You’ve all heard the saying about how elephants are afraid of mice. It’s true. Much like we are afraid of things that scurry and scuttle – like spiders and centipedes, elephants are instinctually afraid of mice.
You’re probably saying to yourself, “what do mice and elephants have to do with domain authority and organic search rankings?”
Well, much like elephants are afraid of mice, big businesses – the elephants in the room – are afraid of small businesses in SERPs.
While they have more funding, employees, and more data to make decisions from, that doesn’t mean that you can’t threaten their spots in the search engines to generate more organic search traffic for your business – even for highly competitive content that is well-built.
In this case study, I want to show you a few very important insights I have been able to make from content I have published or worked on in the past few months that have changed my views towards the impact that content can have on small to mid-sized websites – and the traffic it can generate for their businesses.
Stop Counting Content Out – Small Blogs Can Make Massive Leaps
If you’re a small to mid-sized business owner with a website and a blog, you’ve probably let yourself be convinced that there is simply nothing you can do to rank higher in the SERPs.
You’ve probably given content a few chances, but never really seen the results other people seem to get with it, so you decided to throw in the towel, convinced that the elephants will always crush the mice.
But, you’ve neglected the most important survival tactic that small businesses can use to thrive, “mice will always find a way to steal.”
Before I get into why your blog is not succeeding like you know it can, how to improve it, or why domain authority ultimately has little to do with organic search rankings for long-tail keywords over time, let me first show you a few of the examples that will forever change your opinion on just how well your small blog can do:
1. Outranking ESPN and NFL.com – How We Beat a 121M+ Monthly Visitors, DA93 Site With a 6 Month-Old Site
There are very few sites on the internet with over 100 million monthly visitors. To put it in perspective, Bing, the 2nd largest search engine in the world has about 200 million unique visitors.
On top of that, they have an extremely impressive backlink profile, a Domain Authority of 93, a world-class team of writers and journalists making content faster than you could ever dream to, hundreds of thousands of pages, and an equally impressive internal linking structure as well as site architecture.
Needless to say, if I told you that you could outrank ESPN for a sports-based article that gets a significant amount of searches per month with any site, you’d call me crazy.
But what if I told you that you could do it with a site that was less than a year old, with less than half the domain authority, less than 100 backlinks, and less than 10,000 monthly visitors?
In SEO terms, that’s basically the equivalent of beating a supercomputer at chess or winning the lottery. But that’s only on the surface. When you take a deeper look at what makes Google rank content well, outranking large competitors becomes less of a David vs. Goliath situation, and more of an inevitability as long as you maintain consistency and comprehensiveness with your content.
Let’s take a deeper look.
How Exactly Did We Do This?
In order to make this a real example, here is the search we outrank ESPN for:
This search and related keywords get about 1,000 monthly traffic – nothing major, but certainly in the range of something that you’ll want to be targeting with a small site.
You’ll notice that ESPN’s article doesn’t even show in the top 3, and even RotoGrinders (possibly the most formidable fantasy football site out there) doesn’t appear in the top 3 either.
What makes this even more interesting is that when you take the time to look at the #2 result, they have built a comprehensive tool that is actually far more in-depth than our analysis:
They analyzed far more stats, frequent plays, formations, and then condensed it into an easy to use tool that can help you quickly break down what the offensive tendencies each team has with 20+ statistics that are highly relevant.
Meanwhile, we simply explained a few quick stats for each team in the NFL, and explained the 5 main offensive tendencies that all teams fit into:
So if they are technically bringing more value to the table, and have an older domain with more backlinks, how are we still able to outrank them for this search?
There are 3 main factors I theorize have the largest impact on our rankings for this search:
- SEO Optimized Content
- Understanding of User Intent
- Visual Content
Let’s take a minute to dive into each, and why they are highly relevant not just to this search, but to every piece of content you will ever make.
1. SEO Optimized Content
When it comes down to it, a lot of business owners and website owners think that making content is all about just dreaming up topics, paying a writer to get them produced, and throwing them up on a website – then hoping they do well.
