In December of 2017, the ActiveCampaign blog pulled in 8,765 visitors from organic search.

In June 2019, the ActiveCampaign blog pulled in 39,723 visitors from organic search.

In November 2019, the ActiveCampaign blog pulled in 119,037 visitors from organic search.

Organic search traffic to the ActiveCampaign blog, from January 1st 2017 to November 30th 2019 (Google Analytics data)

How did we increase blog traffic so quickly? Blog traffic increased faster as the blog got more traffic! These are the month-over-month (MoM) growth rates from the last 6 months:

  • June to July: 25.09% MoM
  • July to August: 19.66% MoM
  • August to September: 27.67% MoM
  • September to October: 20.49% MoM
  • October to November: 30.15% MoM

And even though ActiveCampaign has a few advantages (like high domain authority), the approach we used can work for anyone – with any size website.

The rest of this post will show you how we did it. It cites 10+ studies, 11 content marketing experts, and 6 Google patents (don’t worry, you don’t have to read them), to answer questions like…

  • Why you should write long blog content (which almost always outperforms short blog content)
  • How to write long blog posts that are also good
  • Why you should focus on getting traffic from search engines
  • How to optimize a blog post to get organic search traffic
  • Why this approach to SEO works (based on trudging through 6 Google patents)

Why you should write long blog content (which almost always outperforms short blog content)

If you want to grow your blog, you should write long content that gives in-depth answers to very specific questions that people search for.

(The post you’re currently reading is an example of a long, comprehensive answer to a specific question).

As this section will show, long blog content almost always gets better results than short blog content.

According to Andy Crestodina’s annual survey of 1,001 bloggers, 55% of bloggers who report “strong results” write content over 2,000 words.

Bloggers who publish 2,000+ word content are more likely to report success than bloggers who write content of any other length (Source, Orbit Media)

Is a survey the best way to study this? People might have different definitions of what it means to be “successful” with content.

Luckily, other types of research show that long content is more likely to get your blog noticed – on both search engines and social media.

Research from HubSpot showed that blog posts above 2,000 words were more likely to attract blog readers through organic search (with a sweet spot of 2250-2500 words).

Longer posts were more likely to have higher organic traffic. Word count also correlated with number of backlinks and social shares. (Source, HubSpot)

HubSpot’s research is supported by similar research from serpIQ and Backlinko:

  • serpIQ found that the top three ranking posts on a search engine results page (SERP) are longer (on average) than the other results on the SERP
  • Backlinko found that, in their sample, the average top search results was 1890 words long

(Note: This doesn’t mean that long content is always better. If you Google your keyword, look at the SERP, and find that most of the results are shorter posts – it may mean that people searching for that phrase want shorter posts.)

HubSpot found that their long content attracted a higher number of social shares. More detailed analysis from BuzzSumo (in partnership with Noah Kagan) shows that content length and social shares are positively correlated.

Based on a sample of 100 million articles, longer content is more likely to have a high number of shares on social. (Source, OkDork)

What about the user? Do people read long content?

Sort of.

Research from Nielsen Norman Group suggests that most people only read about 20% of any web page. Luckily, the length of the content doesn’t seem to affect the percentage all that much. People seem to read at least some of anything you put in front of them.

But that still doesn’t answer the key question. Medium released research on engagement by length of content. They reported that 7-minute reads (~1800 words) captured the most attention.

What’s interesting: the below chart is “heteroskedastic.” That means that, as posts get longer, there’s more variation in how long people spend reading posts.

7-minute reads had the most engagement on average. But the most engaging posts overall – the outliers – were longer reads. (Source, Medium)

In their research, the Medium product science team says: “A larger percent of the longer posts tend to have high values. So while the median time spent decreases, longer posts are also more likely to be one of the hits that perform especially well.”

Even though on average a 7-minute post was read for the longest, the top-performing posts were much longer. The chart above shows that the post with the most engagement was a ~16-minute read – which is about 4,000 words!

Long content is harder to do well – and people will quickly abandon long content if it doesn’t give them what they want.

But if you can create great long content, you’ll get better results.

Instead of asking “will people read long content,” ask “what does this content need to accomplish?”

In most cases, you don’t need people to read every word of a blog post – and they can still get value from your posts without reading them all in one sitting.

This post on content marketing metrics dives deep on a complicated problem – so much so that people let us know in the blog comments (unusual for a tech company blog)

First, focus on creating in-depth content that gives a complete answer to a specific question.

Then think about the other goals of content:

  • Getting people to visit your content in the first place
  • Converting people into leads or subscribers (via a lead magnet) when they visit your content
  • For those who visit but don’t sign up, making sure they remember you after they leave your website

Long content gives you the best chance to get those results – even if your visitors don’t read all of it.

Expert Insight: Andy Crestodina on how to make long content readable

“The key is formatting. Dense paragraphs make visitors thirsty for a visual break. Subheads, bullet lists and images are like refreshing sips of water for the eyes. They keep scan readers flowing.

So never write a paragraph longer than three lines. And, if possible, add an image at every scroll depth!”

– Andy Crestodina is a content marketing expert and the CMO of Orbit Media

How to write long blog posts that are also good

Long blog content is more likely to get shared. It’s more likely to rank in Google. It’s more likely to get you more readers.

If you do it well.

The Medium research shows that long content can either be the best-performing content – or the worst-performing content.

If you want your content to work, there are 4 pieces of advice you need to follow:

  1. Give people exactly the information they need
  2. Choose a really specific question and answer it fully
  3. Use voice of customer language (i.e. use the words your readers use)
  4. Instead of just giving advice, show people why the advice is right

1. Give people exactly the information they need

College seniors are given one of two pamphlets about tetanus. The first pamphlet contains graphic images of tetanus patients and skin-crawling descriptions of what happens when you get tetanus. The second has the same core information, but is less graphic.

