Your job title may be SEO manager, but chances are you find yourself responsible for more than just basic website optimization. While even 5 years ago an SEO manager may have been tasked with doing keyword researches, tracking search rankings and running link building campaigns, today’s SEOs may also have a number of additional responsibilities:
- Managing content writers, or outsourcing content creation and curation to qualified freelancers.
- Planning and executing the organization’s SEO strategy: This will include technical and on-page SEO considerations, as well as optimizing for user experience and social media.
- Keeping up to date with current search engine algorithms and online marketing trends.
- All tasks and strategies related to link building.
- Communicating progress and results to the CMO and/or CEO.
- Growing the organization’s social media reach and even potentially managing the company’s online communities.
- Managing and collaborating with the SEO team and other departments to carry out the SEO strategy.
If you work alongside a content manager, you may not be directly responsible for the actual creation of your organization’s website content. However, you will still have many content-related tasks and responsibilities; in fact, content will be at the very foundation of your job.
With content marketing and SEO having converged in many respects, the lines between content creation and optimization are often blurred. This guide has been created with this reality in mind.
What is content management?
Strictly speaking, content management is defined as “the administration of digital content throughout its lifecycle, from creation to permanent storage or deletion.” Content management encompasses all the tasks and strategies involved across this lifecycle, including:
- Budgeting for content, and calculating ROI on content marketing efforts.
- Choosing a content management system.
- Planning what types of content are needed, and who will be responsible for its creation and maintenance.
- Developing a content marketing strategy.
- Planning for content distribution, promotion and eventual retirement or archival storage.
To backtrack a little, the content lifecycle is typically broken down into 3 main stages: creation, publication and management. As you can see in this diagram from Prescient Digital, these stages can be broken down further to include all aspects of content management, including budgeting and governance, utilizing keywords and meta data and reviewing the maintenance of your content.
As SEO manager, you likely aren’t responsible for all of the day-to-day tasks related to content maintenance. Your organization’s content manager may be responsible for writing or outsourcing content, tracking standard engagement and consumption metrics (pageviews, social media shares, etc.), and deciding when it’s time to retire or archive content; your CMO is likely responsible for budgeting and ROI calculations. However, all the strategies and tasks related to content optimization will fall squarely on you.
For the purposes of this post, we will focus on 4 stages:
- Creation: Using keyword research as the foundation of creating well-optimized, comprehensive content.
- Distribution: Getting traction for your content through increased search visibility. This section will include a detailed listing of current desktop and mobile ranking factors.
- Maintenance: Understanding how to edit or revamp existing content in order to increase search rankings.
- Archive or removal: How to know when it’s time to remove or retire old content.
But before we dive into the actual content lifecycle, it’s important to start at the very beginning: with ensuring your content management system (CMS) is set up support your SEO efforts.
SEO considerations for your content management system
Optimizing your content for the search engines begins before you even start the keyword research process. If your content management system (CMS) doesn’t allow the capability to implement on-page and technical SEO strategies, you’ll find you’re doomed from the start.
This section will guide you through 7 main requirements of an SEO-friendly CMS. These requirements could also be used as a checklist when deciding on a new website or new features for your site – even if you’re keeping the same CMS.
- The option to customize your URL structure: Your CMS should allow you to select your preferred URL structure. Ideally, your URLs should be static and descriptive, and should contain your desired keywords. A CMS that requires you to use parameters or session IDs should be avoided.
- The ability to edit title tags, heading tags, meta data and alt image info: If your CMS auto-populates these fields, that’s fine (and even good). But you should have the capability to change them on a page-by-page basis.
- Supports a responsive design: If you don’t have a dedicated mobile site or app, your CMS must be able to support a responsive, mobile-friendly design.
- Has an SEO-friendly navigation: Your CMS should allow text-based navigational links and breadcrumbs. You should have the ability to easily change these on a page-by-page basis.
