It’s not enough to just throw some blog posts and other content online if you want to rank in the search engines. And reaching the top 3 once also doesn’t mean it’s there to stay. But what can you do to increase your chances of ranking high and being seen as a source that consistently delivers a high-quality user experience?
Travis McKnight, senior content strategist at Portent, is here to share the proven strategies he uses with his own clients to help them rank higher and create meaningful content that consistently delivers a clear and polished experience for users.
Rich: Prior to migrating to digital marketing, my next guest spent many years in the world of journalism. His by-lines include The Guardian, New York Magazine, Slate Magazine, and more. As a senior content strategist at Portent, he gets to apply his passion for authentic storytelling to help clients create meaningful content that consistently delivers a refined experience for users.
Today, we’re going to be taking a good, long look at our content with Travis McKnight. Travis, welcome to the podcast.
Travis: Thanks, Rich. It is great to be here.
Rich: What many content marketers and entrepreneurs have discovered is that it’s really hard to create content. It’s a lot of work. So let’s start with the content that already exists at our website. Is underperforming content the low hanging fruit when it comes to attracting more of our ideal customers, or is it something else?
Travis: It really depends on what the KPI is that you’re trying to aim for. If you have a lot of underperforming content, it’s a great place to start because you’ve already put the effort in to create that. And if it’s not working for you, that means either you didn’t do it right the first time. And so you have less work to do the second time around since you already have that groundwork laid out for you. Or it means that there’s something else going on, perhaps a competitor did something better than you or the search algorithm changed. Or even if it’s just missing the mark entirely, it’s a great place that I like to start.
And a lot of that really depends on, again, what you’re trying to achieve. So if you have a situation where let’s say you’re trying to get more foot traffic in the door. You have a small or medium size business an automotive maintenance company. And you’re trying to get people in your store, you’ve thrown up promotions, it just not working. But you notice that a lot of your competitors are putting up small little ‘how-to’ guides, like how to change your breaks, for example. You could be looking at doing simple things. Let’s say you did that, and it just didn’t perform and that would still be the thing to go back to because it’s still your KPIs.
Getting people interested in knowing your brand, showing that you’re an expert in that field, and then moving forward with the concept of bringing in foot traffic, because they’re recognizing with your brand. And perhaps once they read the instructions and that change or embrace guide, it’s just too much for them. And so they’re willing to then walk into your store and work with you on that process.
Rich: So better to repair this old house, then burn it down and build a new house, is what I’m hearing.
Travis: For the most part, yeah. I mean, there are certain instances where you may have just made all content that is relevant anymore. And in that case, burn it down, scrape out the remains, and try to build something new. But if you think that the information is still relevant, it just may be presented in a better format than doing a full audit, or even a small one and figuring out what I could change or what isn’t performing to your standards or to help you hit those goals is definitely what I would recommend.
Rich: Travis, let’s say that we’ve got a website, maybe it used to perform better than it does. We definitely got some content up there. How do we maybe at a whole, how do we identify what some of the problem content is? You kind of teased this a little bit before with some KPIs, but how do we know it’s not working?
Travis: Yeah, absolutely. So it’s really, depending on what you’re seeing in your analytics platform, I mostly use Google Analytics for all of my clients. And a lot of that comes down to making sure you have the proper types of tracking setup. So if you are looking for specific engagement metrics, then making sure you have event tracking set up properly so you can measure those metrics.
And if your content, let’s say you want to make sure that every blog post has at least a 50% scroll depth. And if you’re not getting that, let’s say a handful of posts, then you could go through and reread it, compare what other people in the industry or on search engines have that information. See if there’s anything that’s super fluffy or extra that it doesn’t need to be there that’s causing a higher bounce rate or to decrease that scroll depth and not have you hit your goal. You could throw up simple things like key tracking mapping to figure out what people are actually doing when they land on that page. There’s a lot of different things you could do to really figure out what changes you need to make to that content.
On the other side of the coin, if you have let’s say just a visits goal, and you’re noticing that as you had mentioned, the site was performing and now it’s not, you could be checking for seasonal changes. Maybe it’s like an HVAC company and it’s no longer in cooling season. So your air conditioning content is just not going to perform well in the fall. Could it be an issue? It does have to wait, like, okay, the content will come back in the spring or the summer. And if you are going into a season where you expect trending content to be picking back up or seasonal content to be going and you’re just not getting that traffic and historically does do that gain for you. Take a look at your keywords to make sure that those pages are still actually ranking for what you expect.
And then take a look at what additional information you could supply to see what is. And essentially missing from your condo. That’s getting people from point A to point B. And if you’re not including that information, then make sure you do include it. And if you’re including too much information, to figure out what you need to take out.
