There are a lot of marketers working off decade-old advice for SEO and optimization. With more competition and more distractions online, you need a new playbook to get the biggest return for your content marketing. In this episode, Jorie and Matt talk about how to update your content strategy and drive more organic traffic for the keywords that matter most to your business.
Matt Howells-Barby: Hi there, I'm Matt Howells-Barby.
Jorie Munroe: And I'm Jorie Munroe.
Matt Howells-Barby: And this is Skill Up. Skill Up is a podcast sponsored by HubSpot Academy. All about the changing landscape of marketing, sales, and customer service.
There are so many bloggers and marketers working off a decade [00:00:30] old SEO playbook. They do baseline research, rely on old-school optimization tactics, but the reality is, the world has changed, and your strategy definitely needs an update.
More and more content is being published every day. And it's getting more competitive to rank, plus your audience is getting distracted by videos, social, and even things like this podcast. Basic SEO best practices are no longer enough to see an organic payoff.
Today's episode, we're going to discuss how people used to create content for such. Why that's changed, and how you can create content that actually makes an impact on your business.
Advertisement: If you could start any business in the world, seriously, any business, what would it be? In this day and age, it has never been easier to start a business, but it's never been more difficult for that business to succeed. That's where HubSpot Academy can help. HubSpot Academy [00:01:30] offers engaging and informative classes that can help you scale up so you can grow your business. Go to hubspot.com/skillup to check out
Jorie Munroe: [00:02:00] So I'm really excited about this episode. I try to keep up on SEO, but I think I might still be a little stuck in the past on this. When I first started blogging, I was taught to do keyword research, and then get that keyword in its exact order on the page as much as possible. Even if it sounded completely unnatural. Can you give me a little bit of an overview on how companies [00:02:30] used to think about SEO?
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah. I mean SEO has changed a lot. I mean you go back 10 years. I think that the big thing was the way companies would think about content creation, right? So we've got things like keyword stuffing for example. The name of the game in content going back a number of years now would just be like, "Okay, I've got this page I need to create. I've got this keyword I need to rank for. Let's go and just stuff [00:03:00] this keyword in the page as many times as possible.
Jorie Munroe: Guilty.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yes. Guilty, right? And be like, "This inbound marketing agency is really good at inbound marketing because it uses inbound marketing techniques to do inbound marketing cool stuff." Whereas like, "Okay, can we just stop for a minute and actually write words that make sense." And that was a huge part of the more problematic side of SEO.
And then you have things like the link building side of things changed a ton. So [00:03:30] you would have some of the go-to place for link building would be let's go get a bunch of backlinks from directories. And there would even be just like, "Oh! Blog comments are great ways to build links. Go comment on a load of blogs and link back to your site." And like some of these things. The name of the game was just, "How do we create scale in everything that we're doing?" And it was less about the whole mantra of, "Google loves great content." It was kind of like, "Google hates great content, so [00:04:00] let's just do whatever we think actually works in the rules of SEO.
And there was so much bad practice that come up, but the problem was kind of worked at the time, and that become like a self-fulfilling cycle of just abuse in content, right? And it wasn't really great for anyone involved.
Jorie Munroe: Yeah. So that makes a lot of sense. It was very much like Google formula first and user experience second.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah. [00:04:30] It was like, "What are the ranking factors, and how do I specifically follow them by the book to create the worst possible experience for my users?" But hey, I rank number one. So that's great. Right?
And I think that ... I mean, even just ... There's still a lot of this out there right now, right? But like it would work a lot better back say 10 years ago. So for a lot of people just running websites, [00:05:00] why would they not just go down the street because it was a hell of a lot cheaper, and a lot easier to do it this way, and it helped rank, so why not?
Jorie Munroe: Yeah. So with this in mind, like what do you consider, or what is considered by industry standard like bad practices? Like the opposite of best practices now?
Matt Howells-Barby: There's a lot of this, but I think the big thing here has been more than anything, a lot of the stuff that I just discussed there, by and large [00:05:30] it doesn't really work anymore. And I can already hear people listening saying, "Yeah it does. Yeah it does." Right? There are always outlier cases. Right. And like there are always such cases where some like old-school tactics can definitely still work. But by and large, a lot of the more, especially when we think about link building, really scalable, cheap, low-cost link building plays fall into ... and things like that is like submitting [00:06:00] to a thousand directories that are like business directories, or spamming 10,000 websites with blog comments that link back to your site.