They’ll post gigs that say things like “needs to be an SEO expert” or “should optimize for keyword density”, but what they fail to realize is that writers are exactly that – writers. If they were SEO specialists or experts, they wouldn’t be running around looking for work that pays them roughly $15-20 per hour at best, and usually far less than that.
So what is your content missing as far as SEO goes?
Chances are, a lot. Even a quick look at the code for NFL.com’s article related to this search shows a severe lack of SEO understanding:
Here are some of the basic issues I see right off the bat:
- They have H3’s that should be H2’s – The way Google and other search engines assess the importance of a section and then interpret the meaning of it stems from a proper use of headers. By structuring their page this way, they are automatically demoting the importance of each section by about 20% in Google’s eyes while crawling.
- There is no H2 above the H3 – Meaning Google is left to try and understand what each of these H3’s is trying to describe.
- Their URL slug is terrible – One of the most important things you can do when making a new piece of content or web page is make sure the URL uses the main keywords you are trying to target (without being spammy). Generally speaking, you want to keep it under 5 words if possible, and want to exclude things like numbers, hashes, and trailing slashes from categories when possible. These guys threw all that out the window and decided to make their URL: http://www.nfl.com/fantasyfootball/story/0ap3000001041296/article/coaching-trends-for-fantasy-nfc … There are 4 trailing slashes before you get to the actual URL of the article, leaving Google almost no idea what it is about from the slug alone.
- Their headers lack specificity – In our article, each H3 simply has the team name, much like this article. However, the difference is, we have an H2 above them that reads, “Offensive Coordinator Strategies for All 32 NFL Teams”, giving Google an idea of what each of these H3’s are describing. If they are going to miss out on this important indexing and specificity from an overarching H2, they should at least make their H3’s something like “Baltimore Ravens – Offensive Tendencies”.
- The article is divided into two separate halves – This is something I have personally never been a fan of, unless it is absolutely necessary for more in-depth, long-form content, or content designed to drive people to very specific channels for lead nurturing. First of all, it cuts the traffic potential in half and cannibalizes your chances of ranking well in SERPs. Second, it also takes away tons of opportunity for making a truly comprehensive piece of content that contains proper headers, tons of important keywords, and the comprehensiveness needed to rank well.
- The title of the article is too short and is the same as the H1 – This is a HUGE no-no when it comes to writing content for a few reasons – first of all, you’re basically wasting the most important header on your whole page. Second, you’re also duplicating content and not giving yourself to use alternate phrases and keywords you’re attempting to rank for. Think of it as wasting 1/2 of your billboard space.
- They wasted time using meta name =”keywords” in their metadata – It’s been proven that this has no effect on SEO or ranking of a page, otherwise people would stuff them with everything they want to rank for, and get rewarded for it. But, they found this more important than other massive mistakes made on this page. Even if it did matter, they stuffed it with a bunch of words that have nothing to do with what they are trying to rank for with this article…
Bare in mind, this is just at the surface level. This doesn’t even include things like the architecture of their site – which for blog content is pretty abominable – or their lack of an SSL certificate, lack of emphasis on the importance of a good intro that highlights the keywords they are trying to rank for in the first 140 characters, etc… The list goes on.
On top of that, the article has no images to go with it, making it hard for people to read along with on mobile, and harder for it to rank well since images and proper image SEO has a decent amount to do with being found on Google – particularly for blog content.
And trust me, for those out there who still don’t believe you can outrank massive competitors in organic search because your site is small – I guarantee you’re making these same mistakes and then some, which is a large portion of what’s holding you back.
2. Understanding of User Intent
When you’re searching for something, what do you want? Answers. And how do you want them displayed? Clearly, concisely, and in a way that makes them easy to find.
What about this article follows any of that flow?
On top of that, you want a bit more in-depth information that helps answer your questions – even the ones you don’t know you have yet.
You also want a bit of an explanation about what you’re looking at in a way that can help you understand the information in front of you in a visual way that helps you navigate it.
The one thing that a lot of these resources lack – despite having more information and statistics than our content – is a layout that allows people to properly interpret what they are seeing.
If the page with this complex tool were to write even 2,000 words with a few headers that explained the major findings of all the data they collected, they would smash our content out of the water, outrank us in the #1 spot, and we would probably never be able to get it back.
