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Shipping the Content Stack Audit

August 29, 2020
🕵🏻‍♂️ Journal

We’re excited to announce that we’ve shipped our Content Stack Audit.

We’ll continue to update this audit as website best practices develop, but for now we’ve cataloged over 100 items in 9 categories - including content, site speed, usability, analytics, and more – that we think you should pay attention to to build your optimal content engine.

Future plans include explaining how important each item is, and adding more detailed posts around specific items to help give context for why these items are important, and how to think about them.

Read the audit checklist on our site, or get a copy of the checklist in a Google Sheet.

Speed is a feature

August 18, 2020
📓 Article

A few statistics on things we know about the influence of speed on concrete things like traffic, conversions, and revenue:

(Amazingly, having a speedy website is also still a significant differentiator. Website speed still hasn’t improved, despite 7-fold increases in internet speed.)

Nielsen.png Source: Norman Nielsen Group

Most audits focus on the technical aspects of improving site speed, but we think there are actually 3 different things to look at. How long does it take a visitor:

  • To be able to start reading?
  • To be able to interact?
  • To find what they’re looking for on your site?

All of these need to be optimized if you want to make your site as useful as possible. (Google has an excellent set of measurements called Core Web Vitals that break the first two bullets down into specific, numerical measurements.)

There are a lot of things you can do to improve your site speed, but we suggest being strategic in every case.

Speed auditing

If you suspect you have speed issues with your site (and even if you don’t), the first step is to audit your site. Google’s audit tool is useful, though Google’s tools tend to be quite harsh in their assessments, as Google is incentivized to improve the quality of its search results as much as possible, sometimes at the expense of publishers. Ercule also publishes a content stack audit with the things we think are really important to fix (we categorize speed-related items under “Usability”).

Technical audits invariably surface hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of issues with a site. Each one is not equally important, and we think that 20% of items can usually cover much of the improvement you’ll see.

The most important items are around site speed – if you can easily improve this – and usability.

Usability auditing

A few measurements in these audits do cover usability, but in addition to the factors that a machine can assess, we also recommend doing user testing if at all possible to hear what’s going through visitors’ minds when they interact with your site. Here’s an example user test plan that you can use with a service like UserTesting.com.

Lastly, make sure it’s easy for your users to find the information they’re looking for. Making your website easy and clear to use and consume results in significant improvements in perceived speed, and delivers benefits for rankings, traffic, and conversions.

Choosing the right CMS and configuring your site correctly

A major cause of slow sites is having a slow or misconfigured CMS.

While static site generators are usually the fastest, pretty much any CMS can be fast if it’s properly configured. Some of this will show up in a technical audit, but make sure that caching is enabled, assets are served via a CDN, and other technical basics like minification are enabled. If you have lots of large images and other assets, see if you can reduce their size.

Loading fewer widgets

Lots of sites we see have tons of Javascript that runs to collect analytics, and encourage conversions and sharing. No matter how they’re configured, these widgets often decrease speed as it’s perceived by your user. Of particular concern are newsletter signup and other widgets that immediately take over the whole screen, which adds an extra step – dismissing your popup – to your user’s journey.

Conclusion

Speed matters, and not just in terms of load time. Think about your users: what do they need right away from your site? They need to see it, to explore it, and to find what they’re looking for. Optimizing for user-oriented metrics will win you more conversions. Technical audits are an essential part of the process, but UX design is crucial too.

Building the idea-to-content pipeline

August 15, 2020
📓 Article

There are lots of articles about how to come up with content ideas – and finding ideas is an important step to creating content.

But once you have ideas, you also need to figure out how to turn them into structured, useful articles that your customers and prospects can consume. That’s difficult, and it’s where intentionally creating, and streamlining, an idea-to-content pipeline can help.

Narrowing down your ideas

Let’s say you’ve come up with a list of 20 ideas for your next article. There are a few ways that we typically suggest narrowing down this list to just a few that make sense to produce, and that can be produced relatively quickly. Consider:

  • Is there demand for your content? Articles that are getting traction on social, active questions from customers or prospects, and keyword data can all be clues that a piece of content is worth creating.
  • Is there lots of competition? We usually make this assessment by looking at the domain authority of competitors who are ranking for the topic we’re writing about, since that’s easy to measure and understand.
  • Is it something you can easily produce? This is an important, but often overlooked part of the idea-to-content pipeline. Even if a content idea is high volume and low competition, if it takes a lot of effort to produce, you may not want to assign as high a priority to it. Clues to whether something is easy to produce include the technical depth of the topic, and the availability of subject matter experts to help you get the ideas down and checked for accuracy. For example, if there’s an expert at your company who can get the main ideas down on paper in a half hour session, that’s much easier than if important bits of knowledge are spread out among 2 or 3 people.
  • How easy is it to maintain? On one extreme, you could produce a complex article that is closely tied to a specific moment in time or event, and contains lots of very specific technical details. That might make sense if you know it will easily get widespread distribution. On the other hand, you could produce something that’s useful but straightforward to keep updated, like a resource guide, and that will be useful for a long time. Things that are easier to maintain are, on balance, probably more worthwhile to build.

