Categories
SEO

Fresh Content Helps Your SEO, But Stale Content Can Hurt It

A client of mine had five different websites, all of which had separate blogs with articles. Their websites were closely related with many commonalities and overlapping topics. They wanted to improve their SEO, so my advice was to merge everything and bring all the content under one virtual roof.

Consolidating websites is often considered a best practice among SEOs, and the only time it doesn't make sense is when each site's intended audience and subject matter are completely distinct.

After the consolidation, it created an exponential effect when combined with fresh content. The increase in traffic from consolidating everything not only equaled the total traffic previously going to all websites but also doubled it.

There are several reasons for this.

Improve SEO By Updating Old Content

First, the main website had more domain authority. It was their first, which had the most indexed pages and keywords. Second, the main website had more content authority. It offered products and services but also had a substantial following and the most backlinks.

My client asked if it is a good strategy to review and fix the hundreds of posts on the newly consolidated website, and delete a bunch of redundant ones. That's when I recommended doing a content audit on the newly consolidated website.

This is a practice all SEO consultants and specialists should do from time to time. Performing a content audit is the first and most important step in creating a content marketing strategy. It will allow you to know which pages are truly unproductive, and then whether to delete, merge, redirect, or refresh them.

Of course, if you have a page that's doing well, you don't have to refresh it by rewriting it completely. All pages should be refreshed at some point as content does get stale after a while. At least from an SEO perspective.

To start, it's better to focus on the weakest links first.

Weak content can sometimes be seen as being the oldest ones. But some older content may still be quite productive. The weaker ones are those with the least traffic, the least search impressions, or the least number of backlinks. I’ll go over how to do this later. For now, the question I want to answer is, why.

There are plenty of reasons for updating old content. Non-SEO benefits, too. If you're a busy professional, you have a blog already or existing content, and you don't have a lot of time writing new stuff. So this might be useful.

Even if you choose to outsource your content writing, getting your writers or staff to refresh old content is an equally wise move.

Updated content provides your audience with fresh, updated information, which may be more useful and relevant to them. Or to borrow a term coined by my friend, the late Jay Conrad Levinson, the father of Guerilla Marketing, it's providing users with “state-of-the-moment” content.

Benefits of Refreshing Old Content

Refreshing old content has five major benefits:

  1. You increase the content's quality and length;
  2. You boost the content's stickiness (i.e., dwell time);
  3. You give users reasons to revisit your content;
  4. You invite newer backlinks and brand mentions; and,
  5. You add or widen what's called a content “moat.”

Obviously, the main benefit of refreshing old content is that it can improve SEO. It makes the content not only more timely and relevant for users, but also adds to its length, which offers additional signals.

Remember, word count is not a ranking factor. But longer articles do tend to improve SEO ranking because they help other areas, such as making the content more informative, increasing dwell times, lowering bounces, adding keyword variations, increasing keyword density, and so on.

In short, if you were looking at creating long-form content but don't have the time, expanding on an older piece of content is a viable option.

While content length is not a ranking factor, freshness certainly is.

Google uses different criteria to determine the quality of your content, and recency is one of them. Their QDF algorithm (i.e., “Query Deserves Freshness“) that looks at content freshness is one of their oldest, launched back in 2007, which hasn't been updated much since. (Oh, the irony.)

With all things being equal between two pieces of similar content, the one that will rank highest will typically be the most recent one.

True Evergreen Content is Impossible

Evergreen content is content that can be useful at any time, usable in many instances, or applicable by your audience at any stage. So to use language that's appealing to beginners and with less technical jargon that only seasoned audience members would know.

Content becomes stale over time, even when it's evergreen. No piece of content is truly 100% evergreen. Evergreen content may not need updating often, but they do deserve to be updated and probably more so than regular content.

Furthermore, the date on older content might reduce its stickiness, authority, and what's often referred to as “engagement velocity” (such as how often it's shared, talked about, commented on, etc).

Content is almost always outdated after a certain period of time. Situations change — like a worldwide pandemic, for example — that can make evergreen content a little less relevant. Plus, you may still need to update any of the links, anchors, images, case studies, statistics, findings, etc.

More importantly, updated content is also stickier.

Stickiness is helpful, not just for engaging users but also for SEO as it improves dwell time. When a searcher lands on a page that is obviously outdated (or one they've seen before), they will pogostick back to the SERPs, which tells Google your content is not what they are looking for.

Refreshed content gives users something that may be more relevant to their search. It also gives existing users a new reason to visit. It's a lot like wanting to buy a book that's updated or expanded, even though you have already read it.

Freshness is a Ranking Factor

When it comes to performance, updated content is also proven to be more productive. When a refreshed page appears in Google's search results, or when it's shared on social media, they invite higher clickthroughs. Some do this by appending a date to the headlines, such as:

“Top 10 Project Management Software For SMBs (2021)”

The new headline and content that appear in search results will be more inviting and relevant. But also, the updated timestamp communicates to searchers that your content has been updated.

Content that's more recent tends to be ranked higher. But that's with all things being equal, and you and I know that nothing is ever equal. Some older pages may rank higher if it's more relevant to the search. But other pages that are newer may attract more clicks.

People looking for the most recent results on a certain topic will scan the dates in the SERPs. Take Google's QDF I mentioned earlier. The top results were 2018 and 2019. But I chose one in 2020. How did I find it? I Googled “Query Deserves Freshness” and I clicked on the third result:

Fresh Content Helps Your SEO, But Stale Content Can Hurt It 1 | fresh content
Google results for Query Deserves Freshness, November, 2020.

The last but not the least of all the benefits of refreshing content is that it creates something called a content “moat.”

Freshness Also Creates a “Content Moat”

Just like a defensive moat around a castle that's supposed to dissuade attackers who are looking to infiltrate it, refreshing your old content and particularly regularly updating it makes it hard for others to copy you.

Of course, you should focus on providing unique, difficult-to-replicate content — content that's new, different, and offers unique insights (for example, it contains original research, case studies, success stories, specialized expertise, etc). This makes it hard for others to steal your original stuff.

But if they do, they'll only remind others of you.

Moreover, if your content is original, any duplicate content penalties will be given to the culprit. There are no “penalties” per se, but Google will attribute the highest authority to the original author or creator. Google's software is sophisticated enough to determine who's the original author of a work.

Now, let's say a competitor takes bits and pieces of your content, and perhaps rewords them enough to make them appear unique. Even though it's still similar to yours, regularly refreshing old content keeps you a step ahead of them.

Content, in itself, is easy to imitate. From copying and pasting text to stealing ideas. But content is always unique makes it harder to imitate.

So build a moat around your content by updating it.

Ultimately, by refreshing old content you will not only improve SEO but also stay a step ahead of the competition. The question is, how do you know which content to refresh? If you have hundreds or thousands of pieces, which ones deserve your “freshness” attention?

How to Conduct an SEO Content Audit

Refreshing content is key, but doing so within a defined content strategy will give you the proper action plan on what to update, how to update, and why.

Updating means adding, consolidating, even deleting unproductive pages. It can result in a massive improvement. If you've been posting content for a while, chances are many pages are outdated and diluting SEO signals, and some may create more of a distraction than a positive user experience.

But you need to be strategic and plan this carefully as to not lose the momentum you've gained from consolidating your websites. For example, you don't want to accidentally delete a high-ranking page or one that may seem to rank low only because it’s competing with other blog posts.

So before you begin, I recommend following these four key steps.

1. Create an Inventory of All Your Pages

Take an inventory of all your posts and place them in a spreadsheet. This is so you can properly track things and create a plan for them when combining posts, deleting some, and redirecting them.

You can do this by crawling your site with tools like Screaming Frog. I typically copy and paste from the post-sitemap file. This will be the basis for your content audit and the master document you will refer back to.

Next, cross-compare this inventory with pages found on Google and the level of visibility each one possesses. Visit Google Search Console for your website where you will be able to verify the performance of those pages in Google.

(If you haven't claimed your website on GSC yet, do so. In the case of my client, we did a site migration of multiple websites into one. So it might take some time before Google processes the “change of address” and consolidates all the pages. That's why it would have been wiser to do the audit before the move.)

In GSC, go to “Performance” or “Search Results” in the sidebar, filter based on the last 12 months, and export using the “export” button in the top-right corner.

Your spreadsheet will contain several sheets or tabs. Choose the “Pages” tab where you will be able to see the list of pages from your website with the number of impressions and clicks they received.

Note that some pages that are recently deleted and redirected might still show up. You might want to merge these numbers together with the current page. Also note that you should exclude posts younger than six months to a year as they may not have gained enough traction.

2. Determine Your Least Productive Pages

In this next step, you want to determine your least productive content — you might want to ignore key pages like contact or legal pages. By using the GSC performance report, you will be able to filter your posts based on impressions (i.e., visibility), and then sort the list from the least visible pages to the most.

Next, you will need to know the total traffic each page received as well as any backlinks it has. The reason is to determine how productive your pages are. Productive pages or posts are those with:

  1. Traffic (pageviews)
  2. Visibility (impressions)
  3. Authority (backlinks)

Or any combination of the above.

Some posts may not have any rankings, but they may get a lot of internal traffic, traffic from other websites, or direct traffic. Some may have no traffic at all but a lot of backlinks. If they're high-quality links, you don't want to lose those.

Speaking of which, while you're in GSC, scroll down and click on “links” in the left sidebar. These are links from and to your website. Then visit the “external” links page, where you will be able to export once again.

Next, you need to export your pageviews from your analytics (if you use Google Analytics, simply go to “Behavior” in the sidebar, “Site Content,” and then “All Pages”). You can export it to a spreadsheet and cross-compare the results to your early search performance spreadsheet.

Be aware that if you have a lot of content, so you may want to limit to the last 12 months and 5,000 pages at most.

The final step is to bring it all together. Unless you know how to do VLOOKUPs, create a separate spreadsheet where you will list all your pages, a column for total impressions, another for total pageviews, and another for total backlinks.

3. Score The Productivity Level of Each Page

Add another column, which will be your score. Your score will be the recommended action for this page. I simply score each of the three KPIs (i.e., pageviews, impressions, and backlinks) on a scale of low to high. Use the the pages with the highest and lowest numbers for each to guide you.

Each page will have a combination of scores that will determine the course of action. Your spreadsheet will look something like this:

Page (URL)ImpressionsPageviewsBacklinksAction
/blog/url-1/HighHighHighRemain
/blog/url-2/HighHighLowRemain
/blog/url-3/HighLowLowRefresh
/blog/url-4/LowLowLowRemove
/blog/url-5/LowLowHighRedirect
/blog/url-6/LowHighHighReview
/blog/url-7/LowHighLowReview
/blog/url-8/HighLowHighRefresh

Looking at all three scores will tell you to do one of five things:

  1. Keep the page as is (let the content remain);
  2. Delete it completely (remove it, it's deadweight);
  3. Delete it but redirect it to another page;
  4. Refresh it (update or consolidate it with another);
  5. Or review it to see if the content offers value to users:
    • If the content doesn't provide value, delete and redirect.
    • If the content offers value, refresh, merge, or redirect.

If the content gets a lot of traffic but doesn't rank well, see if it's a case of two or more pages competing with each other. Pages ranking for the same search terms may split the SEO signals between them. This is keyword cannibalization, which devalues the authority of your most relevant page.

It's perfectly fine to have multiple pages ranking for the same keywords, as long as a primary page (i.e., pillar page or parent topic page) has all the authority and relevance, and other pages are generating more traffic with other keywords for which they are more relevant.

But if two or more pages are ranking for the same keywords and focus on the same topic, then you may be competing with yourself. One is stealing half the visibility from another. So, you have one of three choices:

  • If the other pages are very similar and cover the same topic, delete and redirect them to the one you're keeping using 301 redirects.
  • If they're different but closely related (such as related topics or subtopics), merge them into a longer page, preferably into the main page you decided to keep. Then delete and redirect the old one to the newly consolidated page. You might need to edit them to make them fit.
  • If they're different and completely unrelated, refresh them with the goal of switching the competing keyword or topic to a different one.

4. Update Underperforming Pages Accordingly

Once you're done with the above, you can start updating your old content. Delete the those slated for deletion, redirect those deleted ones whose backlinks you want to preserve, and update the content where indicated.

You refresh your content by editing it or adding to it. You can make it more timely with updated data, new sources, and relevant information. Add new images and supporting visuals. Above all, pay attention to the structure and update the headings, particularly the main headline (H1).

If your blog shows publication dates and a post is slightly modified, it's good practice to show the last-modified date on the front-end instead of the date it was first published. But if the post has been significantly altered, update the publication date to when you made the change (like today, for example).

This will put the post back at the top of your blog as if it was newly published. Not only does it drive more attention, but it also signals to search engines that the post was updated, forces a recrawl, and above all, updates the date that appears in search results, which boosts clickthroughs.

Now, how you update the content is a little subjective.

You can expand, edit, remove, and/or rewrite where it makes sense. You can either make the content more evergreen and relevant, or modernize the messaging to fit today's trends, context, or your audience's needs.

But if you need ideas, here are some suggestions and best practices.

Apply On-Page (HTML) Updates

If you need to focus on a new topic or keyword, then you need to update the meta-data, schema, on-page assistance tools (like an SEO plugin such as Rank Math or Yoast), and possibly the post's URL to include the new keyword.

(This is assuming you have already optimized these already for a previous keyword. If you haven't, then this is your chance to apply some technical SEO.)

Let's cover these in more detail.

Metadata (Titles and Descriptions)

Typically, this is your title tag and your description tag (often called “meta tags”). Your SEO plugin will be helpful. Metadata is not a ranking factor, but a refreshed title and description often appear in search engine results and can invite better clickthroughs.

Open Graph (OG) Data

Open graph protocol data (or “OG meta tags“) is the content that appears when sharing your article on third-party platforms, such as social media. If you don't have written OG tags, then the platform may arbitrarily pull excerpts and images from your content that may be wrong or inappropriate.

Better not leave it to chance. SEO plugins can help here, too. As with other metadata, OG data won't directly affect your rankings, but it may help increase your clickthrough rates (or CTRs). And higher CTRs have been long speculated to contribute positively to higher rankings.

Structured Data (Schema Markup)

Often called “schema markup,” structured data tells search engines about the type of content (such as an article, a product, an event, a place, a recipe, and so forth). Again, most SEO plugins do this for you. But there are other schema-only plugins and tools to help you create and add code.

Page URL (or “Permalink”)

Rewriting your post URL or “permalink slug” isn't always necessary. There's also a lot of debate among blog SEO experts regarding how much weight URLs provide if any. But including your main keyword in the URL can let Google know what your content is about and also provide eye gravity in search results.

If you have updated the slug, don't forget to 301-redirect the old URL to let Google know of the post's new location so it won't lose any rankings. I use my SEO plugin's redirection feature, but there are several others, too.

One common SEO tip is to use shorter URLs and removing stop words (e.g., articles, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, etc). While shorter URLs are still important, stop words can help. Reason is, the natural language processing software that determines intent relies on some stop words for context.

Update and Refresh The Content Itself

Obviously, you can add more up-to-date information, rewrite it to fit a more modern context, and choose to make it more timely or evergreen. For example, some of my decade-old posts discuss websites that are now defunct or have moved, or practices that have fallen out of common use. (Google+ anyone?)

But if you need some ideas or inspiration, here are a few.

