The modern search landscape is changing faster today than it has at any point in the history of the web – it’s just not as publicly known. Sure, Google has effectively killed black-hat SEO, and we’re way past exact match domains and keyword stuffing. But those tactics were bound to die eventually as Google’s core algorithms grew smarter.

We can think of these developments as the evolution from caveman to contemporary human. That’s a large jump!

Now, organic search is still being fine-tuned and adapted on a smaller yet more significant scale: Algorithms are self-taught via machine learning and the cruder edges of SEO are being rounded out via AI.

So why are marketers still creating content the same way they were in 2016, or worse, 2011?

The days of easy content marketing are over: You need data

You know it, and I know it. The web is saturated with content that was crafted with the same keywords in mind. If we’re all doing the same thing – just tinkering with word counts – what gives?

It’s estimated more than 90 percent of content fails, and 75 million blog posts are created every day. I’ll never be able to read all of them, but it’s safe to say 70 million – maybe all of them – completely suck. They add nothing to the conversation, they’re borderline unreadable and they’re imprecise and meandering for the sake of length and keywords.

We decided to do something different.

We broke our old keyword-research system and turned our content-creation process on its head.

Here’s what happened between January and June 2018:

  • 70% of product landing pages ranking on page 1 for target keyword in Google Search.
  • 69.2% increase in total ranking keywords on domain.
  • 39% increase in total site traffic, year over year.
  • 43% of all new blog content ranks on page 1 for targeted keyword in Google search.

Page 1 or bust

At this point in the history of search results, any content that doesn’t rank on page 1 is, for the most part, a waste of investment. You need to be on page 1 and, ideally, in the top 5 positions of page 1. Anything else is practically invisible.

Only a portion of the traffic that comes to your site arrives with commercial intent. Your goal is to get more of that intent-driven traffic to your site via high-ranking content, and then push them further down the funnel.

If, historically, 10 percent of site visitors fill out a Contact Us form, and then just 10 of those result in a closed deal, it mathematically takes 100 visitors to generate one deal. Ranking on page 2 will never get you this deal.

It’s Google’s job to match search intent with the available content indexed for a single keyword or keyphrase. Words like “quality” or “good” are subjective terms that marketers commonly use – us included.

But Google connects those words to actual search results, meaning “quality” is synonymous with “content depth.”

So, you can now quantify quality by observing organic rankings and evaluating search metrics that signal strong ranking opportunities, such as:

  • Relevancy.
  • Search volume.
  • Organic difficulty.
  • The competitive landscape in SERPs.
  • Searcher intent.
  • Google trends.
  • Manual eyeball test in Google.

Our process

Using the above metrics, we determine which topics are worth pursuing before we sink money into them. We know, roughly, how well a topic will perform in search before we write it based on relevance to the associated query and likelihood of outranking existing content for that keyword.

Next, we analyze the competitive search landscape by creating a chart that outlines the topic clusters we need to target to actually stand a chance of ranking. As an example, we’ll use the keyword “subscription billing”:

Assess the main subtopics that are covered by the top 20 search results for your keyword and format those findings into a content brief.

Here’s a template that we use.

This brief is what is delivered to your writing team. They will have a clear-cut vision of what needs to be accomplished with the post, how to go about structuring the article and which subtopics are must-haves.

By covering each subtopic in as much depth as possible, you’re essentially earning points for being more valuable and exhaustive than competitors. Once indexed, Google will view your page and discover several things:

  • Your article is more comprehensive.
  • Your article is likelier to answer the questions searchers have.
  • Your article is providing value that others aren’t.

The result is that your article is deemed “high quality” and ranked higher in search.

This process is not easy and it’s not quick. But it does scale with the evolution of Google’s search algorithms, and it pays off.

Webinar Q&A Recap: (lightly edited for clarity)


Q: How long to expect your rankings to last and, if your standing on page 1 expires, what do you do?

A: We have found that the rankings do last and oftentimes, over months, will improve. Meaning over time, they will actually move up in rankings. But the opposite is also true. So if somebody comes in with a better piece of content that’s more thorough, and they bump you down in the rankings, that’s just the way it is. So at that point, you need to do exactly what we talked about earlier and you need to go through and identify which topic gaps you now have. Because if you got bumped down, it’s likely that somebody wrote a more thorough, better piece of content than you, and you’re going to need to out-write them again.


Q: Does all traffic matter, or are we talking about the right traffic?

A: In doing this type of keyword research, you’re choosing specific keywords that are relevant to you, so basically, you’re choosing the type of visitor with the type of intent that is going to visit your website. If you want to rank for that keyword, then essentially, you have chosen to rank for that keyword, and the traffic that comes with it.


