Posted by SimonPenson
[Estimated read time: 17 minutes]
On-page content is certainly not one of the sexier topics in digital marketing.
Lost in the flashing lights of "cool digital marketing trends" and things to be seen talking about, it's become the poor relative of many a hyped "game-changer."
I’m here to argue that, in being distracted by the topics that may be more "cutting-edge," we're leaving our most valuable assets unloved and at the mercy of underperformance.
This post is designed not only to make it clear what good on-page content looks like, but also how you should go about prioritizing which pages to tackle first based on commercial opportunity, creating truly customer-focused on-page experiences.
What is "static" or "functional" content?
So how am I defining static/functional content, and why is it so important to nurture in 2016? The answer lies in the recent refocus on audience-centric marketing and Google’s development of the Knowledge Graph.
Whether you call your on-page content "functional," "static," or simply "on-page" content, they're all flavors of the same thing: content that sits on key landing pages. These may be category pages or other key conversion pages. The text is designed to help Google understand the relevance of the page and/or help customers with their buying decisions.
Functional content has other uses as well, but today we're focusing on its use as a customer-focused conversion enhancement and discovery tactic.
And while several years ago it would have been produced simply to aid a relatively immature Google to "find" and "understand," the focus is now squarely back on creating valuable user experiences for your targeted audience.
Google’s ability to better understand and measure what "quality content" really looks like — alongside an overall increase in web usage and ease-of-use expectation among audiences — has made key page investment as critical to success on many levels.
We should now be looking to craft on-page content to improve conversion, search visibility, user experience, and relevance — and yes, even as a technique to steal Knowledge Graph real estate.
The question, however, is "how do I even begin to tackle that mountain?"
Auditing what you have
For those with large sites, the task of even beginning to understand where to start with your static content improvement program can be daunting. Even if you have a small site of a couple of hundred pages, the thought of writing content for all of them can be enough to put you off even starting.
As with any project, the key is gathering the data to inform your decision-making before simply "starting." That’s where my latest process can help.
Introducing COAT: The Content Optimization and Auditing Tool
To help the process along, we’ve been using a tool internally for months — for the first time today, there's now a version that anyone can use.
This link will take you to the new Content Optimisation and Auditing Tool (COAT), and below I’ll walk through exactly how we use it to understand the current site and prioritize areas for content improvement. I'll also walk you through the manual step-by-step process, should you wish to take the scenic route.
The manual process
If you enjoy taking the long road — maybe you feel an extra sense of achievement in doing so — then let's take a look at how to pull the data together to make data-informed decisions around your functional content.
As with any solid piece of analysis, we begin with an empty Excel doc and, in this case, a list of keywords you feel are relevant to and important for your business and site.
In this example, we'll take a couple of keywords and our own site:
Content Marketing Agency
Running this process manually is labor-intensive (hence the need to automate it!) and to add dozens more keywords creates a lot of work for little extra knowledge gain, but by focusing on a couple you can see how to build the fuller picture.
We start by adding our keywords to our spreadsheet alongside a capture of the search volume for those terms and the actual URL ranking, as shown below (NOTE: all data is for google.co.uk).
Next we add in ranking position...
We then look to the page itself and give each of the key on-page elements a score based on our understanding of best practice. If you want to be really smart, you can score the most important factors out of 20 and those lesser points out of 10.
In building our COAT tool to enable this to be carried out at scale across sites with thousands of pages, we made a list of many of the key on-page factors we know to affect rank and indeed conversion. They include:
- URL optimization
- Title tag optimization and clickability
- Meta description optimization and clickability
- H1, H2, and H3 optimization and clickability (as individual scores)
- Occurences of keyword phrases within body copy
- Word count
- Keyword density
- Readability (as measured by the Flesch-Kincaid readability score)
This is far from an exhaustive list, but it's a great place to start your analysis. The example below shows an element of this scored:
Once you have calculated score for every key factor, your job is to then to turn this into an average, weighted score out of 100. In this case, you can see I've done this across the listed factors and have a final score for each keyword and URL:
Once you have score for a larger number of pages and keywords, it's then possible to begin organizing your data in a way that helps prioritise action.