Now, if you ask me, categorically could that ever rank a webpage? Maybe it could. But they now fall into a bucket of two different things. They're either not like economically viable to actually get to the stage of doing that, or two, which is usually both [00:06:30] of them at the same time: They present such a risk of incurring a search engine penalty. That is to be penalized by Google and see either some or all of your rankings be lost as a result. So a lot of those kind of plays don't really work that much.
The other thing is, very minor simple like content tweaks. Like, "Let's just add this keyword in two more times into our webpage." Doesn't really do a whole lot. Right? [00:07:00] Even when we think about like best practices, which we can come into a little bit later. Like anything that sounds, usually speaking, like anything that just sounds too good to be true usually is with an SEO.
I think a lot of people initially come into SEO, they read a few blog posts, they're like, "Oh! This sounds easy. I'm just going to put this keyword in like a paragraph, and I guess we'll start ranking. This is awesome. Sign me up."
Jorie Munroe: I am an SEO strategist.
Matt Howells-Barby: Expert. I am the best in the world. [00:07:30] Right? So it's like ... then you kind of like create the piece of content. You do it like 10, 20 times, realize like actually it's not that easy. Cry for a while, burn all of your servers and then start again. More than anything, the thing that has changed a lot of this is that Google has actually got a lot smarter.
Like Google is able to understand the topic that's being discussed within a piece of content without you actually even explicitly [00:08:00] stating it. Right? They understand natural language processing. We talked about this in some of the previous episodes and they're not relying on you to just explicitly stab these keywords in their face every like a few lines down the page. So when you do that, Google is kind of like, this is very obviously crappy stuff that you're serving up to me.
Jorie Munroe: Yeah, and that was definitely something that I think I walked away from the first episode with was just like, you need to understand what you were trying to rank for. So that's really [00:08:30] a good point. So this seems really doable when you talk about it in the abstract, but how do you suggest people actually do this, like start making tangible gains and ranking on a day-to-day basis?
Matt Howells-Barby: And to start here, this all comes into context, like context is everything in SEO. One of the biggest challenges that I see from people that are just kind of dipping their toes in the water of SEO, [00:09:00] getting started, they just want to be like, "All right. What are just some of the best practices? Things that I should be doing that everyone else is kind of doing? And it really depends on the situation, right? Like, we'll use example of like hubspot.com, right? At HubSpot, we have tons and tons of backlinks from external websites. We're a publicly listed company. We get links from whenever we do our earnings calls from like the Wall Street Journal, and we have Tech Crunch, and some of the biggest sites in [00:09:30] the world will link back to us.
Not only that, we've been publishing hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of blog posts across our blog over the past number of years that have in turn been picked up and mentioned and referenced to over the years. And we build up a huge amount of authority in the search engines to speak broadly. Now what that means is, from our point of view, we are less focused on how do we kind of build up our authority more? [00:10:00] We need to build more authority so that we get ranking.
Actually we can harness that authority and start talking about more things that we currently don't have an appearance for in the search engine. So all right. We want to talk more about the sales and customer service space. Let's start producing more content around that.
Because we have this like huge base of authority already from basically links, which is the key to building authority is backlinks. We tend to rank a lot [00:10:30] easier, so it's a much more of a focus on content production. You flip that around, and this is usually where people go wrong to begin with an SEO is assuming that just creating content will get you ranking. It's like the quickest way to waste a ton of resources and budget. And also just like misunderstand your forecasting of what you can expect.
If you're a brand new website, you have little to no authority, right? It's like being-
Jorie Munroe: And you might not even have the resources to create [00:11:00] all that content.
Matt Howells-Barby: Exactly, right? And like you imagine someone with no reputation, no background experience, all of a sudden writes a book on a topic that they know kind of very little about. They publish it, it's like saying, "Well, I guess if I publish this I'm going to become a New York Times Best Seller." It's like, "No. That will not happen. You have to do the groundwork." And it's the exact same in SEO. Just hitting the publish button is not good enough. That is the base minimum level. Like if you want to [00:11:30] be a New York Times Best Seller, the minimum viable thing that you've got to do is have a book. Right? And if you don't have the book, you can't be a best seller.
The minimum viable thing for a new website is like, you've got to have the content. And when you have the content, then the journey begins. It's like, "Okay, we've got some best practices here." And that can involve, maybe we'll go through some of those in terms of like a bit more of a hit list of just things you need to have on the page. But then we're talking about, "Okay, we need authority." [00:12:00] That means, we need links. To build links, so a whole host of things that we need to think about. And again, depending on what stage we're at as a business, as a website, the vertical that we're in, who our customer is, like et cetera, et cetera.