And a lot of that just comes back to really your specific goals. Usually when we look at an audit, we will look at everything from the quality of the writing, to basic SEO metrics, including some on-page elements like header tags, image alt text, things like that. Looking at CTA use, and then also an array of analytics data from everything from page views, internal linking, CTAs, and looking at how many keywords you rank for and what positions, things like that.
So ultimately it comes down to what you want to achieve with that content is how you identify what’s missing with it or what’s.
Rich: Okay. I want to keep going on this conversation, but you mentioned event tracking. For businesses that haven’t set up event tracking, or don’t know what it is in Google analytics, can you give them a little brief description of what that is?
Travis: Yeah. So you’ve event tracking is a system where when a user triggers something on your website, let’s say they click on a link in your [inaudible] region, the very top of your page. If you have a CTA in the banner image and you could be clicking that, it set up an event, and whenever somebody clicks on that, it records it. And then that can either be sent to a conversion section of Google Analytics, or it can just be showing up as an event. So somebody clicked on that link.
You could set up events for even videos to have it go through say 25%, 50%, 75%, 100% completion rates to see if you have videos on your page, how much people are actually watching, or maybe you just don’t have the right type of video if it sets a really low completion rate if it has a high start rate, things like that.
A lot of it is customizing UTM parameters at Google tag or up tags within Google Analytics, to make sure that you are able to distract a user speeding. Important has a handful of blog posts about how to set up event tracking. I’m not an analytics specialist. I don’t really know the ins and outs of it. I generally coordinate with my team to get specific ideas that I have tracked.
Rich: Right. And we’ll try and create a link over to those Portent blogs about event tracking in the show notes.
So it feels to me like there’s possibly two different audiences to oversimplify here. There’s the business owner or market who really is in their analytics on a fairly regular basis and they’re starting to notice things. Maybe they’re noticing that time on page is down, or the number of page visits for this time of year down, whatever it is that there’s that kind of problem. And then I also think there’s that audience, it just doesn’t go to Google Analytics, even though we know it’s in their best interests. And maybe what it is is they notice that there’s a little less foot traffic than there normally should be. That there’s a few less form completions than they think there should be for this time of year, or the phone isn’t ringing as much as possible. So those are the kinds of things that might trigger you to then go into your analytics and start looking for some of these things. Correct?
Travis: Yeah, they absolutely should be. If you’re noticing something that is out of the ordinary or a behavior that is surprising you, you really should be trying to collect as much data as possible about that. And right on your analytics platform, assuming the business has it set up, is going to be the first place to do that. If you don’t have anything set up like that, user behavior or getting feedback from people who do show up in the store, is going to be the next place to go. And if you figure out what brought them to the store, let’s say they’re not a returning customer, they’re brand new, then that will at least give you an idea of what content is performing. And so you can go and refine that, if possible, to see if there’s any tweaks needed to it. If there aren’t, then look at what additional types of relevant information you could be producing that is similar.
And if neither of those options are realistic for a company, it’s really going to be kind of a guess and check. Because without that data, you’re going to be aiming in the dark a little bit.
Rich: All right. Now you mentioned a little bit around competitive analysis. So maybe we go and the words that we want to rank well for, whether it’s ‘automotive parts business near me’, or ‘web design firm’ or ‘dog-walking’, whatever it is, the words that we want to rank well for. And then we discover that we’re no longer on the first page where maybe we were in the past. How do we determine what the ranking pages have that we don’t have? Like, what do you go through when you’re doing your competitive analysis to say, here’s the kind of stuff that we should think about adding or removing?
Travis: That’s a great question. There are a handful of things that you really want to focus on when you’re doing what I would call a SERP analysis, a search engine results page. And the first things that you’re going to look at are the topics that people are choosing, and the topics specifically Google is choosing to rank. Because that will give you an insight of what they believe people are looking for based on engagement metrics that they see for when people search for a term.
So using your example, ‘automotive parts near me’, let’s say that you’re no longer ranking for ‘windshield wipers’. And so you could be looking at that and looking at the top competitors. Maybe that’s all product focus, and so a lot of it is, ‘get windshield wipers fast’. You’d be competing with major brands like Amazon or the big box stores that rally just dominate those areas. Or you could be also competing with DIY information, like ‘how to change your windshield wipers’. A lot of it is going to come down to what Google thinks the search intent is.