- The ability to categorize content into hierarchies: This is important both for SEO purposes and for user experience. Your CMS must allow you to create categories and subcategories in order to properly organize your content.
- Automatic 301 redirects: Particularly if you have a dynamic site, your CMS should automatically redirect all users using 301s, not 302 redirects.
- The ability to create and assign tags to content: Tags are another feature that are important both for SEO and user experience. Ensure any new CMS gives you the ability to create new tags and assign them to content.
Fortunately, if you’re using any of the most popular content management systems, you shouldn’t have an issue in terms of SEO. WordPress, Joomla and Drupal all have excellent SEO capabilities (although you may need to install plugins for added flexibility), as do e-commerce CMS providers Magento and Shopify.
Stages of content management
The following section will guide you in detail through the 4 stages of the content lifecycle: creation, distribution, maintenance and retirement. I will give a general overview of each stage of the content lifecycle from a decidedly SEO-focused perspective.
Stage 1: Content creation
If you work for a large organization, you likely have a dedicated content manager and/or team to oversee the creation and curation of your online content. However, in smaller organizations, this task (or the outsourcing of this task) may fall on you.
In any case, as SEO manager, it’s important to understand the current landscape in terms of content creation. Everyone, it seems, has jumped on the content marketing bandwagon, creating content about everything — and nothing. According to the 2015 B2B Content Marketing Trends report, 70% of marketers are planning to create more content than they did last year. If this trend continues, the sheer volume of content that will exist in 5 years from now will be astronomical.
And yet, despite this increased investment in content creation, research shows that the vast majority of content that gets published online gets little to no traction. This is a serious wakeup call for SEO managers: your content must be sufficiently optimized in order to consistently gain traction through search.
The foundation of the content creation process (from an SEO perspective) will be finding content ideas through the process of keyword research, and then using this research as the foundation for creating well-optimized, comprehensive content. This section will guide you through this process.
Using keyword research to find relevant content ideas
You already engage in keyword research to find relevant phrases to use in your content. But do you use that keyword research to find broader themes or topics for your new content? Many writers and SEOs go about the process backwards: first they come up with a topic, then they use keyword tools to find popular, low competition phrases to incorporate into their content.
I strongly recommend performing your keyword research before you even decide on a specific topic for your content. As we have seen in the past couple of years – particularly since Hummingbird – the one-to-one relationship between specific keywords and rankings has diminished significantly. This means we should be creating content that does a thorough job of covering a topic, rather than focusing exclusively on using one or two specific keywords or phrases.
One of my favorite tools to use in this process is Searchmetrics’ suite. Under the ‘Overview’ tab, you can find a complete list of relevant short and long-tail keywords you can structure content around. Under ‘Rankings’, you’ll find a list of current keywords you rank for; you can dig down even further by clicking on the ‘Long Tail’ link at the bottom right of the report.
While these are keywords you’re already ranking for, this data can be used in a number of ways. First, by sorting by CPC, you can determine which keywords are most likely to be lucrative for your business. A high CPC generally indicates a competitive market, meaning other businesses are already finding this keyword lucrative. Focusing your efforts on creating new content – and perhaps re-optimizing existing content – to boost your rankings for these keywords can be a great strategy.
Second, the Long Tail report can be extremely useful as a springboard for new blog post ideas. Longer, less competitive phrases that still have high mid to high traffic levels can be targeted for new content. Alternatively, you can flesh out and re-optimize existing content that’s already ranking for these phrases. These phrases can also key you into new niche market opportunities you may not otherwise have thought of.
You will obviously also want to see which short and long-tail keywords your competitors are using and ranking for. Plugging in your competitor’s URL will allow you to access any of Searchmetrics’ reports for that site. This is highly recommended for finding relevant phrases you may not currently be targeting.
