What I learned from f*cking up my SEO strategy for 5 months

I thought I nailed it. That is, until I noticed that NONE of our articles were ranking high. Here’s what I learned from my SEO mistakes.
Nigel Seah
Nigel Seah

Digital Marketing Executive

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What I learned from f*cking up my SEO strategy for 5 months

Current mood: Relieved. I finally fixed (part of) my SEO strategy  The Definitive Guide to Romantically Inclined Emoji Usage | Insomniac

Having been taken under the wing of a content writing advisor when I started my role as a Digital Marketing Executive at Novocall, I thought my articles were going to rank really high.

After all, I was taught how to create content according to Brian Dean’s classic Skyscraper technique. A method that ensures that your articles are of top quality. The quality of my content alone should help me rank, right?

⚠️Spoiler alert⚠️ It doesn’t. And the results show.

 

We weren’t attracting organic traffic at all in my first few months at the company and I just never knew why.

 

For a few months, we were barely getting any traffic at all and I had no idea why 😥

I took a few weeks toward the end of 2020 to do more in-depth research on how to do proper keyword research and came up with a full list of keywords and article titles.

And as you can see in the graph above, things did start picking up after that. Here’s what I learned from f*cking up my company’s SEO strategy for so long.

P.S. I use Ahrefs as my SEO tool. There may be some parts of this article that may not be relevant to non-users. I’ll try to generalize my points as best as I can.

1) I thought that search volume was THE metric

Keyword research tools like Ahrefs and Semrush obtain search volume data from Google Search Console (GSC), which defines search volume as:

 

The average number of searches for this keyword and its close variants based on the targeting settings and date range you’ve selected. You can use this information to see how popular your keywords are during a certain time of the year.

 

Like many others new to the SEO world, I thought search volume was everything. And if you look at the definition of what it is, it’s easy to see why. This is perhaps one of the most common SEO mistakes.

Average number of searches for this keyword.” Based on this explanation alone, it’s not surprising that beginners can use this metric wrongly when selecting keywords. They tend to think that it is an indicator of how much organic traffic they could attract by ranking for those keywords. Oh, how wrong they were…😒 Here’s why.

Search volume does not reflect the actual traffic

A particular search query can be typed in many different ways. While all the close variants of the same keyphrase will bring you the same search results, each variant has its own unique search volume and draws in a specific amount of traffic. This is because different people search for the same thing differently.

For instance, typing in “steamed fish recipe”, “steamed white fish recipe”, and “best steamed fish recipes for family dinners” may all bring you to the same search engine results page (SERPs).

Therein lies the issue.

Search volume does not indicate how many other variations of your target keyword your article will also rank for.

Let’s take two example keywords. “SEO Tips” and “Submit website to search engine” (Huge shoutout to Ahrefs’ article on search volume for the example below!).

 

Search volume does not reveal other variations of the same keywords your article will also rank for.

 

“SEO Tips” has a search volume of 2,700 while that of “Submit website to search engine” is 1,300. Going just by this information, “SEO Tips” should draw in more traffic, right? Not quite.

As you can see, “SEO Tips” is more limited in the number of varieties you can write the same keyword. It has 6 other varieties while the other keyword has 8, each with a search volume score of several hundred.

As you can see, you can’t simply fallback on this number.

Some volume does not reveal the actual number of clicks

There are certain types of queries that will result in a low number of clicks and organic traffic despite the high search volume. 🤓

Remember, search volume is the average number of searches. Not the number of clicks and volume of organic traffic.

These types of queries are generally very straightforward and have simple answers to them.

Let’s say, for example, you want to know who founded Novocall. You type “Who founded Novocall” into the search bar. This is what you’ll see:

 

 

Queries that are straightforward and have simple answers tend to have a small number of clicks as the featured snippets on the SERPs will explicitly state the answer to the question.

 

These ‘boxes’ with the answer to that query is called a featured snippet. And because the snippets provide searchers with the answers directly, they won’t bother clicking into the article.