Unsurprisingly, students who got the graphic pamphlet (the “high-fear” condition in the study) said they were more likely to get a tetanus shot.

But only 3% of students (in either group) actually got the shot.

In a follow-up study, Yale researcher Howard Levanthal handed out the same pamphlets – with a small change. For one group of students, he included a bit more information:

  • A map of campus with the student health center circled
  • A list of times when the tetanus shot would be offered there
  • A request of the student to plan when they would get the shot and how they would get to the campus health center

Instead of 3%, the number of students who got the shot was 28%.

Even though these students were seniors, and probably knew where the campus health center was, the tiny step of showing them exactly how to get a tetanus shot meant that more than 8x the students actually got shots.

You can make your long blog content good by giving your blog readers exact instructions on what to do next.

Our post on what to put in a welcome email series is an example of how we did this at ActiveCampaign.

This post gives people exactly what they need in order to create their own welcome series.

Giving people exactly the information they need also leads to people actually reading your posts – and helps you grow a business through content marketing.

This post is a good example. Here’s how it performs:

  • 9,365 visitors since being published (mostly from Google), with 1,333 in the last 30 days:
  • Ranks #1 for 19 keywords, including “welcome email series” (according to Moz)
  • When we offered it as gated content, it contributed 2200 leads in 28 days (a 3.2% conversion rate). As of writing, conversion rate has increased to 4.5%.
  • We created a landing page to offer a downloadable version of this post. When we sent paid traffic to that page, the traffic converted at 15+%

Because this post has a great, specific, exactly-what-you-need value proposition (“here are 6 emails”), it converts well and is our top-performing lead magnet.

It also gets tons of positive feedback when shared.

ActiveCampaign’s post on welcome email series is nearly 6,000 words long – but it also gets tons of positive feedback because of how much detail it includes.

2. Choose a really specific question and answer it fully

What’s the difference between these claims?

  • “Sales made simple” vs. “You hate guesswork and busywork — so we made sales less work”
  • “Affordable time tracking payroll software” vs. “The only time tracking tool that pays for itself”
  • “Break through native reporting limitations” vs. “Get the reports your CRM can’t give you — without the headache it does”

Copywriter Joel Klettke presented these variations at Unbounce’s 2017 Call to Action conference.

The first version of each message is vague. The second is more specific – and uses voice of customer language (more on that in a moment).

You can set your content up for success by getting really specific about the questions you answer. Which is more compelling?

  • A Guide to CRM Automation
  • CRM vs. Email Marketing vs. Marketing Automation: What’s the Difference?

There’s a place for the first type of content. But the topic “CRM automation” is so huge that you can’t possibly answer it completely in a single post.

The second topic is much more manageable. By narrowing the scope of what you write about, you can give a better answer to your readers!

(You’re also more likely to rank in search engines; more on that in the sections on search).

An example of a post targeting an extremely specific question, identified through some tricky keyword research.

How do posts like this do?

This post was first optimized for the phrase “crm vs email marketing,” which is only searched 10 times a month.

The post ranks first for that phrase, but also…

  • Brought in 321 visitors from in the last 30 days (much more than “should” have been possible based on normal keyword research)
  • Ranks for 135 keywords generally related to CRM and email marketing (according to Moz)
  • Pulled in the single largest customer from content in the entirety of 2019

Getting specific with your content is another way to give people exactly what they need (method 1). It let’s you give in-depth answers to their questions – so that they don’t leave your website to look somewhere else.

3. Use voice of customer language

A rehab and addiction therapy center tested two headlines: Can you guess which one won?

  1. “Your Addiction Ends Here”
  2. “If You Think You Need Rehab, You Do”

The second headline absolutely crushed the control – leading to 400% more button clicks and a 20% increase in form submissions (even though the form was on a different page).

This headline, pulled from audience language, increased clicks by 400% (Source: Copy Hackers)

Here’s the kicker – Joanna Wiebe, the copywriter on this project, didn’t write this headline. She took it straight out of the mouths of Beachway’s audience. In this case, the phrase appeared in an Amazon review of a book about addiction.

When you use the exact words your audience uses, your audience feels like you understand them.

You’re also easier to understand – it’s harder to use big words and other jargon if you’re focused on audience language. The best-titled psychology paper of all time – Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly – showed that using a bunch of big words actually makes readers think you’re less intelligent.

In his book Pre-Suasion, legendary psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that self-relevance is one of the three ways to hold attention. Using the words your audience uses makes your content feel relevant to readers – and get them to read all the way through.

At ActiveCampaign, we think about voice of customer language any time we write anything – including when we write about copywriting.

This post on how to write research-based copy is also filled with research-based copy (and got noticed because of it).

When you do voice of customer research, you naturally:

  • Find more specific questions to answer
  • Give people exactly what they need
  • Identify relevant keywords for SEO

…all of which help boost your content marketing results.

Here are some resources we’ve put together on how to find and use voice of customer research:

Expert Insight: Joanna Wiebe on high-value, in-depth content

“We have a formula we teach to help our students.

The way I see it, our goal when we go into writing or publishing a post is to make a compelling argument for X, where X is, wherever possible, different from what the world already believes or expects.

So a couple things happening there. The first is the idea of a blog post as an argument, where you’re anticipating objections and using third-party resources – like academic studies, split-test results and other articles – to help build your case. Also, we don’t want to add to the noise; we only want to publish when we (or our authors) have something to say. That means no listicles of “best practices” but rather a) challenging best practices (like in this post) or b) highlighting something that marketers may have overlooked or forgotten (like in this post).