Jorie Munroe: It's almost like when you ... I don't know why I'm thinking of this, but when you have your content, that's when you're Bilbo Baggins going on the adventure. But before you're Bilbo Baggins you can't go on the adventure yet. I don't know.
Matt Howells-Barby: How long have you been holding on to that one Jorie?
Jorie Munroe: Yeah, I know. I don't know.
Matt Howells-Barby: That's a truly beautiful example.
Jorie Munroe: Hey, [00:12:30] I mean. There you go. The gift just popped in my head, so ... There you go. But we'll have an entire episode about kind of backlink building. Where we can dive into that kind of chasing authority, chasing the one ring, later. Awesome.
So if Google can understand what people really want to read, how much do keywords even matter these days?
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, this is like ... This is ...
Jorie Munroe: [00:13:00] Did I get you with a difficult question? Yes!
Matt Howells-Barby: Well, more of a contentious question. I think there is a lot of opinions
We'll still be thinking about, okay, what are the exact things that people are going to be searching for to bring that up? And on a minimum level, right? Like you would want to, [00:14:00] where possible try and include some of
We want to give Google enough to make their lives easier, to say, "Okay, this is clearly related to this topic, and that's done with more than just keywords on a page. But if we can have something directly within the title. Right? For example, you write [00:14:30] a page about cats, but you don't say the word kittens. Google knows that a kitten is related to a cat. It also knows that a cat is related to a dog and like a dog is a pet, a pet will eat food. But it also knows that a cat is not a burger. Right? Like it won't go, "Well. Yes? This is maybe another [drink 00:14:51]."
Jorie Munroe: Okay. You've discovered my third food group.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, after spinach and Snickers, you're really building up a nutritional [00:15:00] calendar here to be envied. So what you want to be thinking about there is, "Okay, am I making it clear enough in what we're talking about?" That Google is going to be able to follow this pattern that is about this topic and these keywords that we ultimately want to rank for.
And at the same
And then they're just like, "Okay, so people will say things like, [00:16:00] have the keyword in the title, in the H1, that is the header of the page. Mention it a few times in the paragraph of the page. Maybe have like an image all tag as you ..." Yeah, cool. If you can do that, that's great. But just kind of write about that as a topic and you'll be all right. And Google will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
Now, on the other side of things
But now you want to be an authority on cat burgers, and you have no credibility there. And you've got to build up and establish to be a credible force within the flourishing and growing cat burger business. It's huge I hear.
So the other key thing here is like being a relevant authority within that space. So building out [00:17:30] more content on your site that's focused around a specific topic. Avoiding just looking at this on a web page by web page level. Which is what historically a lot of SEO has been about. It's like, "Okay, I have this page that I want to rank for this keyword, if it doesn't rank, I guess I'll create something new."
So well no, you need to create a number of pages around this whole topic. And within
Jorie Munroe: Maybe I'm wrong, but it sounds like also ...
Matt Howells-Barby: Maybe.
Jorie Munroe: Maybe. We'll see. We have the spinach Snickers debate. So when you're building also like kind of these backlinks, it would also just be helpful to think about it in like an inbound perspective, where it's like where can I be the most helpful to someone seeing this page like and to use that as almost a strategy to link to [00:18:30] resources, right?
Matt Howells-Barby: Right. That's like the other piece here is, ultimately one of the best things that's happened with Google becoming a lot better at understanding and breaking down the content on a page is
And what you tend to have is, "Okay, if I'm [00:19:00] going to create content that actually reads really well, it's stuff that also matches the intent of the people searching." This is like another big piece that we haven't dug into, but you're searching for cat burgers, right? You come through to a page that ranks within the first page for cat burgers, but actually what you find on there is dog
Jorie Munroe: It's not what I wanted.
Matt Howells-Barby: No. I use a testing search, dog burgers do not resonate with our millennial [00:19:30] market. Then you've not aligned properly with search or intent. And making sure that you're optimizing well for the thing that actually largely people are going to be searching for to find you is a huge, huge ranking signal for Google. That's been one of the things that Google has got way, way better at determining. It will look at things like, okay, if someone has searched for something, click through to your web page. And if they have bounced directly [00:20:00] back into the search results, huge negative signal. That's like one of the worst things that can happen to you.
They'll also look at like time on the page, things like that. So having, and also load time, which is another big piece. And this is all focused around having a solid experience for the end user. This is kind of along the lines of when Google really shifted and is doing a hell of a lot more of a shift towards mobile in their search index this year, and have over the past few years. [00:20:30] They're getting everyone to create a solid experience for users so that people come back to Google again and again. Because ultimately, someone finds a web page for Google and
Jorie Munroe: All the monies. So before we get too much into the practical side of how to get your content rig. We're actually going to take a quick message and hear [00:21:00] a quick message from HubSpot Academy.