Search volume is just an average number

Let’s examine GSC’s official definition of search volume again.

It is “The average number of searches for this keyword and its close variants based on the targeting settings and date range you’ve selected.”

This means that it does not take into account the periodic or seasonal fluctuations in the number of times people look up certain keywords on Google.

 

 

Seasonal search queries like “chinese new year” spike only during certain parts of the year but will still affect search volume.

 

For example, if one were to simply look at the search volume of the keyword, one might think that it can bring in consistent traffic to their website.

But if you were to look closely at a keyword research tool, in this case, Ahrefs’ keyword explorer, you’ll come to realize that your life is a lie 😢

As you can see, “Chinese new year” spikes every February of the year. It is not a reliable keyword to bring in consistent traffic if that is what you are looking trying to do.

💡 What I learned from this SEO mistake

Search volume is an indicator that you should definitely look at when you are doing keyword research. BUT, it should not be treated as the definitive metric used to identify keywords you should target.

Instead, use it as the first indicator from a list of indicators to gauge traffic potential.

Then, dig deeper to look at other factors that can affect traffic potential. These include the number of clicks, the presence of seasonal fluctuations in volume, and the number of other keywords articles on your target keyword also ranks for.

2) I didn’t think it was worth ranking for keywords with low search volume

It’s normal for people to go straight for the keywords with higher search volume because they think that those keywords will bring in more traffic.

And they’re right. Well, partially.

 

 

We were able to rank first for “insurance sales pitch script” that has a search volume of 30.

 

If you take a look at our article on cold calling scripts for insurance agents, we actually ranked first for “insurance sales pitch script” that has a search volume of 30.

And as many have said, keywords with such a low search volume don’t bring in much traffic. In this case, it was one 🤣

BUT (and that’s a big but) the same article is ranking for all other search queries related to cold calling scripts for insurance agents.

 

The same article about cold calling scripts for insurance agents is ranking for many other keyword variants of “insurance sales pitch script”

 

And, as I’ve mentioned earlier, search volume does not reveal the actual amount of organic traffic. While the search volume for “insurance sales pitch script” is very low, the cumulative traffic we received from the keyword variants this article is ranking for is pretty decent.

💡 What I learned from this SEO mistake

Never underestimate the little guys. It is also a good practice to look at the number of other keywords articles ranking for your target keyword is also ranking for.

3) I didn’t consider search intent when formatting my articles

Search intent basically means what your searcher is looking for on Google.

And by “what”, I’m referring to:

  • What type of information people are looking for?”
  • What type of content formats people are looking for?”
  • What type of goals people hope to achieve through the search results?”

Google’s job as a search engine is to give people what they are looking for. And if your articles don’t align with search intent, there’s no way your content will rank high for a particular keyword.

Ahrefs has a great feature for helping identify articles on the SERPs to refer to in order to help you identify search intent. It’s the SERP position history graph.

Ahrefs’ SERP position history graph reflects search intent. The less the graphs fluctuate, the clearer Google has an idea of what the search intent is for a particular keyword.

These lines on the graph represent the articles ranking in the top 5 spots in the SERPs for a particular keyword. In this case, “Telegram”.

Whenever each line dips, it means that Google removed it from the top 5 spots on the SERP.

And the fact that all the top content pieces have been falling in and out of the top 5 spots only means one thing. Google is unable to clearly identify the search intent. If it could, all lines representing the content pieces should stay consistently flat throughout.

After all, “Telegram” is such a vague search query. Some people may be looking for the homepage. Others may be looking for the landing page to download the desktop version of the messaging app.

Now, if you’re not using an SEO tool, or if your SEO tool does not have this graph feature, fret not. All you have to do is to type in your target keyword into the search bar, click every link on the first page, and observe.

If the top 5 results for the keyword “lead distribution software” are listicles on the best lead distribution software out there, then you best be doing something very similar.

💡 What I learned from this SEO mistake

ALWAYS consider search intent when conducting your keyword research. Your articles will not rank high if it is not what people are looking for.