And finally, arguments can feel… argumentative. That’s why we have the writer write in the first person and use his/her own experiences to shape the argument. (So not “how to write an email” but “how I wrote an email.”) This covers all manner of sins and keeps the reader off the defensive… mostly. 🙂

– Joanna Wiebe is the founder of Copyhackers

4. Instead of just giving advice, show people why that advice is right

People will read things that they think are interesting. So how do you get people to sit up and think “that’s interesting?”

You can get some answers from sociologist Murray Davis – who wrote a paper appropriately titled “That’s Interesting!

What, according to Davis, makes an idea interesting?

  • An idea is not interesting if it confirms your assumptions
  • An idea is interesting if it counters your assumptions

You need your ideas to surprise your audience by challenging something they believe.

You can get people interested in your content by making them think “huh, I never thought about it that way before.”

But there’s a problem – you can’t just lay out surprising advice and expect people to believe you.

“A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction.” – Festinger, Riecken, & Shachter, 1956

People will argue against ideas they disagree with. Research shows that they argue – even if their original beliefs are based on inaccurate info that they know is inaccurate (Anderson, Lepper, & Ross, 1980)!

Worse, arguing against someone’s strong beliefs can cause the “backfire effect” – which actually leaves them more convinced of their beliefs than when they started (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010).

Psychologists call this effect “belief perseverance” or “motivated reasoning,” but there are ways around it. Most importantly, people still need some evidence to justify their own beliefs.

“People are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want to arrive at, but their ability to do so is constrained by their ability to construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these conclusions” – Kunda, 1990 (emphasis mine)

All of this means that you can get people interested in your content by…

  • Challenging a medium-held belief in your audience instead of a strong belief. Bonus: Target a self-limiting belief that your audience doesn’t even want to have.
  • Giving incredibly detailed explanations (like all these psychology studies) to flood people with the evidence that supports your position

Instead of just giving advice, show people why that advice is right. A great example of how we did this at ActiveCampaign is our 6,500+ word guide to writing landing pages.

This post on how to write a landing page shares dozens of studies and expert quotes to support its ideas.

The landing page guide focuses on a principle called the Rule of One – and lays out evidence for each of the four components of the rule.

Here’s a list of the evidence for the “one offer” portion of the Rule of One (i.e. every landing page should make exactly one offer):

  • An expert quote from Peep Laja, founder of CXL
  • A reference to Hick’s Law (decisions take longer when there are more options)
  • A study showing that even doctors make worse decisions if they have more options
  • A TED talk (and book reference) by the renowned psychologist Barry Schwartz
  • A reference to Steve Krug’s design textbook “Don’t Make Me Think”
  • Expert insight from Aaron Orendorff, founder of iconiContent (previously at Shopify)
  • Expert insight from Neville Medhora, founder of Kopywriting Kourse (previously at Sumo)
  • A case study of an email clickthrough rate A/B test

Instead of just giving advice, we gave advice backed by 8 separate pieces of evidence – and that was for just 1 of the 4 pieces of the Rule of One!

Expert Insight: Brennan Dunn on the secret to long-form content

“If someone were to say to me: “Hey, love your writing. What’s the secret?”

My gut response would be: I listen. Namely, I run a lot of automated surveys to my audience – both anonymously, at the point of opting in (onboarding), and later stage.

What I’m trying to learn from this surveying is who someone is and why they’re giving me any share of their attention. I see my job as to help as many people as I can using my experience + my ability to research my own audience / third parties. So I take the feedback I got really seriously. Can I help? Are they saying one thing, but actually struggling with something else? To completely satisfy why they’re here, what needs to happen?

With that as the foundation, it actually makes writing these monster, 8,000+ word articles pretty simple.

Why? Because my audience has done much of the hard work for me. They’ve told me what they’re struggling with. In their own words, I know who they are and what they need. My job becomes a matter of going through and figuring out how I can collectively respond to what people are telling me (directly and indirectly), and hopefully come up with something that’s authoritative, detailed, and – most importantly – makes the reader thing, “You know what…? This was really helpful. I’m going to stick around and share.”

It’s hard when you’re just staring at a blank page.

And it’s almost like cheating when you can engage in a lot of 1-to-1 back and forth with people, mull over a lot of raw, unfiltered survey data, and then curate it all together into something that’s legitimately helpful and does more to build trust and create customers than all the fancy-pants sales copy writing in the world.”

– Brennan Dunn is a personalization expert and the founder of RightMessage

Use ActiveCampaign content marketing templates to make it easier to grow your blog

Managing a blog is difficult, but having a clear process can make it easier. To grow your blog, you’ll need to create more, higher-quality content – and we put together some tools to help you do just that.

These free content marketing templates make it easier for you to focus on creating great work. The templates include:

  • Keyword research and outline template
  • 23-point editing checklist
  • SERP analysis checklist
  • Blog scannability checklist
  • 4 proven email outreach templates
  • 11 ways to practice content writing
  • Small moments of excellence checklist

These templates show you how to organize your keyword research, how to analyze search results for SEO, how to create blogs that are easier to read, how to promote your blogs – and everything you need to grow your blog faster.

Expert Insight: Len Markidan on scaling up a content marketing program

“It’s easy enough to create high-quality content with a single writer.

But as soon as you have two full-time writers, hire an experienced editor to oversee every piece that you publish. A great editor will keep your team’s content quality and tone consistent, and they’ll keep the content pipeline moving; all critical elements of a well-run content operation that can scale.”