Rewrite Headline (H1)

I typically do this only after I updated my content. I may have a better headline in mind, or I may have slightly changed the content's angle. This is true if I have a new keyword, too, which I want to include in the headline. If the content is timely, I may want to add the date or the word “updated” in the headline.

Update or Add Headings

Breaking your content up and adding headings throughout provides three significant benefits: 1) it makes the content more readable and easier to pull in scanners; 2) it adds blog SEO potential by including keywords; 3) and it gives both search engines and users an idea of the content that follows.

Keywords and Topics

Optimize your content around the keyword or topic, particularly if you have chosen a new one. The goal is not to stuff your content with keywords but to focus on the topic, the relevance, and above all, the user. Add content around subtopics, related topics, or semantically related keywords where appropriate.

Statistics and Data

Statistics change regularly. There are always new regulations, studies, research findings, etc. So if you have statistics or research data in your content, is it still relevant? Are there newer, fresher, better ones? If you don't have any, consider adding supporting data, research, or statistics to your content.

Sources and References

Add any helpful references to support your content. Always cite your sources, obviously. If you used references previously, it might be wise to update your references and sources, too. They may have moved or changed, or the links might be broken or redirecting to a newer version.

New Research Findings

Adding your own research is just as important as adding external references, if not more so. Google looks for original research in content with their quality guidelines. So if you've done previous research but have new findings or need to update your conclusions, now's the opportunity to refresh them.

Quotes From Other Sources

Add quotes that support your content or argument. Quotes give your content 1) confirmation, 2) credibility, and 3) commentary. They support your arguments while adding additional content. If another expert supports you, quote them. It adds recognition and emphasizes your authority.

Use Cases and Case Studies

Social proof is the most impactful form of substantiation. Don't be afraid to add them. Testimonials and results are great, but case studies are the most believable, even when they're anonymous. The reason is, they provide context and are more measurable, quantifiable, realistic, and time-bound.

Supporting Visuals

Adding visuals help SEO, whether they're graphics, images, screenshots, portable media, or multimedia. They create anchors that stop scanners. They improve dwell times and CTRs. Above all, they require readable data (called “alternate” or “alt” text), which can include relevant content and keywords.

Calls-to-Action (CTAs)

Of course, keeping your readers means you also need to be engaging them — and not just educating them. If your content alludes to products, services, or subscriptions you offer, or suggests other content on your website, then directly or indirectly ask your audience to take action

Internal and External Links

Internal links are critical for your SEO. Since the time you've originally published the older content, you may have posted new topically related content that may make sense to link to. For link suggestions, some plugins and SEO research tools can show you linking opportunities.

Or you may have external links that are outdated, broken, or redirected on the other end that you might need to update. I use a broken link checker to identify broken links. There are WordPress plugins and a few free tools online.

Ultimately, refreshing old content may not only breathe new life into them but also have a few major side benefits, such as increasing the content's SEO that may even end up surpassing its previous performance. But it raises your authority, keeps you relevant, and strengthens your content “moat.”

Categories
SEO

How to Get Backlinks? Stop Chasing Them

As an SEO professional, I'm not a big fan of building links or, better said, chasing them. I know; this is one of the most utilized methods in SEO. Most SEO experts out there talk about building backlinks as immensely important to SEO.

They're 100% right. Links are important.

But building them can be a risky business.

Google's John Mueller outright said that most attempts at building links are unnatural and despised by the search engine. Asking other websites to link back to yours seems a little sleazy to me. Granted, there are ways to do this ethically, of course. But it's still risky.

Most reputable SEO experts agree. Bruce Clay, the grandfather of SEO, outright said that building links unnaturally runs the risk of being penalized by Google. I've worked with many clients whose rankings dropped as a result of being engaged in questionable link-building practices.

The solution is to earn and attract links back to your site naturally.

That's where content marketing comes in. After all, it makes sense: post a really good piece of content on your own site, and promote that instead of links. If people like it, they will link to it.

Not only that, but it will create a compounding effect. People will talk about it. They will share it. They will post their thoughts about it. They will write their own articles sourcing it. This, in turn, will reach other people who have never heard of you, and they will talk about it and link to it, too. And so on.

In fact, Google also pays attention to “mentions,” sometimes just as much as they do backlinks. Also called “brand mentions, they are often referred to as implied links. (I'll come back to this later as it is important.)

But there's one important side benefit to content marketing.

Content Amplifies Your Credibility

Content marketing is often called “content amplification” in SEO circles. The reason is, by amplifying content (e.g., promoting it, sharing it, advertising it, repurposing it, spoonfeeding it, etc), you not only reach a wider audience, but also it helps to amplify SEO signals, too.

But content amplifies a lot more:

  • It establishes you as an authority in your field.
  • It creates more awareness of your brand and your business.
  • It attracts ideal prospects, patients, and clients to your business.
  • It helps to prequalify your prospects before they approach you.
  • It advances the sale and lowers buyer resistance.
  • It creates less cognitive dissonance once they buy from you.
  • It cuts through the clutter and bypasses ad blockers.
  • It distinguishes you as a trustworthy thought leader.
  • It communicates and solidifies your value proposition.
  • It positions you above your competition in the mind of your market.
  • It attracts opportunities for creating strategic marketing alliances.

I could go on and on. You get the picture.

All this amplifies something essential in SEO, especially with plastic surgeons. And that's credibility. Because of Google's quality guidelines of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, or E-A-T, credibility is crucial.

In 2006 at the height of the dotcom boom, when all people cared about was traffic and conversions, I wrote about the third missing element in marketing (i.e., building credibility is just as important as building traffic and sales).

A few years later, Google cracked down on less-than-credible websites with its updates (called “Panda” and “Penguin,” which devalued poor content and poor backlinks, respectively). Literally, millions of websites lost traffic and rankings overnight. It killed many businesses, too.

Back then as today, it made sense to me that trying to game the system in any way, shape, or form is going to come back and bite you.

This is why as an SEO consultant, I believe that…

Building Credibility > Building Links

You can work hard at building traffic and sales. But if you don't build credibility, your practice will not grow as fast as you wish, you will stagnate, or you will be virtually non-existent ⏤ let alone crushed by competitors.

Build content. Build more content. Build good content. Do so and you will build credibility as a byproduct, which is far more powerful. You will attract backlinks naturally. More importantly, you will attract better backlinks, too.

This brings up an important point: another reason why building credibility is more important than building backlinks is the issue of quality versus quantity.

Does the quality of inbound links matter? Quantity helps, for sure. But a site with less but higher quality backlinks will almost always outrank one with a ton of lesser quality backlinks. By focusing on building credible content, you will also increase the likelihood that more authoritative sites will link to you.

The more credible you are, the more credible your backlinks will be.

One of the most common tactics for SEO, which many SEO experts swear by, is to build as many backlinks as possible. In fact, some of the most prominent SEO agencies out there (I won't mention names, but they have a popular YouTube channel) tout that building backlinks is the most important SEO strategy.

However, I disagree.

Backlink Quantity or Quality Backlinks?

There are two SEO schools of thought on the subject of backlinks:

  1. Having a higher backlink quantity is more important;
  2. Having higher quality backlinks is more important.

Some SEOs will say both are just as important, while others will say it's neither.

Before we go further, let's define “quality.”

What is a quality backlink? For some, it's a backlink from a site with a lot of high rankings, a lot of traffic, or a lot of backlinks itself — in fact, some SEO research tools offer scores based on these and similar factors.

But these scores are just guides created by these tools and not Google. Regardless, some will specifically chase a backlink from sites with a high “domain authority” score, like one with a DA score of 50/100 or higher.

For example, here's mine from Ahrefs as of today, where UR or “URL rating” is 52/100 (i.e., the home page), and DR or “domain rating” is 55/100. (And yes, I get spammed by these link-seekers all the time.)

MichelFortin.com domain authority score and SEO backlinks profile.
MichelFortin.com domain authority score and SEO backlinks profile.

But is it better to focus on getting top-rated backlinks? Or on as many backlinks as possible, regardless of score? Are you of the SEO school of thought that says it's better to have 50 authoritative backlinks than 5,000 more-or-less good ones? Or are you of the other that says the converse?

Either way, you have to do what I call “backlink begging.”

What I consider to be “quality” are backlinks from authoritative websites with great recognition and rankings. In other words, they have credibility. Often, backlinks from a credible website will provide (or, better said, pass on) that credibility to the site it's linking to.

Speaking of which, there's the issue of “dofollow” and “nofollow.” Meaning, should backlinks be “dofollow” so that the SEO signal (or “link juice”) is passed on to its destination? It's basically a link telling search engines to please “follow and consider this site to be as credible.”

Google has often said that links that are less than natural — which is a major point of contention among SEOs — are fine as long as they are set as “nofollow.”

Break Free From The Burden of Backlinks

My contention is that focusing on backlinks can chain you down.

I understand that some SEO experts have dissected this to a science and have weighed on either side of the spectrum. I also understand that links, in general, are good SEO signals, regardless of where on that spectrum they happen to be.

But there is something to keep in mind: links are signals. They are not indicators or gauges. They only suggest to search engines and users alike that the content being linked to is valuable, relevant, and worthy of consideration.

I'm of the SEO school of thought that backlinks are dying (or that their signals and importance are dying). While Google has never outright stated this, we see more and more evidence of this through something called “inferred links.”

For example, there are a growing number of websites ranking with little to backlinks at all, and some just as successfully as sites with high-quality backlinks, a high quantity of backlinks, or both. What gives?

I do believe that links are still an important ranking factor, but they are only one of many hundreds of SEO signals. A strong and increasingly important signal nowadays is UX (user experience), which explains the emergence of UXO (user experience optimization) as an SEO strategy.

The latest changes in algorithms and new ranking factors from Google (called “Core Web Vitals“) is a tell-tale sign that Google is paying more attention to one thing in particular: quality, namely quality content and quality experience.

Why Backlinks For SEO is Losing Ground

There are four main reasons why backlinks are falling out of favor.

First, other signals are becoming increasingly important.

Backlinks may be a signal of authoritativeness. But they are not quality-centric signals. They do not contribute anything to the determination of a site's content quality or usability. Internal links can help because they create relationships, provide context, and help navigation. But not external links.

Second, Google is becoming more sophisticated.

With the help of machine learning and natural language processing, the authoritativeness of a site's content can be determined through context, topical relationships, and brand mentions, and less on hyperlinks.

Third, backlinks can be easily manipulated.

People can sometimes buy backlinks, which is frowned upon and can even cost you dearly down the road. Most of these links tend to be of low quality, too. Keep this in mind: no authoritative site would ever directly sell links.

Fourth, backlinks can also hurt your rankings.

If you follow the quantity philosophy, you could end up with toxic backlinks from spammy sites, hacked sites, and black-hat sites (i.e., sites with scraped, stolen, or useless content created for the express purpose of farming links).

In my opinion, as search engines become smarter, backlinks are going to become less relevant. We see this happen with each algorithm update that decimates ill-gotten rankings through attempts at manipulating backlinks.

Chasing Backlinks is Soul-Sucking

I remember 10-20 years ago, ranking high with just a few tactics (that were not considered blackhat yet) was incredibly easy. Back then, link-building SEO companies — some of which still exist today — thrived on selling these tactics.

Their services ranged from doing outreach (mostly by spamming, begging for links, or guest posting) all the way to creating private blog networks (or PBNs) for the sole purpose of manufacturing backlinks.

But many of these tactics violate Google's guidelines. After a few “Google slaps,” I also witnessed countless businesses go belly up as a result. Some of them were in the millions of dollars in revenue, too.

SEO and content marketing expert Jim Thornton wrote a recent piece on this very topic. In it, he explains that hyperlinks are dying, and context and relying on other algorithms (including UX mentioned earlier) are better signals.

As Jim pointed out:

Central to their web spam mitigation strategy, engineers have been working for over a decade to get away from dependence on link signals. Now it’s 6+ years after that announced experiment. I think they’ve got it figured out.

Jim Thornton in “Links are Dying”

Links are only good (or becoming only good) for finding new pages. Meaning, they can let Google know a page exists. There's a chance they might index it and rank it; there's a chance they might not. There's a chance they might not even respect the “dofollow/nofollow” directive and only see it as a suggestion.

So all this to say two important things, which I will leave you with.

Beware of “Backlink Bilkers”

If you have someone approaching you offering you SEO backlinks for cheap, often with a “brand new secret method” that can get you “top rankings overnight,” don't walk, run from these folks.

They are risky black-hatters, spammers/scammers, or “pump-and-dumpers.” Similar to stock market fraudsters, they pump your site with ill-gotten signals that, in the short term get you positive results, but eventually will get you penalized and banned by Google, which can cost you dearly.

Never buy a backlink service (or any kind of SEO services, for that matter) from spammers. Buy from reputable SEO experts or firms.

Think of it this way: if someone has to spam you to sell their SEO services, why would they need to spam you if they themselves had practiced good SEO?

It's pretty telling.

Either their own SEO is terrible or they're lying.

It's no different than buying knockoffs or stolen goods from questionable street vendors. It may look legitimate, but it's not. You know it's not. Others who know will know it's not. If they do know, you've just lost all credibility and perhaps gained the attention of authorities, too.

Now, does that mean that you shouldn't buy backlink SEO services? No.

But keep in mind that reputable firms don't buy or beg for links — let alone use deception. Legitimate, reputable firms tend to work on creating a link-building strategy that's focused on producing high-quality content, doing genuine outreach, and earning authoritative links. Naturally.

Build Brands, Not Backlinks

Part of the evolution of SEO signals is the growing importance of something called “implied backlinks.” An implied link is a brand mention, in other words. When other websites talk about you, your product, your service, or your brand, Google picks up on it just as they would an actual hyperlink.

Rand Fishkin, one the OGs of SEO and founder of Moz, wrote a recent piece on the power of inferred links, saying that someone mentioning your brand, without linking to it, is vastly superior (i.e., more credible) to actual links.

More importantly, Google and other search engines are becoming increasingly sophisticated to the point that backlinks are going to become unnecessary.

In the past, the kinds of sophisticated, nuanced analysis necessary to make an inferred link superior to a direct link were lacking. Today, they exist. In the future, they’ll get better, cheaper, and faster. Even if links rule today, I can’t see that model lasting much longer.

Rand Fishkin in “Inferred Links Will Replace the Link Graph”

That's why branding is so important.

I have talked on numerous occasions about the power of naming your product, service, or process. Productizing your services, and putting a name on them (if not at least naming your unique process or approach, even if everyone else does the same thing), creates the perception of expertise and uniqueness.

But the side (and possibly even greater) benefit is that, when people talk about your brand, your “thing,” or your business (your name, for example), they are creating implied signals that tell Google your site is recognized, authoritative, and worthy of their consideration.

It goes without saying that, if you create content that people talk about, engage with, and share, you're going to increase your brand mentions almost naturally.

So don't chase backlinks.

Focus on creating link-worthy content instead.

Backlinks are not dead. They are still important. But they are not as important as they used to be, and they're becoming less so over time. As I've said before, build your credibility, which is far more important than building links.

Credibility attracts credibility, including credible links.

Categories
SEO

What is “Search Intent” and Why is it Important?

Weeks after my whole family got theirs, I finally got the vaccine. Speaking of which, if you search for “vaccine,” you're going to get different results. It's a pretty generic keyword. Google may only guess what you mean.

