By: Rand Fishkin
It’s a near-universal experience for consultants and in-house SEOs who’ve worked on numerous organic search campaigns. The first 3–6 months (longer if the site is very large or complex) of any SEO effort is almost always exclusively dedicated to fixing mistakes, improving existing issues, tweaking and tuning the sub-optimal, and generally closing the gap between what exists now and current best practices.
The beautiful part of SEO is that, once completed, these efforts can have ongoing and compounding benefits for months or years to come. The newly accessible and optimized pages start earning rankings and traffic, which beget more links, more personalization-biasing, more exposure, more sharing, and more business. If you’ve got competent content & dev teams continually checking items off the list (and not creating many new ones), slowly the list of actionable, low-hanging fruit dwindles. I like to call this “the SEO plateau.”
The existing parts of the site have been optimized. The processes for content creation are now efficient and up to SEO standards. That immense task-list of SEO to-dos is now a stable, manageable group of regularly addressed items. Don’t get me wrong—it’s an AMAZING place to be. There are plenty of companies that never reach it (since the move from SEOmoz to Moz, even we never have!).
But this cleared backlog also creates its own problems, namely the frustrating “What Are You Gonna Do Now?” question.
Sadly, answering with an “Are you kidding me?! SEO just 10X’d your traffic, streamlined your conversion process, and brings in more than half of all new customers!” just doesn’t cut it. That’s why we need to look at the 5 opportunities that nearly every organization has to jump-start from plateau to high-growth SEO. Not every one of these will make sense for every site, but each deserves analysis and investigation.
For this post, I’m going to assume you’re a moderately advanced SEO and you’ve already optimized pieces like on-page SEO, made your snippets rock with killer titles & meta descriptions, fixed every technical issue that might have held you back, and gone through a few rounds of keyword researchand content creation/amplification. This process is about what comes next.
The 5 SEO Growth Opportunities:
- New Keywords & Content
- New Verticals & SERP Features
- Additional SERP Domination
- Moving Up the Buyer Funnel
- International/Multi-Language Targeting
If you’re hitting that plateau, and finding year-over-year growth has stalled for organic search traffic, explore the descriptions below and make a smart call about what deserves your attention for the year ahead. Sometimes, that option may not be obvious, in which case: experiment, iterate, measure, and then determine how to prioritize.
New keywords & content
This option comes up most often when search traffic growth starts to stall but rankings remain high. Growth-focused organizations aren’t satisfied dominating rankings for keywords they already own, so they chase an ever-expanding list of terms and phrases that could bring valuable traffic.
Thing is, a lot of the time, this makes sense. It’s an obvious move, but this is one of those seemingly elusive times when what’s obvious and what’s right often as not line up.
The keys to success with expanding your keyword list (and content creation targets) are:
1) Understanding your audience and the keywords that will actually drive value
Sadly, sometimes we get so focused on rankings and traffic that we forget that alone, these serve no purpose. If your new-found SEO boost brings in loads of new visits with little measurable impact on short or long-term conversions (even to the next stages of the funnel like return visits or email signups or a visit to the product pages), you might be barking up the wrong tree. It’s OK to treat some traffic as purely brand-focused, and some content as likely-to-earn links but unlikely to convert visitors. But if the ratios get out of whack, it’s your job to rein it in and get back to sensible targeting.
2) Knowing your domain’s ranking ability
In niche after niche, there are a few powerful sites who can put up even mediocre content and rank well for it. In essence, they’ve trained Google (and searchers) to prefer their content on those topics. But, this power takes an incredible amount of time and energy to earn. Thanks to our recent acquisition of SERPscape, I can actually quantify this:
Well, OK, technically this is all Russ Jones’ work (thanks buddy!), but the numbers make it clear. The overwhelming majority of sites only rank for a small handful of keywords, and it’s only a few who ever break through and earn consistently high rankings across a large set of commercially-valuable SERPs.
If you have this goal (and long term, anyone seeking to dominate a sizable market should), you’ll need to pursue that healthy mix of crazy, we’ll-never-rank-for-it stretch goals, comfortable targets, and easy hits. Domain authority is one metric that can help, but given the complexity of topical authority in Google these days, there’s also a sixth sense professional SEOs develop that should be applied here, too.
3) Hitting your sweet spot for amplification and links
We’ve learned recently that social media almost never works as the sole source of links that help earn rankings. But, we also know that without links, content is very unlikely to rank. Thus, the content we produce needs to aim for the kinds of amplification that can drive direct traffic and value, as well as the kinds that can earn links and rank. That’s a challenge for almost every content creator, especially those who also try to make that content fit a promotional or revenue-driving goal (a very rare and impressive accomplishment indeed).
In my experience, the content that has the best likelihood of nailing these is going to be at the intersection of three things: content about which you (the content creator) have great passion, content where you can add unique value that previously has not existed (or hasn’t been easily available) on the web before, and content that resonates with your audience and creates an emotional desire to share and amplify.
Nail that consistently and you’ll be back on your way to the flywheel of SEO growth.
New verticals & SERP features
The list of verticals available through Google is astounding, but you can rely on Mozcast to help sort through the noise to ID the signal:
Via Mozcast’s Feature Graph across 10,000 daily-tracked SERPs
If a vertical is in less than 1% of search results, it probably doesn’t make a great target unless you have a very specific niche market where that feature’s penetration is considerably higher.