– Len Markidan is the CMO at Podia

Why you should focus on getting traffic from search engines

If you Google phrases like “how to grow your blog” or “how to get traffic to your blog” or “how to promote your blog,” you’re going to come away with a looooooong list of blog promotion tactics to try. That list will probably include things like…

  • Post to Facebook!
  • Post to Twitter!
  • Post to Instagram!
  • Post to Quora!
  • Post to Forums!
  • Post to Pinterest!
  • Post to subreddits on Reddit!
  • (Sensing a theme yet?)
  • Post to WT.social (this is a new one)
  • Add social share buttons!
  • Add click to tweet!
  • Pitch bloggers with cold outreach emails
  • Send blogs to your email list
  • Set up an autoresponder to promote posts to blog subscribers!
  • Add links to your blog subscription confirmation page!
  • Post in online communities!
  • Do newsjacking
  • Repurpose your blog content into every other type of content! (Videos, webinars, SlideShare, infographics, Medium posts, podcasts, ebooks)
  • Write guest posts
  • Do…something…with influencer marketing
  • Facebook ads are an option
  • Quuu promote
  • RSS feeds? What year is it?
  • Host a virtual summit

Phew. Is anyone else exhausted?

Lists like this make it seem like every blog promotion tactic is equally important.

But…they’re not. At all. In fact, most successful blogs get most of their traffic from just a couple of places. Even if they start using some of these other tactics, those tactics only work because the most important sources of traffic help build an audience (that you can promote to).

Instead of trying to check off an endless to-do list of the latest blog promotion tactic (Snapchat promotion? Is that a thing?), focus on the 1 or 2 sources of traffic that make the most sense for you.

And the biggest traffic source of all is Google.

As this section will show you, traffic from search engines, especially Google, is the largest and most accessible source of website visitors available. If you want to reach a lot of people, organic search traffic is the way to do it.

Note that you might want to take a different approach in some situations:

  • You’re a consultant or freelancer, and only need to convert a small number of people to run your business
  • Your customers are executives, who are less likely to turn to Google for answers to their problems
  • You’re in a new industry, and no one is searching for things related to your product yet (although pain-point SEO might still help)
  • You really, really need to reach a lot of people (like, multiple millions), in which case a huge PR campaign or TV ad spend are probably most efficient
  • There’s a more efficient channel for your business (networking, promotion of content in communities, etc.)

Still, if you need to reach a high number of people with content, search traffic is the most accessible source of people.

Because the Google numbers are staggering.

Research from Rand Fishkin (using a Jumpshot data set that I am frankly jealous of) showed that Google refers 57.8% of all traffic in the sample.

Google refers 10x the traffic of the second place referrer. (Source, SparkToro)

Rand looked at all traffic to all types of pages – not just blog posts.

Is search traffic really the biggest source of traffic? People do use social media, right?

Survey research from HubSpot shows that search engines are the top source of “news, business, and lifestyle stories,” with 52% of consumers saying they turn to search engines for information.

How do people come across blogs? Google and other search engines are the top source of news. (Source, HubSpot)

In this research, social media isn’t as far behind search engines as it is in Rand Fishkin’s research.

That’s probably because, as survey research, this study couldn’t look at where real-life traffic comes from – people in the study probably do use their Facebook feed a lot, but that doesn’t mean they click on links and go to websites.

What do the traffic numbers say? Research from BuzzSumo’s Content Trends Report shows that traffic from Facebook decreased in the 2017-2018 period.

As Google referral traffic rose, Facebook referral traffic declined. (Source, BuzzSumo)

The BuzzSumo Content Trends Report also comments on the decline of social sharing:

“We took a random sample of 100m posts published in 2017 (Jan to Nov) from the BuzzSumo database and compared the level of social sharing to what we found in our 2015 study. We found that median shares have fallen from 8 in 2015 to just 4 in 2017.

We should also note that at BuzzSumo, we focus on shared content, and we frequently do not index content with zero shares. Thus our data is biased towards posts that are shared. Despite this bias in our sample, 90% of the content gained less than 62 shares.”

BuzzSumo’s research shows that social sharing is on the decline.

Social sharing is down, but does that affect how many people find blogs through social media? Unfortunately, blogs tend not to make their analytics public – but fortunately there are a couple of sources of information we can lean on.

Hiten Shah researched where blogs get their traffic. He looked at blogs with different levels of traffic to see which sources of traffic drove the most visitors – and how sources of traffic changed based on the size of the blog.

  • At fewer than 150k yearly visits, traffic sources were mixed
  • From 150k to 1.5m yearly visits, traffic is mixed, but search traffic begins to pick up
  • From 1.5m to 3m yearly visits, search share increases (though there is still a mix)
  • From 8m to 15m yearly visits, search is by far the dominant source of traffic

At higher traffic levels, traffic tends to come from organic search. As you look at how to grow your blog, consider how your source of traffic will change. (Source, Hiten Shah)

Search makes up more traffic as blog traffic increases – because search is where most of the people are! It’s harder for small sites to show up in search results, but search will become a bigger percentage of your traffic as you grow your blog.

Also important – the sources of traffic that make sense for you might depend on your industry.

In Hiten Shah’s research, he points out that some industries (like software) are more likely to get traffic from organic search than other channels:

“Software blogs that have built huge traffic of 8M+ yearly visitors have done it by winning with organic search. They receive at minimum 3x the traffic from organic search than any other channel of traffic.

In contrast, a big media site like Buzzfeed gets 5x more social traffic than search traffic because Facebook is dominated by news and entertainment content. Personal blog C gets about half of its traffic outside of search.

But software blogs aren’t places that people habitually go to on their own, nor does SaaS content really fit with what people want to read when they’re hanging out on social media. Rather, SaaS blogs get large-scale traffic when people look up specific problems on Google and find that the company blog has the answer.”