You can do this simply enough by using filters and organising the table by any number of combinations.
You may want to sort by highest search volume and then by those pages ranking between, say, 5th and 10th position.
Doing this enables you to focus on the pages that may yield the most potential traffic increase from Google, if that is indeed your aim.
Working this way makes it much easier to work in a way that delivers the largest positive net impact fastest.
Doing it at scale
Of course, if you have a large site with tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of pages, the manual option is almost impossible — which is why we scratched our heads and looked for a more effective option. The result was the creation of our Content Auditing and Optimisation Tool. Here's how you can make use of it to paint a fuller picture of your entire site.
Here's how it works
When it comes to using COAT, you follow a basic process:
- Head over to the tool.
- Enter your domain, or a sub-directory of the site if you'd like to focus on a particular section
- Add the keywords you want to analyze in a comma-separated list
- Click "Get Report," making sure you've chosen the right country
Next comes the smart bit: by adding target keywords to the system before it crawls, it enables the algorithm to cross-reference all pages against those phrases and then score each combination against a list of critical attributes you'd expect the "perfect page" to have.
Let’s take an example:
You run a site that sells laptops. You enter a URL for a specific model, such as /apple-15in-macbook/, and a bunch of related keywords, such as "Apple 15-inch MacBook" and "Apple MacBook Pro."
The system works out the best page for those terms and measures the existing content against a large number of known ranking signals and measures, covering everything from title tags and H1s to readability tests such as the Flesch-Kincaid system.
This outputs a spreadsheet that scores each URL or even categories of URLs (to allow you to see how well-optimized the site is generally for a specific area of business, such as Apple laptops), enabling you to sort the data, discover the pages most in need of improvement, and identify where content gaps may exist.
In a nutshell, it'll provide:
- What the most relevant target page for each keyword is
- How well-optimized individual pages are for their target keywords
- Where content gaps exist within the site’s functional content
It also presents the top-level data in an actionable way. An example of the report landing page can be seen below (raw CSV downloads are also available — more on that in a moment).
You can see the overall page score and simple ways to improve it. This is for our "Digital PR" keyword:
As we've already covered in the manual process example, in addition to pulling the "content quality scores" for each URL, you can also take the data to the next level by adding in other data sources to the mix.
The standard CSV download includes data such as keyword, URL, and scores for the key elements (such as H1, meta, canonical use and static content quality).
This level of detail makes it possible to create a priority order for fixes based on lowest-scoring pages easily enough, but there are ways you can supercharge this process even more.
The first thing to do is run a simple rankings check using your favorite rank tracker for those keywords and add them into a new column in your CSV. It'll look a little like this (I've added some basic styling for clarity):
I also try to group keywords by adding a third column using a handful of grouped terms. In this example, you can see I'm grouping car model keywords with brand terms manually.
Below, you'll see how we can then group these terms together in an averaged cluster table to give us a better understanding of where the keyword volume might be from a car brand perspective. I've blurred the keyword grouping column here to protect existing client strategy data.
As you can see from the snapshot above, we now have a spreadsheet with keyword, keyword group, search volume, URL, rank, and the overall content score pulled in from the base Excel sheet we have worked through. From this, we can do some clever chart visualization to help us understand the data.
Visualizing the numbers
To really understand where the opportunity lies and to take this process past a simple I’ll-work-on-the-worst-pages-first approach, we need to bring it to life.
This means turning our table into a chart. We'll utilize the chart functionality within Excel itself.
Here's an example of the corresponding chart for the table shown above, showing performance by category and ranking correlation. We're using dummy data here, but you can look at the overall optimization score for each car brand section alongside how well they rank (the purple line is average rank for that category):
If we focus on the chart above, we can begin to see a pattern between those categories that are better optimized and generally have better rankings. Correlation does not always equal causation, as we know, but it's useful information.