Advertisement: When I first started my career, I thought businesses could succeed by just having a presence online. All you have to do is
This course is great for beginners who are looking to create a smart SEO strategy, build links to their website, start blogging, and much, much more. Head over to hubspot.com/skillupseo and start learning today.
Jorie Munroe: So before the break, you talked about this idea of becoming an authority on the topic, rather than just focusing [00:22:00] on keywords. Can you explain this a little bit
Matt Howells-Barby: So this is what we refer to as the topic cluster model. And this was based largely upon some relatively old models for information architecture that would have been used on eCommerce websites and large new sites. Like going back
So, the way that we've done this is, and the general idea of topic clusters is, you have groups [00:23:00] of web pages that all talk about a similar topic. Different parts of that topic, but all focusing on the similar topic. And we have internal linking only between all of the different pages within this topic cluster. We're saying to Google, everything within this group of pages that are all interlinked. Kind of how when we went back to the idea of the academic journal, and the different citations of like people being cited different publications, and kind of follow that trail, right? [00:23:30] And they are all kind of linked together under an overarching topic, that's what we try to do with topic clusters. And we create different sections on our site that are all interlinked focused on individual topics.
But this whole goal of eventually going through and ranking for as many different terms related to that topic that fit within this overarching topic. And this is the kind of thing that we can do for all different sections of the site, [00:24:00] and the key thing here is getting the structure correct.
Jorie Munroe: So I want to kind of key into that a little bit more 'cause this can seem like such a huge project to take on. And I mean, if I think about my blogs, but just like companies kind of getting started with this. And something that I heard about a lot when HubSpot's kind of content strategy tool was released, is that people went too broad too quickly. So it's like you would have these small companies trying to rank for like all of marketing. [00:24:30] And that's not necessarily like the right way to go.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, so I think to kind of start where this all comes back to mapping everything out correctly
Jorie Munroe: This is super useful.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah. So let's go build this for our customers. Right?
Jorie Munroe: Okay.
Matt Howells-Barby: And that helps with like clustering things together, and figuring out [00:25:30] the right topics to write about.
Now when you come into, okay, how broad should you go, it really depends on how much of a topic you think you both can cover from literally creating enough content around and are authoritative enough on.
I take a very good example here with HubSpot, right? Like you type in pretty much ... I feel pretty confident actually, you could type in pretty much anything to do with inbound marketing and we will rank [00:26:00] for like at least on page one, for pretty much any of those terms, including ranking like in the top one or two places for just the single word "inbound marketing".
Jorie Munroe: Okay.
Matt Howells-Barby: Now, from a brand new website, no authority, no kind of credibility in this whole area and I say, "Okay, goal number one, let's rank for everything in inbound marketing. You're probably not going to be able to compete with like 10 years of credibility building of HubSpot.
Jorie Munroe: That's an uphill battle.
Matt Howells-Barby: In amongst many others, right? [00:26:30] Wikipedia and all of these other like huge websites that focus on all of this. And that's where then getting more and more specific is important. And I guess like the key here is that by and large like a general rule of thumb would be the broader the topic, the more competitive it's going to be to rank in the search engine. So you can map out-
Jorie Munroe: Just like keywords in some ways.
Matt Howells-Barby: Right, exactly.
Jorie Munroe: Yeah, same kind of logic.
Matt Howells-Barby: Mapping out and aligning [00:27:00] topics that are relevant enough to your
So it's kind of, again, coming back to this idea of context. What is your situation? What are the actual goals that you're trying to get to? Like nobody's end goal is just "drive traffic", there is
Jorie Munroe: So it seems like when you decide if something should be that topic cluster, it's largely based on like search volume. If it's related to your site's subject of expertise, but how do you measure the success of a topic cluster?
Matt Howells-Barby: This was actually one of the biggest reasons why I'm a big fan of this whole model that we've been rolling out. And one of the biggest challenges, I talked [00:28:30] about this a little bit earlier when was saying, everyone historically in SEO would tend to look at things on a page by page basis when you look at it from where does this page rank in terms of a keyword? How do I optimize this single page? How is this individual page converting? Like how much revenue are we generating from this blog post? And it comes back to the classic answer of SEO which is, it depends.
Jorie Munroe: [00:29:00] That was the bane of my existence. When I was in support, and I would get these calls, I'd be like, "Well, it depends." And no one likes that answer, right?
Matt Howells-Barby: Right. And nobody does. And the reason why it depends is
Evaluating the success of all of these individual blog posts based on that single metric is not the right thing to do because some of those blog posts you may have written about stuff that ties in nicely into a product, and that's the goal, and okay, judge that one on that metric.
But [00:30:00] you know, you may have said, "Okay, we have this piece of content that we really want to rank for this like a bunch of these keywords area on this topic, super competitive it needs a ton of links." And we're going to create this other blog post that's maybe like this data-backed report that generates a ton of backlinks because it's really press-worthy, news-worthy, and that will get
If you looked at that data, that report that you built that goal is to earn backlinks, and just said, " [00:30:30] How many sales did it generate from that page?" You'd say, "None. And you'd have been right." Right? But actually, indirectly, that built up a ton of authority that it then passed on to this other page, that then helped rank which then did create a conversion.
So to cater
And we stretch all of our reporting on a cluster level. So we'll say, "Okay. We know that writing about customer service like hacks tends to yield a really high number of backlinks, but it doesn't tend to generate a ton of conversions. We know that writing about inbound marketing [00:31:30] generates a ton of traffic, not a whole lot of conversions.
Writing about CRM implementations creates a ton of conversions, not a whole lot of traffic, not a whole lot of links. And we take these lines, we say, "Okay, well. What do we need right now? We need a bunch of links. We're going to talk about this thing and we're going to power more content into this topic cluster. We need actually a ton more conversions around this part of our product. We're going to write more about this topic, and we're going to plug in some gaps in this topic cluster."
And this [00:32:00] is all about understanding the context, the goal, and the individual use case of each of these contents so that they can benefit each other.
Jorie Munroe: Definitely. So it's like a cycle of influence. I like that. And I think it's so important too just to remember that different pieces of content are going to have different goals. So we understand the structure, kind of like we need to even have a chance to rank, but what does great content look like today Matt? What does it look like?
Matt Howells-Barby: The HubSpot website I would say.
Jorie Munroe: [00:32:30] Excellent content.
Matt Howells-Barby: Very great content. So I would say actually that the HubSpot blog has a bunch of great content, but broadly speaking, this comes back, exactly back to my last point. So great content relies on context. And there's a lot of anecdotal stuff that, in all honesty like, I've personally been guilty
Jorie Munroe: You want four words.
Matt Howells-Barby: Exactly, right, yeah. And that's why actually I think Wikipedia is particularly impressive. They have a ton of long-form content, and people will say, "Well, the key to Wikipedia's success is, they have a ton of long-form content that ranks really well."
Similarly when you're thinking about what great content is, when you think about format, right? So sometimes people will say, "Right, do you know to rank really well, get a bunch of links, video content always performs best."
I remember going back a few years and it was like, "Well, the only way that you get links is with infographics." And it's like, " [00:34:30] No, that's no the case." Can an infographic perform well? Yes, but only if the people who are going to consume the content actually want to consume an infographic." And it makes sense. Like you're not going to tell someone the definition of a CRM in an infographic, although I guarantee someone has.
Jorie Munroe: Someone definitely has.
Matt Howells-Barby: Someone definitely has. If you
Jorie Munroe: Definitely.
Matt Howells-Barby: If video content is currently ranking for a topic that you want to be ranking well for, create video content. If video content is never shown in the results page for a topic that you're talking about, then it probably means something. It [00:35:30] means that actually, people searching for that do not necessarily want to see a video related to this result. It's not always the case, but nine times out of 10, right. Like Google is pretty good at understanding intent, and what you're seeing in the results page is the outcome of a huge sample size of searches
And the same applies to any content that you're creating. The most important thing
Jorie Munroe: Yeah, and I think that's pretty powerful. That's something that just should be going through kind [00:36:30] of all stages of your strategy. Whether you're marketing sales or services like the personalization aspect, and really understanding the preferences of your audience and
So that's all we have on writing content that ranks. If you like today's lesson, please, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts, and tell your co-workers about your smart new internet friends.
You can also follow us on Twitter, at HubSpot Academy if you want to learn more about content strategy. I'm [00:37:00] Jorie Munroe.
Matt Howells-Barby: And I'm Matt Howells-Barby.
Jorie Munroe: And thank you so much for listening. I'll see you in just a few seconds when you press play on our next episode. Bye for now.
Advertisement: If you're listening to this show, you've already taken the first step in growing your career. But I have really good news. You can go even further for free. HubSpot Academy is a worldwide leader in marketing and sales education. And they offer free classes on topics like social media, SEO, content marketing [00:37:30] and more. There's no catch, just extra advice that can take your career to the next level.
Go to www.hubspot.com/skillup to get started today, and build your business better.