Jimmy Daly ran SaaS content at Vero and Quickbooks. He argues that organic search is critical for blogs that want to grow – for software blogs especially, but also because search success leads to success in other areas:

The first thing nearly all SaaS blogs should do is aim for 50% organic share. Keep in mind that we measure organic share across the entire site, not just content. It’s likely that content will be the main driver of traffic growth, but that should lift the organic presence of the homepage and product/feature pages. If you aren’t at 50% yet, that’s your next goal.

In order to scale—and we mean really scale, like 250,000 monthly pageviews and beyond—you will need to increase organic share. Search traffic scales in a way that social, email, paid and referral traffic simply can’t. Large SaaS sites all rely on this same mechanism for growth.”

In a case study of AdEspresso’s traffic growth, Daly elaborates by explaining that organic search traffic is actually a good way to figure out if your blog as a whole is successful:

“The pie charts below show that AdEspresso’s organic presence has been steadily increasing. What it doesn’t show is that traffic from other sources has been increasing as well. This trend is typical of sites with strong organic growth. As search traffic increases—perhaps the most important indicator of a site’s overall health—other sources begin driving more traffic as well. More people follow the brand on social media, subscribe to the newsletter, and go to the site directly. Organic traffic grows faster, hence the pie charts below, but it’s a tide that lifts all ships.”

Although all traffic sources increase substantially in the studied period, organic traffic increases fastest. (Source, Animalz)

Search is by far the largest source of traffic to blogs. Of course, ranking in search results isn’t always straightforward. How can you get blog traffic from organic search?

How can you optimize your blog posts for search engines?

You can optimize your blog post for search engines by choosing a great primary keyword, finding phrases that show your page is relevant to the overall topic, and studying search engine results pages (SERPs) to understand what kind of content to create.

Let’s talk about how to do each of those things.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is an entire industry, and there’s so much to learn that coming into it for the first time can be overwhelming.

Plus, you’ll get a ton of advice about things you “absolutely must do for SEO” (don’t worry, you don’t have to do most of it). That list includes stuff like…

  • Install a WordPress SEO plugin, like Yoast
  • Optimize your meta title and meta descriptions
  • Make sure your posts are mobile-friendly
  • Use pagespeed insights to make your page loading times faster
  • Do link building to build up your domain authority
  • Do internal linking between your blog posts to improve crawlability
  • Make sure all of your images have alt text and optimized image file names
  • Use short URLs for all your posts
  • Include keywords in your H1s, H2s, and H3s, and in your title tag
  • Submit a sitemap to Google and use Google Search Console to check your crawlability

These aren’t necessarily bad advice – but they give you too much to think about. And most of the results you can get from search engines come from doing 1-3 things really, really well.

You can follow these simple onsite SEO best practices from the list above (to get most of the way there):

  • Make your URLs short, and include a keyword (WordPress, Squarespace, and other website builders make it easy to change URLs)
  • Once you have your primary keyword, put it in your headline and throughout your post
  • Make sure your posts are crawlable by Google (i.e. Google can see them). An SEO plugin like Yoast can manage this for you, so that you don’t need a developer.

Outside of those, there are three things you can do to give your blog posts the best chance of getting traffic from Google. Best of all, you can do them even if you aren’t an SEO expert.

Here are the three most important blog SEO practices:

  1. Choose a primary keyword based on “pain-point SEO”
  2. Find related phrases that show Google what your post is about
  3. Study what already shows up in Google, so that you know what to write

1. Choose a primary keyword based on “pain-point SEO”

Expert Insight: Benji Hyam on pain-point SEO

“Take top questions that you get from prospects or top pain points that you hear on sales calls and run searches in Google to see what suggested searches come up around a topic. The reason being: if Google suggests a search or top question, you know multiple people are searching for an answer to that question. Then write a blog post answering that question or walking people through how to solve that pain point.

Prioritize the questions and or pain points that have the highest buying intent for your product or service. To figure that out, ask: What are the questions that people ask prior to buying? They’re usually looking for reviews or comparisons between you and other competitors in the market.”

– Benji Hyam is the founder of Grow and Convert. You can read more about his approach to pain-point SEO here.

What problems can you solve for your customers? What do you hear them complaining about the most?

People search for answers to those problems. All you need to do is figure out how they phrase those searches. With pain-point SEO, you can rank for those phrases even if you have a small website – because most other writers don’t put in the work to find real audience problems.

You’ll notice that we didn’t optimize this post for the word “blogging.” Instead, we focused on a more specific phrase: “how to grow your blog.”

Here’s how to find the primary keywords for your blog posts – the phrases to include in your URL, headline, and throughout your content:

  1. Find the problems that your customers complain about most often
  2. Start listing out some possible phrases that someone might search to solve those problems
  3. Run those phrases through a keyword research tool to see if people search for them
  4. Repeat until you find a phrase you like

The first two steps are mostly brainstorming – no fancy SEO tools required. You can find the problems that your customers complain while finding voice of customer language (from the sections above). This post shares some ideas on how to do that. Here’s a short list:

  • Talk to your customers on the phone
  • Talk to a sales team (if you have one)
  • Look through emails that your customers send you, and pull out common phrases
  • Look at reviews for your product, similar products, or books (on Amazon) that solve similar problems
  • Mine online forums (and sites like Quora and Reddit) to find common questions
  • Use a tool like Answer the Public to see what questions people ask

Expert Insight: Adrienne Barnes on how to know your audience

“The best way to create a content strategy that leads to better engagement and sales is by knowing the audience well. My first step is to get on the phone with about 10 customers. I ask questions that help me understand their feelings about my client’s product/company – their joy, frustration, annoyance, pleasure around the product.