A strategy for using your keywords to create comprehensive content
We’ll talk a fair bit in this guide about the concept of comprehensive content. As Searchmetrics’ 2015 Ranking Factors report shows, Google shows a clear preference for longer content that adequately covers the topic at hand. This is evidenced by the increased word count we’re seeing for top ranking pages, as well as the increase in the number of proof and related terms. This section will walk you through a strategy for ensuring your keyword research process helps you create the type of comprehensive content the search engines want to see.
- Create a list of primary keywords using your favorite keyword tool. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume you’re beginning your research using Google’s Keyword Planner. Start out as usual by plugging in some general keywords. Looking at the keyword ideas tab will give you some general ideas for short-tail terms. These will be the basis for the general theme of your post, however you’re not going to worry about keyword density or anything of that nature. This stage of your research is only meant to help you find a broad theme for your content.
- Drill down to find relevant and proof terms. Using the ad group ideas tab (see screenshot above), you can drill down to find many sub-topics you may not otherwise have thought of. Use the most relevant and popular phrases to structure your content in a way that comprehensively covers the topic. Most likely this will mean utilizing these phrases in some of your lower-level headings (h2, h3, etc.).
- Focus on moving sideways, not just horizontally: High-quality, comprehensive content will not only drill down to provide more and more specific coverage of a topic, it will also move sideways – this is the key to finding relevant terms (see #2). Instead of only drilling down to find sub-topics, branch out to find related or complimentary topics that provide a greater context for your content.
Stage 2: Content promotion and distribution
As already mentioned above, getting traction for your content can be a serious challenge. Unfortunately, while many businesses realize the importance of content promotion, they just aren’t willing to invest in a distribution strategy. According to a survey by Altimeter, while 53% of marketers know content distribution is necessary, only 26% are willing to invest in it. Fortunately for you, knowing about this disconnect can give you a competitive edge.
When thinking about content distribution, we like to use the model of owned, earned, and paid media.
Owned media: Optimizing your content for optimal distribution (SEO)
Generally speaking, your primary focus will be on owned media: namely, your website and social media properties. These channels will allow you the most flexibility to communicate with your audience, and will usually result in the highest engagement and conversions.
Utilizing on-page SEO strategies will be the starting point for distributing your website content. If you can get your content ranking for lucrative keyword phrases, there is some level of passivity to the continual distribution of that content (unlike social media, which will require continual promotion through sharing excerpts and links).
Achieving high search rankings starts with a solid understanding of current ranking factors. Keep in mind that in today’s mobile environment, you should now be optimizing your site and content for both desktop and mobile visitors. This will necessitate an understanding of both desktop and mobile rankings factors. This next section will give you insights into which factors are important for ranking; first in terms of your desktop content, and then for your mobile content.
Desktop search ranking factors
Searchmetrics recently published their 2015 Search Ranking Factors and Ranking Correlations report, which provides important insights into which elements are directly connected or correlated with high rankings. This section will delve into the key findings of this report organized by category: technical, user experience, content, social signals and links.
According to the report, some of the most important technical ranking factors include:
- Ensuring you have a meta description on each page: preferably one that is unique and descriptive.
- Using H1 and H2 tags on each piece of content.
- The use of encryption (HTTPS) for sites that collect sensitive data (such as e-commerce sites).
- Keeping key content on your primary domain, not on a subdomain.
- Using a .com domain if possible: While the report is quick to point out that top-level domains (TLDs) are not a ranking factor, having a .com domain may play a role in the perceived credibility and reputation of your site.
- Having a large site that is also quick to load. While the report shows overall site size increased in top ranking sites this year, site speed also increased.
- Avoiding Flash for content that you want to rank organically.
User experience is defined as a cross between design and usability. These are the factors that determine how well your users are able to access and navigate through your site, to find the information they’re searching for. Top-rankings sites typically contains the following user experience elements:
- An optimized internal link structure that allows the search engines and visitors to easily navigate through the site and find related content.
- Multiple images that add interest and enhance the users’ understanding of the content.
- Content that is structured using interactive elements such as menus, buttons, and unordered lists.
- Limited ad spots, particularly above the fold. Too much advertising can impair user experience.