But the problem is, they see no value in that. Because to most business owners and site owners – content is just a word. You need to view the world through the eyes of the people using your site.
If I arrive on this page with no idea about your tool, don’t you think it would be beneficial to at least explain why you made it, where the data comes from, and how they can use it to get value?
If for no other reason, you should at least do this for branding – to establish your brand as something that aims to help them find answers, get insights, and extract value.
3. Visual Content
It pains me to say it, but we live in a day and age where the human attention span is about that of a goldfish. In marketing, you’re taught about the 8-second rule: if you can’t make a lasting impression in the first 8 seconds that someone is on your site, you’ll probably never see them again.
And yet, one of the things I have always envied/despised about people with the technical skills to aggregate and manipulate data to make tools like this is that they can do all the work to make the tool work better than anything on the web, but they won’t take the extra 5% it takes to make it look good for users.
We live in a visual society. Everything from food to services are sold on the appeal, not what is behind the scenes. You could make the handiest SEO tool in the world, but only hardcore SEO nerds would find it without making it visually appealing – which is what casts the net for the other 90% of users you’re trying to capture.
And yet… All over the internet, you find pages like this that have a ton of value – but that are buried under miles of more effective, better optimized, and more visual content that appeals to users and makes them stay on your page.
The key takeaway – a little bit of visuals go a long way. First impressions are everything, and when it comes to Google, keeping people on your site for more than 10-30 seconds can be the make or break for ranking #1-10, or never being found despite having what you know is a great offering.
2. Outranking Leafly and HighTimes – How a 1-Year-Old Site Crushed Industry Leaders
For this example, I will be a bit more brief, as a lot of the principles applied above are also applicable for this search results page.
The idea was simple: Demonstrate that organic search can be leveraged to build a massive audience by continuously putting out the best content in your industry. To be purists, we wanted to eliminate all doubt that this success was coming from other channels, so we decided to make this site as barebones as possible, in a highly competitive industry.
Thus, HelpingPot was born – an online head shop and CBD shop based on Shopify. To make sure the results of this site were strictly from content, we decided to build it without:
- Social Media Channels
- Backlink Generation Strategies
- Guest Posting Strategies
- Paid Ad Campaigns
- Media Coverage
Basically, we wanted to make a statement – that content is still king, and that if you are consistent and comprehensive enough, you can become a titan in your industry without any of the fancy paid services all these gurus try to sell you online.
The best part? We figured if we could prove this model, that you could accelerate it and basically put it on steroids by adding all the other important factors listed above back into the mix.
So, we did what we do best and built an in-depth content strategy built around capturing the most organic search traffic in as little time as possible. And the results were shocking…
Within less than a year, we were able to:
- Generate more than 10,000 unique monthly visitors
- Improve our Domain Authority to 43
- Generate 300+ organic, legitimate backlinks from trusted sources
- Rank in the top 10 on Google for 1,000+ keywords
- Have an average dwell time of 2:15 for our site
- Maintain a CTR of 4.11% in SERPs
Now you’re probably asking, “so what did it take?” The answer might surprise you. We were able to achieve this by simply:
- Publishing 2 pieces of long-form content (2,000+ words) weekly
- Including at least 4 images in every piece of content
- Including at least 5 internal links in every piece of content
- Optimizing each piece of content for SEO purposes
- Repurposing and upgrading 2 pieces of old content monthly
That’s it. No fancy software, no paying an SEO expert, no sharing it to social media, or paying for backlinks, or getting media coverage – all we did was focus on what people were looking for in the industry, and producing the most comprehensive piece of content we possibly could about it.
How Exactly Did We Outrank the Elephants in the Room?
So by now you’re probably starting to get the pieces of the puzzle and piece them together one by one. Despite what you’ve been told, organic search is alive and well in 2019, and you CAN rank well in SERPs, even with a small site in a highly competitive industry.
And here is another piece of proof and motivation for my small to mid-size business owners out there:
This search “most expensive bongs” and its derivatives gets about 1,500 – 4,500 monthly searches when you add them all up.