And then once you find what the search intent is, and you kind of understand that, usually it’s a mix for any type of e-commerce or non-B2B content. It’s a mix between very product focused results and very education focused results. So you’ll want to decide which area you want to play in, or which one makes the most sense for your brand and your users. Generally, it’s going to be a little bit of both. You’ll want to have a product page that solves the product side and then have a separate page that’s more educational blog posts.
But once you kind of decide which area you’re going to play in, then visit each of those types of information. Look at the topics, those posts, or those pages are discussing, figure out what type of information they’re including, or what extra types of media they’re including. Maybe they have videos or infographics or a bunch of images. Perhaps they have a podcast or different transcriptions that you can click into or view. Or maybe they have eBooks or white papers that are really being linked to and performing well separately.
Then after you kind of have an idea of what types of content, you want to look at what those pages are also ranking for. So I would take the individual competitor page that I’m looking at and throw it into an SEO tool, like Ahrefs or SEM Rush, to check out what keyword rankings they have and you validate if this is just a fluke ranking, maybe it’s something that is off topic that Google is just playing with to see if it belongs with the search engine ranking, or all the other keywords are very relevant and everything shows that this page is where it’s supposed to do. And in which case I would see what elements of those keywords I could include in my client’s copy, or what elements of that page would make sense from a resource standpoint. So if the competitor has some type of video or images, or if there’s any missing topics that gain keyword traffic or search traffic in general that my client’s version would be missing, I’d be looking at how to add that.
Ultimately the goal is not to mimic your competitor but figure out what you believe they’re doing well or what is missing, and then determine how you can do it better. Because unless you can do it better, the search engines aren’t going to care for the most part. And the goal of doing it better really comes down to what unique information that you can supply, or what unique format you can present it in.
Going back to our windshield wiper example, let’s say most of the content is about how to change a windshield wiper. You know, if the first search result has a video, the second one has a long e-Wiki how guide, and the third one is just a basic web page with step-by-step instructions. If you want that first results, you’re going to have to do a video, but perhaps the first result currently is just a video. You could improve that by doing a video and a transcription of the video, or doing a video and then having a step-by-step instruction list with the blog post underneath that. And then because of course we’re trying to drive foot traffic, you could then have a list of popular windshield wipers, or a little tool that could allow the user to search for their specific vehicle and see what the closest store that has it in stock.
Rich: All right. That makes a lot of sense. I want to take a step back, because you said something earlier. So we go and we see who’s beating us at Google. And then using a tool like Ahrefs or SEM Rush. What we’re trying to do is take that page that’s beating us, and to get a better understanding of how that page is ranking, we’re also going to find out what other words that page ranks well for. That’s going to give us just a better view of that page and so we really understand what our competition is. Not just that we’re trying to compete for this one keyword, but really to become a more robust, well-rounded page that may ultimately rank higher than theirs. Correct?
Travis: Exactly. Relying on one key word for your performance is a mistake that I feel like a lot of beginner marketers, especially content marketers, make. They see this one keyword that has a bunch of traffic. And so they expect that if they can get that one word, everything else will pan out. But that one word is only going to show up in that one specific situation, in which search engines are showing that keyword based on the query.
However, people search in a bunch of different ways. They may be adding different parameters to their search results, searching by URL specifically, or removing certain things from their search parameters based on the advanced search options. And targeting a breadth of keywords, especially once you know what your competitors are also targeting, really allows you to figure out where their weakness is.
So let’s say we have a competitor that has the windshield wiper and they’re doing great for ‘windshield wiper replacement instructions’. But they’re not doing well for ‘windshield wipers near me’, or any type of location-specific keyword. That would be an opportunity for you to go in and say, okay, if I want to improve this DOI content, I should really be adding more location-specific information toward each of my locations, or something like that, in this updated post. Because that is where they’re weak ,and that is where we could shine.
Rich: It makes a lot of sense. Things like ‘how often should I change my windshield wipers’, or ‘do I need special windshield wipers for Maine winters or Colorado winters’, wherever your winters may be.
Travis: Yeah, exactly. And a large portion of that also comes down to looking at additional information. So keywords are one aspect of that process. The other things that you could be looking at are the questions people are asking. The simplest way is just to see what pops up for people in “also ask” on search results. Most engines, especially Google, have that on almost every result now.
The other option would be to use a free tool like Answer the Public, which essentially is a scraping tool that scrapes all of the results from Google autofill, and uses that as a question basis and allows you to see what types of ‘where, what, why, when and how’ questions people are asking about something. And if you’re seeing a substantial amount of interest in one of those subjects, then include that in the content that you’re updating as well.
Rich: Now I’ve discovered after almost 25 years of creating content, that sometimes I’ll create some content that ranks really well and drives a lot of traffic, but maybe is not attracting the right type of client for me. How can we ensure that the content we’re creating is in alignment with our best customer’s needs?