- User signals that show a site is meeting the needs of its audience: These include high click-through rates and time on site, and low bounce rates.
Optimizing your content is perhaps your most important task within the context of content management. Ensuring that your content is created and structured in such a way that it not only ranks in the search engines, but also provides an excellent user experience, is key. This section will outline the most significant findings related to content.
- The average word count of high-ranking pages continues to rise: In 2014, the average word count of top ranking pages was 975; in 2015, this number rose to 1,285. Aim to provide comprehensive coverage of the topic you’re covering in order to achieve the highest rankings and best user experience.
- Include your desired keywords in your copy where relevant. However, you should also be including related and “proof” terms throughout your copy. These are terms that are closely related to your primary keywords, or that may even be necessary to “prove” you’re comprehensively covering the topic.
- Continue to use your keywords within your internal links to signify to readers and the search engines the main topic of the page. However, as always, avoid using a page’s desired keyword within that page’s external links; this will pass on the rankings for that keyword to the external page.
- The readability for top-ranking pages has become slightly simpler, however the most important consideration is that your content matches the reading level of your audience.
While Google has explicitly stated that social signals from Facebook and Twitter are not part of their algorithms, there’s no denying that there is an indirect relationship between social engagement and high rankings. Content that hits the mark in terms of relevance with its audience is more likely to be shared on social media. It’s also more likely to be linked to, and to therefore receive more referral traffic. And, as we know, there is a direct relationship between links and rankings.
Not surprisingly, the report found a high correlation between increased +1’s, likes and tweets and high rankings. Increased social signals may also indicate that a website is consistently adding new content, which we know is good for rankings (the “freshness” factor).
While there is still a strong correlation between links and rankings, the significance of links as a ranking factor continues to decline. As the search engines get more sophisticated and better able to identify non-linked citations and mentions, the importance of links to rankings will continue to diminish.
When determining the anchor text for your links, continue to avoid the overuse of your keywords. We are seeing a move away from keyword-rich anchor text, as Google may see these types of links as unnatural. Instead, focus on using varied anchor text that will make the most sense to your readers.
Mobile ranking factors
Whether you have a dedicated mobile site or app, or a responsive site design, understanding what it takes to rank in mobile search is imperative. Since Google’s move to using mobile-friendliness as a significant ranking factor (“Mobilegeddon”), the percentage of top-ranking pages that are mobile-optimized has increased. Prior to Google’s mobile-friendly update, 80% of top pages were mobile-friendly; that number has now risen to 90%. In other words, having a mobile-friendly site is now an absolute necessity if you want to rank in mobile search results.
This section will highlight important findings from the Searchmetrics 2015 Mobile Ranking Factors report. You can download it in its entirety here.
While we saw earlier that top-ranking desktop pages tend to be larger in size, high ranking mobile pages were found to be smaller. This is likely due to limited bandwidth and smaller displays. Not surprisingly, top-ranking mobile pages were also found to be much quicker; the 10 highest ranking mobile pages loaded in an average of 1.10 seconds. Make sure you’re running your site through PageSpeed Insights or Searchmetrics Site Structure Optimization to ensure your pages are loading quickly.
Other interesting findings gleaned from the report:
- Top-ranking mobile pages tended to have longer URLs compared to desktop data. This may be due to the use of subdomains for mobile pages (e.g., mobile.site.com). A short, descriptive URL should still be used whenever possible.
- Flash continues to face extinction, particularly on mobile. Only 5% of the top 10 ranking pages used Flash. Use HTML5 to make your content accessible on all devices.
- Focus on choosing a domain that makes sense for branding purposes. Having your keyword in your domain no longer provides a benefit in terms of mobile or desktop rankings.
Optimizing for mobile user experience means ensuring your site and content are easy to navigate and consume on mobile. This section will outline the key elements of providing a great user experience for your mobile users.