  • You may be searching for news about it.
  • You may be trying to learn about the risks.
  • Or you may want to book your appointment.

This is called “search intent.”

To understand why this is important to your SEO efforts, above and beyond “keywords,” let's take a closer look at what it is and how to optimize for it.

Actions Speak Louder Than (Key)words

More and more SEO experts are offering services beyond just Search Engine Optimization. Many offer User Experience Optimization (UXO) and Search Experience Optimization (SXO). The reason is simple: rankings don't matter if the results, such as your content, don't satisfy the searcher's query.

Search engines like Google use machine learning to pay attention to how people respond to search results. They try to gauge if the result meets their needs. For example, if someone types in “how to increase organic traffic to my website” into Google, this may happen:

  • They get a bunch of results.
  • They click on one of them.
  • They visit the page.
  • They scan the content.
  • They hit their back button.
  • They return to the results.
  • They choose the next link.
  • And so on.

This may signal to Google that the link they provided isn't what the user is looking for. So it could be either one of three things:

  1. The content is bad,
  2. The user experience is bad, or
  3. It doesn't meet the user's search intent.

Called “pogosticking,” this back-and-forth process tells the search engine that the site is not meeting the user's needs. It's not providing good content or a good user experience or matching the user's search intent.

You may have great quality content and a fantastic user experience. But what if the content was simply wrong for what the user is looking for? What if it's perfect but delivered in the wrong way (e.g., they wanted video and not text)?

If you rank well, the mismatched intent will deliver poor quality traffic and inflate your bounce rate unnecessarily. But chances are you will not rank well, anyway, since Google uses machine-learning to know what people are looking for and serve results that match their intent.

What are “Long Clicks” and “Short Clicks”?

A bounce rate is calculated based on single-page visits, where users bounce out after visiting one page and without navigating to any other page on your site. Pogosticking may add to the site's bounce rate. But it doesn't mean the content is bad. Users may have read the entire article and left.

That's when the concept of “dwell time” comes in.

High bounce rates are not enviable. But pogosticking is important to pay attention to, specifically because it's indicative that the site is not relevant to the user's search. It doesn't match what the user is searching for.

This metric called “dwell time” provides context and indicates if the content was appropriate. A visitor who clicks on a search result and bounces back after a few seconds is called a “short click.” If they stay a lot longer and dwell longer on the page, even if they do bounce back, this is called a “long click.”

Both bounce rates and dwell times (i.e., short clicks and long clicks) are just two of many SEO signals that tell Google the content is a fit and matches the user's search and intent. In short, content is good, the user experience is adequate, and the result is relevant to their search.

The Three Types of Search Intent

Relevance is based on intent. There are three kinds of search intent (and a fourth, which is a variation). Your content should aim to match either one:

  1. “I want to know” searches (informational)
  2. “I want to go” searches (navigational)
  3. “I want to do” searches (transactional)

The fourth is a variation of the third. When the transaction is a purchase, they are called “I want to buy” searches. Some SEO experts label them as “commercial intent” or “commercial investigation” searches.

However, the intent to buy may not be direct or immediate. The user may be unsure and doing some research. So the search is slightly more informational or navigational in intent (such as looking for sites offering reviews, for example).

Nevertheless, determining search intent is important because SEO relies heavily on how well your content matches the searcher’s query.

Let's take a look at each one with some examples.

Informational Searches

The user is looking for information for educational purposes. They're not looking to buy (at least, not yet). They may be looking for more information about their situation, problem, or challenge. They're only researching this point.

Some of the searches related to your procedures may be:

  • “How long does a facelift take to heal?”
  • “Is abdominal plastic surgery safe?”
  • “Why do my breasts sag after pregnancy?”
  • “What types of liposuction are available?”
  • “Are hair transplants permanent?”

Many informational searches are formulated in the form of questions. But they can also be straight keywords or phrases, such as “lose weight” or “facelift surgery.” But the search intent may not be that clear (I'll return to this).

Navigational Searches

The user is trying to locate something specific, which is mostly a website, a location, or a business/clinic. It might be a URL, an address, a social media profile, etc. It's often based on a name, brand, product, service, or domain entered into a search form instead of directly into their browsers.

Some of the searches related to your business or services may be:

  • “Jane Smith, MD plastic surgeon Toronto”
  • “Dr. John Doe cosmetic surgery clinic”
  • “facelift post-op instructions Smith Surgical”
  • “phone number Dr. Linda Kent new clinic”
  • “nearest hotel to Eastern Surgical Centre”

By the way, the vast majority of branded searches are navigational. This is another reason you want to name your business, your services, and your processes, including your intellectual property. People may have heard about you or seen your name, but they're unsure how to get to your website.

Transactional Searches

This is where the searcher wants to do something, mostly to make a purchase. They've already decided they're ready to make a purchase or do something. So the search is related to taking that action. It can be buying, downloading, calling, hiring, ordering, registering, emailing, etc.

Some transactional searches might include:

  • “book a consultation with Dr. Smith”
  • “buy post-op cream Doe Surgical Clinic”
  • “subscribe to Laura Jackson, MD newsletter”
  • “get a quote for breast augmentation”
  • “download facelift pre-op instructions”

Commercial/Investigational Searches

This is a variation of transactional searches where the user is looking to buy. But the user is unsure and either wants reassurances or wants to investigate further. It can be informational and navigational, too, to some degree.

Since it can blend all three, it's important to match this intent specifically. Sometimes, the answer can be from third-party site. For example:

  • “best bariatric weight loss surgery”
  • “Dr. Jane Doe plastic surgery reviews”
  • “top cosmetic surgeon Rochester”
  • “Botox for crow's feet near me”
  • “Dr. Smith before and after photos”

Therefore, the goal is to offer relevant content and optimize signals — including amplified third-party signals — that aim to help the user decide (e.g., comparisons, case studies, photos, testimonials, FAQs, etc.).

The Key is To Align Content With Intent

Ultimately, When it comes to creating content for any one of these types of queries, the goal may be to answer them directly. But you may have to do more than educate your audience with relevant content. You want content that targets, engages, and invites them, too.

For instance, if a user is conducting an informational search, they may or may not be in the market for your services. The user could be a student doing some research for school. It could be a tire-kicker. It could even be a competitor.

So the goal is to capture, educate, and retain your visitors, the right visitors, as much as possible, particularly if they're potentially ideal clients. For this, you need quality content, user experience, and SEO signals.

But it's also an opportunity to get them to enter your funnel, engage them further, prove your expertise, and invite them to invest in your services.

How Intent Alignment Improves SEO

So how you optimize for search intent? The process of discovering what Google thinks people want is a great tool for SEO research. It is often referred to as “SERP analysis,” where SERP, of course, stands for search engine results pages.

Now, I know you're a plastic surgeon, and you're not an SEO expert. But this is not about search engine optimization in a direct sense. It's about something a bit more fundamental: market research. It's about understanding what users are looking for, why they want it, and how to give it to them.

Understand that market research is the core of marketing. When I talk about “keyword research,” it's not about keywords in and of themselves. It's about understanding what your audience is looking for and why they're looking for it.

It's impossible to ask users what they want as they conduct their searches. So keywords are “observable traces” that users leave. They're artifacts, if you will.

Like uncovering dinosaur fossils during an archeological dig, archeologists can only make educated guesses about how dinosaurs lived, what they ate, what their migration patterns were, and what happened to them.

Similarly, keywords don't tell the full story. They certainly don't tell us what's on users' minds when they use them. But search engines are becoming more sophisticated in understanding what people want and why.

Using clickthrough rates and user behaviour (such as click length), combined with the power of natural language processing and machine learning, Google makes educated guesses on the intent behind the search.

So market research, in this sense, is keyword research.

Understand The Desire Behind Queries

Fundamentally, SEO is the process of optimizing your website so that search engines (and therefore users) can find your content. They must be able to read, crawl, and index your content, even before they decide how to rank it.

A tad oversimplified, of course. But that's what SEO essentially aims to do. SEO was (and still is to some degree) a technical process. In fact, if you look up the definition of SEO as far back as 10-20 years ago, you get something like:

“Search Engine Optimization is built on the foundation of information architecture and information retrieval.”

From “SEO: Search & Information Retrieval,” Jeffrey Smith (2009).

Market research, on the other hand, is what will help you rank higher. I often refer back to what my friend and top copywriter David Garfinkel, who said that the key to success in copywriting (and I could easily extrapolate that to SEO or any form of marketing in general) is to ask:

  • Who is your market?
  • What is their problem?
  • How are they talking about it?

If you know who your market is (which you likely do), you know their problem and why they want to solve it. But learning about how they talk about it can be uncovered by studying and reverse-engineering the SERPs.

For this reason, you need to go beyond keyword research.

Meet Users' Needs, Not Their Keywords

Google's goal is to satisfy the user's search and to become more effective at doing so. They're already showing you the results they think will serve the users best. In addition to machine learning, they've done countless experiments, hired many sophisticated engineers, and analyzed petabytes of data.

They've done the research for you. So use it to your advantage.

If you want to improve your rankings, your goal is to know what users are looking for and to give it to them. But it's not enough. You also need to understand the intent behind what they want, i.e., the reason for their search.

Why? Because, as Google tries to identify what people are looking for and why, it serves results that more closely match what it thinks will satisfy searchers. So if your content doesn't align with intent, Google will not give you the time of day — and your users won't, either.

And therein lies the crux of the need for SERP analysis.

Think of it this way: the goal is not only to create content that your audience wants but also for the reasons they want to consume it.

Sounds a tad pedantic, I know. But it's actually quite simple. You can focus on keywords, for example, and try to successfully align your content's title and description (i.e., what shows up in SERPs) that match the user's query. This will undoubtedly increase clickthrough rates.

But what happens once they land on your site?

Avoid “Clickbait-and-Switch”

If they pogostick back to Google because your user experience (UX) is less than desirable, that's one thing. But if it's because your content fails to satisfy their query, even if the content is high quality and presumably what they're looking for, you've failed to satisfy their intent. You failed to meet their needs.

Plus, failing to match search intent can hurt you.

Google has publicly said they don't directly use click signals as ranking factors. However, Google engineers have stated that they do use click behaviour to help refine their search results. (“Refine” is an important hint.)

My personal opinion is that they use it in connection with other factors, such as going to the next result as opposed to conducting a new search (again, “short clicks” versus “long clicks”). How people engage with search results says a lot.

While click lengths may not necessarily impact your rankings, this data helps Google learn more about its users' search intent. It then refines its search results when analyzing what people are looking for in combination with other factors.

The refinement may cost you in rankings — other results that more closely satisfy the user's search will rise to the top. Naturally.

Also, consider that people may seek more than just information but also the format. How they want to consume the information is just as important as the content itself. They may prefer a video, podcast, infographic, or PDF.

Plastic surgery is a visual field. Visuals are key. If your content is only one long article when users are looking for photos, you may not meet their needs.

One of the reasons Google offers many new features, in addition to those traditional 10 blue links, is to provide the user with an idea of what they're getting. It's only my guess, but if Google offers video thumbnails, people know they're getting videos — not a link to a page that “may” contain a video.

Search Intent and User Intent: Why Both?

Nevertheless, if you know who your market is and what their problems are, next is to know how they talk about it, revealing their stage of awareness.

By knowing at what stage of awareness they happen to be, you can then serve them with content that directly meets them where they are and takes them to the next stage — and hopefully closer to becoming your patient.

This goes to the concept of the content funnel I talked about before. It's not always linear or perfectly compartmentalized. For example, it's different for someone who has had other procedures done or who is unhappy with their results instead of someone who never had plastic surgery at all.

But for now, the thing to remember is that a content funnel is based on content that appeals to a certain level of awareness and then graduating the user to a new level of awareness. The way to do that is to understand intent.

This brings me to the differences between search intent and user intent.

  • Search topic is what they're searching for.
  • Search intent is how they're searching for it.
  • User intent is why they're searching for it.

Remember that the stages of awareness are problem-aware, solution-aware, and product-aware (i.e., your solution). When studying the SERPs, this is where you can extract a decent amount of ideas and insights from your target market.

For example, problem-aware searches:

  • What (e.g., the problem, like “how to get rid of excess belly fat”);
  • How (e.g., informational search, long-form article, some visuals);
  • Why (e.g., they're frustrated, doing research, want options).

Next stage of awareness is solution-aware:

  • What (e.g., a solution, like “recovery time for tummy tucks”);
  • How (e.g., investigational search, medical expertise, case studies);
  • Why (e.g., they're interested, considering a solution, want details).

Then, of course, the next stage, which is product-aware:

  • What (e.g., your solution, “Dr. [X] before and after photos”);
  • How (e.g., commercial/navigational search, proof, patient reviews);
  • Why (e.g., they're motivated, taking action, want assurances).

The Case For Long-Tail Keywords

The above are just examples. But you can instantly see how clearer both the search and user intent are when the query is either longer or more specific.

Many plastic surgeons would love to rank well for generic “short head” keywords (i.e., words at the top of the bell curve in terms of demand, volume, and traffic). But ranking for those is extremely competitive and difficult, and the resulting traffic, if any, has no clear intent and may contribute to shorter clicks.

“Abdominoplasty” is a very generic term. Are people interested in getting one? Are they researching it and checking out who, where, and how much? Or are they just looking up the definition?

As you can see, it's impossible to tell. Chances are, if you analyze the SERPs, you might see that Google doesn't know, either, and the results may include a mix of informational, transactional, and navigational intent results.

But with a search like “best tummy tucks near me,” you now know for sure what the intent is and what kind of content will best match it.

Nevertheless, the goal is to research your market.

With a SERP analysis, you can do this by identifying the search topics your market is interested in (based on their stage of awareness), their search intent (what Google thinks they want), and the user's intent (what results come up, what do they offer, and how it helps the user).

Or as SEO consultant Brittney Muller said:

Paying closer attention to search results will give SEO pros a leg up in creating competitive content in the way that searchers desire to consume it.”

— Brittney Muller, from Search Engine Journal.

Bingo.

Categories
SEO

How to Develop an SEO Content Strategy [Guide]

One of the most important steps in generating organic traffic to your site is creating content. If you want more traffic, you need more content. If you want to improve your traffic quality, you need to improve your content quality.

Let's assume your site is technically sound and the user experience is decent. If your rankings are less than desirable, the likeliest of reasons is that you have no content, useless content, poor content, or harmful content (i.e., content that's competing with or stealing from better content, dragging your rankings down).

So you need better content. But what's “better,” exactly?

What's an SEO Content Strategy?

To create good content, you need a good content strategy. As a plastic surgeon, you know your audience and your subject matter. The key is to know how to connect the two in a way that Google recognizes (i.e., it matches the search intent) and outranks competitors claiming those coveted top positions.

Creating content just for the sake of creating content is not entirely bad. After all, any content is better than no content. Right? Well, as the hackneyed expression in SEO often goes, “It depends.”

Without a clear understanding of what you need (or, better said, what your users need) and how it fits into the rest of the picture, you may be shooting yourself in the foot and hurting your rankings — the opposite of what you want.

Creating content is essential, but a content plan will give your efforts the momentum to succeed that creating content blindly doesn't offer.

It starts with performing some keyword research. But it's more than knowing what topics to go after. You want to analyze the search results to see what Google thinks and who you will be up against. Once done, you will be in a position to determine what to write, how to write it, and how to optimize it.