I’m looking to learn where they go to for information, but I also want to know why they find a feature amazing, and what is it about a tool that frustrates them. When interviews are complete, I analyze all the responses and create a spreadsheet of what I call “relational keywords.” It’s an entire spreadsheet filled with the customer’s language in relation to my clients product/company. When I combine those words with SEO keyword research, the editorial calendar and blog topics fall into place!

I’d say the most beneficial thing for someone identifying their audience for the first time is to start by knowing your customers well. Then build out the strategy based on customer’s needs, concerns, knowledge gaps, and frustrations.”

– Adriennne Barnes is a content marketing consultant. She uses her relational analysis framework to help companies get as close to their customers as possible.

Once you have a list of pain points and some phrases to try, run them through a keyword research tool. Common keyword research tools include:

  • Moz
  • Ahrefs
  • SEMrush
  • Google Keyword Planner
  • Keywordtool.io
  • Ubersuggest

At ActiveCampaign, we mostly use Moz for our content keyword research. If you want to grow your blog fast, a paid keyword tool like Moz, Ahrefs, or SEMrush is your best bet.

But if you’re just getting started or otherwise don’t want to spend money on a tool, Ubersuggest is a free resource you can start with.

Putting in your keyword shows you how many people search for it every month, how hard it is to rank for, suggestions for other keywords, and other information. (Source, Ubersuggest)

Put each pain point phrase you’ve collected into your keyword research tool. Are people searching those phrases? Is the difficulty score low? Do any of the suggested keywords look promising?

(Note: You don’t need a lot of people to be searching these phrases. Even 10 searches a month can be enough, for reasons covered in the next section).

If you invest in a paid SEO tool, you can add another step: When you check each of your phrases, you can put in the URL for the top-ranking page – to see what other phrases that page ranks for.

Here’s what that looks like in Moz.

Putting in the top-ranking post for your target keyword lets you find other phrases you might want to target with your blog posts. (Source, Moz)

If you try this, you’ll usually find that the first few keywords are closely related to the main keyword (“how to grow your blog”).

But if you scroll down, you’ll find related phrases that could be good primary keywords – or ideas for new blog posts!

In this example, I found phrases like “how to attract more readers to your blog,” “how can you make your blog popular,” and “find readers for your blog” – all of which are different ways to ask the question, “how do I grow my blog.”

Go through this process until you find a keyword that makes sense for the blog post you want to write. Now you have your primary keyword!

2. Find related phrases that show Google what your post is about

How does Google figure out what your blog posts are about?

There’s a nerdier, more detailed breakdown of the answer in the next section. The short answer is: by looking for phrases related to the main topic.

If you wanted to write about a topic like “what are the different types of CRM,” you would want to include keywords related to that topic. A quick search in Moz gave me a list that includes phrases like:

  • Types of CRM
  • Strategic CRM
  • CRM examples
  • Operational and analytical CRM
  • Types of pipelines
  • CRM benefits for sales reps
  • CRM categories
  • Types of relationship management

All of those phrases are definitely related to the topic “types of CRM,” so it’s worth including them in your post.

But what would a CRM expert write about this topic?

CRMs are usually used by sales teams, so a CRM expert would probably mention things like sales pipelines, contact management, cold outreach emails, and phone prospecting.

Google wants to show results that are most relevant to the overall topic – and a “types of CRM” page that includes those other (expert) phrases is more likely to seem relevant to Google.

In Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, they talk about E-A-T (Expertise, Authority, Trustworthiness).

Google wants to show high-quality, relevant content. E-A-T aren’t “ranking factors” on their own, but Google uses their algorithm to try and show people content that has high expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. (Source, Google)

Fundamentally, the logic looks like this:

  • An expert is more likely to use all of these related but hard-to-find phrases
  • Therefore, Google uses those phrases to guess the level of expertise of a blog post
  • If you include those phrases, Google is more likely to think your blog is relevant to the topic

How can you find those hard-to-find phrases?

By looking at the posts that are already ranking! That’s what ActiveCampaign did when we wrote our very own post about “types of CRM.”

This post ranks second for the phrase “types of CRM,” and is a great example of semantic SEO in action.

With this post, we couldn’t quite take the top spot in Google (although our post still brings in about ~130 readers per week). That’s actually what makes it a great example – the top spot on this search engine results page is intensely optimized.

Take a look at some of the phrases that appear in the top-ranking post. See if you can spot the examples in the last paragraph.

This post ranks first (and has a featured snippet) because it includes so many phrases related to the overall topic “types of CRM.” Can you spot the examples in the last paragraph? (Source, Techonestop)

The information in this post isn’t great. If Google gets smarter about measuring content quality, this post might suffer (and for our post, we chose to give more in-depth, higher-quality information).

But for right now, the related phrases in this post show Google that this post is relevant – so it’s at the top of the search results.

How can you do this?

  • When you optimize blog posts, scroll through the top-ranking posts for your keyword
  • As you read, put together a list of phrases that keep showing up
  • When you write, include those phrases

If you do this well and keep your content quality high, Google will see that your page is relevant. And because you’re speaking Google’s language, it should also future-proof your SEO.

Expert Insight: Nadya Khoja on how to optimize blog posts

“Before you can drive traffic from search, you need to set your content up for success.

All successful content relies on a content strategy framework I refer to as GRAP: Goals, Research, Authority, and Promotion.

1. What does this content need to achieve? If you have a high domain authority (DA) you can aim to create content that converts users, but if you’re still building your DA, you want to focus on building your authority. Creating content around statistics, roundups, and infographics for your own site and other high-quality sites is a great way to scale your DA quickly.

2. Research your metrics. What keywords do you want to rank for, and who is ranking for them at the moment? What do they offer, how many backlinks do they have?