If the top results are listicles, write a listicle.

If the top results and landing pages meant to convert, then create landing pages.

If the top pages are product pages where people can select their favorite item and make a direct purchase, then create a page just like that.

4) I created content based on what I knew rather than what my audience knew

When I first started doing keyword research, I tried to create content around our core products and features. These are namely, click-to-calloutbound call, and call tracking.

Based on what little I knew about ‘keyword research’ back then I chose to focus on creating content that showcased our products and their features.

This, in and of itself, is not wrong.

But I did not understand the importance of search intent back then. So, I chose technical and industry-related keywords like “click-to-call”, “outbound call” and “call tracking”.

The problem was that most people out there are unaware of such technical terms. If no one is searching for the keywords I want to rank for, then no one will see my content at all. Regardless of content quality.

💡 What I learned from this SEO mistake

NEVER attempt to rank for technical terms that only you and/or your team is familiar with. You really should attempt to reach out to the general audience.

According to Optimist, a content marketing agency focused on startups and growth-stage companies, you should try ranking for queries related to the problem your product or service solves. This is known as the jobs to be done (JTBD) framework.

For example, instead of trying to rank for “automated content distribution software”, try ranking for long-tail keywords like “how to share content to all social media platforms at the same time”.

As you can see, the second query is more general and is more likely searched for by a wider audience. After all, not everyone who is facing a particular problem knows the right words to use when searching for a solution.

5) I thought I needed to increase keyword density

Many sources would tell you that it is important to at least have your target keyword show up several times. According to Yoast, an SEO plugin for WordPress, the ideal number of times your target keyword should show up in your content is 7.

 

 

Yoast suggests that content writers include their focus keyword 7 times in their articles.

 

In fact, you probably don’t even need to use your focus keyword a single time!

A classic example stated by this Ahrefs article is this article titled “157 Bboy Tracks That You Must Listen to Before You Die”.

At the time of publication, the article was ranking first for “best breakdance songs”. Yet, this keyword doesn’t even show up for a single time in the entire article.

💡 What I learned from this SEO mistake

Search intent is king.

One of the reasons why this article was able to do so well is because the way the content was formatted matched search intent.

People who typed “best breakdance songs” were looking for simple articles that list down the best songs of the genre.

6) I focused too much on text content

Just because you are writing an article doesn’t mean that you should only include words in your content. But this is the exact mistake I made.

Imagine reading definitive guides about a particular technical topic. You load the page only to realize that it consists of 10 Microsoft Word pages worth of words. Nasty 🤮

Having only text in your content can make for a decreased reader experience. And content quality is known to be a ranking factor.
Simply writing a super in-depth educational piece is not enough.

According to Search Engine Journal, using multimedia, such as images, is a great way to help your content piece rank.

If you’ve noticed by now, I included a lot of images in this article. To further help break up the article, I also used emojis and bolded text.

💡 What I learned from this SEO mistake

ALWAYS consider search intent when conducting your keyword research. Your articles will not rank high if it is not what people are looking for.

If the top results are listicles, write a listicle.

If the top results and landing pages meant to convert, then create landing pages.

If the top pages are product pages where people can select their favorite item and make a direct purchase, then create a page just like that.

7) I underestimated the importance of optimizing images

Alt text, or alternative text, is a text which describes an image. It tells the Google algorithm what the image is about. This not only helps increase the topic relevance of your image and can even help them rank in Google Images.

In the beginning, I did not bother at all. None of the images in the older articles had alt texts. But after reading up about ranking factors, this was something I could no longer ignore.

 

Images from our article on cold calling scripts for insurance agents have ranked high in Google Images.

 

 

Remember our article on cold calling scripts for insurance agents? If you click on the link 👈, you’ll notice something. It has so many images of the actual cold calling scripts.

And each of these images has an alt text. Because of this, we were able to rank in Google Images.