For example, as part of the 360° SEO audit that I perform on my clients' websites, I conduct a content audit and create an SEO content strategy around my findings. The result may be one of five tactics:

  1. Creating missing content,
  2. Improving existing content,
  3. Deleting needless content,
  4. Merging competing content, and
  5. Consolidating unproductive content.

In this article, I'll share what I do with my clients, explain what templates I use, and list a few tools that help me do this. (Read to the end, and I'll share with you my templates that you can copy and use for yourself.)

1. Keyword Research

Today, it takes more than knowing popular exact-matched keywords to rank, much less stuffing them into your content. In reality, doing so can do the opposite and hurt your rankings. Forcing nonsense into your content like “best facelift Ottawa price” will only make your content look robotic, idiotic, or both.

Google is more sophisticated than ever before, and it's getting better at understanding how humans communicate. With the help of natural language processing (NLP), Google's rapidly evolving artificial intelligence can derive greater meaning from online content. (By the same token, it's also getting better at detecting manipulation.)

Now, keywords are still important.

But the keywords that search engines retrieve from a page do not directly influence how well that page will rank. Sure, they may hint at what the content is about. However, Google uses machine-learning processes and neural networks to recognize and understand more, such as context and meaning.

It subsequently uses additional signals and ranking factors to compare what it finds to other possible search results.

So the goal in doing keyword research is not to find words to stuff into your content. It may have been the way SEOs did it for a long time, but today it's backwards. The goal in conducting keyword research is to discover:

  1. What topics your audience is searching for;
  2. How they search for those topics and why; and,
  3. What kinds of content they want, like, and prefer.

There are different ways to conduct keyword research. But here's what I do. For me, the easiest way to determine the above (i.e., topic, intent, and format) is to look for evidence from what's already out there. I start from an existing topic, idea, or result (let's call it a “seed”), and I drill down further to find more clues.

1.1. Start With The Problem

Top copywriters know that the success of a marketing message hinges on adequately answering three simple questions:

  1. Who is your market?
  2. What is their problem?
  3. How do they talk about it?

SEO is no different.

The answers to those three questions will guide you the rest of the way.

You likely know your market. If you've been practicing plastic surgery for a while, you probably know your market very well — including your market's complaints and concerns. The next question is to uncover how they talk about them.

For instance, what do they search for? What questions do they ask? And at what stage of awareness are they? In other words, are they interested in knowing more about the problem? The possible solutions? One solution in particular? One provider of that solution in particular?

Again, this is not about knowing what keywords to target. It's about knowing and understanding your market's search patterns. There are ample SEO tools to help you do that. But the easiest way is to go to Google and type in the problem they're experiencing, and you will be able to uncover three important clues:

  • What users search for;
  • What questions they ask; and,
  • What results come up.

In other words, look at autocomplete search suggestions in the search field, or scroll to “related searches” at the end of the page. Next, look at “people also asked,” which offers clues as to their motivation. Finally, look at what kinds of results come up, what those results offer, and who provides those results.

1.2. Start With The Competition

With this approach, you start by finding keywords people use to find your competitors. I'm talking about your known or direct business competitors, such as another plastic surgeon, cosmetic surgeon, medical aesthetic clinic, or non-surgical cosmetic service provider targeting the same audience you are.

Rather than starting with keywords stemming from your users' problems, you start with your competitor's website to get a list of all the keywords your competitor is ranking for. You can do this with multiple competitors, too.

There are plenty of SEO keyword tools out there that will give you a list of all the keywords a target domain or URL ranks for. My preferred one is Ahrefs, but you can use SEMrush, Moz, SEObility, SpyFu, WordStream, etc.

With Ahrefs, I enter the domain into its site explorer tool to see all its keywords. But I will also get other useful insights, such as their search volumes, the competitor's ranking positions for those keywords, and other search engine results pages (SERPs) I can use to find additional competitors or keywords.

At this stage, the purpose is not to find keywords to focus on or to compete with. It's to learn what people search for when they find your competitors and then see if those keywords make sense with your situation.

This leads me to the next step.

1.3. Identify Good-Fit Keywords

You now have a bunch of keywords. This next exercise will give you a good idea of which keywords to start with. The first step is to validate your findings to see which keywords you discovered are viable — because not all of them are.

The goal is to determine if the keyword is worth going after. In other words, you want to make sure that the content you will create to satisfy the search query is something you can and want to offer: a) it fits with what users are searching for, and b) it competes fairly with the results they get to choose from.

To help you, here's a simple formula. Think of finding keywords that you can focus on as akin to a laser. “Laser” is an acronym to remind you that the query and the content you will address will fit within your:

  • Location
  • Audience
  • Solution
  • Expertise
  • Reach

They should fit within your target location, your ideal audience, the solutions you offer, your realm of expertise, and your ability to meet their needs.

For example, a keyword may be out of reach if the SERPs are highly competitive, dominated by sizeable competitors, or too dissimilar because the search intent is unclear. Take “facelift,” for instance. Results range from Wikipedia and WebMD to car dealerships and home renovators offering “facelifts.”

Ultimately, pick keywords that are worth focusing on.

Use those keywords to seed additional content ideas, related topics, questions to answer, and keyword variations. Look at what's under “related searches,” “people also asked,” and “people also search for” (i.e., in Google's right sidebar knowledge panel) when looking up your keyword.

1.4. Assess Topic and Intent

Before going further, it's important to make an inventory of the tentative keywords. With each, identify the target topic and search intent.

The topic is where I associate the keyword with its main or parent topic, which, in most cases, is the surgical procedure. For example, “how long does a nose job take to heal” is associated with “rhinoplasty.” The page discussing the procedure is a pillar page at the center of a topical cluster, if you will.

Then, I associate the stage of the user's awareness to which the keyword aims to appeal. In marketing, they're often called “awareness,” “interest,” “consideration,” “evaluation,” and “decision.” In plastic surgery, I often label them as “condition,” “treatment,” “cost,” “results,” and “location.”

Here's what they mean:

  • Condition: the problem they're experiencing;
  • Treatment: the product (or service) that solves it;
  • Cost: the price or a price range for that solution;
  • Results: the proof (e.g., patient photos or reviews);
  • Location: the place, website, or contact information.
Typical content funnel and stages of awareness in plastic surgery SEO.
Typical content funnel and stages of awareness in plastic surgery SEO.

For example, with the earlier question, “how long does a nose job take to heal,” the intent is likely “treatment.” A person asking about the time it takes for a nose job to heal usually is searching for information about the procedure.

Here are some other examples:

KeywordTopicIntent
What causes stretch marks?AbdominoplastyCondition
Are breast implants safe?Breast AugmentationTreatment
How much does a facelift cost? RhytidectomyCost
micrograft before and after photosHair TransplantationResults
Metropolis Plastic Surgery ClinicDirectionsLocation

Keep in mind that some of these keywords can also have different topics and intents. For example, “Dr. Joan Smith” may be about the doctor (i.e., information about this doctor's treatment or results), or it may be about the location (i.e., information about this doctor's location to find her clinic or website).

Another common multiple-intent query is when it combines a search like “best” (e.g., best treatment, top doctor, most natural results) or “cost” (e.g., price, cheapest, financing) with “near me” (or the location name). For example, “best hair transplant surgeon near me” or “cheapest lip filler clinic in Metropolis.”

Seeing the search results that Google serves up is a good indicator of the search intent and the competitors you will be up against.

This takes us to the next step.

2. Competitive Analysis

Previously, I talked about using direct competitors as a starting point for doing keyword research. The goal is to uncover keywords and topics your competitors are ranking for, particularly those you are not ranking for, to give you some ideas for content to create with your SEO content strategy.

But in this step, the aim is to research your search competitors for those same keywords. They may or not be directly competing with you. Your biggest direct competitor may be outranked by a lesser one, too. You want to know who is outranking you, why they're outranking you, and what topics they're ranking for.

To accomplish this, you need to perform two types of competitive analyses: a SERP analysis and a gap analysis. Let's take a look at each one.

2.1. SERP Analysis

It's impossible to know exactly why competitors are ranking so well. After all, we don't work at Google. Even with Google's machine learning algorithms, including RankBrain (and now Skynet, sorry, DeepRank), it's nearly impossible for Google's engineers to know with 100% precision why a site is ranking well, too.

But a competitive analysis, particularly a SERP analysis, can give you a ton of clues about what factors help them rank.

There are known ranking factors that Google has officially revealed. There are estimated ones that SEO experts have discovered, some of which Google has publicly confirmed. But many are unknown ones that Google prefers not to reveal, of course, to prevent zealous SEOs from cheating the system.

However, you can make some intelligent guesses by looking at the content from these top-ranking results. Search for any clues, commonalities, and other correlational factors between them. A SERP analysis aims to see what you need to have and/or do to compete with and outrank these top performers.

Granted, outranking your competitors is not an overnight process. SEO is a long game, and it takes time and work. But done strategically and effectively, your efforts can gain traction faster. If and when you do eventually outrank these competitors, the resulting traffic can be significant, too.

What is a SERP analysis?

By searching for a term or topic you wish to rank for, you can see what kinds of results come up, and you can analyze those results to find common themes, obvious factors, and not-so-obvious ones with a little reverse-engineering. Many tools help achieve this, but you can also do it manually.

For example, say you're looking to rank for “best liposuction doctor in Houston.” When you search Google for this term — in a private browser window to avoid personalized results — and look at the top 10 results, ask yourself: what do they have in common? What stands out? What's different?

For example, look at the quality of each top result:

  • Is the content comprehensive, relevant, and helpful?
  • Is it well-written, accurate, credible, and up to date?
  • Was it written or reviewed by a medical professional?
  • Are the authors obvious and their credentials included?
  • Are referenced sources properly attributed and cited?
  • Does the content contain any supporting visuals?

Then, look at the quality of the user experience:

  • Is the site fast-loading, secure, and easy to navigate?
  • Is it easy to read without distractions (e.g., ads or popups)?
  • Is the design clean, modern, professional, and consistent?
  • Does the page include relevant links to other pages or sites?
  • Are the location details and contact information easy to find?
  • Are there any usability aids like a TOC or breadcrumbs?

And finally, look at the quality of the signals to the above:

  • A headline that's conspicuous, relevant, and helpful.
  • The number of words or minutes (i.e., content length).
  • The number of paragraphs, chapters, or sections.
  • The number of distinct headings and subheadings.
  • The number of supporting visuals and any captions.
  • The number of links to other pages or external sites.
  • The number of keywords or topics in all of the above.

Keep in mind that they're just examples and not comprehensive by any means. Sometimes, it isn't easy to see how or why a given result is more appealing to a user. Short of hiring an outside SEO consultant to help you, ask a friend, a staff member, or a patient to tell you what they think.

Also, some signals are less obvious and more technical, such as site structure, internal links, HTML tags, schema markup, backlinks from authoritative sources, crawlability, etc. SEO audit tools can help, but a glance can provide you with some apparent clues nonetheless.

2.2. SEO Gap Analysis

Performing a gap analysis is one of the most effective types of competitive research you can do for your SEO. It allows you to uncover gaps between you and your competitors, or gaps left by your competitors, that you can fill.

A gap analysis finds successful competitor keywords you lack, or it uncovers successful competitor content you can outdo (i.e., their content is outdated, incomplete, or poorly written). In other words, you want to find gaps you can fill that your competitors are ignoring or leaving behind.

Sometimes, you can fill gaps by creating new pieces of content or improving existing ones. A content audit will be helpful for this reason. (I'll return to this.)

When I do a gap analysis for clients, I start by performing a competitive scan to create an inventory of their current top search competitors. I have three options with the keywords I found earlier: I can select them all, pick a few that have a decent search volume, or pick a few I know my client is already ranking for.

2.2.1. Choosing Viable Competitors

I then take those selected keywords and run them through a search. I copy the top 10 results for each keyword into a list. I might end up with hundreds of results. If I start with 50 keywords, for example, I will end up with 500 results.

However, not all the results that come up will be a LASER fit. So I either copy only the results that do fit, or I make sure to prune the list later.

Admittedly, this can become tedious.

I have done it more times than I care to count. Sometimes, I still do. But today, many SEO tools — like SEMrush, Ahrefs, or Moz — can do this for you and save you a lot of time. Many of them have a gap analysis capability, too.

When I do it manually, I collect the numbers for each domain (i.e., number of visitors, keywords, and backlinks) and import them into a spreadsheet. It allows me to sort according to size and identify the winningest competitors with the most traffic, authority, and traction in the search engines.

From the remainder, I pick 10 of the most viable competitors. By “viable,” I mean domains (and not just the page that came up in the results) with a decent number of visitors, keywords, and backlinks.

As with the direct competitor earlier, I run each domain through an SEO tool to uncover all the other keywords they're ranking for. I filter out any branded terms, such as keywords containing competitor names, trademarks, or locations. I also filter out anything obvious that's doesn't fit within my client's LASER focus.

Finally, I combine all of the keywords into a list.

2.2.2. Choosing Viable Terms/Topics

I group keywords according to ranking disparity:

  • High-range keywords are those for which my client is not ranking at all.
  • Mid-range consists of keywords for which my client is ranking but poorly.
  • Low-range are those for which my client is ranking in the top 10 or 20.

Next, I determine the keyword's potential (high search volume) and its difficulty level (low ranking barrier). Most SEO tools offer some keyword difficulty score. It varies from tool to tool, but it's simply a gauge of the level of competitiveness of a keyword and the strength of those competitors.

The more competitive a keyword is, and the stronger and more authoritative the competitor, the greater the challenge it will be to rank for that keyword.

However, both disparity and difficulty can present some opportunities.

I might find a high-range keyword with potential. If the difficulty is low, it might be an easy gap to fill. Conversely, if there's a low-range keyword but with a high difficulty score, it might still be worth going after — it depends on how low the range is and how much work is required to outrank these competitors.

Whether you choose to start with low-hanging fruits, remember that the greater the disparity and the higher the difficulty score, the harder it will be to rank. It's not impossible, of course. But it may take a lot of work and time — not to mention perseverance in dealing with volatility and changes along the way.

This leads me to the next step, which is conducting a content audit.

3. Content Audit

It's easy to assume that all you need is fresh content and good keywords for that content. But it may be wise to perform an SEO content audit first to see if there's any existing content that can be updated, improved, consolidated, or amplified with a new focus or keyword.

It's an opportunity to identify high-value content (i.e., content with traffic, backlinks, or conversions) and prune any deadweight pages that not only fail to offer any value but also may be hurting your overall rankings.

Google has confirmed that some SEO signals are page-specific while others are site-specific. Either one may affect the other. While Google did not specify which particular signals, many tests conclusively show that low-quality pages can lower the overall perception of a site's quality and authority.

In short, one page can drag an entire site's rankings down.

So if your plastic surgery site contains a bunch of your favourite recipes, and they provide no value or get little traffic, you might want to consider deleting those pages or repurposing them to a separate site.

By conducting an SEO content audit before you create a new content strategy, you can see what's working, what to do with what's not working, and what to include in your content plan. I call this process “assess, assign, and associate.”

  1. Assess the content's search performance.
  2. Assign a value and action goal to the page.
  3. Associate relevant terms to specific pages.

3.1. Assess Search Performance

First, a powerful SEO tool at your disposal is Google's Search Console. It can provide you with an enormous amount of data and insights. If you haven't set it up yet, do it now or have your team do it if they haven't already.