Outlining for content marketing

Outlines govern the structure of your content, and our experience suggests that the outline – even more so than the actual content – is a major determiner of the success of a piece of content. To make things easier and more process-oriented, outlines can be structured and populated using data.

For example, when we write an outline on a particular topic, let’s say “carburetor repair”, we’ll use Google’s search suggestions, or other topics we want to write about, or what’s popular on social for a specific hashtag (#carburetors) as suggestions for sections to write.

Knowing what type of content you’re creating (blog, explainer, deep dive) will provide other structural signposts. An explainer outline, for example, will always include some basic contextual sections, while a blog might be a little more idiosyncratic.

For each of these sections, we’ll then populate as much as we can using existing content – whether that’s our own or content that’s already available. Places to borrow from include:

  • Content that’s already popular on this topic, whether you or someone else produced it
  • Content that is related, even if it doesn’t cover the topic exactly
  • Transcripts of webinars, product marketing materials, and demos
  • Notes from interviews with subject matter experts or users

The key is to get to a high-quality, data-driven draft put together as quickly as possible.

Outlining in this way also helps with repurposing. If you think about your content library as a product, can you take other pieces of the product and combine them into something new? For example, if you are writing an article on “cutlery management” for your restaurant clients, can you insert existing content about “bamboo vs. plastic”?

Distribution strategy, and publishing

Even before content is published, distribution strategy is critical for making it successful. Key pieces of distribution strategy include:

  • Picking a title that accurately represents what the content is about, but isn’t unnecessarily boring
  • Writing metadata, like descriptions for Google SERPs and social shares and figuring out which hashtags to use
  • Writing promotional copy, including several different formats of social share. For example, you might want to have “Q&A-style” social copy for several sections of your content, as well as more matter-of-fact copy describing what’s in it or its boldest claims. Each of these pieces of promotional copy is a way of positioning the content to your audience.
  • Finding the content’s audience. Early in the process you probably identified content as being targeted toward people in a certain stage of the buying funnel, or toward a certain job title or role. But the next step is to figure out where these people are (Slack groups? Publications? Newsletters?) and get pointers to your content from there. This can also include finding backlink opportunities and sending a quick note to point a web property manager to your content. It can even include identifying prospects or sales reps who might want to know about what you’ve written.

Conclusion

From topic selection to content production to distribution, you have an opportunity to optimize each step of content creation. Choose subjects that will allow your work to stand out in search results. Outline every piece before you begin writing in order to build substantial content in an efficient way. Fine-tune the details and metadata of your work with an eye toward your broadest potential audience.

Without a workflow system in place, businesses can waste untold hours producing content that hardly makes an impression beyond your office. An idea-to-content pipeline can be engineered to fit your daily business routine, so content creation is always moving forward.

Google's motivations

August 13, 2020
📓 Article

Often, in SEO, we make the mistake of assuming that Google wants to drive users to our content. We wish this were true, but it isn’t.

Google-motivations-screenshot

Search for any topic, and you’ll consistently see fewer links to publisher sites than you did a few years ago. Instead, more and more of what you see is:

  • Content scraped directly from websites and presented by Google, including instant answers and knowledge panels Screen Shot 2020-08-18 at 12.26.04 PM.png

  • Links to other Google properties Screen Shot 2020-08-18 at 12.26.17 PM.png

  • Ads Screen Shot 2020-08-18 at 12.25.30 PM.png

SparkToro has some great stats on this. To summarize briefly, their data shows that no-click searches increased from 56% to 62% of all searches from 2016 to 2018.

And according to Bloomberg, “[In 2019], the Search business alone brought in almost $100 billion in sales. Much of that growth has come from adding more ads.”

What do we think this means for SEO? There are a few predictions we can confidently make:

  • Organic search will remain important for a long time.
  • Zero-click results will become more important, too. This means it’s important to have well-structured websites, together with schema markup, that Google can read.
  • Ads are going to become more competitive and take up more space on the front page. This means that clicks from paid ads are going to become more expensive.

It also means:

  • Content marketers need to think beyond SEO and to holistic link distribution strategies. That way, as organic does become more competitive, their content is already distributed among other channels.
  • Content marketers need to own their own audience, not Google. That means audience building is important. That means conversions from the traffic you do get, and high-quality branded content creation so that organic search becomes a way of increasing brand exposure. It also means you should focus on keywords Google is less likely to cannibalize.
  • Content marketers need to focus on improving their content marketing machinery, which is effective across all content.

Conclusion

Google is an extremely useful tool for business, but it has a vested interest in steering people toward Google properties and the sites of people who pay Google money (a.k.a. advertisers). Keep using Google for its perks, but don’t rely on a search engine to grow your business for you.

Work on building your own audience independent of search results. Capture their attention with a steady stream of quality content. Optimize your website for the strongest possible showing in organic search results, which will keep you toward the top of a SERP (without ever paying for ads).