3. You need to create quality content that is optimized. With more changes in the search algorithm, keyword stuffing isn’t going to cut it. Your content has to provide genuine value for readers AND be properly optimized. Fast load speeds, helpful links, and answering questions and problems that readers have in a clear, actionable way. Without this quality content, your authority on the subject (and Google) drops off a cliff.

4. And finally, promotion is king. Before you can drive traffic from search, you need to drive traffic from your network. Build backlinks, share on social media, link from existing articles. If nobody knows your content exists, Google won’t either. The more eyeballs you can get on your piece, the quicker you can build your traffic flow. In a world where everybody is building backlinks you need to think creatively. Offer to write a guest post or create other forms of valuable content for their sites. One thing Venngage does a lot of is creating custom visuals like timelines, presentations and more for other influencer to develop valuable and long-term partnerships.”

– Nadya Khoja is the Chief Growth Officer at Venngage

3. Study what already shows up in Google, so that you know what to write

Even if a keyword seems relevant to the topic of your post, it might not be.

Why?

Before you write a word of your blog post, you should Google your keyword to see what else shows up.

Originally, the keyword for this post was “how to increase blog traffic.” But when I Googled that phrase, most of the content wasn’t what I wanted to write about.

Everything that shows up for this blog post is some kind of listicle. In order to rank for this phrase, I would need to write a listicle too.

I wanted this post to be about how to get more people to read your blog, but I didn’t want it to become a list of content marketing tactics to try – because I think you only need 1-3 methods that work (instead of an overwhelming to-do list).

When you Google your keywords, you’ll probably come across some similar themes:

  • A lot of “what is [keyword]” posts
  • Listicles with high numbers (e.g. “67 ways to do [keyword]”)
  • Listicles with low numbers (e.g. “6 ways to do [keyword]”)
  • Case studies or examples
  • Ultimate guides
  • “How to” posts

There are other types of SERPs, but those are the most common.

Looking at what currently ranks helps you understand the “searcher intent” – what type of content people are looking for when they search your keyword. Unfortunately, if you write a “how to” post for a keyword with mostly listicles, you won’t get much traffic.

An example from ActiveCampaign – we refreshed the content on our blog post about “abandoned cart emails,” so that the post was closer to what people were searching for (examples of abandoned cart emails).

The post had been live for a little over a year, and was getting 22 visitors per week. After the update, traffic climbed until it hit 1,000 visitors per week.

This post about abandoned cart emails was updated on June 21, 2019 (the red arrow). After matching searcher intent more closely, traffic to the post skyrocketed.

Once you know your primary keyword, Google it to make sure that the blog post you want to write is a good fit for the SERP. If not, consider changing your content or looking for another keyword.

Expert Insight: Aaron Orendorff on differentiation in SEO

“Two strategies must overlap and interlock. First, after traditional keyword research to determine organic demand (i.e., high-volume for top-of-the-funnel content; high-CPC for bottom-of-the-funnel) you have to then layer on, second, the core ideas that differentiate your organization’s approach from your competitors. In practice, this one-two combo can work in either direction.

For example, in a recent piece I co-created with Common Thread Collective, we started with its “ecommerce growth equation”: V (visitors) x CR (conversion rate) x LTV (lifetime value) = Revenue. But — as insanely valuable as that is to shape its audience’s own approach — nobody is searching for ecommerce growth equation.

Instead, by researching organic demand, we reframed around the headline “Ecommerce Business Strategy: The Growth Equation, 3 Metrics & 5 Tactics to 3x Your Revenue in 2020.” That way the audience gets what they need (even if they don’t know they need it) and the brand gets to prioritize what matters to them.”

– Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent

Why does this approach to SEO work? Warning, nerd alert: optional nerd info ahead.

You can get organic search traffic to your blog post by…

  • Choosing primary keywords based on your audiences pain points
  • Finding hard-to-find phrases that help Google understand what your blog post is about
  • Glancing at search engine results to make sure your content matches searcher intent

Why does this work?

This section – which is optional – covers the reasoning behind this approach to blog SEO.

Specifically, we’ll cover…

  1. Why most searches are unique (and what that means for your content)
  2. How Google understands what pages are about

1. Why most searches are unique (and what that means for your content)

Way back in 2009, Moz reported that most searches are long-tail searches. That is, even though individual phrases don’t get searched that often, people search for so many phrases that long-tail searches still account for about 70% of all monthly searches.

Most people search phrases that don’t get searched very much. But because there are so many people, those “low volume” phrases collectively account for most searches. (Source, Moz)

Head terms vs. long tail is the difference between someone searching “landing page” or “how to build a landing page” and someone searching “how do I attribute revenue to people who convert on my landing page?”

If this research is from 2009, doesn’t that make it incredibly outdated? The last decade has seen major changes to Google – but this research is still relevant because it’s about what people search instead of how Google works.

Most searches are unique, or close to unique – meaning that the exact sequence of words that someone literally enters into Google doesn’t get searched very often.

Because searches are unique, there probably isn’t a specific page that exactly answers every search – but Google still needs to show people something.

What does Google do when someone searches a phrase that doesn’t have a clear answer anywhere on the internet?

None of the results on this search engine results page (SERP) actually answer the question. And yet – Google still shows results on this SERP.

Google won’t give you a blank search result unless it absolutely has to. When someone searches a query that doesn’t have a clear answer, Google gives its best guess.

Warning: Google patents ahead.

At ActiveCampaign, we dug deep into Google patents to understand what Google shows for these long-tail phrases.

You don’t need to read the Google patents listed here – but here are some of the big ideas we learned from reading them.