With GSC, you can easily identify:

  • Your most productive content on the search engine,
  • The most common keywords users find you with,
  • Your most linked content (both internal and external), and
  • Any issues and manual penalties you need to address.

Within GSC's “performance” section, select the timeframe. I typically use at least the last 12 months to account for seasonality, holidays, and trends. Then, export the results to a spreadsheet, which will contain multiple sheets.

The two important sheets are “pages” and “queries.”

“Pages” are the URLs that appeared in Google, and “queries” are the keywords that summoned them. Each sheet will contain the same metrics: the number of times it appeared (impressions), the number of times users visited the result (clicks), the clickthrough ratio (CTR), and the average position in the SERPs.

3.2. Assign Page Value and Goal

The goal of this next exercise is to create an action plan for your existing content. First, however, consider the following three important caveats:

  • Duplicate URLs: If you see different URLs pointing to the same page, you will want to combine them, provided the content is unchanged. (If the content is different, leave them alone.) Combine the total impressions and clicks, and from those, recalculate the CTR.
  • New pages: If you have recently published or significantly updated content, it might not have had enough time for Google to index it, much less send traffic to it. You might want to ignore anything new or updated in the last six months. Just mark these pages as “to skip.”
  • Conflicting results: If you have pages that perform poorly in the search engines, have no backlinks, and get little traffic historically, but they do convert, the reason may be: tougher competition, wrong search intent, poor E-A-T signals (i.e., expertise, authority, and trust), lacklustre user experience, hidden technical issues, etc. Just mark these as “to review.”

Now that that's out of the way, next is to look at what needs attention.

3.2.1. Lowest Performing Pages

Start with the pages that have the least amount of impressions and clicks. Compare them against your analytics. Look at how much traffic they get, but you also might want to check their bounce rates, backlinks, and conversions — even social media shares. The metric you choose is up to you and your goals.

  • If the value is negligible, then mark the page as “to delete and redirect.”
  • If the value is acceptable, then look at the queries for this page:
    • If the queries make sense (i.e., they fit within your LASER focus and have some decent search volume), mark the page as “to revise.”
    • If the queries don’t make sense, mark the page as “to reassign” (i.e., to give it a new topic or keyword focus) or “to combine” the page with another, depending on the topic and intent (see above).
  • Finally, if the page has considerable value, then mark it as “to review.”

Before going further, check to see if there are any pages with duplicate or competing content, such as two or more low-performing pages targeting the same or similar search terms. If so, they're probably causing SEO signals to split and cannibalizing each other's rankings.

If both bring some value, mark these as “to combine.” It will consolidate both the content and their signals. But if one brings little to no value, mark it as “to delete and redirect,” and mark the other according to the above criteria.

3.2.2. Highest Performing Pages

Next, look at your top performers. If they have a high number of impressions or clicks, and the page is ranking well, then mark it as “to keep.”

But if there's room for improvement (i.e., high impressions and clicks but low rankings), then mark it as “to review” or “to revise.” In other words, update the content, but consider other SEO factors, too — such as backlinks, E-A-T, user experience, search intent, etc. — that may need attention as well.

Ultimately, a high-performing page with thin, outdated, or unproductive content will benefit significantly from a content refresh and/or expansion. If it no longer fits within your LASER focus (you've since changed locations, for example), then mark them as “to revise” or “to combine” with another piece.

Here's an example from personal experience.

My client is a hair transplant doctor. He has a page about an older hair grafting technique that's now outdated, and he no longer performs it. However, the page is ranking well and still driving a lot of traffic.

To avoid risking the loss of traffic, we decided to keep the page, add content, and convert it into a review of the older procedure, which some competitors still perform. We also added why the latest techniques are better — with links pointing to the newer technique page to pass any link equity.

3.3. Associate Relevant Terms

You now have an action plan on what to do with your existing content.

Starting with the “to reassign” pages, go back to your list of keywords from your initial research at the beginning. See if any of the viable keywords you've found can be associated with these pages. If not, decide on a new course of action.

With those marked “to revise,” you can choose to refresh and update the content. But with those pages to which you want to expand and add content, assign relevant keywords on which the expanded sections will focus.

For instance, if one of your chosen keywords happens to be a subtopic of a page slated for revision, append a new section to the page covering the subtopic. By making an existing topic more comprehensive, you increase engagement, SEO signals, and of course, keywords for that page.

However, if the search intent is different, it may be more effective as a distinct page. Or if the subtopic has enough value to be the main topic by itself, with a distinct cluster of subtopic pages that support it, assign a new page for it, too.

For example, one of my clients offers facelifts. The page about the procedure includes upper and lower facelifts. Research shows that “neck lifts” in his area is a popular search term for which the search competition is relatively weak. As such, we associate the term with a new but separate page.

With the remaining keywords, assign them to new content you want to create. It's the fourth and final step, which is about SEO content planning.

4. Content Planner

This part is where you bring it all together.

When I create a content planner, I use an editorial calendar. It's a spreadsheet template that allows me to create and oversee all the content assignments. At a glance, I can see the content in production, assess where they are in the production chain, and review the deliverables.

The people who can access and use the planner will depend on whether my client creates the content personally or not, or whether they create it internally by their staff or externally by outside writers. In other words, it depends on the level of control they wish to retain over the deliverables.

Here's a look a screenshot of one I've recently created for a plastic surgeon, where I obfuscated the links for obvious reasons:

Screenshot of Michel Fortin's SEO Content Planner for plastic surgeons.
Screenshot of Michel Fortin's SEO Content Planner for plastic surgeons.

The planner contains two key sections:

  1. The status of the assignment and
  2. Details about the deliverable.

4.1. Content Assignment

The section at the beginning of the planner is about managing the assignment. The first columns are for the dates the content is due and to keep track of the status of the assignment, which consists of a series of 10 steps:

  1. Create the content brief.
  2. Assign the content brief.
  3. Write the content draft.
  4. Edit the content draft.
  5. Complete any revisions.
  6. Add images and styling.
  7. Perform an SEO review.
  8. Upload the content.
  9. Add any internal links.
  10. Promote the content.

The aim is to provide an at-a-glance look at what’s going on and the expected timeframe. Some doctors I work with publish new content quite frequently and from multiple sources. Therefore, this section is helpful to keep tabs on things.

4.2. Content Deliverable

The next section contains high-level content details.

It starts with information about the chosen keyword that the content will focus on, the keyword's difficulty score, the potential monthly search volume, the main topic it falls under, and the search intent it will appeal to.

Then, there's the content type and format. The format can be a written article, an audio or video recording, an image, a document, an app or interactive piece of content, or a combination of these (e.g., a video to embed on a page with a written transcript and commentary).

But the type of content to create, which is about its style and structure, is a matter of preference. However, as with the format, it should be based on the earlier competitive analyses. If all the top results seem to be listicles, creating one may be a good idea to meet the searchers' needs.

Here's a list with some examples:

  • Case study: it's a self-contained story of a patient's journey, which may include the patient's chief complaint, the doctor's assessment, the procedure (some plastic surgeons will include photos or footage of the procedure with the patient's consent), and how the results turned out (some surgeons will include patient testimonials).
  • Comparison guide: it's a comparative look at the pros and cons of two or more entities, such as different procedures, products, philosophies, tools, and so on. It might include a rating system to help the user in a decision.
  • Expert guide: the most popular type and the one I most often assign, an expert guide is typically a long-form content piece on a specific topic. It may be a tutorial, a how-to guide, a demonstration, a checklist, or a content series. Essentially, any long-form content is an expert guide.
  • Expert roundup: it's a piece of content with insights from a list of chosen experts on the same topic. The style can vary, too (e.g., tips, ideas, reviews, or predictions, even short soundbites).
  • Infographic: It's an informative visual, with charts, icons, illustrations, graphs, statistics, diagrams, etc. It explains an important topic or provides a quick, easy-to-understand overview. The ideal purpose is to create share-worthy content, particularly on social media.
  • Interview: it's either a formal interview or a conversation piece between two or more people. It may include a series of questions and answers, a critique or hot seat, or an informal “fireside” chat. The author can be the guest or the host (i.e., the one asking or responding to questions).
  • Landing page: it's a page that's intended to drive a specific action. Every page on the Internet is technically a landing page. But in this context, it's a focused page intended to engage the user and drive a certain action.
  • Listicle or list piece: it's content structured as an itemized list, such as bullet-point content, checklists, countdowns, or roundups. You often see these as “top 10” lists, for example, such as “top 12 reasons to have lip injections” or “seven common types of breast implants.”
  • Local lander: it's a landing page but for local SEO purposes. It includes contact details, location information, even geocoordinates of the practice or clinic. It can be about a region, city, or street (such as “Harley Street” in London). It can also be for service areas or multiple offices — as long as each page is distinct and relevant to the user.
  • Product or service: it's a description of a product or service, and the style can vary greatly depending on the search intent. It might describe the procedure for informational purposes, a buying guide for investigational purposes, or an ecommerce store page for transactional purposes.
  • Template or tool: it's content that's interactive to some degree. It can be a poll, survey, app, assessment, formula, diagram, form, calculator, etc. For example, a doctor offers before-and-after patient photos, as most plastic surgeons do. But hers are recorded with a 360° camera, allowing users to interact with the image and view them from different angles.

It's worth noting that a piece of content doesn't have to fall neatly into any of these content types. It can also be a combination of any of them.

4.3. Content Outline

The final section of the planner contains details about the content itself.

Each content assignment has a content brief, a tentative title, and an optional online editor or SEO template. It's either a live document such as Google Docs or an online content editor that measures different SEO signals — such as the number of words, keywords, images, chapters, headings, and so on.

If my client uses WordPress, some SEO plugins like Rank Math and Yoast provide this functionality inside WordPress's editor. I don't follow these to the letter. But they're useful guides and reminders of what to include. If they don't have WordPress, there are several SEO writing tools available:

There are also a few all-in-one SEO content tools that include everything from keyword research to competitive analyses to shareable online editors, like Clearscope, MarketMuse, Topic, Outranking.io, and my favourite, Surfer SEO.

(All the steps I described in this article are doable within SurferSEO, including competitive analyses. I'm an affiliate, but I use it a lot and recommend it.)

In any event, when I create a content planner for my client, they can share a link to the SEO content brief with their writer, whoever that may be. If they invest in an online editor such as Surfer SEO, they can send that link, too. Otherwise, once the draft is delivered, we run it through the SEO template for review.

I've included a blank template for you. It's a Google Sheets document, but you will need to save a copy. I've included about 20 content assignments as dummy text to show you how it works.

One important point I need to stress.

Remember that today's SEO is not about stuffing keywords into a document. It's about providing the user with helpful, relevant, quality content.

Keep in mind that all these guides and templates are not hard rules etched in stone. Moreover, while they remain largely keyword-based, modern SEO writing tools incorporate the latest technologies such as NLP to understand the content better. They look for the meaning behind keywords and not the keywords alone.

Nevertheless, next is the last step: details of the content assignment.

4.4. Content Brief

The purpose of creating a content brief is to give your writer some instructions, resources, and guidelines to follow. It helps to speed up the process, reduce risks, minimize misunderstandings, and lower costs by saving on research time.

There are countless ways to create content briefs. Mine is only one of literally a billion results on Google. Also, I call it an “SEO content brief,” but it's not about writing for the search engines. It's always about writing for the user. Some SEOs prefer to call them “SEO-focused” content briefs for that reason.

Regardless, what follows is a template I use that's similar to what other SEO experts use. But I modified it to fit my plastic surgery clients. Here's a screenshot:

How to Develop an SEO Content Strategy [Guide] 2 | seo content strategy
Screenshot of Michel Fortin's SEO Content Brief for plastic surgeons.

It contains two sections, similar to the content planner.

4.4.1. Admin Details

At the top, I highlight the due date, the target word count, and the website address. The latter may sound odd to you, but when you outsource 20, 50, even 100 pieces of content, some to the same writers, or some for clients with multiple websites, keeping track is challenging but important.

Before I go any further, here are a few important things to remember.

  • So far, you researched your keywords and analyzed your competitors to see what works, what's missing, and what gaps you can fill.
  • Then, you validated the topics you want to target, defined the intent you're going after, and confirmed the competition you're up against.
  • Also, you learned what appears to rank well and what the search engines are looking for to find any commonalities and clues.

All that information will come in handy at this point because each content brief will consider and incorporate much of these findings. For example, you will factor in the common number of words, headings, images, and other commonalities you uncovered during that research.

Consequently, when developing your instructions and content guidelines, you will need to refer to your earlier research to increase your chances of appealing to your users and competing for those top spots.

4.4.2. Article Details

Now, here are the content brief's details:

  1. Title Suggestion: When I create content briefs, I include a headline as an idea, but it may change depending on the final draft. Sometimes, after the writer does their own research, they come up with a different angle that warrants a more appropriate headline.
  2. Suggested Slug: I suggest a URL for the article, which may or may not include the main keyword. If the content strategy is part of an upcoming change in the content architecture, I provide a URL as a reference.
  3. Article Description: I give the writer a general idea of what the content is about, what it should say, and what it's supposed to do. For example: “Create a 15-point listicle about the different questions the reader should ask their plastic surgeon about [procedure].”
  4. Target Audience: I describe the profile of the intended audience. For example: “Successful businesswomen or executives in their late 30s to mid-40s.” I may also include links to helpful references.
  5. Tone of Voice: I describe the content's tone and brand voice, possibly with examples. For instance: “Use a conversational but professional tone.” “The author is a medical doctor with a unique approach to patient care.” “Avoid humour or any language that might seem offensive.”
  6. Main Topic: This is the general topic with a link to the parent page. For plastic surgeons, it's typically the procedure (e.g., “blepharoplasty”). It can also be about the condition (e.g., “ptosis”) or body part (e.g., “eyelids”). It can also be about a topic cluster that encompasses related subtopics.
  7. Related Topics: I list other relevant topics to include and questions the content should answer. I refer to my earlier research where I got some ideas based on “seed” keywords and SERP analyses.
  8. Competition: I usually list select competitors from the top five to 10 search results for the main keyword, and I include their links, titles, SERP positions, and word counts. I also add anything specific worth looking into.
  9. Source Suggestions: I suggest resources as a starting point for their research. I also add any quotes, statistics, studies, or data to include (or to look for). I remind them to cite their references. I may also offer links to additional competitors or similar content I like as examples.
  10. Primary Keyword: This is the main keyword that the content will focus on.
  11. Other Keywords: I recommend additional keywords to consider, including synonyms, variations, or related words. I list at least five or more. I also suggest incorporating these in headings.
  12. Meta-Description: I ask the writer to compose a compelling description of 150-160 characters and incorporate the main keyword and, if possible, the main topic. Since this description will likely appear in search results, I point out that it should entice searchers to click but not use clickbait.
  13. Content Structure: I give the writer an idea of the structure, such as what to include in the introduction, the number of subheadings, a suggested content outline, anything that's specifically important, and so on.
  14. Internal Links: I provide links to any internal pages I want to include. For example: “Insert a minimum of three links to [page] and [page].” I also suggest using keywords or topically related words as anchor texts.
  15. Keyword Placement: I guide the writer on incorporating the keywords into the content. For example, I might say: “include the main keyword in the introduction,” “create subheadings using secondary keywords if possible,” or “insert relevant keywords in image captions when appropriate.”
  16. Supporting Visuals: I specify to include a specific number of visuals with a brief description (50-125 characters) of each image, with appropriate keywords, which will become alternative texts.
  17. Guidelines: I cover important guidelines to follow. For example, “keep paragraphs short,” “start with a story,” “add calls to action,” “never force keywords into the content,” and so on. I want to be as specific as possible to avoid any surprises and unnecessary revisions.
  18. Comments: Any final comments or considerations the writer should know about, I add them here. It's also an opportunity to mention what to avoid or watch out for, such as any sensitive issues, compliance information, even regulations to be aware of.