The list of heavy hitters fighting for these top spots includes some of the most well-known names in the cannabis space:
- High Times
Every one of them has massive followings, traffic, and high domain authorities that make our site look like the little brother it still is (not for long) in this space.
And yet, look who has made their way to the top spot (behind the 0 spot for the snippet – which I still want ever so badly). You guessed it, HelpingPot.
I remember talking to Cody on the phone while I was writing and publishing this article, saying to him, “in 3 months this is going to be the highest traffic-generating post on our site for a long time”. And sure enough, 3 months later it was.
But how? After all, we are competing against giants, surely there is no possible way we could outrank them organically – right?
Wrong. Here’s how we did it:
- Comprehensiveness – I promise you, there is not a single post on the internet that I am aware of that has more information on the most expensive bongs. This post is massive, at over 5,000 words, and it features more pieces than any other article in the top 10. On top of that, it doesn’t just feature bongs, we attacked the whole segment – bongs, bubblers, dab rigs, and more… Go big or go home.
- Consistency – So many posts I see on a lot of sites have no consistency whatsoever. They’ll have one section with 1,000 words, then another with 200, then another with an H3, and another without one. Not this post. The whole thing is laid out in a consistent, symmetrical manner so that users know exactly what to expect in the next section, and they remain engaged throughout the entire post.
- Visual – As I explained before, we are a very visual society. Visuals become even more important when it comes to a post like this – people making this search want to see the wildest, zaniest, craziest, most artistic expression that the legends of the glass blowing world have to offer. A quick look at the competition shows nothing but oversized, grainy, under-utilized images followed by 2-3 sentence excerpts that are paraphrased versions of the first result in Google.
- Content Upgrades – Set it and forget it. That’s the model that 99% of content creators follow. It’s the same reason why 99% of them never see the results they are looking for – even when they create world-class content. This article didn’t come out the gate in the #1 spot. After about 3 months, we locked down the 12 spot, but I knew this was #1-3 worthy content. So, I hopped on Google Search Console and found a few holes to fill in. The title needed editing, and a few headers throughout the article did as well. To top things off, I sprinkled a few more long-tail keywords into the content as needed. A week later, we rifled up to the #8 spot, then the 5, then the 3, and finally, to the #1 spot (under he 0 spot snippet). The same thing can be said about all of our content. Pro athletes always go back and watch their game tapes to make improvements, why should pro content production be any different?
- Sneaky Keyword Placement – Okay, so outside of the optimized on-page SEO like choosing a solid URL, improving your title, meta, internal linking structure, all the regular tips you’ll find all the “gurus” mentioning online, there are a few sneaky ways you can really improve your content with very little effort. One of the ways I like to do this is with what I call “sneaky keyword placement”. Basically, this is taking similar phrases and alternate versions of the main keywords you are trying to rank for, and placing them throughout your article in the header tags. But, you need to be careful to do this in a way that is not spammy to users or Google. A quick look at the headers I used on this article will show you the sneaky little ways I am able to get them in there without triggering Google, and without being repetitive for readers.
- Image SEO – This is technically part of on-page SEO, but I gave it it’s own bullet point because I think it is something that gets overlooked far too often by content creators. A quick look at even the #1 spot will show you titles for their images like “mini balloon glass” and alt tags like “bongs, glass”. Meanwhile, a look into my image names and alt tags will show you some more sneaky keyword placement, with names like “world’s most expensive bongs” and alt tags like “most expensive water pipe 2019”. It sounds silly, but in a game where every detail counts, and properly optimized images have been shown to improve rankings by as much as 63%, you better believe this stuff makes a difference.
- Proper Use of Headers – It really astonishes me the number of sites that have absolutely no regard for using headers properly. For each H2 on this page, there is an H3, and a few H4’s. Now, that isn’t necessary – some content will be too sparse to fit them in properly or simply won’t require this level of depth. But think about it like this – when you read a book, the book has chapters. Each chapter has subsections. Think of the H1 as the title of the book, the H2’s as your chapters, and the H3’s as your subsections. This makes it easy for Google to index your content, and also allows you to use keywords in places that have more weight to crawl bots. It also helps users to navigate your content easily, making them stay on page longer, which sends better signals to Google.