The process here is simple: if a vertical or feature appears in a substantive number of search results globally and/or in a considerable number of the SERPs you care about to attract your search visits, it’s almost certainly worth some effort. Google News, Shopping, Reviews, Images, Knowledge Panels, Tweets, Local Boxes, and more all have the potential to take away a lot of the clicks that would ordinarily go to “classic blue links”-style results. If you can own that SERP real estate before or even in addition to your competition, your traffic growth opportunities have considerably more room to rise.
One important note: YouTube on its own is the world’s second-largest search engine. If video isn’t coming up as a big opportunity for you, double check that math! For almost every niche there’s a good possibility that video can bring in terrific audience attention and branding value, even if the traffic isn’t as direct as from Google itself. Video SEO has changed since Google’s move away from rich snippets for non-YouTube content, but it’s still a massive search channel.
Domination through multiple results or slight ranking boosts
Many, many times, I’ve looked at a set of competitive search results, seen Moz ranking in the top 3, and thought, “We’re good here; maybe I’ll target something else.” But, that mentality may be costing me some real opportunity:
Multiple listings in the same set of search results isn’t just about getting more real estate, but about boosting traffic and click-through rate for both. Some analyses (that I sadly cannot locate anymore and didn’t properly bookmark) have shown that two listings in the search results can have a greater CTR than just position X + position Y. Like great romances, the effect of dual listings is greater than the sum of its parts.
Likewise, thinking that #2 or #3 are “good enough” is also probably costing me the chance to scale search traffic considerably. Depending on the CTR curve you like best, #1 is averaging 1.5x–2.5X as much traffic as #2, and in SERPs where verticals or SERP features may be intruding, it could be even higher.
Via my Moz Analytics account
Ignore that SEO traditionalist in your head that bypasses keywords where you already rank in the top 3 or top 5, and double-down on the SERPs where you’re just inches from 1st place (or another great piece of content away from a double-ranking).
Moving up the buyer funnel
I can’t count the number of times I’ve started helping an organization think through SEO and discovered that the only keywords they pursue are those that lead directly to conversions.
Repeat after me: “SEO is not PPC.”
That means in SEO, you don’t need to limit your keyword targets to only those with a given conversion rate. Your ROI equation can be years in length because organic search will keep sending visits for years if you earn and maintain high rankings. It also means that your keyword and content pairs shouldn’t be limited to those producing conversions at all. At Moz, for example, we know that the path to conversion can be long and winding.
A couple years back, we found that the average person taking a free trial of our software had visited Moz’s website 7.5X before signing up. SEVEN AND A HALF! What’s more, those who visited more times before they converted tended to be better customers—they used more features, were less likely to cancel, and were more likely to participate in our community, too. It’s been wonderful knowing that the goal of most of our content is simply to make raving fans out of the people who interact with it, not to necessarily turn those visitors into buyers as quickly and efficiently as possible.
This lesson doesn’t just apply to us—you, too, should be thinking about where your customers’ journey begins and what they’re searching for long before they ever consider your product (or any solution) to their problems:
The benefits of moving your keyword research and content creation up the funnel are twofold:
#1 – It tends to be considerably less competitive to target terms and phrases that have lower commercial/direct-conversion-intent.
#2 – The keyword and content universes higher up the funnel often expand exponentially, giving you vastly greater opportunities for search traffic growth.
Imagine you’re helping a local roofer in Seattle, WA with their SEO. The current keyword options are probably very limited and hyper-competitive (e.g. “seattle roofing,” “roof leak seattle,” “roofing contractor seattle,” and so on). But, move up the funnel and suddenly a whole world of possibilities reveal themselves (“roof protection,” “comparison of roof sealants,” “seattle roof weatherproofing,” “best shingles for roofs in windstorm,” etc). I know local small businesses who’ve built their entire conversion funnel around educational content posted through photo tutorials to their website and videos on YouTube. They end-around the traditional conversion-focused keywords by earning a loyal audience that amplifies their work through word-of-mouth, often when they’ve never even been a direct customer!
Plus, although it technically falls under the paid search umbrella, RLSA (Remarketing Lists for Search Ads) mean that if someone’s already visited your site once and you know you want to reach them again if they search for more downfunnel keywords, you can bid higher and more effectively for them in Google AdWords.
For larger organizations seeking to expand their markets, growing beyond your local country and/or local language may be an avenue of considerable opportunity. It’s not easy, and in SEO, it can require starting nearly from scratch (depending on how you’re pursuing international expansion—new TLD extensions vs. subfolders, etc). This is not my area of expertise by any means, but I love what Eli Schwartz says about the practice in his post: don’t assume, and don’t stereotype.
Do your keyword and market research first! Don’t assume (see?!) a practice, product, service, or niche will be equally large in a market simply because it has similar economics, population, or even language. The English love Marmite, but it’s just not gonna fly in the US (or really any other country for that matter). American TV producers seeking to export Desperate Housewives of City X will likely find themselves up a creek. And Bavarian home mural painting services will find themselves stymied pretty much everywhere but Bavaria (which is sad because I find them delightful).
Note: This list obviously isn’t comprehensive for all forms of web marketing or even all inbound/earned channels. Content, social, email, community, paid media, etc. could all be worthy of consideration. But if your team focuses on SEO or if you believe organic search is where the best opportunities lie, the tactics you want are probably contained within these.
P.S. One more—it’s sometimes interesting to experiment with how adding or subtracting paid search ads can impact your organic traffic. We’ve seen case studies where it’s had both effects, so don’t assume!