- In terms of the fonts for your mobile content, top-ranking mobile pages are using slightly larger font sizes above the fold (15.63) than desktop (14.08). Surprisingly, content that falls in the main area of the page tends to be slightly smaller on mobile (11.44 as compared to 12.01).
- The report looked at the incidence of unordered lists within mobile content. The findings: high ranking mobile pages were more likely to have unordered lists, however desktop results contained a greater number of lists (2.58 for desktop) than mobile (2.29). In terms of the number of bullets in each list, mobile contained fewer than desktop, but the number was still quite high (an average of 8.75 per list). Use bullets to make your mobile content scannable for your ‘on the go’ users.
- The number of internal links included in mobile content is lower than for desktop content. However, top-ranking mobile pages contained significantly more internal links than they did last year. Use links to provide additional relevant information to your readers, and to provide an efficient linking structure for the search engines to crawl.
Content specifically designed for viewing on mobile devices should take into account how users will be accessing and consuming the content. Where will they be reading or viewing it? What topics or keywords will they most likely be searching for? Understanding how to structure your content in a way that provides the best experience for your mobile users is key. This section will cover the main factors that influence rankings for your mobile content.
- Average word count for mobile content was 867, up from just 686 last year. This is the same trend we have seen with desktop content. Focus on providing comprehensive coverage of your topic, while balancing this with the need to provide slightly shorter-form content for busy mobile users.
- The number of keywords within mobile content has also risen, which corresponds with the increased word count we’re seeing.
- Using proof and relevant terms continues to be important for ranking in mobile search. High-quality writing that aims to cover all angles of a topic will naturally include many of these terms.
- In terms of readability, the report found that top-ranking mobile pages were actually more difficult to read. As with desktop content, focus on matching the reading level to your content’s intended audience.
As with desktop results, the importance of backlinks as a ranking factor remains on a steady downward progression. That said, they are still a significant ranking factor. Following are some key findings regarding mobile backlinks.
- Top-ranking mobile pages contain fewer backlinks than their desktop counterparts (around half as many).
- While high-ranking desktop pages contained older backlinks, the age of the links doesn’t appear to factor for mobile rankings.
- The number of no-follow links has increased this year, however mobile results have fewer than desktop results.
- Mobile backlinks from news sites has decreased this year, as it is typically the desktop version of a site that attracts these links.
While social signals for top-ranking pages have increased this year (for both desktop and mobile), keep in mind that this is correlation, not causation. As already discussed in the desktop ranking factors above, high-quality content tends to both rank well in search and receive a high number of social shares and likes.
Stage 3: Content maintenance
Content maintenance isn’t a topic that gets the attention it deserves. Content creation and distribution are much sexier, it seems; perhaps because they’re more clearly tied to results and revenue. However, maintaining and re-optimizing your content can also have significant impact on your bottom line.
Web content maintenance is simply the process of keeping content fresh, up-to-date and ranking highly. It’s taking the time to nurture old content so it continually meets your goals, rather than having to constantly create new content. This section will outline some of the main strategies you should be using as part of an effective content maintenance strategy.
Best practices for updating and revamping old content
Creating a steady stream of new, unique content, can be a challenge. One of the best ways to save time and resources when it comes to content creation is by updating and revamping old content. Of course, knowing which content is worth this investment of time, effort, and money is part of the challenge.
Generally speaking, nurture content that is helping you (or has helped you) meet a particular goal. It could be that a particular piece of content is receiving good search or referral traffic, but may need some updating. Or maybe it’s an older piece of content that just needs some updated information and on-page SEO in order to rank again. Whatever the case, there are a number of best practices to keep in mind as you revamp your content.
You’ve likely seen Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines that were leaked (again) last year. This document provides important insights into which elements are important for creating – and in this case, revamping – old content. The first 3 strategies below are based on what we’ve learned from the leaked guidelines.