- Table of Contents – Have you ever read an informational guide without a table of contents – simply looking for one key piece of information? It’s the worst! Now imagine if instead of it being something you only have one copy of like say your driver’s manual, it was something you had virtually infinite other resources to access with the same information. What would keep you on a page that was hard to use with that many alternatives? Nothing. This is exactly the logic behind why I use tables of contents. On top of helping users, they also help Google to index your content better as well as better understand the structure of your content.
- Introduction Section – The most important part of any piece of writing is the introduction. It grabs your audience, and captivates them, informing them of what they will learn about in your content, and why it will help them. On top of that, the first 140-320 characters of your content are indexed differently by Google. That’s because they default to the meta description if you forget to make one. But even if you do make one, they are still indexed with higher importance. So, you’ll want to make use of this by casually placing your most important keywords there – without stuffing or making it sound forced to readers.
This is all just surface-level stuff. It makes no mention of writing for your audience, using the right tone, answering the right questions, making sections the right length, trying to rank for snippet spots, and all the other microcosms that make the difference between successful content strategies and the rest.
To me, all of these factors can be summed up into a few key takeaways that you should always keep in mind when creating content that you want to rank well organically:
- SEO Comes First
- Consistency and Comprehensiveness Trump All
- Upgrades Are Essential
- Build It and They Will Come
Let me wrap up this study by addressing each of these takeaways in a bit more depth to help you understand exactly how to apply these principles to your own content strategies:
1. SEO Comes First
I don’t care if you hire the best writer in the world to make your content. Even J.K. Rowling isn’t going to help get your content noticed and indexed by Google properly.
Storytelling and branding are very important, but there needs to be a healthy mix of in-depth SEO knowledge behind every piece of content you produce if you want to get results.
This includes not just understanding the basics of on-page SEO, but also understanding more complex concepts like site architecture, internal linking strategy, keyword optimization, and optimizing individual sections of your content.
Sure, you may be paying less for content marketing to come up with topics on your own that you think are relevant, have a writer fill in the blanks, and then upload it yourself to your site – but you’re getting what you pay for, and this strategy will rarely end up in high-performance content that reaches the top 10 spots on Google.
If you want to succeed at growing your content organically, you’re going to need to hie an expert, or take the time to develop an expert understanding of these concepts, then rigorously apply them to your content every single time.
2. Consistency and Comprehensiveness Trumps All
So many business owners out there are convinced that the solution they need is one to two 500-1,000 word pieces of content per week and POOF! just like that, their business will be generating organic search traffic.
I hear it all the time:
“I’ve got all the topics I want written, and I know all the keywords I’m shooting for, I just need a writer to put it all together.”
Or the infamous:
“I need a writer who is an SEO expert who can help me get the right keyword density so I can rank better on Google.”
Look, I’m not here to insult your intelligence or work ethic or budget – being a business owner is tough (I am one – so I understand). You have to wear 100 hats, and cut through all the noise to find a few key strategies that get real results and move your business forward.
But sitting there and telling yourself that you’re a content expert who can get the results you’re looking for is probably nothing short of a lie.
I wouldn’t try to run your business, or be silly enough to think that if I read a few blogs and watched a few videos about it that I possibly understood how to run it successfully. So why do so many business owners try to do the same exact thing with content?
It would be like me saying to a construction manager, “I bought all the supplies, and got all the permits I think we will need, I even dug the foundation with a shovel, all I need you to do is place a house in it.”
At the end of the day, it’s just not that simple. If you want to rank well on Google, you need two major things: comprehensiveness and consistency. On top of that, you really should be working with a professional. Without them, you’ll probably never get the results you want, regardless of how “expert” your writer is at SEO.
3. Upgrades Are Essential
This is true for a few major reasons:
- We live in a world where information changes on a second-to-second basis
- You can never expect to get it right the first time
- The only way to get better is to improve slowly over time
- Data tells you everything you need to know in order to rank higher in SERPs, all you have to do is implement tactics based on the data points
Without upgrades to our content on a monthly basis, I can promise you that the search traffic to our site would probably be about 1/4 of what it is today.