Take the very first column, or the Subaru category. We can see that it's one of the better-optimized categories (at 49%) and average rank is at 34.1. Now, these are hardly record-breaking positions, but it does point towards the value of well-worked static pages.
Making the categories as granular as possible can be very valuable here, as you can quickly build up a focused picture of where to put your effort to move the needle quickly. The process for doing so is an entirely subjective one, often based on your knowledge of your industry or your site information architecture.
Add keyword volume data into the mix and you know exactly where to build your static content creation to-do list.
Adding in context
Like any data set, however, it requires a level of benchmarking and context to give you the fullest picture possible before you commit time and effort to the content improvement process.
It’s for this reason that I always look to run the same process on key competitors, too. An example of the resulting comparison charts can be seen below.
The process is relatively straightforward: take an average of all the individual URL content scores, which will give you a "whole domain" score. Add competitors by repeating the process for their domain.
You can take a more granular view manually by following the same process for the grouped keywords and tabulating the result. Below, we can see how our domain sizes up against those same two competitors for all nine of our example keyword groups, such as the car brands example we looked at earlier.
With that benchmark data in place, you can move on to the proactive improvement part of the process.
The perfect page structure
Having identified your priority pages, the next step is to ensure you edit (or create them) in the right way to maximize impact.
Whereas a few years ago it was all about creating a few paragraphs almost solely for the sake of helping Google understand the page, now we MUST be focused on usability and improving the experience for the right visitor.
This means adding value to the page. To do that, you need to stand back and really focus in on the visitor: how they get to the page and what they expect from it.
This will almost always involve what I call "making the visitor smarter": creating content that ensures they make better and more informed buying decisions.
To do that requires a structured approach to delivering key information succinctly and in a way that enhances — rather than hinders — the user journey.
The best way of working through what that should look like is to share a few examples of those doing it well:
Tredz is a UK cycling ecommerce business. They do a great job of understanding what their audience is looking for and ensuring they're set up to make them smarter. The "Top 5" pages are certainly not classic landing pages, but they're brilliant examples of how you can sell and add value at the same time.
Below is the page for the "Top 5 hybrids for under £500." You can clearly see how the URL (http://www.tredz.co.uk/top-5-hybrids-under-500), meta, H tags, and body copy all support this focus and are consistently aligned:
This is a really cool business concept and they also do great landing pages. You get three clear reasons to try them out — presented clearly and utilizing several different content types — all in one package.
Finance may not be where you'd expect to see amazing landing pages, but this is a great example. Not only is it an easy-to-use experience, it answers all the user's key questions succinctly, starting with "What is an installment loan?" It's also structured in a way to capture Knowledge Graph opportunity — something we'll come to shortly.
Outside of examples like these and supporting content, you should be aiming to
create impactful headlines, testimonials (where appropriate), directional cues (so it's clear where to "go next"), and high-quality images to reflect the quality of your product or services.
Claiming Knowledge Graph
There is, of course, one final reason to work hard on your static pages. That reason? To claim a massively important piece of digital real estate: Google Featured Snippets.
Snippets form part of the wider Knowledge Graph, the tangible visualization of Google’s semantic search knowledge base that's designed to better understand the associations and entities behind words, phrases, and descriptions of things.
The Knowledge Graph comes in a multitude of formats, but one of the most valuable (and attainable from a commercial perspective) is the Featured Snippet, which sits at the top of the organic SERP. An example can be seen below from a search for "How do I register to vote" in google.co.uk:
In recent months, Zazzle Media has done a lot of work on landing page design to capture featured snippets with some interesting findings, most notably the level of extra traffic such a position can achieve.
Having now measured dozens of these snippets, we see an average of 15–20% extra traffic from them versus a traditional position 1. That’s a definite bonus, and makes the task of claiming them extremely worthwhile.