  • The Google patent “Obtaining authoritative search results” (summary of the patent here) implies that, if Google cannot find an authoritative page for the searched query, it may pull from related searches. This is what’s happening in the landing page attribution SERP above.
  • A second patent, “query augmentation”, suggests that Google uses the performance of content in search for one query as a signal for other, similar queries (summary of the patent here). That is, if content does well for one search term, it probably also does well for other search terms.

What does that mean not in search-engine speak?

  • If Google can’t find a good post to show for a search, it will pull the top-ranking posts from similar searches
  • If a post ranks well for one search term, it will probably also rank well for other search terms

One piece of content tends to appear in search results for multiple queries.

If this is true, you should see posts that target low-volume phrases pull in much more actual search traffic than you’d guess from the keyword research.

Moz reports that the phrase “welcome email series” is searched 51-100 times per month.

In October 2019, this post pulled in 1,496 users – nearly 15x the search volume for the phrase. When the post was published, Moz reported just 50 searches per month.

Although most content marketers don’t target this type of keyword, there are a few people on the cutting edge of this.

Even though a phrase like “how do I attribute revenue to people who convert on my landing page” doesn’t get searched very often, there are a LOT of people trying to solve the problem – figuring out how much money they make from landing pages.

If you write a blog post that answers that question – and optimize it so that Google understands – you should be able to snag up more search traffic than you expect.

2. How Google understands what pages are about

The broad approach to predicting site quality, as detailed in this Google patent.

When someone puts a search query into Google, Google looks for pages on the Internet that include that query. Then it looks for other phrases that often show up on those pages.

After that, it takes those new phrases and does the same thing – look for pages that include the related phrase, then see what other phrases show up.

And again, and again, and again.

This is, generally speaking, the approach that Google takes to understanding content: “What pages does this phrase appear on, and what else usually appears on those pages? If a page has a lot of those things on it, it’s probably related to the phrase.”

A search algorithm like Google uses natural language processing (NLP) to understand the overall topic of a page. NLP is a branch of linguistics and machine learning that lets computers make connections between different words.

Expert Insight: Britney Muller on natural language processing

“Having a basic understanding of NLP will help you to strategically craft your content to rank better in search results. From better organizing your videos, so Google can show a specific section of your video (for a specific video-intent query) to crafting better summaries to win featured snippets, foundational NLP awareness can help you think more like Google.”

– Britney Muller is the Senior SEO Scientist at Moz

The mechanics of exactly how Google understands pages are complicated, and it probably takes engineering experience to really dig into. The content marketing team at ActiveCampaign isn’t full of machine learning experts, but we did look at these patents to inform our SEO strategy:

  • Patent: Predicting site quality. Written summary here. Patent discusses using n-grams to break down a web page and create a language model, “wherein the phrase model defines a mapping from phrase specific relative frequency measures to phrase specific baseline site quality scores.”
  • Patent: User-context-based search engine. Written summary here. Google, given a query, looks at all pages for that query. Then it looks at other phrases that often coincide with the original phrase, then looks at those phrases…and so on, recursively, to create a context vector that quantifies the relationship between words.
  • Patent: Phrase-based searching in an information retrieval system. Written summary here. As with the previous patent, this patent appears to focus on understanding how phrases are related to each other. From the abstract: “Phrases are identified that predict the presence of other phrases in documents.”
  • Patent: Re-ranking Resources Based On Categorical Quality. Written summary here. Google likely can identify the category of interest from some search queries. Rankings can change based on category, with resources known to have high quality for a particular category prioritized. Note that this presupposes the ability to identify intent (and the patent holder has a background in intent research).

If this looks like gibberish, don’t worry! The linked summaries are a great resource – but the rest of this post has also explained how you can find related phrases to give Google the info it needs (so you don’t need to read the patents unless you really want to).

Conclusion: How to grow your blog

Expert Insight: Robert Rose on the communicating value of content

“The most important thing for content marketers to understand is that what we are communicating is not the value of the content, it is the value of the relationship with an audience. Our content has zero value unless it changes a behavior in our audience.

So, when we communicate value – we must start with three questions: why/what/how our content will change behavior that will benefit us? How do you find that? Look for the gaps? What do audiences do that unengaged audiences don’t?”

– Robert Rose is the co-founder of the Content Marketing Institute, where he manages the content consulting group The Content Advisory

When you build readership to your blog, the value isn’t the blog – it’s the readership.

This post shows you how to grow your blog. You can grow your blog by:

  1. Writing long-form, detailed answers to really specific questions
  2. Optimizing your blog posts for search engines, the largest source of traffic

If you run your own business or have your own blog, that’s great! You’re all set.

If you’re a content marketer or you run a company blog, you may still need to convince the rest of your company of the value of content marketing.

That’s what Robert Rose is talking about above – to communicate the value of content marketing, work to make people understand how helpful it is to have an audience that you can access whenever you want to. We’ve written about how to measure content marketing here.

Sean Blanda is a strong advocate of creating a publication for your business – a concrete, branded content marketing program that you can use to build your audience.

Expert Insight: Sean Blanda on publications vs. collections of blog posts

“A publication is a brand, and a brand should have a clear mission, voice, and purpose. A good test: if you were to cover up the logos on your site, would a reader know it was you? If yes, that’s a publication.

A publication is also a business and a business provides value. If your publication were to disappear tomorrow, would people miss it? If you’re a publication, you’re improving the lives of your readers and they’ll certainly notice if you’re not around.”

– Sean Blanda is the director of content at Crossbeam and founder of Pilcrow House

At ActiveCampaign, we grew our blog from 8,765 monthly visitors to 119,037 visitors by building long-form content optimized for search engines.

Stay tuned for what’s next.