Put simply, you need to practice imperfect action: producing content that you know is as good as you could possibly make it right now, but that you are willing to make changes to once you have the right data.
Otherwise, you end up doing one of two things:
- Never publishing content for fear of it not getting the best results
- Never upgrading good content you spent a lot of time on because you think it’s perfect and Google is wrong to rank it the way it has, or you think there is nothing you can possibly do to improve your rankings
Upgrading your old content on a consistent basis gives you an opportunity to learn more about what your users want – as reflected by ranking improvements from adding certain sections, changing intros, etc…
It also allows you to learn more about what Google wants – which is a real game-changer. Over time, this will allow you to develop an understanding of SEO that will allow you to constantly create better content that gets results right out the gate, while improving your old content in the background.
4. Build it and They Will Come
This kind of goes back to the idea of imperfect action. Basically the theory is simple, if mankind said to themselves, “going to the moon is impossible”, we never would have made it there.
The same is true with your blog content. If you’re a small to mid-sized business owner who is looking at the SERPs saying to yourself, “I can never outrank these guys with my content”, then you probably never will, because you’ll never even try.
It’s like the old saying by Confucius, “The man who says he can and the man who says he can’t are usually both correct.”
So, instead of worrying about what you can’t do, worry about what you CAN do – which is:
- Develop an in-depth understanding of how content works, and what successful content should look like
- Build a comprehensive content calendar that follows what your audience is looking for, what your competition is writing about, and the content gaps in your industry
- Execute on that strategy by consistently putting out comprehensive content
- Follow up on your strategy by understanding that you don’t know better than Google when it comes to content, and that upgrading your content over time is the only way to get real results
- Focus on building your organic search traffic first, then worry about converting it later
This last point might have a few business owners shaking their heads saying, “why would I want to get traffic that doesn’t convert?”
Look, if I told you that you could build an ice cream shop that gets 100,000 visitors every month, but you just had to figure out what their favorite flavor of ice cream was once you had enough data – would you ever pass up that opportunity if the numbers made sense?
Of course not, because you know that those people will ALWAYS come back, no matter what happens. You pay for zero ads, and 100,000 people still end up in your store.
At the end of the day, if you get 100,000 monthly visitors to your site, and it generates your 2,500 email addresses – all you need to do is flip a switch to start converting them once you’re ready. Until then, keep building it, and they will come.
Stay in touch with them, keep making content, brand yourself properly, and they will stick around. Then, when the time is right, BAM! hit that switch.
Outranking Your Competitors: Why DA Doesn’t Matter in Organic SERPs
So, there you have it – two perfectly good, in-depth examples of why Domain Authority doesn’t matter (a whole lot) in SERPs when it comes to building organic traffic.
If that’s not motivation for some of you small to mid-sized business owners to get out there and start making some great content, I don’t know what is.
Just be sure to take it in stride, treat your content like it’s in the #1 spot from day one, and be consistent with your production.
Also, don’t set it and forget it. Nurture your content like it was a plant. Because one day, all the work you put into it will help it blossom into an entire garden of business opportunities and revenue – you just need to see the big picture from a bird’s eye view.
The beauty of creating content for organic search traffic is that it is a gift that keeps giving. Sure, once in a while a new Google update will ruffle your feathers, or an outdated piece of content will be dethroned, but as long as you take the time and do things right, you can slowly build an empire and in the course of 2-5 years have hundreds of thousands of website visitors every month.
Have Questions? Want to Work Together?
Phew. That was a lot to take in. Don’t sweat it if you feel a bit overwhelmed, we covered a lot – and you’re on your way to building some seriously effective content for your business.
Have any questions about what we discussed here? Feel free to leave a comment, and I will get back to you as soon as possible. Or, hit me up on social media to talk more about it!
Are you serious about growing your organic search traffic, but just don’t have the time to do it on your own? My content marketing agency Poofnewsales helps businesses build massive, industry-leading blogs that get real results.
Let’s Build A Content Strategy Together!
Drop me a line, and I would love to talk to you more about your business, your current content strategy, and how I can add some value. Even if I am not the right fit, I’m happy to get you pointed in the right direction and give you a free consultation.