B), that tells me Google is treating those queries as separate, with separate intents.
- However, if the SERPs have a lot of overlap, then I feel comfortable treating the two queries as the same.
3. Aim for the featured snippets on SERPs.
Featured snippets are what search engines use to display an answer to a query directly on the search engine result page so a user doesn’t need to actually visit another page to get the answer to their question.
As you can imagine, this has impacted organic search results. That’s why it’s important to try and rank in as many featured snippets as possible.
To do so, you should write specific posts that answer questions users might have. The semantic relevance to the keyword a user searches for is the most important element in obtaining a featured snippet.
Additionally, your blog post should be organized and formatted in a way that lets Google know you’ve answered a question. For instance, this could mean using specific coding so your featured snippet stands out on the page.
This is the strategy we’ve used at HubSpot.
According to Karla Cook, the senior manager of HubSpot’s blog team, “targeting featured snippets with consistently formatted sections has removed some (but definitely not all) of the guesswork when it comes to ranking for featured snippets. Matthew Howells-Barby, HubSpot’s Director of Acquisition, has stressed that clean and consistent code is a significant factor in winning snippets.”
4. Consider on-page SEO, but not everything you publish has to be search-friendly.
On-page SEO is the process of optimizing a page on your site with front and back-end components that can help you rank higher in search engines.
These components include:
- High-quality page content
- Page titles
- Meta descriptions
- Image alt-text
- Structured markup
- Page URLs
- Internal linking
- Site speed
For today, let’s focus on the copy oriented elements such as high-quality content, page titles, headers, meta descriptions, and image alt-text.
To rank in search engines, that copy should be optimized. That means it should include your target keyword, be contextually relevant, and answer questions your user might have.
Ultimately, the goal is to indicate to search engines that you’ve answered questions a user might have about a query.
However, Victor Pan, a technical SEO and principal marketer at HubSpot, says that not everything you publish has to be search-friendly.
“This could be ad landing pages, thank-you pages, internal sales enablement pages, and login pages. Prioritize optimizing for search when the opportunity is greater than the time invested, and leave the rest on the back burner. Tackle the back burner once you’re able to build a process to reduce the amount of time needed to optimize,” he adds.
5. Target a variety of high and low volume keywords.
With an organic search strategy, it’s important to target keywords that span an entire buyer’s journey, including a variety of high and low volume keywords.
Braden Becker, a senior SEO strategist at HubSpot, says, “Broad, early-interest keywords tend to be higher in volume, while later-interest or even purchase-ready keywords tend to be lower in volume, because the audience is becoming more specific. Therefore, you shouldn’t be afraid to target low-volume keywords if they have a higher likelihood of turning traffic into leads or customers.”
At HubSpot, the SEO team does in-depth keyword research for our three onsite blog properties (Marketing, Sales, and Service). The team looks for search volume — some as high as 120,000 or higher and some as low as 50.
Then, they take into account gaps in our existing topic clusters and emerging topics we haven’t yet thoroughly constructed content clusters around.
According to Frost, it’s important to get creative with the high volume keywords you’re targeting.
For example, when she was the editor on HubSpot’s Sales blog, she assigned topics that may have strayed from our usual topics, but boasted significant search volume.
All posts answered our audience’s questions, aligned with our values, and were well-researched and comprehensive.
6. Consider pruning content after long periods of growth.
Pruning your content is the process of reducing the number of indexed pages by deleting old, low-quality content that doesn’t add value to your site.
Becker says, “Consider ‘pruning’ content after long periods of growth. As websites grow and scale, you’ll find some content fails to perform as expected. As that pile gets bigger, it can have adverse effects on the rest of your site’s speed and performance. Audit your site for pages that aren’t driving a certain level of traffic, backlinks, or conversions, and unpublish them.”
7. Consolidate website pages using redirects and canonical tags.
When you conduct a site audit, you might also see pages with similar content.
If that happens, you should consider consolidating website pages using redirects or canonical tags.
Becker says, “After long periods of content production, a common byproduct is similar (or even duplicate) content. Nobody wants multiple pieces of website content serving the same purpose, because it can cause you to ‘cannibalize’ your own traffic on search engine results pages.”
To fix this, you can redirect low-performing pages to a better page on your site that contains related information.
Becker adds, “Besides redirecting, if you have exact duplicates, you may even add a canonical tag from the duplicate to the core page, which keeps the duplicate visible but tells Google to prioritize the core page when ranking your website. Be careful when deciding to canonicalize or redirect — these are delicate decisions, and should only be made when it makes perfect sense to.”
You can learn more about this process here.
8. Implement a historical optimization strategy.
In 2015, Pam Vaughn, the current Principal Marketing Manager of HubSpot’s Web Strategy Team and former Editor of HubSpot’s Marketing Blog, made a revolutionary discovery about HubSpot’s organic monthly blog traffic — the overwhelming majority of it came from posts published prior to that month. In fact, 76% of our monthly blog views came from these old posts.