💡 What I learned from this SEO mistake

Images aren’t there in your content pieces to beautify them. They also inform the algorithm what the image is about.

After all, at the time of writing this (0048H, 28th January 2021), Google’s algorithm is not at the stage where it can identify the contents of images without additional information.

8) I neglected content distribution efforts

Optimizing your content to rank for a particular keyword may not be sufficient to bring in traffic. That’s why you need to use other distribution channels such as social media to maximize the amount of organic traffic you can direct to your website.

But the problem was that I wasn’t getting enough engagement and impressions from just sharing the articles. And it was not hard to see why.

 

 

Using our articles’ original cover images did not result in high numbers of engagements and impressions.

 

If you look at some of our posts, you’ll notice that whenever the visual for the post is that of our article cover image, the number of engagements and impressions tend to be pretty low.

But look what happened when we switched things up a little.

 

 

Using customized graphics from our articles instead of our original article cover images have resulted in increased engagement and impressions.

 

Our amazingly talented designer Faye Chong created customized graphics for many of our articles.

This time, instead of just sharing the link and letting LinkedIn auto-generate the image for the post, I decided to use the graphics from the articles instead.

As you can see in the screenshot above, I did that for our article comparing cold, warm, and hot calls, as well as the one on lead distribution statistics.

See how the number of engagements and impressions are much higher?

💡 What I learned from this SEO mistake

While the goal of a great SEO strategy is to identify keywords to create good content and draw organic traffic, do not neglect the content distribution process.

Give it more thought instead of simply sharing them on as many platforms as possible.

9) I panicked over building links

Ok, “mistake” probably isn’t the right word to describe this.

But it was still something I did unnecessarily and there’s definitely something to learn from this.

ALL, and I mean all, of the SEO professionals and blogs out there, will tell you that link building is one of the most important ranking factors. That’s because Google’s algorithm uses the number of links to your content as an indicator to gauge the quality and trustworthiness of your content.

So when I was struggling with building quality links, I got really worried. Then something happened.

 

 

Our article on lead distribution software was ranking top without backlinks!

 

Our article that we wanted to rank for “lead distribution software” was ranking in the top spot even without backlinks! I was surprised to the core myself. Upon closer inspection, I figured out why.

First off, the keyword difficulty (KD) score for this particular keyword is pretty low at 8. This means that it’s not difficult to rank for this keyword at all.

 

 

We were even able to outrank articles with 32 backlinks.

 

But we were also able to outrank articles with a lot more backlinks. Just look at this one by Boberdoo with 32 backlinks. How were we able to outrank that?

3 words. I don’t know. No, really! It is generally super hard to pinpoint the exact ranking factors that Google’s algorithm used to push your content to the top. After all, there are at least 200 ranking factors out there. But if I were to make a guess, I’d say the factors that helped us rank are: depth of content, image optimization, and formatting.

If you click into our article, you’ll see that we’ve put in a lot of effort into writing each paragraph in detail, feature analysis, and provide ratings from various software review websites.

💡 What I learned from this SEO mistake

Never neglect your content quality, even if it is a keyword with a low search volume. You never know what kind of results you can achieve.

What’s next?

I hope that this article will help you avoid the newbie SEO mistakes I made.

If you’ve noticed by now, there are a few common themes in this article:

  • Search volume is important but don’t over-rely on it
  • Content quality is a lot more important than you think
  • Know what the search intent is before creating content around a keyword

Bear those in mind when doing keyword research and content formatting and you should be fine.

That said, there is more to SEO than just those two. There’s technical SEO, on-page SEO, learning how to conduct blog audits.

As of now, I can’t say I’m super well-versed in all these topics. But I’ll definitely share it with all of you when I do get the hang of it.

Till next time 😉

Nigel Seah
Nigel Seah

Nigel is a Digital Marketing Executive at Novocall where he specializes in SEO. Prior to this, he had written for several SaaS companies including Workstream and the now defunct Hatchme. In his free time, he engages in strength training and is a lover of languages.

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