- Ensure your content is written by someone with the appropriate levels of expertise: Google’s guidelines put a fair bit of emphasis on E-A-T: expertise, authority and trustworthiness. Content that could impact your readers’ well-being should be written, or at least vetted by, an industry expert. If you have existing content in a YMYL (your money, your life) niche that no longer ranks, I would recommend having it approved and vetted by an industry expert. And don’t forget to clearly articulate on the page who has done the vetting, and what his or her qualifications are.
- Make sure ads aren’t cluttering up your page: Google’s quality rating guide specifically mentions that sites with too many ads, or pages that are too ad-heavy above the fold, are not high quality. Searchmetrics’ ranking report supports this, showing that high ranking pages typically contained fewer ads this year than last.
- Add useful supplementary content: Supplementary content (SC) is defined as any content on a page that isn’t the main content and isn’t an ad. To provide the best user experience, offer relevant “extras” that will enrich the experience for your visitors. This could be videos, maps, ratings or reviews, printables related products, or anything else that will provide a more thorough coverage of the topic.
- Get your on-page SEO up to date. The section above details many factors that are important for optimizing your content and site. If you have a high-quality piece of content that just isn’t getting the search traffic it deserves, optimizing it and then giving it a boost of distribution via your email list or social media may do the trick.
- If your content is still ranking well, be careful when amending it. If you need to update a piece of content that’s still generating good search traffic, keep on-page SEO elements as static as possible. This includes your URL and URL structure, headings, keywords in content, and alt image tags and captions.
- Check the mobile usability of your page. Content from more than 2-3 years ago may not have been written with mobile users in mind. As mobile usability is now a significant ranking factor, ensure your page meets the basic standards of mobile accessibility. Use a tool like PageSpeed Insights to see how quickly your page loads, and use Google’s Mobile-Friendly test to see if your page’s design and elements are mobile friendly.
Stage 4: Retiring your content
Creating good content is time-consuming and costly, and I hate to see good value go down the drain. In my opinion, the vast majority of content is worth salvaging, even if it’s poorly written (you can change or update it) or not getting any search traffic. There is probably a good reason why that content was written in the first place; usually to help you accomplish a specific goal.
Most of the time, using the 6 strategies above can give your old content a new lease on life, driving future traffic and revenue. However, in rare circumstances it’s advisable to simply retire (delete) old content. One valid reason to delete a page is if you’ve received a thin content manual action from Google. Thin content may be automatically generated content, doorway pages or scraped pages. It can also simply be really poor-quality content. In most cases, these types of pages or posts should be deleted in order to get the penalty removed. This is particularly important if the penalty is site-wide.
This likely goes without saying, but I wouldn’t recommend deleting content that’s been hit by an algorithmic penalty. Instead, focus on rewriting or adding to it to make sure it’s more comprehensive. Content that has fallen out of Google’s good graces isn’t necessarily poor quality; with Google making changes to their algorithm nearly every day, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we need to monitor our rankings and regularly tweak existing content in order to keep up.
Finally, there is the matter of expired content. This is content that, for whatever reason, is no longer relevant or accurate. This is a common issue for e-commerce sites that still receive traffic to product pages (where that product is no longer available), or for sites that have time-limited offerings or listings (for instance a sale or paid business listing). In these cases, deleting or permanently redirecting the content to another page is likely the way to go.
For content that still receives search or referral traffic, I would recommend editing the page to direct readers and visitors to a more relevant page. This ensures you keep the benefits of your rankings, but also that you provide the best possible information to your visitors. Make sure you clearly state that the current page is out of date, but that relevant content can be accessed elsewhere on your site. Be sure to provide a direct link to the new content.
As an SEO manager, your responsibilities begin and end with content. Optimizing content so that it performs well throughout its lifecycle – both from a rankings and user perceptive – is your fundamental task. Choosing topics and themes based on relevant keywords, monitoring how that content is performing in search, and knowing when and how to revamp or retire it will all be critical.
I hope this guide has provided you with the tools and guidance you need to nurture your content, ensuring optimal rankings throughout its lifecycle.