Today, Pam’s groundbreaking revelation rings louder than ever — 89% of our monthly blog views currently come from posts that were published at least six months prior, and we’ve developed an entire strategy dedicated to refreshing and republishing these historical pieces of content.
We call these types of blog posts “updates”, and they comprise 35-40% of our editorial calendar. And by refreshing them with new information and SEO optimization and then effectively republishing them as new blog posts, we can build upon their existing organic value that they’ve accumulated through backlinks and user engagement and double or even triple their traffic. This process also helps us optimize our blog for efficiency, decreasing the amount of new content we have to create while increasing our organic traffic and conversions.
Historical optimization isn’t for everyone, though. It’s a strategy catered for a blog that generates a significant amount of organic traffic, has a considerable amount of blog subscribers and social media followers who can supply a surge of traffic, shares, and backlinks to your updates, and owns a substantial repository of old posts that are worth refreshing and republishing.
However, if you have all three of these things, we definitely recommend implementing a historical optimization strategy. To learn about the specific types of historical content you should update and the exact process of updating them, check out this blog post written by Pam Vaughn herself.
9. Train your website visitors to search for your brand.
Traditionally, SEO is used to increase the number of unbranded searches to your business.
Pan says, “The logic was that these were potential customers that would not have otherwise converted. This logic is good for a young business, but for mature businesses that have a good relationship with their customers, branded traffic is just as important.”
For example, platforms like Amazon have trained their customers to search on Google to append “amazon” to their searches.
Pan says you can do this too, by becoming the go-to expert on the topic tied to your brand.
To become the expert, you have to develop page authority. Which brings us to our next tip.
10. Develop page authority.
One factor that search engines use to determine its rankings is page authority.
This means that if you’ve been blogging about a topic for a long time and have cultivated a reputation as a go-to expert in an industry, your web page might rank higher than a page published by a new site.
That’s why it’s important to build your brand and authority in your niche. Consider blogging regularly, posting on social media, and guest posting for other sites. Being active in your industry helps build your reputation.
Additionally, you should write about tangential topics your customers are interested in. This shows search engines that you write about your industry in-depth.
All of these things will give your website authority and indicate to search engines to pay more attention to your domain as you continue adding topics that you cover in-depth.
11. Leverage the pillar-cluster model.
Since people heavily rely on Google to provide accurate and relevant answers for most of their questions today, the search engine needs to understand the intent and context behind every search.
To do this, Google has evolved to recognize topical connections across users’ queries, look back at similar queries that users have searched for in the past, and surface the content that best answers them. As a result, Google will deliver content that they deem the most authoritative on the topic.
To help Google recognize our content as a trusted authority on marketing, sales, and customer service topics, we decided to implement the pillar-cluster model on our blog. By creating a single pillar page that provides a high-level overview of a topic and hyperlinks to cluster pages that delve into the topic’s subtopics, we could signal to Google that our pillar page is an authority on the topic.
Hyperlinking all of the cluster pages to the pillar page also spreads domain authority across the cluster, so our cluster pages get an organic boost if our pillar page ranks higher, and our cluster pages can even help our pillar page rank higher if they start ranking for the specific keyword they’re targeting.
Another benefit the pillar-cluster model supplies is cleaning up our site infrastructure and providing a better user experience for our website visitors.
Before we implemented the pillar-cluster model, we spent most of our time writing blog posts designed to rank for specific, long-tail keywords. This resulted in thousands of unorganized blog posts, and some were so similar that they competed with each other on the same search engine results pages.
Now, not only is it easier for Google to crawl our blog, identify semantic relationships between our posts, and boost our search engine visibility, it’s also easier for our audience to search for the content topics they’re looking for, find related content, and spend more time reading our blog posts.
To learn how to implement the pillar-cluster model on your own blog, take a look at the steps we took to do it.
12. Create a link-building strategy.
Earning high-quality inbound links from websites and pages with high authority is crucial for boosting your domain authority. But, unfortunately, “If you write it, they will link to it,” is not a viable SEO tactic.
The main method we use to earn high-quality links is by networking with other websites that have a higher domain or page authority to link to our top content. We also make sure our content is relevant to the referring website’s content.
Another way you can earn quality backlinks is by using Backlinko’s skyscraper method. The skyscraper method is an SEO strategy where you find content that ranks well for keywords you want to rank for and then create content that’s better than the top ranking posts. Then, you use SEO tools to find all the sites that have linked to your competitor’s content and ask the most relevant sites to replace your competitor’s link with a link to your improved content.
In 2016, Backlinko asked 160 websites to link to their post about Google’s 200 Ranking Factors and they earned 17 inbound links. You might be thinking that 17 backlinks isn’t that much, but a lot of those referring websites had high domain authority scores, so the post’s organic traffic increased by 110% in only two weeks.
13. Don’t change URL’s.
The inventor of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, once said, “Cool URI’s don’t change.”
In fact, it’s a popular saying — “What makes a cool URI? A cool URI is one which does not change. What sorts of URI change? URIs don’t change: people change them.”
Pan says, “URLs, a subset of URI’s, should change as little as possible. The history of ‘why a URL changes’ is filled with good intentions that often get lost with time, so be sure to add a note the same way you should when you notice traffic anomalies.”
Note: You can do this within HubSpot’s constantly evolving URL Mapping tool.
14. Compress your images.
When you think about optimizing your content for search engines, compressing your images’ file size doesn’t seem like it should be a top priority. But, according to Becker, your images’ file size directly affects your website’s page load speed, which is one of the ten most important Google ranking factors.
“The bigger an image’s file size, the longer it takes your web browser to load that image, which increases your website’s loading time as a whole. And the longer your website’s loading time, the more likely Google will penalize you,” he says.
Compression blends similarly colored pixels into single pixels to reduce the image’s resolution, and in turn, file size. But since the human eye is more sensitive to light and dark detail than color detail, we’re not able to detect the color differences between an uncompressed and compressed image, so the perceived quality stays the same.
An uncompressed image’s file size could be four times bigger than the compressed image. Yet, the compressed image still has the same perceived quality as the uncompressed image, and it’ll load much faster.
To diminish our images’ file size as much as possible, boost your website’s page speed, and avoid risking a penalty from Google, we use Squoosh to compress individual images and TinyPNG to compress batches of images.
15. Add alt text to every image.
When search engines crawl your site, they can’t see images. For a search engine, your images are only text. They see the name of the file and the alt-text that you’ve added as a sort of caption to the picture.
This alt-text is one of the only ways to tell search engines what an image is about, which is vital if you hope to rank in image-based results. Additionally, alt-text is helpful for readers who can’t see your images.
Alt-text should be descriptive, contextually relevant to the page content, and short.
Ultimately, alt-text isn’t only helpful for your SEO, but also makes your site more accessible.
16. Maximize your CTAs.
Optimizing your page to rank in search engines is only helpful if that page is then optimized to convert.
You should plan for conversions by creating content offers for top of the funnel, middle of the funnel, and bottom of the funnel readers.
Then, you can match those content offers with blog posts that are well-aligned.
Each page is a conversion opportunity, so each page should include a CTA that matches a searchers intent.
17. Form good relationships with your developers and designers.
Hitting your SEO goals isn’t a solo effort. You’ll need to work with your developers and designers.
That’s why Frost suggests forming good relationships with these people.
She says, “Get to know these people, learn their language (to your best ability), figure out what motivates them (usually it’s cool projects!), and most importantly, teach them important SEO concepts so, for example, they come to you before deleting an older page that has 500 backlinks. SEO isn’t just about keyword research, code, and content. It’s also about your relationships.”
18. Conduct a technical SEO audit.
One of the main components of SEO is the technical set-up of your site. When a search engine finds your page and goes to crawl it, it has to understand what it’s about so it can add your page to its index. If search engines don’t understand your page, they won’t display it on the results page.
However, search engines don’t look at web pages the way we do. They look for things like page speed, duplicate content, and URL structure.
To avoid technical issues, we recommend conducting a technical audit of your web pages.
The most important elements to look for are:
- Website navigation and links
- Simple URL structure
- Page speed
- Dead or broken links
- Duplicate content
You can learn more about these factors in our ultimate SEO guide here.
19. Check, double-check, and triple-check your data.
The world of SEO is constantly evolving. That’s why, to truly succeed, you have to measure your success and check your data.
You should measure things like:
- Organic traffic growth
- Keyword rankings
- Conversions from organic traffic
- Average time on page
- Bounce rate
- Link growth
SEO is always adapting, and you should too.
Additionally, you should always check your data.
Becker says, “Growing organic traffic takes time, but it also takes a village. When performing keyword research, traffic analysis, or any performance-related audit, always have more than one source of data to guide you. If you see traffic drop in your content management system, check Google Search Console to see which pages that drop has affected. If the drop is concentrated on just a few pages or articles, use a rankings tracker to determine if you’ve lost position for any high-volume keywords. The smarter your diagnostics are, the better your decisions are in response.”
Even though we uncovered 19 tactics that helped us devise an SEO strategy that shattered a year-long traffic plateau and broke monthly traffic records, it’s entirely possible that they could become obsolete one day.
The moral of our blog’s story isn’t to glom onto these SEO tactics for the rest of your content marketing career. It’s to keep adapting and never settle for the status-quo, no matter how well you’re performing.
That’s why we recommend using HubSpot’s website grader tool, to help you determine how strong your website is.
Because one day, your once thriving work might stagnate and even sputter. And the only way to recover is to take a leap of faith and overhaul your entire strategy.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.