When the content brief is ready, upload it to your website, a cloud drive, or your preferred collaboration tool. Insert a link to it in the SEO content planner.

I included an SEO content brief template you can use. It's a Google Doc, which you will need to save as a copy. Use it as a guide, and take whatever fits your goals, practice, and management style.

5. Final Thoughts

Any plastic surgeon who wants to improve their visibility and increase their rankings will need to create relevant, helpful, high-quality content.

However, knowing what content to create and what elements to include will gain more traction than otherwise. Moreover, learning what to avoid, reduce, or remove can be just as productive, if not more so — from bad-fit keywords and unfair competition to deadweight content that's just bogging your site down.

In the end, one of the keys to improving your chances of winning at SEO is having a solid content strategy and making intelligent decisions. Some of those decisions come from researching what users want and how they want it. Others come from employing inductive reasoning in studying proven winners.

Finally, keep this in mind.

Creating an SEO content strategy is not some one-size-fits-all approach. You can follow the steps above and use the downloadable templates. However, remember that these are mine based on what I do, and they're only guides to help you. Make them fit with your goals and approach.

Categories
SEO

The Right Content Architecture For Plastic Surgeons

SEO is relatively simple: if your content is findable, usable, relevant, and helpful to your users, you improve your chances of getting traction and higher rankings on the search engines. But if there's one aspect that can significantly increase those chances, it's your site's content architecture.

I've often talked about creating good content as a foundational SEO strategy (i.e., it's relevant and helpful). But creating good content is not enough. That's why I've also stressed that creating a good user experience in consuming that content is just as important (i.e., it's findable and usable).

In fact, a hot topic in SEO is the upcoming Google update. This May, Google will start looking at — and ranking pages according to — specific user experience signals. These signals, called Core Web Vitals, include load speed, interactivity, and stability. Other vitals include safety, security, and accessibility.

However, those are primarily technical and design-related, and only a tiny piece of the UX pie, let alone the SEO pie. Content structure is another, and it's one that many SEO experts ignore, forget, or pass off as less important.

Disorganization is a Bad UX Signal

When I conduct plastic surgery SEO audits, I often find that the site's content is disjointed, with no apparent theme or structure. It's also hard to navigate, and finding information can be challenging.

Most plastic surgeons have websites that describe their surgical services. But these services are listed randomly and linked in no particular order. Sometimes, pages are tucked away and easy to miss.

Also, some of those sites contain unrelated content, such as the clinic manager's personal blog, pictures from the nurses' birthday parties, non-surgical alternatives (like dermal fillers and injectables), and the doctor's research papers published in peer-reviewed medical journals.

All these things, in and of themselves, are not bad. The issue is that the content is all over the place. There's no clear organization of ideas, or the navigation impedes the user journey, making it hard for the user to find the information they want. Here are some examples:

  • The navigation menu is large and overwhelming with countless links;
  • The menu contains just a few links, missing key sections or pages; or,
  • Navigation is fragmented across the page, forcing users to search.

Sometimes, the content architecture isn't to blame. The issue is poor navigation. Other times (and it's most of the time), the issue is the lack of structure.

Introduction to Content Architecture

Organizing your content architecture is foundational to improving your site's user experience and SEO — both independently and interdependently.

Not only does an organized website offer a pleasant user experience, which sends good SEO signals, but it also creates topical relationships, makes related topics easier to identify, and provides meaningful context, all of which boost those signals considerably.

To explain how content architecture works in helping SEO, let's take a look at the most common ones. There are essentially five types of content architecture:

  1. Flat (single tier) architecture;
  2. Tunnel (sequential) architecture;
  3. Pyramid (hierarchical) architecture;
  4. Silo (topical/thematic) architecture;
  5. Any combination of the above.

Flat Architecture

A flat architecture is where all the pages reside on the main level. All the pages seem to be on one single tier under the root domain. Depending on the situation, this allows for shorter URLs and can be an effective SEO practice.

It looks something like this:

domain.com/page1/
domain.com/page2/
domain.com/page3/

Tunnel Architecture

A tunnel architecture is where there's a home page, and all subpages are only accessible in sequence. Many membership sites, ecommerce sites, graduated learning portals, and applications use this type of linear architecture.

It's also called “strict hierarchy” because there's only one way to access subpages, and that's from the main page. For example:

domain.com/page1/
domain.com/page1/page2/
domain.com/page1/page2/page3/

Pyramid Architecture

The pyramid architecture is the one that's the most common and the one Google has publicly stated it prefers on several occasions. (Although, the “silo” structure is related to the pyramid and better for SEO.) This structure uses a multilayered organization of ideas with multiple tiers like a pyramid.

domain.com/tier1/
domain.com/tier1/page1/
domain.com/tier1/page2/
domain.com/tier1/page3/
domain.com/tier1/tier2/
domain.com/tier1/tier2/page1/
domain.com/tier1/tier2/page2/
domain.com/tier1/tier2/page3/

Silo Architecture

The silo architecture is the one SEOs recommend, including me. The goal is to group content according to themes or topics. You can do this either physically (i.e., using folders and subfolders) or virtually (i.e., the structure is flat, but pages are grouped using breadcrumbs, navigation menus, and internal links).

Each silo represents a topical cluster (i.e., at the top is the head topic and child pages are subtopics), and each silo can have its own pyramid. For example:

domain.com/silo1/
domain.com/silo1/page1/
domain.com/silo1/page2/
domain.com/silo1/page3/
domain.com/silo2/
domain.com/silo2/page1/
domain.com/silo2/page2/
domain.com/silo2/page3/

Using the silo architecture, you can easily create content relationships that:

  1. Make it easier for users to find information;
  2. Make it easier for Google to crawl information; and
  3. Give topics more context, weight, and relevance.

More importantly, silos make navigation more logical and orderly, and they reduce the time it takes for visitors to learn how to navigate the site. Either you group navigation menu items together according to silos, or you can direct people to pillar pages that drill down into more specific content.

Structural Changes = Site Migrations

If you have a small website (up to 100 pages), this will be fairly simple, depending on your content management system (CMS). For example, I've described the process of how to create a simple silo structure in WordPress.

But if your site is large (100 pages or more) or you plan on growing it, or if you need to carry out extensive redesign work to implement the changes, then hire an SEO expert to properly roadmap the switch and oversee its implementation.

Either way, changing your site's architecture is a process that requires careful planning and execution. Regardless of size, follow these important steps:

  1. Research the important topics of interest to your audience for which they are actively searching. (Creating silos willy-nilly defeats the purpose and will work against you from an SEO perspective.)
  2. Define the pillar pages and supporting pages (i.e., head topics and subtopics, or hub-and-spoke content, if you will) based on that research. (At this point, you may have a good idea of pages you need to create.)
  3. Create an inventory of your current pages, audit the keywords for which each one is currently ranking, and define their relevance according to the topical map you've just created — i.e., do they fit within the clusters you've defined, or do they need to be updated, consolidated, or removed?
  4. Connect the pages accordingly and in a way that makes sense to your users' journey (e.g., tiered folders, internal links, breadcrumb menus, navigation menus, landing/entrance pages, and so on).
  5. Finally, implement the changes while preserving existing rankings:
    • Redirect any old pages to their new or consolidated pages;
    • Redirect former URLs to the modified URLs or page locations;
    • Update broken links and redirects to their new destinations;
    • And notify referring websites to update their backlinks.

If you're a nerd and want to get into the nitty-grittiness of data-driven content architectures, I highly recommend checking out my friend and SEO scientist Jim Thornton whose expertise on this is quite insightful.

Choosing Appropriate Plastic Surgery Silos

Most plastic surgeons will have their content grouped (or divided) into five content areas, or what I call the five “Ps” of plastic surgery:

  1. People (e.g., doctors, staff, clinic, patients, postop photos)
  2. Problems (e.g., wrinkles, fat, hairloss, sagging skin, eye bags)
  3. Procedures (e.g., nose job, facelift, liposuction, breast implants)
  4. (Body) Parts (e.g., arms, eyelids, stomach, neck, breasts, butt)
  5. Products (e.g., creams, garments, supplements, injectables)

Silos can be either one or a combination of the above.

Choosing the silos for your specific audience may depend on several factors. For example, a surgeon specializing in facial plastic surgery will have a different approach (let alone audience) than a full-body surgeon who also offers supplemental non-surgical services like Botox® injections.

There's also the question of personal preference.

For instance, do you prefer attracting an uninformed audience and educating them? Or do you want to go after an informed one who's shopping around?

Is your ideal patient someone who has had procedures done before (and they want more or want to fix what they had done)? Or is it someone who has never had anything done at all looking to have plastic surgery for the first time?

Consider Your Users' Awareness Level

So choose silos that present content in a way that matches what your users are searching for and delivers it according to their level of awareness.

I created a formula called OATH to remind me of what type of content will best respond to an audience's search query. OATH is an acronym that stands for oblivious, apathetic, thinking, and hurting. More specifically, OATH means:

  1. Oblivious: they're unaware of the problem or its possible solutions.
  2. Apathetic: they're aware but uninterested in any specific solution.
  3. Thinking: they're interested and considering several solutions.
  4. Hurting: they've decided on a solution and validating their choice.

The oblivious are the hardest ones to go after. They may be unaware of a problem (or the reason they have it), and they don't know how to fix it. They just started their research and will require the most education. They will be the ones who will take the most time until they've decided to approach you.

The hurting ones, on the other hand, are the lowest hanging fruit. They know what they want and how to get it. At this point, they're looking for information that will confirm their choice or disconfirm alternatives.

In terms of SEO and your choice of silos, the awareness spectrum's oblivious end will have a more informational search intent. In contrast, the hurting end will be more investigational or transactional, perhaps even navigational.

To give you some examples, let's take three areas (i.e., hair, eyelids, and abdomen) and the kinds of questions each awareness level will likely ask.

Educate the Oblivious

Your content will be primarily educational, answering questions like:

  1. “Is baldness hereditary?”
  2. “What causes droopy eyelids?”
  3. “Does skin shrink after pregnancy?

Engage the Apathetic

Your objective is to help them understand the ways to solve their problem.

  1. “Can I regrow my hair?”
  2. “Is there a way to fix my droopy eyelids?”
  3. “How to tighten my sagging tummy skin?”

Nurture the Thinking

Your goal is to provide information about the procedure they're considering.

  1. “Are hair transplants permanent?”
  2. “What are the risks of eyelid surgery?”
  3. “Will I have scars after a tummy tuck?”

Assure the Hurting

Finally, your content aims to help them choose and validate their choice.

  1. “Best hair transplant doctor in Toronto”
  2. “Blepharoplasty before and after photos”
  3. “Dr. Jane Doe abdominoplasty reviews”

Group And Link Content Accordingly

Deciding on the best architecture is easier when you know your ideal audience, what information they need, and how you want to approach them.

For instance, say you want patients looking to undergo their first procedure (i.e., they're aware or apathetic). Your silos may revolve around the problems they're encountering (e.g., wrinkles) or the body parts you treat (e.g., face).

But let's say your patients are more sophisticated or have had plastic surgery done before. Your silos, then, may revolve around the procedures you offer (e.g., rhytidectomy) or the people involved (e.g., before-and-after photos).

Sometimes, your silos can be a combination of both. For example, some of my clients have chosen a procedure-based architecture but include a navigation menu that lists the conditions such procedures treat.

Once you've made your choice, the next step is to define your silos and group your content around them. So if you choose procedures as your theme and mammoplasty as a topic, then your pages might look like this:

/mammoplasty/
/mammoplasty/breast-augmentation/
/mammoplasty/breast-lift-mastopexy/
/mammoplasty/breast-reduction/
/mammoplasty/risks-and-recovery/
/mammoplasty/costs-and-considerations/
/mammoplasty/questions-and-answers/
/mammoplasty/patient-result-photos/

Keep in mind that, with a typical CMS, you have your main pages and your blog section. You can organize your pages under topical silos, set blog categories as silos for posts, and connect them by crosslinking with each other.

The key is to create contextual relationships between your content where it makes sense. Other than menus, choose select keywords in your content as anchor texts from which to link. Think of Wikipedia, where links go to other articles that delve deeper into particular subtopics.

Following the above example, you might have blog posts under the “breast surgery” category that link to/from the above pages, such as:

/breast-surgery/what-size-implants-are-best-for-me/
/breast-surgery/can-mammoplasty-fix-uneven-breasts/
/breast-surgery/12-breast-surgery-speed-recovery-tips/
/breast-surgery/can-some-breast-implants-cause-cancer/
/breast-surgery/permitted-exercises-after-breast-surgery/
/breast-surgery/breast-reconstruction-after-mastectomy/
/breast-surgery/eight-questions-to-ask-your-surgeon/
/breast-surgery/how-to-prepare-for-breast-surgery/

Ultimately, if you have a website right now and want to improve your visibility, authority, and traffic, and if your content is all over the place with little to no structure, consider organizing your content under silos.

Categories
SEO

What SEO Tools Do I Use With Plastic Surgery?

When it comes to plastic surgery SEO tools, I use tools that help improve E-A-T signals (i.e., expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness) from Google's Quality Raters Guidelines. These SEO signals are vital when it comes to the content offering expert advice from a professional.

My industry is definitely targeted. As a medical SEO consultant specializing in plastic surgery, search engines highly scrutinize my clients' websites because many of them contain medical information.

A good example of this is May 2020's algorithm update, where Google's attempt to fight disinformation after COVID started had created some havoc with some medical information websites that lacked E-A-T.

Many cosmetic surgeons and plastic surgeons were affected. In fact, I'm currently working with a new client who saw a drop in traffic after that update.

What I Do to Help E-A-T Signals

There are many ways to improve EAT signals.

For one, I add structured data to my clients' websites. Structured data, supplied by code called “schema markup,” is data that only Google (and Bing) can read. It offers additional information about the page beyond the content users see.

Google wants to make sure medical content is written or reviewed by someone with authority and expertise — not some tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy blogger dispensing home remedies to fight life-threatening diseases transmitted by alien lizard people bent on population control. 😉

I use TechnicalSEO.com’s schema generator to create custom structured data — data that helps identify the site owner, content author, and/or medical information reviewer (using the “reviewed by” schema, for example).

I also use schema code to highlight:

Moreover, structured data is more than just adding “local business” schema. I use advanced and custom structured data to include review schema, how-to schema, and local citations, such as BrightLocal.com, as there are many.

All of these help create and amplify E-A-T signals.

Content and Intent Alignment

Above all, the key to SEO is to align content with search intent and user intent (i.e., how people search and why they need the information they're searching for). So I focus on creating and marketing higher quality content that more closely matches the user’s wants and needs.

Search intent is about what the searcher wants. They either want “to know” (informational), “to go” (navigational), or “to do” (transactional). Some SEOs consider another one, “to buy” (commercial), but that's another type of transactional intent and more applicable to ecommerce SEO situations.

Search intent is less about the user and more about what Google thinks the user is searching for. Why is this important? Because Google may think a user's query has informational intent. But if you're optimizing for transactional intent, it's like trying to swim against a raging current. You'll never get any traction.

The way to align your content is by doing two things:

  1. Create content that solves your audience's pain points.
  2. Or create content that answers your audience's questions.

To find ideas for these, I start by learning what kinds of questions people ask. I often refer back to my friend and copywriting coach David Garfinkel, who said that the key to success in copywriting is to ask:

  • Who is your market?
  • What is their problem?
  • How are they talking about it?

These three questions apply to SEO (or, more specifically, content writing) as they do to copywriting. As a plastic surgeon, you certainly know who your market is and what their problems are. But you want to know why they want to solve it. To do that, the key is to learn how they talk about it.

So I pay attention to discussion forums and Q&A sites — like Reddit, Quora, Answers.com, and social media groups. I then use question aggregators like AnswerThePublic.com and AlsoAsked.com. They curate questions people ask, categorize them, and drill them down further.

The types of questions are clues to the user's intent. For example (and this is not meant to be exhaustive), the purpose may be for:

  1. Education (“To Know”)
    • “Who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “which,” “how to,” or “how much.”
    • “For,” “by, “to,” “from,” “at,” or “in” (followed by an adverb above).
    • (Contains) “near me,” “nearby,” “here/there,” or “close to/by.”
    • “In,” “on,” “at,” “around,” “through,” or “under/over” (location).
  2. Comprehension (“To Understand”)
    • “How is,” “how will,” “how are,” “how can,” or “how do/does.”
    • “Why is,” “why will,” “why are,” “why can,” or “why do/does.”
    • (Contains) “for example,” “so that,” “perhaps,” or “maybe.”
  3. Confirmation (“To Verify/Validate”)
    • “Were,” “will,” “might,” “may,” “is,” “did,” “am,” or “can.”
    • (Verb followed by) “with,” “without,” “for,” “not,” or “since.”
    • (Contains) “about,” “regarding,” “quite,” “just,” or “indeed.”
    • (Adverbs like) “really,” “exactly,” “precisely,” or “absolutely.”
  4. Evaluation (“To Assess/Consider”)
    • “Describe,” “show,” “list,” “explain,” “compare,” or “tell me about.”
    • (Contains) “like/or,” “between/and,” “versus,” or “as opposed to.”
    • (Contains) “best,” “top,” “rated,” “review,” “most,” or “proven.”

Remember, “search” intent is based on what they're searching for (or, better said, what Google thinks they're searching for). But “user” intent is based on understanding why users want what they're looking for.

Knowing this provides some great insights into their level of awareness.

Look Beyond The SERPs to Dig Deeper

Finding questions is only a starting point. They give me ideas about content the audience is interested in. But now I need to know how Google interprets the query, which will help me choose specific topics (and not keywords).

This is a bit of a backward way of doing keyword research. Rather than looking for keywords to write content around, I find out their pain points or questions first. Next, I create a content plan that meets those needs. And then, I match the content with specific queries. Let's call it user-focused SEO.

So before I create the content, I type those questions directly into Google or use search engine results (SERP) analysis tools like Ahrefs.com. I want to see what top results come up. Those are my competitors — they may or may not be direct competitors, but they occupy positions I'm aiming for.

It also shows search intent. This is critical because you don't want to swim against the current. Google's results may be for a different query, aimed at a different awareness stage, or filled with fierce competition.

For example, the term “facelift” is also used in home renovations and car engineering. It would be utterly useless trying to optimize for such a broad term.

Another example: larger educational sites (like WebMD, Mayo Clinic, and Wikipedia) may dominate the top results. If so, the competition will be tough to outrank. Granted, it may be a viable query to optimize for, but it will also be extremely challenging to outrank these highly authoritative competitors.

Instead, I look for variations of the same question (or a longer-tail question) and repeat the process until I find a question that has potential. Often, the SERPs provide a ton of clues that go beyond the traditional blue links.

Using Google I can see, at a glance:

  • Search suggestions (e.g., autocomplete suggestions in the search form, “related searches” at the bottom, “people also asked” near the top, and “people also searched for” below the right knowledge panel); and,
  • Search features (e.g., ads, featured snippets, image carousels, videos, maps, knowledge panels, podcast episodes, news stories, product showcases, business listings, reviews, and so on).

Reverse-Engineering and Skyscraping

Google offers a good indication of what they think the search intent is. If the query is viable, the competition is easy, and the intent is right, Google will guide you in what type of content to create and the format to create it in.

By looking at the top results, I review their content length, style, and format, which can be a number of things (e.g., videos, visuals, documents, listicles, checklists, Q&As, tutorials, guides, roundups, and so on).

I also want to see what makes my competitors rank and try to outrank them. It's called the “skyscraper technique,” as if you're adding on to a skyscraper or building a new one that's taller than your competitors.

But I also use the term “skyscraping” to mean building better content or user experiences (UX). It makes sense: what if the competitor's content is quite long already? Studies show that length is not as important as you think.

I also want to see why a certain competitor is getting a lot of traffic. By using SEO tools, I can see all the keywords for which a competitor's site is ranking and all the other pages that are performing well.

This is where I do a gap analysis. I want to see if there are any content gaps in my client's site or gaps in the competitor's site my client can exploit and build content with. Are they ranking for any keywords that my client is not?

Don't Forget Your Own Backyard

Finally, one of the most important steps in SEO is to look at what you already have. Outranking competitors is the goal, but you don't necessarily need to create new content. You can see if your existing content is good enough or underperforming by conducting a content audit.

I use Ahref's plugin to determine what I need to refresh, consolidate, or prune. For example, with each piece of existing content, it tells me if I need to update it, merge it with another (to reduce keyword cannibalization, among others), or outright delete it (i.e., it's deadweight and diluting SEO signals).

Finally, I use my favorite WordPress plugin, RankMath.com. It helps me to add schema code to each page I create (both automatically and custom), suggests internal linking opportunities to build content relationships, creates sitemaps (including video and location sitemaps), and so much more.

But the driving feature of this plugin is its content SEO scoring system. It guides me in optimizing content by offering a checklist of items to optimize for.

I don't follow the score too strictly. It's only arbitrary, and doing so can make your content feel robotic or unusable. I'd rather focus on my audience and on delivering good content.

But it's a great reminder of on-page SEO elements I can optimize beyond the content itself. For example, it reminds me to add alt-text in images, insert internal links, write better meta-descriptions, add a table of contents for longer posts, use short paragraphs to help readability, and so on.

Bottom line, I use many tools to help me, but they are only tools and not meant to be exact processes to follow. In fact, some of the best SEOs out there who have a history of producing astonishing results tend to have their own set of practices and processes using a combination of SEO tools.

In the end, this Tweet from Dave Gerhart sums it up pretty nicely:

Categories
SEO

Are Domain Name Keywords Ranking Factors for SEO?

A client asked for my opinion on domain names as ranking factors. Specifically, she asked if Google pays attention to domain name keywords and the choice of domain name extension (such as .com).

Here was her question, redacted for obvious reasons:

“I have not decided on a name for my practice. I'm wondering if I should register a unique brand name, my name (drjanedoe.com), or a generic but keyword-rich domain name (cityplasticsurgery.com). But before I spend the money to buy a premium domain name, I'm wondering whether there is any benefit or disadvantage to using a .doctor or .clinic name for Google searches, or if it's preferable to find a .com name (difficult, as you know) or .ca name (Canada). Do you have any advice?”

First, Let's Define “Ranking Factor”

Understand there are four types of ranking factors:

  1. Official ranking factors,
  2. Unofficial ranking factors,
  3. Unknown ranking factors, and
  4. Erroneous ranking factors.

Official ranking factors are those Google has publicly stated or confirmed when asked. Unofficial ones are factors that Google has neither confirmed nor denied. And unknown ranking factors are those only Google knows about.

Erroneous factors are those Google has publicly denied. Sometimes vigorously. Some of them may be intentional obfuscation to prevent others from gaming the search engine. But others may be to dispel SEO myths that are based on simple correlation and not causation.

That said, there are probably around 40-50 official ranking factors (and Google has also confirmed that there are multiple variations of each one, too). But there are over 200 unofficial ranking factors. Some are only speculation. However, some SEOs have validated many of them through testing.

Nevertheless, Google has published guidelines, such as their Webmaster Guidelines and the Search Quality Raters Guidelines. And they have filed publicly accessible algorithm patents. While not all patents are active, they give, along with their guidelines, a glimpse into what Google considers important.

All this to say, my answer here is partly Google's, but it's largely my opinion.

So caveat lector.

Keywords in Domain Names

Keywords in domain names are indeed official ranking factors. But after multiple algorithm updates, they are not as important as they used to be. They may also be dangerous. In 2012, Google started to penalize exact match domain names (or EMDs) because of their spammy intent.

The risk of penalty depends on exactly that: the intent. If an exact match domain makes sense to the brand, the industry, or the business, such as torontoplasticsurgeon.com or cosmeticsurgeryclinic.com, then it's fine.

The risk is when the domain name is long-winded with five or more keywords. This is no different than keyword stuffing in content, which is also frowned upon. It's also when the domain is intentionally misleading (i.e., it's neither the name of the industry, the business, or the brand).

Case in point: one of my clients once had a long, hyphenated domain name, which she owned for years. It was something like:

montreal-cosmetic-surgery-and-injectables-clinic.com

Obvious old-school SEO.

Her traffic was lacklustre.

When we decided to register her own name, something like DrJaneDoe.com, and migrated her site to the new domain without any structural modification or content changes whatsoever (i.e., the website stayed the same whilst the domain name alone changed), her traffic tripled in less than a month.

Partial Keyword Matches

One way to reduce any risk of penalty is to use partial keyword matches. A partial match is where the domain contains part of a keyword. It uses one either as a modifier/qualifier or to point out a major benefit or selling point.

For example, a partial domain name keywords match may include:

  • drsmithcosmeticsurgery.com
  • liposuctionbydrjanedoe.com
  • bestbotoxandbeautyspa.com
  • lasvegasfaceliftcenter.com

But in my estimation, the most effective type of partial match is through the use of implication or association. Choosing a word related to a keyword or one that can be associated with a keyword will significantly reduce the risk of penalty and increase the brand's perception and positioning.

For example, think of Netflix.com for “flicks (movies) on the Internet” or Mashable.com for “mashup of news stories.” There are also implied keywords, such as Match.com (online dating) or Greyhound.com (express bus services).

So having a partial keyword in your domain complies with search engine guidelines while benefiting from both ranking and branding signals.

For example, you can include words such as “clinic” or “doctor” (common abbreviations and initials like “Dr” or “MD” are partial keywords, too). Or you can use an implied keyword such as “Cosmetica” or “Skinsational.” (I made those up, so any similarities to real practices are unintentional.)

Keywords in Domain Suffixes (TLDs)

The answer to this is not as black and white as the domain name. It depends on several factors. I'm going on a bit of tangent, but it will become clear soon.

There are TLDs (top-level domains, such as .com, .net, .org, .edu, and .gov). There are ccTLDs (country-coded TLDs, such as .ca, .us, .eu, etc). The new ones are called gTLDs (generic TLDs) or alternative TLDs, such as .surgery, .clinic, .doctor, .medical, etc. There are over a thousand of these, and more are coming.

Up until recently, TLDs and particularly .com domains (or “dotcoms”) outranked all others. The reason for this is because only TLDs (and ccTLDs) existed. After the introduction of new gTLDs, Google's algorithms hadn’t caught up yet.

But there's another reason .com outranked others…

It's something called “implicit feedback.”

Now, this is a bit of a “black box” over at Google (i.e., it's unknown, and Google has often sidestepped when asked or even outright denied implicit feedback as a ranking factor, likely for the reasons I mentioned earlier).

Are Domain Name Keywords Ranking Factors for SEO? 3 | domain name keywords
Google: “There is no such thing as implicit feedback.” Sure.

What is implicit feedback? I'm simplifying this greatly because I'm not an engineer, but implicit feedback is the data that Google gets from observing, analyzing, and learning from search behaviors.

For example, clickthrough rates in search results provide implicit feedback because they are indicators of relevancy. The more clicks a search result gets, the more relevant the result seems to be. The more relevant a result seems to be, the more often (i.e., the higher) Google will show it in search results.

There are also things like dwell times and pogosticking (also called “long clicks” and “short clicks”). For example, when a user searches Google, visits a search result, decides it doesn't meet their needs, bounces back to Google, and goes on to the next result, this creates implicit feedback.

The controversial part is not whether Google uses implicit feedback and considers it (because they do), but whether they use it as a ranking factor.

With pogosticking, for example, Google learns that a certain result did not meet the searcher's needs. Therefore, it goes to reason that Google will downrank it (or, better said, uprank a competitor who may provide a more relevant result).

The reason that ranking factors based on implicit feedback are likely to exist, even though Google denies it, is based on three facts:

  1. Google is not only the world's largest search engine. It also holds the world's largest share of website analytics and Chrome browsers, making it relatively easy for them to curate a lot of implicit feedback.
  2. Google has published a considerable number of research papers and filed an equally considerable number of patents regarding algorithms that use implicit feedback in various ways.
  3. And finally, Google's own engineers have either implied or confirmed that they use it, such as during informal question periods, at seminars, in interviews, and even during their own presentations.

The Feedback-TLD Connection

As mentioned earlier, high clickthrough rates tell Google that the search result has satisfied a user's search query — and therefore should appear more often.

That’s why the .com TLD was easily outranking everything else for a long time. TLDs are more widely known, so .com gave any brand a credibility boost due to familiarity. Think Facebook.com, Apple.com, Microsoft.com, etc. It is also older, and domain age is an official ranking factor and an indicator of authority.

The result is a snowball effect.

Users clicked on dotcoms more because they have great brand recognition and credibility, increasing their clickthrough rates and, in turn, their rankings through implicit feedback. (Again, this is my opinion only.)

After introducing new gTLDs, Google has updated its algorithms a few times to recognize them. In 2015, Google confirmed that gTLDs don't affect a site’s search rankings. This means that choosing a .com or .company, for example, won't matter in terms of SEO. Either one is fine.

But I believe they are affecting them or will affect them indirectly.

Some gTLDs are industry-specific and therefore more credible and meaningful. Like the .com used to do in the early days, these TLDs might influence the audience’s perception of a brand, affecting its clickthrough rate.

Recent studies have confirmed this. For example, .tech, .io, and .ai for startup tech companies have often outranked .com on Google. I’m sure .doctor, .clinic, and .surgery for plastic surgeons will be the same.

There's growing evidence that gTLDs are proven to favor better clickthroughs, and therefore will boost rankings over time due to implicit feedback.

Some Final Domain Caveats

First, one thing to be careful of is that some gTLDs are known spam houses, such as .top, .party, .work, .xyz, etc. Google tends to disfavor domains in known spam neighborhoods. That said, most industry-specific and professional service gTLDs have a 0% spam score, which means they're fine to use.

I forgot to mention ccTLDs (country-coded ones). They, too, provide some benefit, mostly with local SEO. If you plan on being local and staying local, and if the location is part of your brand or benefit (e.g., torontotummytucks.ca or londonfaceliftdoctor.co.uk), it may be beneficial.

However, if you plan on expanding or if you attract patients from other locales or countries, you might want to stick with a non-location based TLD/gTLD.

In the end, using a partial keyword domain name or one with an industry-specific gTLD might provide some benefit — if not from an SEO standpoint, it likely will from a branding one. And if implicit feedback does exist as I'm sure it does, chances are you will gain the compounded benefit from both.

Categories
SEO

Passages Ranking SEO With Structured Content

It was a busy week in the SEO world. Google updated its algorithms at the beginning of February, and I had a full plate working with my SEO clients.

Part of this algorithm update is passages ranking, which is now live in US and only affecting a small percentage of searches. Passages ranking is where you can rank based on passages instead of the entire page.

It's no different from the way it ranks pages currently.

However, the benefit is that Google can understand subtopics better and serve pages for more relevant queries. This is a major plus for many plastic surgeons, as most of their content is long, educational content for medical purposes. This makes structured content even more important.

For example, some plastic surgeons will have pages about facelifts as long as 3,000 words or more to cover all the aspects of the surgery (e.g., procedure details, risks, benefits, costs, results, photos, etc). A long-form article can easily rank for 20-50+ keywords as opposed to just two or three like most others.

In a recent interview, Martin Splitt from Google confirmed that passages ranking will help websites with long-form content by basing its rankings on sections of an article rather than the entire article.

You might have seen results in Google where clicking a listing will jump to the section of a page that contains the answer, highlighted in yellow. This is not the same, Google confirms. But it gives you an idea of how they find sections. It wouldn't surprise me if passage rankings will eventually behave similarly.

SEO For Passages Rankings

Should you optimize for passages ranking? Not really.

There's no actual way to optimize for this other than to keep creating great content. If an SEO approaches you trying to sell you on “passage ranking SEO,” it may not be legitimate or, more than likely, it may be just snake oil.

Passages ranking does not have a ranking factor. The goal of this algorithm is to understand content better and to help people get better matched results.

For example, a patient searches for “types of breast implants.” You can have either an article that discusses implants specifically, or a page on the more general topic of breast augmentation (with a section about implants further down) that hopefully is ranking well for those specific keywords.

Until recently, if you had a page about breast augmentation, Google may have indexed it for, say, 5-10 keywords. None of which might be “breast implants.” If a competitor has a page about implants, or a page about breast augmentation that ranks for the keywords “breast implants,” they will outrank you.

However, with passages rankings, you can have subtopics on the same page (say a section about “breast implant types” about a third way down the page), you might rank for that term now when before you did not.

But There Is Stuff You Can Do

When Google crawls your site and these long-form pages, it will try to find and understand subtopics. If your page is all over the place, with disjointed content that's unorganized or fragmented, you're making it hard for crawlers to identify and classify the information it finds.

The goal, therefore, is to group and organize content better on the page, and to delineate those sections clearly using headings throughout. Headings are excellent signals that tell Google what the following section is all about.

If, for example, you had a section on “breast implant types” and the content follows a heading called “What types of breast implants are available?” You are accomplishing three important SEO tasks:

  • You're using a header that may be the same or similar as the query;
  • You're identifying and isolating the section that contains the answer; and,
  • You're also differentiating it from everything else (like “surgery recovery”).

It’s the reason it took me a while to write this because, after the rollout, I wanted to wait to see what some SEO analysts I follow and some ex-Google engineers would say about it and suggest we should do.

So, is there something you can do? Yes.

If your current pages have content that's fragmented, edit or rewrite it to cluster the content around subtopics, and incorporate headers (e.g., H2, H3, H4, etc) throughout. (H1 should be for your headline.) That's it.

Structured Content Also Helps UX

Structuring your content semantically, and doing a better job at identifying subtopics in your content, will help not only your SEO but also UX (user experience). For one, people can find the exact information they want. And for another, it helps accessibility by creating “reading landmarks” on the page.

And UX is a ranking factor if not an influencer.

Plus, if a passage (subtopic) is more relevant than the parent topic of the entire page, it goes to reason that the passage makes the page more important to the user than an entire page, and therefore a more relevant search result.

One client asked me, “Should we create more content to cover all the subtopics, like writing individual blog posts? Or can we simply add to the same piece over time and grow just one page?”

I wrote about creating versus expanding content for SEO before. The answer is yes, but with some caveats and conditions. If the content is truly a subtopic and serves the same search intent, it may be a wise move to add to the primary “pillar” page, which you can expand and refresh.

Refreshed content is often better than fresh content. Now it's an opportunity to revisit your older pages and restructure the content, too, even if you don't do any significant rewrites. It's an opportunity to update the timestamp and signal to Google that the content is now fresh again.

Semantically Structuring Content

I've said it before: SEO used to be about optimizing content for machines, not humans. That worked to a large degree for a long time. But Google wants to give its users great content and a great search experience.

Writing for machines negates both.

Google is becoming increasingly sophisticated with its natural language processing (NLP) and deep learning algorithms (like “RankBrain” and its neural networks, also known as Google's AI). It wants to learn how to read and understand content like a human being does.

So it goes to reason that, by optimizing content for humans (as you should), you are also optimizing it for Google. There's no need to do passage ranking SEO. In fact, the best way to describe how to optimize for any ranking is something I read in an article on content intelligence (and I'm paraphrasing):

Structure shapes content by organizing it as objects rather than unstructured blobs. Semantics is the contextualization of content structures. They define the entities, associations, and relationships for a piece of content.

Other than rewriting content, here are ways to add semantics and structure to your existing content, which will also improve the user's experience:

  • Group content sections around subtopics or ideas.
  • Stick with about 3-5 paragraphs per content section.
  • Break sections up with margins and white spaces.
  • Add headers throughout and before each section.
  • Use shorter sentences and succinct headings.
  • Keep paragraphs short (about 4-5 lines deep).
  • Nest headings appropriately (i.e., don't use H4 after H2).
  • Add visuals where appropriate that relate to the subtopic.
  • Provide short, subtopic-appropriate captions to images.
  • Link content together with internal text and image links.
  • Insert a table of contents at the beginning (see below).
  • Include header anchor tags to “jump” to sections.
  • Add references and resource links at the bottom.
  • Identify the author (i.e., an “about the author” box).

Table of Contents and Jumplinks

You may have noticed a growing trend with long articles where they contain a table of content at the top, a synopsis or summary of the page, or a list of jumplinks to sections on the page by using header anchor tags.

TOCs, summaries (or TL;DRs), and section jumplinks are helpful. With long articles, they provide users with a quick, at-a-glance overview of what the page contains, but also a helpful way to jump directly to the section of interest (rather than having to wade through a bunch of irrelevant content).

Add a table of contents to long content. List your headings at the top of the article and even insert anchor links to jump to each section. For example, I use it in some long articles and some service pages, like my SEO consulting page.

But another indirect SEO benefit is that Google can display a menu of anchor links below your search engine results (SERP) listing. This will increase CTRs (clickthrough rates), which provides Google with positive feedback.

Passages Ranking SEO With Structured Content 4 | structured content
Example of jump menus under SERPs.

Remember that, when you increase CTRs, you indirectly inform Google that your listing is relevant, which has shown to indirectly influence your rankings.

Ultimately, even if the benefit of “optimizing” for passages rankings is not an SEO benefit in a direct sense, semantically structuring your content will help Google understand your content better. The more they do, well, you do the math.

Categories
SEO

4 Local SEO Tips to Boost Your Visibility Locally

Close to two-thirds of the Internet’s traffic is mobile, and that number continues to climb at a staggering rate. Google has adopted a mobile-only approach by indexing just the mobile version of your website and not the desktop one.

Since smartphones come with GPS, this mobile proliferation has proportionately increased the number of location-based searches. Statistics show that 46% of all mobile searches are location-related, with a 900% increase in “near me” searches, reported by Google, in just two years alone.

What does this mean?

It means that people looking for your plastic surgery practice or medical aesthetic clinic will most likely do so from their mobile devices. They are more qualified, too, as 78% of location-based mobile searches statistically end in a conversion (such as booking a consultation or a procedure).

Having a properly optimized site with great content may give you some visibility in the search engines. But if your location is not visible in maps or on mobile devices, you’re losing out on a significant portion of your potential patients.

Out of Map, Out of Mind

Geo-based search engine optimization, also called local SEO, is the practice of increasing your visibility in location-based searches. When people search for “plastic surgeon near me,” “plastic surgery [location],” or “who can I see for [procedure or problem]?” you want your listing to be among the first.

However, smartphones are not the only ones offering geo-based searches. Remember that 90% of desktop browsers are location-aware, and 93% of non-mobile search results with location intent will offer map listings showing up at the top of the page — also called “Local Map Pack” or “Three Pack.”

Local SEO three-pack example of plastic surgery in Toronto
“Plastic surgeons Toronto” result.

If you don’t appear in the top-three positions of location-based search results, you might as well not exist. That’s where local SEO comes in. It’s one of the most effective ways for your prospective patients to find you — and most often, one of the most ignored or underutilized.

This type of SEO comprises four areas. In order of importance, they are:

1. Your Website

Your website must list an exact address and perhaps have a page dedicated to helping people find you. But there are other signals that help search engines rank you according to your location. I’ll come back to this as it’s essential.

2. Map Listings

With major online maps, there are three of them: Google My Business (which includes Google Search and Google Maps), Bing Places (which covers Bing Maps), and Apple Maps (which appear in Siri and Spotlight searches). For the sake of brevity, check out this local SEO article on how to claim all three listings.

3. Data Aggregators

Data aggregators are local data collectors and providers. They scour the Internet for business information, clean it, and compile it. Some provide this data to others, such as websites, marketers, and providers (including GPS navigation devices like Garmin and TomTom). Here’s a look at the top 50:

WhiteSpark's listing of the top 50 local citations to claim for local SEO

4. Local Citations

Citations are any mentions of your listing on other websites. Technically, all the above are citations. But in this section, I’m referring to industry-specific (vertical) or service-specific (horizontal) citations. For example:

Are You Nearby, Relevant, and Valuable?

It's important to claim your listing in as many locations as possible, particularly in authoritative ones. Not only does it increase your visibility, but doing so also increases your ability to outrank your competitors.

Google My Business owns the lion’s share of map-based search queries, which is around 87%. With local searches, Google will rank your listing according to three factors: 1) relevance, 2) proximity, and 3) prominence.

  1. How close you are to the user when they search.
  2. How well your listing satisfies the user’s search.
  3. And how well you stand out from the others.

Obviously, the closer you are to the searcher’s location (proximity) and the closer it matches the searcher’s query (relevancy), the better the chances that your listing will appear. After all, you don’t want a tummy tuck when you’re trying to order pizza — although that might well be the case for some folks.

However, your ability to outrank your competitors in local listings depends mostly on how prominent you are. And prominence comes from external signals, like mentions and links from other sites.

According to Google’s guidelines:

“Prominence is based on information that Google has about a business, from across the web, like links, articles, and directories. Google review count and review score factor into local search ranking. More reviews and positive ratings can improve your business' local ranking. Your position in web results is also a factor, so search engine optimization (SEO) best practices apply.”

Google scans the web to find citations of your business to determine its validity and trustworthiness. It looks for mentions of your practice and links back to your website. Each citation you claim (in a plastic surgery directory, for example) and each favorable review you earn becomes an implied endorsement.

Therefore, citations are important SEO signals.

Keywords Matter Where They Matter

You can optimize your listing with keywords in myriad ways. From the business categories you choose to list under, to the relevant topics you add in your description, these signals help search engines determine if you’re a match.

The worse thing you can do is add keywords to your business name, like “Dr. Jane Smith – Liposuction and Tummy Tucks.” Google prohibits the inclusion of keywords in business names, and it penalizes and suspends these listings when it catches them. Multiple suspensions can also lead to a permanent ban.

As a plastic surgeon, you can have your own listing (i.e., one as a practitioner on top of the one for your practice), provided that you're not the sole practitioner at the same location, or that you practice in separate locations.

But if you're a solo practitioner, you can only claim one listing. It makes sense because you don't want to compete with yourself and dilute your rankings.

However, if you're more prominent as a physician, and your name has more citations and mentions than the name of your practice, you can add it to the business name after a colon, like: “Plastic Surgery Clinic: Dr. John Smith.”

Nevertheless, your description gives you 750 characters to work with. So include relevant keywords there. You can also incorporate them in many other locations — including the services you offer, Q&As (you can add your own, too), posts to your listing, optimized images, and above all, reviews from clients.

Studies show that when customers include keywords in their reviews, Google associates them with your business. Just as adding more fresh content to your website increases the number of keywords you can rank for, the more reviews you get will increase the frequency of keywords, too.

In short, get more reviews.

Accuracy, Ubiquity, and Consistency

As I've said before, the key to dominating local SEO is to claim citations on as many platforms as possible. It doesn't matter whether you’re active on them. Not only do they amplify your visibility and increase your prominence, but they also prevent competitors from hijacking your listing.

Above all, they offer social proof. For example, your business might appear in the SERPs more than once. Beyond your website listed in the standard results and your business in the local map pack, you might also appear through multiple third-party listings such as the BBB, Yellow Pages, RateMDs, etc.

That's the power of being ubiquitous.

However, if Google can't find you because you misspelled your name, address, or phone number (or your “NAP”), or if it's inconsistent across platforms, then you will lose rankings because Google cannot confirm your prominence.

Your NAP is a signal. The more listings you have, the stronger the signal will be. But one discrepancy can dilute your signal, even if it’s a single misspelling.

Accuracy and consistency are key. Inaccurate listings can often be worse than having no listings at all. If Google can’t find you, what does that say about your clients? Use a tool like BrightLocal’s Free Listings Scanner to see if your listings hurt your rankings by confusing your clients. For example:

  • Is it “Dr. John David Smith” or “John D. Smith, M.D.”?
  • Is it “Smith Surgery Center” or “Smith Surgical Clinic”?
  • Is it “45 Somewhere Street” or “45 Somewhere St.”?
  • Is it “New York City,” “Manhattan,” or “NYC”?
  • Is your website with or without “www”?

It doesn’t matter what you choose, just make sure it’s the same everywhere.

Turn Your Website Into a Beacon

Earlier I said that your website is the number one priority with geo-based optimizations. Having a consistent NAP must start with your website, for it is the one Google will use to find other mentions and rate your prominence.

But location alone isn’t enough.

You can enhance your location signals by adding additional snippets of code to your HTML. These snippets are invisible to us, but search engines can read them. Called “schema markup,” this form of structured data helps identify you and your location — including your NAP and your geo-coordinates.

The one to use is the “local business” schema. It identifies you as a legitimate business operating in an actual location. As with the earlier section, make sure the contents are accurate and consistent with your NAP.

Many website content management systems offer tools and plugins that do this for you automatically. But you can (and should) add some manually, too. Use technical SEO’s local search schema markup generator. Once you add it to your site, test it with Google’s rich results tester.

It’s important to claim as many listings as possible, but choose one NAP you will use across all platforms. Having a consistent NAP profile is the key to geo-based SEO success. And it all starts with your website.

Ultimately, local SEO is no longer just an arrow in your marketing quiver. In 2021, it has become as essential as the bow itself. Because if your patients can’t find you in a location-qualified search, you might as well not exist at all.