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Monday, April 2, 2018



They say the third lever of content marketing growth is content optimization.
Content creation, content promotion, and content optimization.
Who’s they? Bloggers, speakers, thought leaders – you know the lot
Because of my background in conversion optimization, and just a general desire to improve and optimize things, content optimization is exciting to me.
Optimization implies an improved ROI, efficiency, scale, and a continuous and compound ROI over time (and at scale).
Content optimization means (presumably) that we can spend less time creating and distributing our work, and get more value from what we’re putting out there.
That’s the theory, anyway.
What doesn’t get talked about as much is how the hell one optimizes old content in the first place.
Well, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about and done even more of.
So that’s what this article will cover: how to look back at content you’ve already launched into the world and improve it, systematically and at scale.

Content Optimization: Two Different Approaches

When looking back at old content, you can look at things two different ways (both valid and valuable):
  1. Find high traffic but low converting posts and increase the conversion rate.
  2. Find low traffic but high search volume/potential posts and increase rankings or distribution.
The first method, in my opinion, is easier, at least from a prioritization standpoint.
You can very easily build out a model using your total traffic and your historical conversion rate metrics to calculate, with some degree of accuracy, how much value you can expect. This is basically a “what if?” analysis and I’ll walk you through how to build one out in a minute.
It’s also easier because we usually “set it and forget it” when it comes to conversion offers with content. With a little care and thought it’s usually pretty easy to optimize this part.
The second method usually has a higher ceiling in terms of how much value you can squeeze out of it.
The difference between clicks on the first, second, third, and all the other SERP results is astounding, and if you can lift your rankings you can gain a lot of traffic. Similarly, even the top SEO company have tons of pages ranking from 5-20, and with a bit of effort, it’s always possible to lift those.
The first method is mostly going to involve strategic work.
You’ll run an analysis of top opportunities, calculate the upside, and then go through the process of optimizing the acquisition pathways on each page you deem worth it. That last step, the optimizing of the acquisition pathways, is a ton of hard work and takes a talented hand to do so. It takes creativity, empathy, skill (i.e. good marketing).
The second method also takes a lot of analysis work, but it’s generally a bit easier to understand how you can improve a page if you’ve got a decent understanding of SEO. It’s usually some combination of content quality, internal linking or site architecture, external linking work, or some low hanging fruit like H1/H2/title tag optimization.
I’ll walk through each of these things in depth, to the point that it may get strenuous to read this guide if you’re only interested in one of the methods. Realistically, you probably should focus on one of these at a time as each step will require a ton of trial and error will rarely be easy or clean in practice.
This post is like a darn book. To that end, here’s a table of contents to help you jump around as you please.

CRO & Maximizing Conversions on High Traffic Content

If you’re doing content marketing at all, it’s very likely your content follows a power law: most of your traffic comes from a few posts. That’s the way it was at CXL, and it’s that way at HubSpot, too. Most content powerhouses deal with this type of distribution.
Image Source
The wrong way to look at this (as many “analysts” have) is that you should produce less content. That’s not a solution, that’s the table measuring the ruler.
You can’t guess what’s going to be a massive success ahead of time (though you can increase the probability with good strategy and execution).
No, the point of this is to say that you’re going to have some posts that have way more traffic than other posts. However — these posts will often have a much lower conversion rate than lower traffic pages.
This may or may not be true of your site, but I’ve seen this firsthand from every site I’ve worked with.
(There’s also a power law with the # of blog posts that deliver the highest percentage of leads/conversion usually as well. Sometimes there’s overlap between high traffic & high conversion blog posts, and that’s just magical).
The most common explanation is that the top post is so top-of-funnel that users aren’t converting as high on the same offers as on your bottom-of-funnel posts.
The second most common explanation is that you hit a high traffic topic that’s slightly outside your niche (if you sell commercial kitchen supplies to restaurants in Austin, an infographic on the top coffees in town may or may not be super relevant to conversion).
In both cases, the fix is to align your offers on-page with your visitors’ intent and customer journey stage. You have to match the incoming temperature of your visitor – don’t offer them an ebook if they want a demo, and don’t offer them a dress suit if they just want a first time visitor discount (and maybe a tie).
And if you have no conversion points on your page, well, add one. Easy fix, there.

How to Find High Traffic/Low Conversion Pages

There are many analytics platforms. The most ubiquitous of the analytics tools is Google Analytics, so even though you can probably grab insights from HubSpot or Sumo or whatever lead capture tool you use, we’ll use GA here.
We’ll pull a quick report that will give us an approximation of the conversion rates of different posts. This assumes that you have goals set up for your “conversion,” which could be an email collection form or otherwise. This report also relies on “landing pages” as the variable, so we may be missing out on some nuance with people who view lots of blog posts or navigate your site from somewhere else, but then convert on a specific blog post.
Anyway, we want useful, not perfect.
Go to Behavior > Site Pages > Landing Pages. Then use the “comparison” view instead of the table view. Change the metric that you’re comparing from “Sessions” to “Goal Conversion Rate.” It should look like this:
You can also use a filter like “/blog/” or whatever you use to distinguish your blog posts from non-blog posts (sometimes you’ll have a specific View for your blog, in which case just use the whole report).
From there, you can find which high traffic blog posts are converting much lower than the site average. I talk more about how to do this on my post in content marketing analytics, by the way.
You can also pull this data to Excel in raw format and do a similar analysis, but it usually suffices to just focus on the highest traffic, lowest converting posts, and you can see that starkly with this report.
If you’re doing it in Excel, pull your data over and use conditional formatting to highlight blog posts that convert less than the average. Then use a filter to only look at those:
Quick point: I love Google Analytics as much as the next guy, but it actually may be easier to use the analytics from your marketing tool in this case.
At least in the case of HubSpot, the CTAs tool has great reporting and you can compare side-by-side with all of your CTAs (or export the data and analyze it elsewhere). It shows which pages are converting best that are using the same CTAs and it also aggregates CTA conversion rates so you can compare apples to apples.
Now you have a good idea of which blog posts represent the biggest opportunities, at least from a bird’s eye view. Next you need to prioritize which ones you’ll focus on first and how much lift you can expect.

How to Prioritize and Size Opportunities

We’ll need to dump our data into Excel for this. We only need three basic variables: blog post title (or URL), page views (try to do an average monthly count from a spread of 3-6 months), and conversion rate (same thing with the average).
Where you get this doesn’t matter. You can pull it from Google Analytics, your marketing automation tool, or your analyst’s magic crystal ball (just not from your imagination).
Just make darn sure you have good quality data and that you trust it.
What you’re about to do is a common planning and projection analysis used to see what the upside of certain actions is (a watered down version of it, anyway). If the data isn’t right, your projections aren’t going to be worth much.
So, pull your data to Excel. On first strike, I like to only pull the top ten trafficked posts that are below the site average. You can find those using the above Google Analytics report, or by bringing your data to Excel and using conditional formatting to show those below average.
Then use a filter to only show those that are highlighted:
Once you have those, build out some additional columns for your projected values. You can get more precise with this, but to keep things simple, I like to use the site average to project out numbers. The assumption is that, if that’s the average, we can probably get any post there with some optimization effort (obviously that simplifies things, but it’s good for prioritization):
From there, it’s extremely to see which opportunities are the biggest. You can even project these numbers out over a longer time period (such as a year) to see what the potential upside could be.
This type of modeling helps especially when you have to make tradeoffs. For instance, if you have enough content resources to either invest in this type of conversion optimization, in net new content creation, or in SEO projects to lift current content to get more traffic, then you can see which one merits the prioritization.
Note: this is but one way to model things out.
Also, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” The point here isn’t to project your exact amount of conversions you’ll get, but rather to choose between projects when you have a set amount of resources.
Even within this list, it helps you choose which articles you should focus the most attention on.

How to Gauge Intent of Visitors and Align Your Offer

In PPC advertising, there’s a popular notion that takes into account the “temperature” of a target audience.A display ad may be reaching completely cold traffic, so your offer shouldn’t be something bottom of the funnel like a demo. Maybe it should be an e-book, or something that pushes them down the funnel until they’re a warmer temperature.
People don’t talk about this as much with organic search traffic, but it’s the same case: people land on your site with widely varying levels of intent.
How do you determine the intent and user journey stage?
There are many ways to doing so, but they all start with understanding what channels people are coming from and what keywords they’re searching. To analyze your marketing channels is simple. Log into Google Analytics and go to your Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium report.
Start digging around and asking questions. What are your highest performing channels? Lowest performing? If you’re running campaigns, what ones are doing well and what ones are doing not so well?
Explore the data the bit.
Specific to SEO traffic, you need to analyze what keywords are bringing users to your pages. To do that, enter the URL of a blog post in Ahrefs and click on “Organic Keywords” (you can also get this info from Search Console or many other SEO tools):
What *did* happen to Alex and ROI?!
Then you need to classify these keywords into a temperature state: are they warm, ready to buy visitors, or are they cold, barely know your brand visitors? This helps define your offer and conversion pathway:
  • If you’re a nerd like me, you might be interested in running clustering and classification algorithms to place keywords in user journey state buckets (read this on how to do that). (Disclosure: I’m still working on doing this in a way that I trust and that doesn’t take lots of tinkering and tweaking. Work in progress but promising)
  • If you’re not, you may have just as much success using common sense to bucket keywords into user state (read this on how to do that).

Running Content Experiments and Converting Visitors to Leads or Customers

Content experiments are tricky because they are at an increased risk of being affected by things like seasonality and other validity threats. Google’s algorithm changes a ton, people search with different intent at different times of the year, and it’s hard to test on a truly representative sample.
However, you can still test, and you should still test – the same way you would with any other website element or experience.
I like to test at the bottom of the funnel. Don’t worry about things like time on page or bounce rate, use something like conversions as your metric to optimize against.
Most lead capture tools allow you to do this on their platform (if they don’t, get a new one). You still have to adhere to the same statistics principles you would with any other A/B test (and time period comparisons are still a bad methodology, as is always the case when trying to infer causality).
I’ve written a million articles on A/B testing at this point, but these three will cover everything to get you started:

Lifting Traffic Where There’s Potential

There’s another side of this content optimization coin: lifting up traffic. If you have lots of content already, it’s likely you rank for some stuff, don’t rank for other stuff, and rank on the second or third pages for the rest.
Content optimization is all about lifting those high value pages that aren’t ranking, and especially those that are almost ranking page one, to the front.

How to Find Articles That Are Losing Traffic

Here’s a sad fact marketers have to grapple with: even if you build a great piece of content and it ranks well, eventually it may start to lose traffic.
That could happen for a variety of reasons:
  • Competitors start to create content that outranks you
  • Google’s SERP changes (adding feature snippets, ads, etc.)
  • Search volume for your keywords drops
There’s not much you can do about the third one, but knowing what the issue is (and that there is an issue) helps you move forward on a potential plan. Competitors outranking you? Beef up your content and build links. SERP changes? Optimize your content to get that feature snippet, carousel, or whatever else.
First step, though, is to find out if you’re losing traffic (and which posts are losing the most). Here’s how you do that.
Log into Google Analytics, pick a period of time (let’s say 3 months) from last year (let’s say from January 1 – March 1 2017).
Then, go to Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages and set your time range. Also, set your filter so that you’re only analyzing the property you care to analyze (e.g. /blog/).
You could get a high level view from here, but I prefer to narrow down to only organic traffic. To do that, set up a secondary dimension of “Default Channel Grouping.”
Then set up an advanced filter that only includes “organic search.”
Next, include all rows (scroll to the bottom and adjust the number where it says “show rows”) and export this data to CSV.
Open your spreadsheet and name the first tab whatever month and year it is (Jan – Mar 2017). Then delete all the data you don’t need (leave only the URL and the Sessions columns):
Go back to GA and change the date range to the current period. Make sure it’s the same time period and same start and stop dates, but for this year. This helps iron out traffic differences due to seasonality (always compare apples to apples). In this case, it means we need to set our date range from Jan 1 – March 1 2018.
Export to CSV, and bring it to tab 2 of your spreadsheet. Again, delete all data except for the URL and Sessions. Then rename the tab to something like Jan – Mar 2018.
Now add another column (Column C) to tab #1 and name it something like “Sessions 2018” (also rename Column B to something like “Sessions 2017”). Now do a Vlookup, like the following (in Column C) where ‘tab 2’ is the title of your tab:
=VLOOKUP(A2, ‘[tab 2]’!A:B, 2, FALSE)
Should look like this:
Now we’re going to see if there has been a significant drop. You can do whatever percentage you think is significant, but this example we’ll flag anything that has dropped by 20%.
Add column D and title it “20%+ decline?” then insert this formula in D7:
Looks like this:
That formula asks if the number in Column C is 20% or greater less than the number in Column B. Then you can do conditional formatting to highlight those where that is the case.
Note: the data I’m using is from Google’s merchandising store so it’s kind of boring. It’s way more interesting if you’re using blog data because of the natural fluctuations in rankings and traffic over time. But alas, my personal site doesn’t have enough organic traffic and HubSpot probably wouldn’t love it if I shared screenshots of GA data, so Google demo account it is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The next question, if you’re losing organic traffic over time, is why? There are a few common culprits:
  • You’ve fallen in rankings
  • The SERP experience has changed (feature snippets, carousels, etc., have been added)
  • Your click-through-rate has changed
  • Search volume for your keywords has dropped
So, you need to triangulate. Tracking rankings is easy. Every SEO tools does it and you can also do it in Google Search Console.
If you haven’t dropped rankings, has your CTR fallen? Again, you can track this in Search Console.
If your CTR hasn’t fallen, has the SERP changed? If there are feature snippets, carousels, ads, etc., can you capture those spots without a herculean amount of effort?
If the answer is no to all those, it’s likely search volume for the keywords you were ranking for has fallen. You can get an approximation of this effect in Search Trends by looking at your position over time and your impressions over time, but it still won’t be precise: you don’t know which long tail keywords you may have been ranking for that dropped off, and the trends are approximate and averaged.
What should you do in that case?
My advice: Drink a glass of wine and take your dog to the park. Maybe learn a new language. Life isn’t all about SEO and marketing.

How to Find Articles That Are Almost Ranking Well

The best way to grow your traffic may be to publish net new articles. That’s true especially if you’re starting out. But it’s more likely, especially if you have a lot of content already published, that you’re almost ranking well for a ton of high value keywords. You’ve just gotta find ‘em, analyze them, and optimize them.
There are a few ways to do that. I’ll show you one of those ways (one that assumes you have an Ahrefsaccount, which you totally should have).
First, log into Ahrefs and enter the domain that you’d like to analyze.
It’s possible, too, that you just want to analyze a specific subfolder or subdomain if your site is set up that way (e.g. site.com/blog). Whatever the case, enter that in the domain explorer.
I’ll use ConversionXL as an example since my personal site has virtually zero traffic (you can analyze any property you want in Ahrefs – pretty neat for competitor analysis or client work, but that’s another story).
You’ll see a variety of interesting numbers on your dashboard and features on the side. Ignore them all except for “Organic keywords” on the top. Click on the number (in this case “113K’”). That will bring you to a dashboard that shows all the keywords you’re ranking for and the corresponding URLs.
From here, you’ll want to filter things down. It depends on what rankings you’d like to isolate, but I consider anything in the 10-21 range worthy of optimization (another nice set could be from 6-10 if you really wanna inch up on the results page, or 11-21, or really whatever range you want. These are arbitrary numbers for the most part).
So click on “Position” and choose which rankings you want to filter for.
After that, set up a filter for volume. Again, this depends on what you consider a worthy amount of volume. I try to optimize for keywords above 1k, but let’s set the bar at 200 for now.
This will allow us to combine similar keywords later in Excel to get a better picture of the overall opportunity (e.g. if “Customer Satisfaction Surveys” ranks for both “how to measure customer satisfaction” and “satisfaction survey template,” we want to include both of those in our opportunity analysis).
Now export your file to CSV.
Cut down the columns you don’t care about (historical rankings, etc.). You now have raw data, and actually, you can get a pretty good picture of which opportunities exist from a qualitative look at this data:
Especially if you add conditional formatting to the volume and difficult (or CPC) columns, you can see which blog posts represent the bigger opportunities for optimization.
However, my favorite thing to do here is to create a Pivot Table. Doing so can allow you to combine the volume of two or more keywords that a single blog post is ranking for.
For example, if Blog Post X is ranking for in position 12 for Keyword A (500 volume) and position 14 for Keyword B (1000 volume), then we can see that the average ranking for this URL is 13 and it’s got a potential of 1500 search volume (note: you don’t have to use average position. It can be confusing, but it helps me size the ease of an opportunity). This makes it easier to look at absolute opportunities.
Here’s how I set that up in Excel:
If you’d like, you can then pull these entries to a different sheet and order them by traffic potential. If we do that, we can see that the top 10 opportunities represent a search volume potential of about 500,000:
From there, you can head back over to your raw data sheet and check out which keywords correspond to the URL which high search potential. Here are the keywords for my example URL (on cognitive biases written by my past colleague, the super talented Shanelle Mullin).
What can they do from here? Well, a few things, depending on the context.
The first thing I would do is type in each of these keywords into a) Google and b) Ahrefs and see what is currently ranking and the backlink profiles and competitiveness of the other sites ranking.
Let’s try that with “list of cognitive biases,” for which ConversionXL is ranking #20.
It’s not a shock that many of the currently ranking articles are informational and come from top sites, like Wikipedia, Mental Floss, and Business Insider.
Another thing to note is that they’re more general than the CXL title, as they relate to all applications of cognitive bias and not just CRO. Realistically, it’s a better branding play for CXL to include the focus on CRO, but it may be limited the search traffic and intent, something to consider in optimization.
Next, I would look at how these results stack up from a competitive perspective. Plug in your own URL into Ahrefs and get your baseline data on quantity of backlinks, domain rating, URL rating, etc.
Then plug in the keyword you’re trying to rank for (reminder “list of cognitive biases”) in the keyword explorer tool:
Scroll all the way to the bottom of this report and look at the current rankings. You can see, side by side, the backlink counts, Domain Rating, URL Rating, and “Ahrefs Rank” (a sort of aggregate metric that attempts to tell you how strong your search capability is).
Learning from a quick scan: Wikipedia is a monster and won’t be fucked with, but the others are all subject to be overtaken.
It would take a bit more effort to analyze the quality of each of the articles on that list (and I won’t walk you through that), but you essentially want to match the search intent (clearly a list of cognitive biases), and you want to optimize on-page for that and build links).
Optimizing on-page is a huge topic, so I’ll defer to the master on that topic: On-Page SEO: Anatomy of a Perfectly Optimized Page
You can also use a nice tool like SEMrush’s SEO Writing Assistant.
Finally, you can work on Click-through-Rate to squeeze out even more traffic out of your rankings. Here’s a good article from Wordstream on how to do that.
So, to optimize this piece of content, we have a) a possible title change b) some on-page optimization, c) internal linking d) some beefing up of the content to make it more thorough than the others and e) link building.
I won’t go into link building fully, as I’ve done that in a previous article on content promotion. But I want to briefly go over how to optimize your content to make it easier to build links (by building in linkable assets).

6 “Hooks” for Rankable and Linkable Content

One way to create linkable content is to genuinely write the best thing on the internet on that topic. It may sound grandiose, but that was the explicit content strategy we held at ConversionXL.
Outside of that, there are other more tactical things you can do to help out with link acquisition. There are a variety of these, but in my experience, it comes down to a few really effective ones. Scott Tousley and I call them “content hooks”:
  • Original data & stats
  • Original Images
  • Charts and Graphs
  • Quotes from influencers
  • Frameworks
  • Pros and Cons Tables
The mindset here is that you work backwards and think, “given the target sites I’d like to get links from, how can I craft my content to make it easier to acquire those links?” In the marketing world, if you have original data, new fancy frameworks, or original images or charts, it makes things leagues easier to add value.
A brief walk through these, with examples, is in order.

1. Original data & stats

This one is a bit of heavy lifting in terms of costs, but if you can pull legit, impressive data and publish it, you’re going to have a competitive advantage. Certain companies really excel at this, including ConversionXL with their UX studies.
Buzzsumo also does this really well with their huge content analyses.
HubSpot has a whole research program dedicated to original insights.

2. Original Images

True story, I was recently at a conference where I saw that some original images we created to explain A/B testing had been used by a keynote speaker (w/o crediting us, by the way).
People search for images, especially when creating content (blog, conference talk, or otherwise), and if your images come up when they search, you get a link (as long as they actually credit you).
My line of thought is, if you’re going to use images, why not try to create your own wherever that is possible? We did that for HubSpot with our NPS survey image:
This is an especially helpful tactic if you can create a visualization for a complicated topic, like segmentation or multivariate testing.

3. Charts and Graphs

This one is sort of a hybrid between “original images” and “original data,” but essentially you want to give some impressive data visualization to explain concepts or insights. It’s a big trend for bloggers to write data-driven posts, and images like these give the impression of using data to support your claims (doesn’t matter if the chart is bullshit, it’s going to get links anyway).
Here’s an example of a CSAT journey map I put together in R for a HubSpot post:
I’m no master of data visualization, and things can get super sophisticated, especially when you start to implement interactive visualizations. Ryan Farley did a great job of this with his interactive retention visualization:

4. Quotes from influencers

Roundups are usually boring, but quotes from smart people help you a) create better content and b) promote that content once it’s published. Working with smart people to put together content also helps you build relationships and support smart voices by giving them a platform.
I certainly have an affinity for BigCommerce when they feature my opinions in their articles:
There may not be a direct route to a link here, but there is a pathway through increased social shares and distribution that usually leads to natural links. Plus, as I mentioned, if you curate your features well, it can help you create better content. Matt Gershoff, CEO of Conductrics, has certainly made my articles smarter than I could have made them on my own:
Roundups can work, too, if they don’t suck. Peep put together an awesome one on new GA features. Luiz Centenaro put together a nice one as well on community building:

5. Frameworks

When in doubt, invent a framework. Bonus points if it’s actually useful. I’ve done it a bunch at HubSpot:
This framework is admittedly not that useful. I just made an acronym out of the process for running customer satisfaction surveys. Who knows, though, maybe it helps someone remember the information better.
A better example is something like PXL, an A/B test prioritization framework that is undeniably useful. It’s something that I’ve used with clients to help prioritize experiments:
Brian Dean, however, is the king of this tactic. He not only uses this technique all the time, popularizing terms like Skyscraper Technique, but he also named the technique of naming techniques. Meta! His frameworks genuinely help explain SEO concepts in a simple and actionable way, so they catch on.
The best thing you can do is create a framework that truly helps fill a knowledge gap or helps people put a concept to use. I think Brian DeanCXLWiderFunnelReforge, and others have done this really well.

6. Pros and Cons Tables

The world is a confusing place. If you can help visitors clear up confusion on a given topic or set of solutions, you deserve a link. For example, there are lots of customer feedback survey types, so we listed pros and cons of each one to help people choose the appropriate type for their scenario:
We also created original images of these tables, combining that tactic as well.
Any way you can visualize or simplify comparisons or pros and cons can help users make decisions. Can you do it with software or pricing? Conversion Rate Experts did that really well with A/B test software comparisons:

Relaunch: How to Get Back Off the Ground

After you beef up your content with some on-page optimization and add some link hooks, you should relaunch it. Give it a little velocity. It’s a new and improved piece, afterall. Why not give it some content promo love?
Basically, you can launch the thing like it’s new again. After all, it kind of is. As with most things content & SEO related, Brian Dean is the master and he’s already written a great guide/case study that covers how to do this. Check it out here.


Content optimization is important, often talked about, and rarely understood. How do you optimize content? What’s that even mean?
Here we’ve laid out two paths to doing so: improving conversion paths and improving traffic growth. Within those two paths there are multiple tactics for analyzing, prioritizing, and optimizing content for increased traffic, conversions, and whatever else you’re chasing after.
One can never truly encompass a topic and all the creative tactics that are possible, though. For that reason, I leave it as an open question: what am I missing? Any creative ways to surface optimization opportunities, uses of personalization, or otherwise? Feel free to comment or shoot me an email or whatever.

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