A serious problem exists in our industry.
People misunderstand how SEO needs to work regarding content creation and links. So much so that one of the most common critical fail points I find in my audit work is due to that misunderstanding.
It’s often the single most important problem a site has when I do an audit.
In this guide, I dive into that problem and how to resolve it through several action steps.
Table of Contents
- Blogs Become Stale
- Blog Placement Causes Friction
- What About Expert Blogs?
- Only Answering A Few Questions
- Not Answering Questions Completely Enough
- Too Many Unrelated Questions On A Single Page
- Lack of Intuitive Internal Linking
- Persona Mapping
- Researching Questions
- Expanding Opportunities
- Extent of Answers
- Overall Volume
- Existing Site Content Audit
- Competitive Consideration
- Content Organization
- URL Hierarchy
- Section Specific Navigation
- Content Markup
- Content & Quality Questions
- Expertise Questions
- Presentation and Production Questions
- Comparative Questions
So, what’s the problem?
Blogging. And related, “guest blogging.”
When most people think of content, they focus on blogging and its ugly step-cousin, guest blogging.
Where both of those have their place, neither is anywhere near as important as most agencies and in-house SEO professionals claim it to be.
This guide is meant to help bring more clarity to that reality. It’s based on my many years as a sustainable SEO consultant specializing in site audits.
It’s a long read, and not likely something you can process in one sitting. Yet it’s taken right from the heart of my audit work.
With proven value across many industries and businesses around the world – from the smallest of small businesses up through global enterprise organizations I have helped.
Mindset Failure – Can’t Find What I Need
It happens with almost every audit.
I put myself in the mindset of people needing the products or services that site offers. Or the mindset of people who need to find high quality, trustworthy information for research purposes.
Maybe I need to compare products across brands. Or learn about the benefits of paying for a service.
Maybe I need to get insight into the people offering the services – are they trustworthy? Are they experienced enough?
Not everybody needs to read a lot – or research a lot – before deciding.
Yet, enough do that answering all the important questions is critical for maximizing conversions.
Research – A Full Spectrum Concept Treated With Disrespect
Research can be for any need – pure education, entertainment, curiosity, and yes, purchasing decisions.
Except when I review the site I’m auditing, I end up scratching my head.
Where’s information about this? Or that? How do I find out about _______?
What I find some of the time is that information, or a pseudo-version of it, or an implied version of it does exist on the site.
Except it’s buried five levels down in a blog.
Or it’s out on some other site and linking back to this one.
Yet I also find, too often, countless questions I have where there is no information to be found on the site I’m auditing, or on other sites that link back to this one.
Instead, I find very little actual, relevant and important “answer all the important questions” type content. Or very little of it placed and accessible in effortless and intuitively placed locations.
Or I find too much information forced into a single page that tries to serve all needs for all the diverse sub-topics. Which causes readability to suffer, and SEO to become diluted.
The Worst Scenario – Guest Posts Instead of Your Own Site
Worst of all, too often I find out that important information was written and put in a guest post. Where that guest post is on some low-level pseudo-site with no real reach.
Or it was written on an actual high trust site, except that high trust site is a generic topic site.
This means the scale of people most relevant to the business market we care about is very small compared to the overall volume of that third party site.
And only people reading that article on that third-party site are going to get those answers to those questions.
Nobody coming to the site I care about is ever going to even know it exists, in most cases.
Because you’re probably not linking to that third-party guest post from your main services pages, are you?
And do you really want to send your already captive visitors to a third party site to educate them on something important while they’re already on your site? I hope not.
(Except for third-party confirmation cases or where you want to provide links to additional, supportive information others have written)
Yes, guest posting can have value. This Search Engine Journal (SEJ) blog post is proof of that.
It’s just that in most cases, specific to individual businesses our industry serves, guest posting doesn’t have nearly as much sustainable value as most in our industry claim or understand.
Especially when the main site that matters most is so lacking in the most important content.
(See my article on “World Class Link Building” for more understanding on the proper use of guest posting. That article, written in 2017, also on SEJ to reach the biggest audience, is still valid today.)
Common Fail Points
1. Blog Content Typically Becomes Stale
I mention guest posting and blogging as a problem frequently in this article, in my audits, and in my industry participation through #SEOChat, webinars, and conferences.