Travis: A lot of that comes down to actually understanding what your customers are needing. And that is by and far the trickiest product content marketing. There are a handful of ways you can do that for content that is already existing and already performing. A large portion of that is kind of going back to what we spoke about before with event tracking or heat map tracking. Looking at what people are actually doing with your content.
If you’re noticing, let’s say you’re expecting people to be filling out a form on a product or service page. And it gets a ton of traffic, but people aren’t filling out that form, maybe they’re ignoring the CTAs entirely, or they’re only scrolling so far on the page, or they get distracted by something else that they leave. Those are all things that you can learn with data analysis and looking at what people who are doing.
A tool like Hotjar allows you to actually physically watch recordings of what people are doing on the entire page. So you could sit down, watch a hundred different recordings, and look at how a hundred different users are interacting with the page to see maybe what you thought is going to work for them, isn’t.
The other side of that would be setting up user surveys or emails, or even trying to incentivize someone to sit down with you and go through the website or go through your content and see from their perspective, what is missing, what is extra, what is unnecessary, or what is preventing them from taking the step that you expect, or you want them to take. That is definitely time consuming. It’s not easy to find people who will do sit down interviews or user research. There are a handful of platforms that you can use to do that. Usability Hub is generally the one that we use. They are rather expensive, though. So for a smaller business, that would probably be pretty prohibitive.
The other thing is just, if you have let’s say a small business that is getting foot traffic. As I mentioned before, we can ask people what brought them in. But I know a lot of small businesses are now adding surveys at the end of receipts, and they can incentivize them for a small gift card or some type of reward program. Things like that can go really far for some people who are more engaged with the brand to getting that feedback about what your content is not doing for them, that you expect it to do.
Rich: I completely agree with everything you just said. And I would just add on to that, that I think that there’s some things that happen offline. Some interactions either before or after the sale that allow us to gather a little bit more information. So if we’re attracting a lot of DIY’ers who are never going to buy from us, then that’s not the right kind of content. So you need to be thinking about what does your ideal customer, what are their questions? And then making sure that you’re answering those questions as well.
So let’s say we’ve done this work. Whether it’s one page or 10 pages or a hundred pages on our website, we’ve done this work. We’ve maybe added videos, or we’ve added expert quotes or infographics, or blown up more of the content. Whatever it is that we’ve done to improve it based on our research so far. How soon should we expect to see results? Is this something that the next day we expect to see a bump in the rankings and traffic, or is this more like a long-term play where we’re constantly fiddling with things to see how do we move up those ranks?
Travis: It’ll be depending on a few different elements. One, the initial ranking that you had before we started fiddling. For example, I have a guide for nonprofits to help them get started with marketing. And earlier this year, it started to slip in ranking. It was in position three, and then HubSpot started to replace it. And then it dropped down to position five, and then position seven. And so I actually didn’t really even update the content. I went in and I changed the meta-description, the title tag, and a small, few sections on the actual page just to update the date and the year. So I initially published it in 2019, I updated it in 2021. A simple change like that. It took one week, and I had my original ratings back.
But that page was already ranking the first page, so that’s a lot easier. Google we’ll recrawl it if they see a new date, they’ll automatically assume that something is worthwhile. All you have to do is update the content a little bit even, or you could do a whole overhaul. And then make sure that the post and published date has been changed. If you have updated it specifically, you would even add at the very beginning of the post, “2021 update”, and that will help you get those rankings changed as soon as Google crawls it.
However, if you don’t have something ranking, say you’ve been on the top of five pages, the amount of back links and the page authority that that page you can earn and generate, is really going to be the determining factor. If you have, let’s say a robust off page SEO campaign where you’re doing a lot of link building, or you have a PR team that is going out and getting links from relevant websites, then that’s going to help that page rank a lot faster. It’s still going to take anywhere from one to six months depending on how many links you get, what type of page authority it is, how competitive the topic is, or how difficult it is to rank. And if you have none of that, then you’re generally going to be looking at about six months to a year if you just publish a piece and let it sit there.
Rich: All right. So there’s definitely work that needs to be done above and beyond just improving this article. You mentioned some inbound link building, PR, all that sort of stuff. All those strategies are going to help for sure. Because you never know when all of a sudden HubSpot decides to publish an article on the same topic that you’ve already got one out there for.
Rich: All right. So what do you recommend content marketers pay attention to after this work has been done? What are the KPIs that are important, and what are the KPIs that might be misleading?
