Two Ways to Identify Organic Search Opportunities & Using Q&As to Build Traffic
Throughout my career working with websites and in media, there have been a ton of different ways of building audience. Every few years, a new platform appears and, for a period of time, it’s all anyone can talk about.
I got my first taste of building audience when I was 17 years old back in 2005. Facebook was a year old. Myspace was garbage. There was no Twitter.
The primary way to build audience was to get other websites to link to your site. However, we weren’t looking for referral traffic from those sites.
Instead, we were hunting for something called PageRank, Google’s algorithm for ranking websites in the search engine result pages. The idea was pretty ingenious… Important sites are likely to be linked to more often than unimportant ones. Therefore, the rank of a site was determined by the number and strength of the sites that linked to it. It was a quality and quantity game.
It was a great and highly manipulated system. We were so obsessed with building these sorts of links, we’d install these little PageRank trackers in our browser so that we could understand how high quality the sites were.
This was before the Panda and Penguin updates, when you could actually game the algorithms to show George Bush’s page on the White House website for the keyword “miserable failure.”
SEO experts were rockstars. I idolized them. These were people who could turn keywords into millions of dollars in revenue—either for their jobs or themselves. As an impressionable 17 year old, it was all I needed to get hooked and the rest is history.
So, why do I bring this up?
I find many people I talk to spending a ton more time thinking about social media as a driver for audience rather than organic search traffic. There are inherent problems with this approach. The first is that social is very hit dependent. To get another rush of traffic requires you to have another hit piece. The second problem is that there is no baked in intent, versus people that search things. Said another way, social traffic is passive whereas search is active. The searcher is on a mission.
Because of this obsession with social media, I find many of the young audience development people I talk to don’t actually know much about organic search traffic. Any traffic they do get from Google comes naturally rather than because of any decision.
My focus with this essay isn’t to talk about the technical sides of SEO. Instead, I want to focus on the two approaches I take whenever I am trying to figure out what sorts of keywords I want to rank for. And because each keyword requires its own content, this will also help me to prioritize the type of content to create.
Before we start, a lot of the descriptions I am going to give are using a tool called SEMRush. You don’t need to use it specifically, but you’re going to want some sort of tool to give you keyword search inventory.
Alright, let’s jump in…
Type 1: Where The Search Exists Today
Let’s say you run a biotech/pharma site. You would pull together the most important topics that you write about on a regular basis. Let’s say one of those is Covid-19. It only makes sense, considering it’s the most important topic in the world.
Perhaps you find the stories about Covid-19 are not getting a ton of traffic. You’ve got a great story coming about upcoming vaccines, so you decide you really want to focus on driving traffic from Google.
But which keyword should you try to rank for?
Here’s where we want to use a tool like SEMRush to zero in on which keywords you should be using in your content. You’re looking for the keyword overview tool, which effectively gives you a ton of random data about any keyword that you input.
To start, let’s look for “COVID Vaccine.” Here is what you’d see:
Let’s go through the important sections from an SEO perspective:
- Volume: Number of monthly searches
- Keyword difficulty: How hard it would be for a new site to rank for the keyword
- Results on SERP: How many individual results there are
- Keyword Variations: Other keywords that share keywords with the original search
- Questions: With Siri and Google Assistant, more people are asking questions versus typing them in, so these are possible keywords for that
- Related Keywords: They’re different keywords that might be related to the original search.
If you click “Vaccine Coronavirus” under Related Keywords, you’ll find a keyword that has similar difficulty as “COVID Vaccine,” but 4,400 monthly searches. Again, you’ll want to look at the keyword variations because there might be an even better opportunity that presents itself. And there is. “Coronavirus Vaccine” has 368,000 monthly searches; obviously, that’s far more than the 4,400 searches.
But let’s say you really have no idea where to get started. Many of these tools have recommendation engines based on a single keyword. In SEMRush, that’s called the Keyword Magaic Tool. If I do a search for “Coronavirus” and sort by volume, here is what you find:
This then gives you an interesting way to compare a bunch of keywords with volume and keyword difficulty to identify exactly what keyword you want to try and rank for.
When I do this sort of research, the outcome is typically a list of keywords ranked from highest to lowest volume so I can prioritize content creation. While not the case with “coronavirus,” for many keywords, the difficulty is remarkably low with decent search volume. Those are the gems you want to rank for.
Type 2: Where The Search is Going
But what do you do when there isn’t really much search inventory?
In many newer industries, there might be topics that are fundamentally important, but don’t actually have a ton of search inventory yet. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be planting seeds, waiting for a future when things do become important.
I think about this the way an angel investor thinks about their private company investments. If they invest in 10 companies, seven may fail, two may do okay and one might absolutely crush it. It’s the same way with creating content before there is search inventory. In this case, you’re making an educated guess on what you believe will matter in 1-3 years.
But there are so many topics, how do you decide where to start?
I use the newsroom’s output to prioritize the content. If a specific topic gets written about once and then never again, it’s unlikely to be all that important. However, if that topic starts to get written about regularly, it’s likely because there’s growing need for information about that.
This is when I would start to prioritize evergreen content about that topic. In this case, I like to create content around a few basic concepts:
- What is [topic?]
- How does [topic] work?
- [Topic] vs. [Other Topic]
Let me use a few real examples to commemorate yesterday’s launch of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission aboard a ULA AtlasV rocket:
- What is ULA?
- How much can AtlasV carry?
- SpaceX vs. ULA
None of those keywords might be all that important today, but that could change in the future. If you already have the content when search volume picks up, you’re likely to get a head start on your competitors. And since search is very much a zero sum game, it’s good to have any advantage you can get.
In SEO, there is a concept known as Domain Authority, which is the effective strength of your site. Developed by a software company called SEOMoz, it’s a logarithmic approach to predicting ranking of keywords. Logarithmic simply means that it’s easier to grow your Domain Authority from 20-30 than it is to grow from 60-70.
When you’re a much smaller site, going up against sites with high Domain Authority can be daunting. In many respects, you may never actually get to the top position of a specific keyword. That’s where Quora comes into play…
Quora is a question & answer site that, often times, ranks pretty highly for many of the same keywords you might be trying to rank for. The strategy here is straightforward. You use Quora to help you build audience to the content you created targeting that keyword.
When you find a question that is related to your article, you want to write a solid answer to it. So, if I had an article about SpaceX or ULA and I saw the question “What’s the difference between SpaceX and ULA,” I could reference my content in the answer and link back to my site.
We have to be smart here, of course. Quora is not looking to help other publishers get traffic back to their sites. Therefore, only link back to your site if the link provides even more value to the questioner.
What I like about Quora is that it’s really not utilized by many publishers I know and it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Questions don’t typically become obsolete, so traffic that comes today might continue coming for months or years.
The reality is simple… Sometimes a keyword is too competitive. This is where building on the backs of a much larger platform makes sense. By answering people’s questions, you can start building traffic and gaining authority all at the same time.
Social media is a hits business. If you produce an article today, it might get traffic for a day or so, but then the reach dies and you’re stuck back at square one.
Search, on the other hand, tends to have lasting impact. Keywords I’ve ranked for still generate thousands of visits a month years after doing the content creation.
In the beginning of the year, I gave a quick talk to a media company on the merits of SEO and how I would tackle it. What I told them was that they needed to have patience with this. SEO is not something you can just do overnight. However, if they continued investing and building their targeted content, they’d look back in a couple years and see a very different traffic portfolio.
It takes time, but I find it to be worth it.