Q: Where does the audience fit in here? There’s a lot of data to back up quality content, but that’s from the perspective of owning keywords. What if my audience doesn’t give a crap about keywords?

A: Your audience might not care about keywords, but they are using written language to find the things that they’re looking for online. So, actually, they do care about keywords and they’re using keywords to find you; however they’re just not thinking of it in the same terms that you are. You need to find out what those keywords are.


Q: I was a little late, how do you determine the initial keywords? Just research them using Google or go right to SEMrush.

A: I use 4 to 5 different techniques for keyword ideation. SEMrush has a very good tool in which you can compare what you’re ranking for versus the keywords that your competitors are ranking for. So if your competitors are ranking for keywords organically that you want to own, you should think about targeting those keywords. Add your competitors to the SEMrush gap analysis tool (Keyword Gap). I should mention, don’t use just your strict business competitors. There are digital competitors who own keywords that you want to rank for that don’t necessarily compete in the same space for products. So they may not sell the same products as you, however, they’re owning keywords and taking traffic from you. This will allow you to see all the keywords your competitors are ranking for that you’re not ranking for. Then add filters within the tool to ensure the terms you are viewing are relevant, topical and attainable (low keyword difficulty score) based on the strength of your domain. Sort by keywords you don’t rank for, and pinpoint the ones that you also want to own. These could be opportunities to write a better piece of content. Another good starting point is going to your competitors’ websites and looking at the landing pages for the key phrases they’re targeting. Think of variants from those keywords that you can try to rank for.


Q: How do you identify/define high-intent keywords?

A: High-intent keywords are terms with commercial intent. For example, people who are shopping are looking for “content marketing services,” “blog writing services,” “content marketing agency.” These terms have clear transactional, commercial intent. If somebody searches “what is content marketing?” I don’t necessarily want that traffic. These are people that have informational intent. They’re much more top of funnel and they’re probably not ready to buy.


Q: What are the best tools to monitor keyword performance?

A: We recommend Ahrefs, SEMrush and Moz Campaigns.


Q: You’ve said “one keyword, one page”. Do you mean it’s not good to publish multiple content (blogs) for the same keyword?

A: Unless you want your pieces of content to cannibalize each other in search, then no, there’s no point. They’re not going to help each other.


Q: Are the tools you’re using (SEMrush, Moz, etc) free?

A: No. Ahrefs charges $100/month, Moz charges around $100/month and SEMrush charges $100 each for the minimum packages.


Q: Slide 11 “We’ve done studies that show there is no correlation in length and ranking” The studies I’ve seen don’t agree? Where is this data from?

A: This is data that I’ve pulled, personally, from our initiative that we’ve started here. I mentioned that we had started this back in January. Since then, we’ve written over 108 blog posts and 180,000 words. From there, I put together a Pearson Correlation Coefficient (PCC) to determine the relationship between target keyword rankings and the position in which they rank. The PCC showed zero correlation between the two variables. In those instances where the content is longer, it’s probably covering the topics better than just simply word count.


Q: With the CTR increase from ranking 8th to say 3rd, would you suggest applying this to pieces of content that are already on page 1?

A: First answer to your question: Yes, that would increase your CTR pretty substantially. 8th is around 3%, 3rd is probably around 11% CTR. To answer the second question, yes, if there’s a lot of opportunity there, if it is a high-intent keyword and the search volume is significant and you think that you can out-rank the competition based on difficulty scores, then yes I would suggest applying this to pages that are already ranking on page 1.


Q: What do you mean by re-indexing?

A: Re-indexing means taking an existing piece of content, like a blog post, re-writing the content on the existing URL (keeping the URL the same) and then republishing it with a more current publish date. Then if you go into Google Search Console, you can run a “Fetch as Google” for that specific page. This will allow you to force-index it very quickly, as opposed to waiting for Google to index it in its own time.


Q: Is Brafton currently doing this process for clients?

A: Yes we are. We are doing this, as a product, called Search Performance Briefs, so it’s very similar to the example brief that we’ve provided here today. We create these for each particular keyword that we’re targeting and we write based off of these briefs. If you have any questions about that, you can contact us.


Q: Do you mean that if you have a landing page on a keyword, you should not blog about it too because they will compete with each other for ranking?

A: This used to be an old technique, where you’d have a landing page that targets a specific keyword, and then you’d write a bunch of blog posts around that term. When you’d use that keyword in the blog post, you’d link to the landing page. That’s a method of internal linking that doesn’t really work anymore. Anything you can manipulate from an on-page SEO standpoint is being devalued. And think about the reader’s experience here. If you’re reading a blog post and you see a link that goes to a landing page, you’re not going to click on it, and it might be off-putting to you. It looks spammy. It’s a little bit insulting to your audience to assume they don’t know how to navigate your website to find exactly what they’re looking for. They know how to navigate your site. As long as you have a decent UX, they can find their way to your product pages or whatever it is they’re looking for.


Q: Does this theory work just as well with podcasts as it does with blogs?

A: It depends on where you are posting your content. If you’re publishing your podcast on your website, and you’re embedding it, you’re going to want to index the transcript of that podcast so you can capture organic traffic who might be searching for information relevant to the podcast episode. However, if you’re talking about Apple Podcasts, they do their rankings in a completely different way. Apple Podcast rankings are based on the most recent number of subscribers and total number of subscribers, etc. That’s a different story.


Q: Do you find that most companies you work with have an internal SEO person who is managing this or are they outsourcing it?

A: Both. And sometimes neither. Often there are internal SEOs or they are outsourcing that type of work. As you may find working with SEO agencies, it can get pretty expensive, but sometimes they do a very good job. And sometimes there is no other SEO person, the client just asks us to help with that part of their campaign if they don’t have the time to do it themselves. Sometimes they’re a one-woman or one-man shop and they’re running everything.


Q: Do each of the required topics in the post need their own headings / H tags?

A: There is data that shows that the H tags are becoming less and less important. Actually, as a matter of fact, on-page SEO is becoming less relevant because Google’s able to extract the meaning and the intent behind written content. Google can understand what the page is about, semantically, from the context of the content and the topics being discussed on the page. Before, it had to use on-page cues (title tags, H1 tags, etc) to understand what a page was about. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. So, while on-page SEO is not dead, it’s not what it used to be.


Q: Aren’t you narrowly defining content value as findable on Google? You can drive traffic to your blog post in other ways.

A: Yes, and you absolutely should drive traffic to your blog post in other ways. Keyword rankings are only one piece of the puzzle. You should be driving traffic to your blog post via social, via the Subscribers tool (which sends desktop notifications to those who allow it), via email, etc. This whole presentation was covering just one part of the process and answered the question of “How do you get content to rank organically, and how do you get it to stay there?”


Q: Should pursuing high-quality backlinks still be a part of my overall SEO strategy?

A: Yes, absolutely. There’s actually a piece of research that just came out by Tim Solo, over at Ahrefs, that showed high-ranking pieces of content (in positions 1-3 in Google), generate backlinks at a faster rate than lower-ranking content. So it’s kind of a virtuous cycle where high-ranking content becomes more high-ranking (stronger) as it gains more links, and it gains more links because it’s high-ranking. Quality inbound links to your site, which boost your domain authority, is still a primary ranking factor, right alongside the quality of the content.


Q: Do you have experience with BrightEdge, and how does BrightEdge and SEMrush compare?

A: We haven’t used BrightEdge. We have used SEMrush, SearchMetrics, Moz, Ahrefs and Keyword Finder as part of this study and for our ongoing content marketing initiatives.


Q: What media mix do you recommend between video, images and text?

A: All of them! Whatever will make your content stand out better and add to the reader’s experience, add it in. On the same note, never add things just for the sake of having them there. Don’t write things for the sake of writing them. Create content for your readers that will add to their experience. There have been studies that show images and videos within content boosts the content’s ranking. I’m on the fence about whether that’s true. It’s not something we have researched yet on our side.


Q: How would you recommend doing keyword research if you do not have a tool like SEMrush or anything? Is it possible to do successfully without a tool?

A: Yes, it is possible. It’s going to be a lot harder though. What you can do is go to your competitors’ websites and look at the core landing pages they have in their top nav. Go through their product pages, services pages, go to their homepage and look at the title tags that they’re using. In most cases, the title tag of the page is the keyword that they’re trying to target. So you can get an idea of the types of keywords they’re targeting. You can then go to Google’s Keyword Planner Tool, add all those title tags, and it will give you a whole bunch of similar variant recommendations that you can also target. From that point, you’ll have a large list of possible keywords. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see Keyword Difficulty without paying for a tool. With Moz, you can check 10 keywords per day for free. Or you could invest in a one-month membership for $99 to get the keyword difficulty scores for your list. Doing this process without a Keyword Difficulty score is like painting with two hands tied behind your back … it’s just not going to work.


Q: From the tools you mentioned, is there a recommendation on which one to start with?

A: Yes. I’ve published a report on Moz that compares the ranking correlations between keywords that we target and the accuracy of the various keyword difficulty tools available on the market. Moz is the most accurate. Plus the interface is the easiest to use.

Mike O'Neill is a writer, editor and content manager in Chicago. When he's not keeping a close eye on Brafton's editorial content, he's auditioning to narrate the next Ken Burns documentary. All buzzwords are his own.