You don’t have to be first
The best news? You don’t even have to be in first position to be considered for a snippet. Our own research shows us that almost 75% of the examples we track have been claimed by pages ranked between 2nd and 10th position. It's far from being robust enough yet for us to formalize a full report on it, but early indication across more than 900 claimed snippets (heavily weighted to the finance sector at present) support these early findings.
Similar research by search data specialists STAT has also supported this theory, revealing that objective words are more likely to appear. General question and definition words (like "does," "cause," and "definition") as well as financial words (like "salary," "average," and "cost") are likely to trigger a featured snippet. Conversely, the word "best" triggered zero featured snippets in over 20,000 instances.
This suggests that writing in a factual way is more likely to help you claim featured results.
Measuring what you already have
Before you run into this two-footed, you must first audit what you may (or may not) already have. If you run a larger site, you may already have claimed a few snippets by chance, and with any major project it's important to benchmark before you begin.
Luckily, there are a handful of tools out there to help you discover what you already rank for. My favorite is SEMrush.
The paid-for tool makes it easy to find out if you rank for any featured snippets already. I'd suggest using it to benchmark and then measure the effect of any optimization and content reworking you do as a result of the auditing process.
Claiming Featured Snippets
Claiming your own Featured Snippet then requires a focus on content structure and on answering key questions in a logical order. This also means paying close attention to on-page HTML structure to ensure that Google can easily and cleanly pick out specific answers.
Let’s look at a few examples showing that Google can pick up different types of content for different types of questions.
1. The list
One of the most prevalent examples of Featured Snippets is the list.
As you can see, Media Temple has claimed this incredibly visual piece of real estate simply by creating an article with a well-structured, step-by-step guide to answer the question:
"How do I set up an email account on my iPhone?"
If we look at how the page is formatted, we can see that the URL matches the search almost exactly, while the H1 tag serves to reinforce the relevance still further.
As we scroll down we find a user-friendly approach to the content, with short sentences and paragraphs broken up succinctly into sections.
This allows Google to quickly understand relevance and extract the most useful information to present in search; in this case, the step-by-step how-to process to complete the task.
Here are the first few paragraphs of the article, highlighting key structural elements. Below this is the list itself that's captured in the above Featured Snippet:
2. The table
Google LOVES to present tables; clearly there's something about the logical nature of how the data is presented that resonates with its team of left-brained engineers!
In the example below, we see a site listing countries by size. Historically, this page may well not have ranked so highly (it isn’t usually the page in position one that claims the snippet result). Because of the ways it has structured the information so well, however, Geohive will be enjoying a sizable spike in traffic to the page.
The page itself looks like this — clear, concise and well-structured:
3. The definition
The final example is the description, or definition snippet; it's possibly the hardest to claim consistently.
It's difficult for two key reasons:
- There will be lots of competition for the space and answering the search query in prose format.
- It requires a focus on HTML structure and brilliantly crafted content to win.
In the example below, we can see a very good example of how you should be structuring content pages.
We start with a perfect URL (/what-is-a-mortgage-broker/) and this follows through to the H1 (What is a Mortgage Broker). The author then cleverly uses subheadings to extend the rest of the post into a thorough piece on the subject area. Subheadings include the key How, What, Where, and When areas of focus that any good journalism tutor will lecture you on using in any good article or story. Examples might include
- So how does this whole mortgage broker thing work?
- Mortgage brokers can shop the rate for you
- Mortgage brokers are your loan guide
- Mortgage broker FAQ
The result is a piece that leaves no stone unturned. Because of this, it's been shared plenty of times — a sure fire signal that the article is positively viewed by readers.
Featured Snippet Cheatsheet
Not being one to leave you alone to figure this out though, I have created this simple Featured Snippet Cheatsheet, designed to take the guesswork out of creating pages worthy of being selected for the Knowledge Graph.
Do it today!
Thanks for making it this far. My one hope is for you to go off and put this plan into action for your own site. Doing so will quickly transform your approach to both landing pages and to your ongoing content creation plan (but that’s a post for another day!).
And if you do have a go, remember to use the free COAT tool and guides associated with this article to make the process as simple as possible.
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