I do so because I need to.
It’s still a big problem across the industry.
Too often, site owners, managers or writers generate blog content on a regular basis, while failing to understand that evergreen content (content that is timeless and has lasting value) is most often best placed on a site as fixed-position pages, not within a blog system.
Don’t even get me started on the topics of most blog posts…
So artificially focused as to be blatant SEO manipulation instead of helpfully educational or entertaining. Or so off-topic as to be three tiers removed from relevant to the business’s actual offerings.
Blog content is, by nature, date-based.
As newer blog posts are added, older posts end up further down in the multi-page listing system, and thus more clicks are required to access them. That devalues those blog posts for human access and SEO.
Blog content is also considered, by nature of its placement in a blog, “stale” over time in most cases. That too causes lost SEO value over time.
And no, just updating the “updated date isn’t sufficient to fix that. Adding an extra paragraph is also not enough to fix the “becomes stale over time” factor.
Evergreen content, on the other hand, when placed in appropriate places on a site, is more likely to be seen more often, over longer periods of time by site visitors, and is consistently accessible without new layers of click activity getting in the way. So it’s more valuable long-term for visitors and SEO.
2. Blog Placement Causes Access Friction
How many sites have you visited, looking for products or services, where you had one or more questions and couldn’t find the answers?
How many times have you explored such sites, where they have a “blog” link and thought “I should read through the blog in case they answered my question, at some point in the past?”, and be honest. How often?
How often have you gone to a business web site, clicked on the “blog” link, then searched through 500 articles grouped in countless confusing categories (or no categories at all), trying to find out if any of your concerns have been addressed?
3. What About Expert Blogs Like SEJ?
“Wait. Alan, you talk about blogging being a problem for evergreen content. So why did you write this blog post if your claim is this is an evergreen topic?”
Ah well, this is one of those rare cases where blogging happens to be the best way to help reach the most readers who matter in our industry.
If you want to promote your own business, or if you are working on promoting the business of a client, it is true that the majority, if not all “evergreen” content needs to be found in “product”, “service”, “practice area”, or “about” pages on a site and not in a blog section.
Or, alternatively, you create a “knowledge base” type of encyclopedia section or wiki on that site where the really deep questions and answers have content.
Unless the purpose of the content is to reach a much larger audience, and at the time you write the content, you know that that blog post will be on a highly trusted industry site that is entirely built as a blog system. Or where the blog is the primary section of an industry site where all of their evergreen, educational content is located – like Search Engine Journal.
Could I have posted this to my own site? Sure.
Except, let’s be real, my site (and my own related promotion of my content on my site) is so small as to be ineffective specific to my primary goal – to reach as many people as possible in our industry in the most efficient manner possible.
Note that I will write about this topic on my site. And I will link to this article from there. That is the way I will mitigate the concern about writing evergreen content and putting it in a blog, specific to my own site’s needs.
However the truly strong industry sites and news sites out there, can get away with having evergreen content placed in a blog.
Heck, I even link, later in this article, to a blog post someone else wrote in 2014, which is also evergreen content because:
- The information in that post is still valid today.
- And it was written on another site where the vast majority of evergreen educational content is contained in a blog system.
So there are exceptions to my “evergreen content doesn’t belong in a blog” rule.
Just don’t pretend that you’re going to create a real experts blog on every small business site under the sun you get paid to write content for. And just understand that people going to those sites aren’t there for the blog. They’re there to buy something.
So if you are paid for that, since those sites are there to sell products or services, put that content where it belongs, not in a blog.
You’re Wrong, Alan! I’m Going to Keep Blogging!
In spite of that “it depends” factor, most content still does not belong in a blog environment.
The industry needs to accept that if you look at most business sites, when it comes to their PRIMARY SERVICES or PRIMARY PRODUCT OFFERINGS, most of the important questions are stuck in a blog that is not:
- Well organized.
- Promoted on an industry or market scale.
- Discoverable when people are on those services or product pages.
And that is a big problem.
Yet if you insist on continuing with the whole “blogging” thing because “it’s what clients expect”, sure. Go for it. Have fun.
I’ll continue doing what I do when clients hire me to fix sites that broke, at least partly because of content failure.
4. Only Answering a Few Questions
Most sites don’t come anywhere close to answering all the important questions for any one primary product or service type, let alone all of the product or service offerings a typical site has or even the full spectrum of questions related to customer service, return policies, or other types of business help.
People writing “services” pages mostly don’t get out of their own heads regarding understanding what they sell or offer long enough to realize “some people have a lot of questions I consider have obvious answers”.
Designers like to design sites with minimum visual content because “white space is pretty”.
Both of those issues are toxic to human needs specific to a range of people you need to reach.
By failing in this way, you’re shooting yourselves in the feet. Causing a massive gap in market reach.
That, in turn, causes serious weakness regarding Quality, Uniqueness, Authority, Relevance, and Trust. Yeah, there’s my “QUART” super-signals of SEO.
Stay tuned to SEJ for a future post where I dive deeper into QUART as it applies to SEO in 2020 and beyond.
5. Not Answering Questions Completely Enough
Providing a short answer to an important question can often be enough to answer that very specific question.
Except, too often, that “short answer” is not sufficient to address the nuanced concerns or research prospective customers might have, or where they use different words to ask the same question.
While a short answer may suffice for one single question, if you have five very highly related questions, most site owners end up splitting them out to five individual “thin” content pages, rather than grouping them together.
So sure, sometimes, people only want or need a short answer. Yet that’s “sometimes”.
And on the scale of humanity, that means a lot of the time, a short answer is not enough. Especially if we get out of our own heads and think like people not like us.
6. Answering Too Many Unrelated Questions on One Page
Directly opposite of “not enough” content in answering questions, is where many site owners attempt to stuff “all the answers to all the questions” into a single “FAQ” page.
Except that inevitably ends up with too many differences across many questions and answers regarding “topical common relevance”, and thus a single page ends up being about too many different topics and sub-topics.
OH MY GOD.
Stop overwhelming your visitors.
Stop trying to answer everything unrelated on a single page when that can be split apart into multiple pages for better readability and usability!
7. Not Providing an Intuitive Organizational Internal Linking System
The last most common weak point with “timeless” or “evergreen” content is a failure to provide proper, section-specific navigational aids to visitors, to allow them to rapidly get to the page they came for, and from there, to then intuitively explore other, related content.
This causes people to spend less time on your site, and causes less emotional “appreciation” for a site to be considered trustworthy and “truly helpful”.
And if you do have a single page that covers a lot of information, see about using jump links in a Table of Contents to help visitors jump to what they care about in that moment.
Just don’t put that TOC five scrolls down on the page either though.
Tasks Required to Answer All The Important Questions Properly
1. Persona Mapping
The first task in this effort will be to map out all the different types of people who participate in the decision process for solutions you offer.
With that core list, you will need to take the time to think through, research and learn all of the different types of questions most people ask at each point in the decision process.
Top Example Persona Types:
- People who know they need a solution, yet don’t yet know the proper industry words to use to search for it.
- People who already know they want solutions like those you offer yet not familiar with your brand.
- People who already believe they want your offerings yet aren’t entirely sure.
- People who know your brand, and seek to compare different offerings in your own portfolio of offerings.
- People looking for alternative solutions.
Going Further with Persona Understanding
I also highly recommend following Michael King, founder and head of IPullRank, because when it comes to persona mapping, he really does deserve the last name of King.
In fact, Mike wrote an invaluable and definitive guide to Personas back in 2014. Ignore the “older” date on that.
Persona understanding is itself an evergreen topic. Yet, it’s also even more important to understand and act upon these days than it was back in 2014.
Google has dramatically evolved its efforts to match persona needs over the years.
2. Researching Questions to Answer
In order to determine the full spectrum of questions you need to be answering, you need to start by brainstorming and listing questions you know people ask.
List questions you would ask if you were your ideal customer or client, at each stage in their research process.
From there, do research directly on Google. Take the top questions you have listed, and search for them.
The ones that bring back a “Featured Snippet”, or a direct competitor in the top of organic results, are likely suitable to be flagged as at least some of the most important questions you need to answer as a first effort in writing.
Now it’s time to go further.
Look to see where Google shows on that result page “People Also Asked”. That lists other, highly related questions. Click on the top few of those and see the results that show up.
Again, if it’s a direct answer on the search result page for that question, Google considers it important. And if it also lists even more questions, those are worth considering as second or third phase writing opportunities.
Yet there’s even more – scroll to the bottom of that search results page. See what other queries people make directly related to the one you initially searched for.
3. Expanding Opportunities
If you want to go further, use a tool like AnswerThePublic where you can type in a phrase or question, and get a lot of additional related phrases and questions. The potential is endless.
Want to geek out? Check out “Google’s Natural Questions” Dataset.
4. Extent of Answers: Don’t Just Cheat – Provide Real Value
When we say “answer all the important questions” we don’t just mean create a single FAQ page with five-word answers or a bullet point list.
We’re talking about truly answering each question properly. This can sometimes mean short answers. When it does, multiple highly related questions can go together on a single page.
When a longer answer is more complete, or better, or more clarifying, that single question and answer deserve a single page of their own.
Example: Comparison Content
A major opportunity for building site visibility related to the need to “answer all the important questions” at every step during the full life-cycle buyer or decision-maker journey, is to look at ways to create evergreen content (as opposed to blog content) built around comparing your solutions to other solutions on the market.
This is not limited to competitors that offer the same type of solution either. It can be any perceived competitor with offerings not identical or like yours yet where those searching may not know better initially as far as important differences are concerned.
And it can even be your own offerings. If you’ve got two or more products or services that are similar enough, provide content specific to comparing those.
Help your visitors understand the differences between two or more of your own products. Make it less painful for them to have to “figure it all out”.
Comparison Charts & Explanations
Comparison content can be invaluable in helping differentiate your business. Just having a visual chart isn’t enough.
Sure, it can be a great start and quick reference, however without supporting text content, charts are not enough on their own.
Costs & Benefits
Costs and benefits content is equally invaluable for many people doing research at various stages of their decision journey.
Again though, overly simplified charts or bullet lists are good for quick reads, yet additional descriptive content is equally important to provide the deeper knowledge at least some visitors need or expect.
Case Study Material
One way to go even further in answering all the questions is to take existing clients or customers and where valid, case studies you might have for a given solution you offer, and link to those directly from within the specific solution details page or section of the site where those align.
Just listing clients or customers and reviews or testimonials isn’t enough though.
Showing anything about what you did for that client or customer, or how they benefited from your products or services can help.
Linking to a case study on top of that brief description is even better.
Case Study Depth
The next need, however, is to understand that a proper “case study” is NOT a couple hundred words combined in total on the “case study” page.
It’s a more in-depth content piece that goes into some of the details and provides clear knowledge and understanding.
5. Overall Volume
The more you can write content around all of those questions and the stronger the content where you discuss and use phrases relevant to each offering, where it’s presented in natural language as if you are in a board room explaining things to humans around a table, the more likely your site will show up for a broader range of phrases when someone is considering those things.
All of that leads to increased SEO as well.
Except volume is not itself, an indicator of quality. And yes, sometimes less content is better for answering individual questions. Critical thinking is required in this process.
6. Existing Site Content Audit
Understanding the above concepts, after you have done the proper research, you need to do a proper audit dedicated to all of your existing content.
You will need to determine what existing content exists that meets the above needs, and in a spreadsheet, show where that content currently exists.
You will need to evaluate whether you answer any one or more questions completely enough, or whether you need to work to improve that specific content.
You will need to determine whether you answer too many questions on any single page as to cause topic dilution, or where you might not answer enough highly related questions on a single page where it is otherwise appropriate for helpfulness, usability, and subsequently, SEO.
This effort will allow you to also then determine where you are not yet answering other important questions.
7. Competitive Consideration
Part of this process will be:
- Looking to see how competitors already answer each question that matters.
- Determining how you can do better at that effort – who’s not only got the Featured Snippet and/or “People Also Ask” result, but also the top few organic results.
Caution: they may be ranking with a very bad page, presented poorly, or not completely enough for other reasons.
Be very careful not to assume why they might be ranking.
Just understand that if you do proper advanced SEO across your site, and you provide a better answer or set of answers on your site, you are more likely to eventually outrank them.
Bonus Tip: Quality Maximization Leads to Inbound Links
The better you do at all of this, most especially the better you write your content compared to others, the more effortless it’s going to become to earn inbound links to that content in many cases.
8. Content Organization
When seeking to answer all the questions, it is best to have all of that content organized together in the way that makes the most sense for your situation, needs, and goals.
This is typically a case within a services section of the site, to have multiple pages devoted to each primary service type, where you not only have pages that describe the core service, but where you have those other pages relevant to that service also in that section.
All of these can fit inside any one services section on the site:
- Common Questions.
- Comparison Pages.
- Costs Pages.
- Benefits Pages.
- Client Pages.
- Case Studies.
Complex educational content often deserves “online encyclopedia” or “wiki” treatment. It all depends on:
- What the content is.
- How far you take the effort.
- What makes the most sense for intuitive visitor access.
9. URL Hierarchy
While it is true that many sites can “get away with it” regarding flat URL architecture hierarchy, that’s all sites are doing – getting away with it even if that has been for many years.
Just understand that as we march forward, URL hierarchical structure, especially on larger sites, is a very intelligent, one-time effort to set up for a strong reinforcing signal regarding content organization.
So if you really want to maximize potential growth properly, URLs need to be properly nested hierarchically with all of these pages.
You’ll also need section specific sidebar navigation available to help visitors navigate across each of these pages in each section uniquely.
Just use extreme caution with this one. If you are changing a massive volume of URLs, you may disrupt rankings short to mid-term.
This one is not for the shaky nerves type site owner or manager. If you’ve plummeted in rankings though, or you’re only now planning out site growth, then by all means – rip those old URLs to shreds if it’s a flat architecture model currently.
10. Section-Specific Navigation
Do not bury those links to relevant pages in content.
Create a “Section Specific Navigation” feature. Have that feature placed above the fold, and in the same place on every page in that section.
Do not use Client-side JS to render that navigation feature. Only link to pages in that section.
Do not overwhelm visitors (or SEO) trying to “link to all the things” where that causes usability dilution. Think that feature out carefully.
11. Content Markup
Please consider using Schema markup on that evergreen content wherever possible, viable, and reasonable to implement.
While Schema is not an absolute requirement, it can help in many ways regarding search engines needing to “figure it all out”.
Typical Schema types for evergreen content start with the most common:
You can use many other Schema types for different situations as well though. It all depends on the content, its purpose, and how effortless it might be to execute the code.
And please – don’t use Google Tag Manager for your Schema. It’s a terrible way to go about the work and has many potential flaws.
Bonus Section: Google’s Rules for Quality Evergreen Content
As a bonus to my own experience-based insights and recommendations, here’s something else that’s necessary for ensuring content meets the need of quality, relevance, and trust.
When it comes to quality and evergreen content, the way to truly win for helpfulness to visitors from all referrer sources, and for SEO, is to ensure you follow several very important rules.
And while we can talk for hours just about what that might mean, we no longer need to. Google’s own team have saved us the time.
In August 2019, a Webmaster Help Page was posted by Google. The page discusses core algorithm updates.
However, what it really does well is provide clear lists of questions you need to ask when you write content or when you evaluate content you already have.
THESE questions all need to be considered when you write content to “answer all the important questions”, ESPECIALLY for “evergreen” needs as we recommend.
Content and quality questions
- Does the content provide original information, reporting, research or analysis?
- Does the content provide a substantial, complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources and instead provide substantial additional value and originality?
- Does the headline and/or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?
- Does the headline and/or page title avoid being exaggerating or shocking in nature?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Would you expect to see this content in or referenced by a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
- Does the content present information in a way that makes you want to trust it, such as clear sourcing, evidence of the expertise involved, background about the author or the site that publishes it, such as through links to an author page or a site’s About page?
- If you researched the site producing the content, would you come away with an impression that it is well-trusted or widely-recognized as an authority on its topic?
- Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?
- Is the content free from easily-verified factual errors?
- Would you feel comfortable trusting this content for issues relating to your money or your life?
Presentation and production questions
- Is the content free from spelling or stylistic issues?
- Was the content produced well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
- Does the content have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
- Does content display well for mobile devices when viewed on them?
- Does the content provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- Does the content seem to be serving the genuine interests of visitors to the site or does it seem to exist solely by someone attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?