Travis: That’s a great question. I find the most important KPIs are general content engagement metrics. So looking at page views, unique page views, and then splitting those up between page views from organic and visitors who are coming directly from the site. If they’re coming directly from the site, I want to know where they’re coming from. And so we’ll be looking to see if they’re coming from the drop-down navigation, the global nav, or if this is only linked internally, if they’re coming from the homepage or linked blog posts, et cetera. And figuring out where they might be in their journey and seeing if that matches the intent of the piece.
Besides that, if there’s any type of form, that form field conversions. If there’s not say just a blog post, looking at how much people are actually spending time-wise and engagement-wise with that content. If it’s has a relevant timeline page, there’s a bunch of different free tools online that you can use to estimate how long it should you take to read a piece. A bunch of websites also include that in the article itself, which is a nice gauge for people that determine if they want to spend that much time to read that content and if your time on page, as an average, is relatable and relevant to that expectation.
So if you have something that should take five minutes to read, and you’re seeing your time on page as an average is less than a minute. But if it’s three or four minutes, that’s great. It’s pretty close to average. It’s very, very rare they’re going to see anything actually hit that average estimate. But if you get close to it, you’re off to a great start. Simple things like exit rate, bounce rate, I’ll be looking at those to determine if people are, especially if they’re coming from search engines, if they’re finding content that they expect to find based on the headline, based on the meta descriptions, things like that.
And then also looking at just social shares, figuring out where people are going after this piece of content. If they’re sharing it on social media, if they’re linking to it from their own website or something along those lines, or even where they’re going as a next step. So if the exit rate is really low on this page, then that’s a sign that people are likely leaving this page and going to a different one. So you could use event tracking or flow tracking map in Google Analytics or different software to really figure out where people are leaving to. So that could be a metric or a KPI depending on your individual preference.
And then those are kind of like the biggest ones. Backlinks is always a really useful, one as I’ve kind of alluded to a little bit earlier. And then general keyword rankings. If I’ve published something and I’m tracking specific keywords for it, I’ll check in about once a month to see how those are going. Generally I don’t expect anything for the first three months, so just that once a month check-in is usually fine.
And then the last kind of larger metric that I would consider is probably comments or any type of special engagement that people might be doing. Or if let’s say you have an e-commerce site and this is a product page, if people are going to your contact center or chat bot from this page, would be a sign that either they have questions because you’re not answering something right off the bat or they’re ready to do something but that page is not giving them the opportunity to make that next step.
Rich: Awesome. All right. That makes a lot of sense. Is there anything that you think content marketers are still struggling with or anything we haven’t talked about today where you’re like, here’s one place that you can make a big difference when it comes to taking a look at your own content and how to make improvements?
Travis: Absolutely. There are a few, give me just one second to think about which one I want to talk about first. User intent is definitely, I think, the biggest issue that I see a lot of content marketers struggle with. Especially when it comes to B2B scenarios. Defining what your product does is really important. Even if you think that you have a really well-known brand or you expect the only people that are going to be coming to this page are late funnel users who are almost ready to convert. You don’t know that that’s the only case.
There will be a bunch of situations where somebody on the lower end of the food chain of the business is going to be starting the research and then handing recommendations to their boss who will make the final decision. And if you don’t actually tell those people what your content does, what your product does, et cetera, they won’t understand it. They’re going to pass your business entirely.
And so understanding where people are in the journey and how you can guide them through that, either on a single page or a hub system, we’re going to have a series of interlinked and relevant content related to each other, and people can step from one place to another pretty seamlessly, that will really help you understand what information do you need to be presenting and how you present it.
And user research really is the pinnacle of figuring that out. You can rely on competitors to an extent, but there are a lot of pitfalls that come with that, because you don’t honestly have your competitors data. Keyword data only shows one thing, you don’t know if what they’re doing is actually working for them from a conversion standpoint, and so you’re taking a gamble that they’re doing their job right. So that’s why generally I don’t recommend that brands use competitors as a fallback or as a go-to example, just as generally a fallback example if you can’t get data from your specific users.
Rich: All right, Travis, this has been very helpful. If people want to learn more about you or more about Portent, where can we send them?
Travis: Absolutely. If you want to learn more about Portent, portent.com, P O R T E N T. And to learn more about me, my LinkedIn profile pops up if you search my name, Travis McKnight, and happy to answer any additional questions on there.
Rich: All right. Awesome. Thank you so much, Travis. I really appreciate your time.
Travis: I appreciate it.
Travis McKnight uses his passion for storytelling to help his clients create content that consistently delivers in the search engines. Connect with him on LinkedIn, and check out his website to see how else Portent is helping transform the digital marketing game.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.
Blog posts referenced in this episode: