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What if customers found your business every single time they Googled an industry buzzword? Can you imagine the incredible amount of traffic that would generate? Connect the dots between increased traffic and true business value to convert opportunities into leads.
Today’s guest is Liam Barnes, search engine optimization (SEO) specialist at Directive. He describes how “guides” are the future of SEO-driven content marketing. Discover what quality content looks like, why long-form interactive content works, and get tips on SEO keyword selection and tools.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
Nathan: Imagine if customers found your business every single time they Googled an industry buzzword. What would happen, do you think? I personally would guess that you’d get insane amount of traffic, it would be the right kinds of traffic, and it would mean a lot of opportunities to convert that traffic into leads. Ultimately, you’d be able to connect the dots between that and real business value.
For example, let’s say you were a search engine optimization tool and you wanted to rank for the term ‘SEO.’ It would provide massive exposure to show your target audience you know your stuff, right? By the way, this example of trying to rank for a huge industry buzzword, SEO, is real. Keyword tool Moz ranks for the three simple letters of SEO.
So, how do they do it then? It’s a content marketing concept that many of us in the marketing industry has started to call guides. There’s no one better to cover this concept than Liam Barnes who is an SEO specialist at SEO agency, Directive. Today, you’re going to learn what quality content looks like, you’re going to learn some of the mechanics behind why long-form interactive content works, and you’re going to get some tips on keyword selection, SEO tools, and a whole lot more.
I’m Nathan from CoSchedule and this episode with Liam went a drastically different way than I had planned because Liam dropped that simple word of guide. I know the episode is all the better for it because I know that this advice really, truly works. So let’s get AMPed with Liam.
Nathan: Liam, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Liam: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.
Nathan: Excited to have you. I think this is a really cool topic today. Before we get too far into that, just give us a little bit of background on you. Tell me about Directive and maybe a little bit about your role there.
Liam: Directive is a search marketing agency. It was founded in Orange County about five years ago by Garrett Mehrguth and Tanner Shaffer. Basically, what we do is we do search marketing, mostly PBC, SEO, and CRO for enterprise brands. For my personal position, I’m in the SEO department. I’m a specialist working directly with clients as well as I’m a part of the internal marketing team as well. I work directly on Directive’s brand as well.
Nathan: Excellent. You’re the perfect guy to talk to about actually doing this stuff. With that, let’s just dive into it. I want to talk to you a little bit about SEO and all the tips that you would have there. Let’s just start from the top. If I were starting a website from scratch, what’s some of the inside scoop that you have? Where would you recommend focusing first from an SEO perspective?
Liam: This is kind of a loaded question, I would say, because it really just depends, and I’m sure you know this, too. It really depends on the client. I think depending on what industry they are, what the purpose of the website is, what type of product they’re selling, there’s a lot of different ways that you can go about it, but I’d say we can take this in two parts.
First, if you’re starting a blog, really it’s just about how much content you’re putting on your website. From there I would say you would probably start mainly through a keyword research standpoint, figuring out what purpose you want the blog to serve, and going deeper into what kind of keywords you want to be targeting, what topics you want to be covering.
If you’re going from a product standpoint, I would say if you’re selling a product, there’s two ways that you could go about it. There’s one way where you can set your website and look for keywords around what the product is or you can focus more on the user experience of your website, build more towards the paid social side of things, and then hop into SEO. Either way, there’s different dynamic ways of going about it.
Nathan: Let’s just start with one of those ways. You mentioned a blog. I think it’s pretty common to want to start a blog. We’ve all heard the benefits there. You mentioned the purpose to serve with the blog and keywords specifically. I’m wondering here if you have a framework that you could share or what are some advice for choosing some of those keywords for the blog, specifically if you’re just getting started? Where should you begin there?
Liam: I like to take a two-pronged approach of this. The first being really understanding what Google is putting out there. When you’re going through your process of keyword research and you’re pulling topics that you want to write about, make sure you’re entering them directly into Google because the intent of that search may not match what you’re trying to put out there.
For instance, if you Google one of our main keywords at Directive is SEO agency, obviously because we are an SEO agency. When you look at that at SERP, it’s very service-focused. You wouldn’t be writing up a blog about SEO agency. You’d have to find a different variation of that. I’d say when you’re going towards more of the blog side of things, make sure you’re looking at what Google is putting out there because then you can get a better idea of how to rank, how many words you may have to include in your blog, what your heading structure should be, all these different factors in trying to make sure that you rank.
Nathan: I think that’s really good advice. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Brian Dean and his skyscraper technique.
Liam: Yeah, actually I am.
Nathan: It’s recommending read through that stuff and see how you can do better, essentially.
Liam: I think it takes a mixed approach, I would say. Definitely most of my approaches towards creating really good quality content is surrounded around that first part of the skyscraper technique which is basically analyzing the SERP and making sure that you do a better job than everybody else does. Obviously, the second half is more link building. Definitely, that first half of the skyscraper technique, just making sure that you are creating unique content, but make sure you’re still answering the questions that Google is basically showing you what to answer.
Nathan: Definitely makes sense to me. We actually use that quite a bit at CoSchedule, too. It’s fun to hear how it applies to other people, too.
Liam: Definitely. Obviously, Brian Dean knows what he’s talking about. I’m sure a lot of your audience probably follows his blog. I know I do.
Nathan: It’s validation that you do, too, because this is what you do everyday. For a lot of us, SEO is one aspect of our jobs which is why it’s fun to talk to you specifically about this stuff. Leading into this, I was wondering about choosing these keywords and you had mentioned what should be a blog post and what should be a different sort of intent like your SEO agency description example there. What I’m wondering is, how do you go about differentiating those long tail, maybe inbound keywords versus product keywords. How do you go about finding those? How do you go figuring out what pieces to create for, the different intents?
Liam: It depends on specifically for the client. It depends on what their end goal is. We obviously want to make sure that we are helping out their business as a whole. If they’re looking to drive traffic more towards these top of the funnel, more educational type pieces, if they want to be a thought leader in the space, then we want to make sure that we’re going towards more of those broader topics and creating these guides that you see at the top of pretty much every SERP for these very short tail, high demand keywords.
If the client is not as authoritative in the space and they have a little bit lower of a DEA or they have less authority on their site, we would say go towards more of those low demands or those long tail keywords. Obviously, if you are selling a product, it’s a lot different than if you’re selling a service. Most of the time with the B2B clients that we work with, we try to align their content strategy around the services that they provide so it creates a nice funnel towards their service pages. For products, specifically, I think it’s more trying to find a niche in the interest of the user itself.
If you’re a B2C, you’re a direct-to-consumer brand who sells, let’s just say bikes, you want to try and figure out not just blogs with product-specific keywords about bikes. You want to try to find out what are their interests. People who are looking to purchase bikes also have interests in, so would it be, writing a lot of outdoorsy type topics, writing about the beach or writing about a specific location at their end. It depends on what that target audience it once we identify it and the goal of what they’re looking for.
Nathan: That’s totally fair coming from the agency background, 100% understand. I want to pick on that you mentioned is guides. Can you tell me what you mean about that and how you go about making a guide that ranks?
Liam: For us internally, a guide is mainly those extremely long-form pieces of content that can be anywhere between 5000–20,000 words that cover every subtopic of a really broad topic. If I wanted to create a guide all about SEO, there’s a lot of things to cover in that. But some people are looking for those larger topics, depending on the gaps within their current content strategy. I would say, for the guide, it’s more a breakdown of everything from a huge topic that has a lot of search volume and is usually a lot harder in terms of keyword difficulty.
Nathan: Yeah, it makes total sense. With a guide, is that something you would recommend making almost like a multi-page microsite or should that just be a very long blog post? What would you recommend there from your SEO background?
Liam: I’ve seen a couple of different ways to do it. I think it goes back to what your strategy behind it. Some people don’t have necessarily the development background or resource within their company in order to create these multi-page sites where the content can live on multiple pages across the site in a nice, flowing fashion. It’s a lot more difficult for them because they don’t have the resources to build that out quickly. There’s a couple of ways that we can go about it.
I know with Directive, we create one long blog post that has interactive pieces in it. On the side, there will be somewhat of a navigation bar to every header. If you want to skip ahead to a different part of that guide, then you can. It really just depends on the capacity of the team itself and how quickly you’re trying to move it out because you can definitely just create it as an extremely long blog but from a user experience standpoint, that sometimes doesn’t work very well and you can see a lot of drop-off very early.
Nathan: I don’t know. I really like that concept. It’s almost like a very easy to use table of contents. When a piece gets so big, it’s got to be consumable. Maybe something for you to try to lean on is what’s good for the user is good for SEO. Am I right?
Liam: Oh, 100% and we’re seeing a lot of good data behind this shift in the past few months. Obviously, there’s been a couple of updates via Google and we’ve seen a huge shift in quality of content and user experience, having a lot more effect on the ability to rank, basically. We like to take a focus on user experience, definitely, as almost just an integrated part of SEO.
Nathan: I really like hearing that. Something that we say at CoSchedule is we could create the best content in the world, as is write the best content in the world, but if it’s poorly designed, it’s still poor content.
Liam: Yeah. I like to take the approach of, “Would I want to read this?” or, “Would I land on this page and just not really trust it or it’s not very appealing to me?” If that’s the case then something should probably change. We like to try and make everything. Obviously, the quality, the content is number one, but I think that’s a 1A/1B thing where user experience has to be there or that quality of content really doesn’t matter.
Nathan: Something you mentioned is you sometimes take the approach of writing these longer form guides as a longer piece with interactive elements. Do you see that it does rank for that core keyword and many of the latent semantic indexing or those sub keywords? Does one piece do really well with just one slug or do you think it needs some of those multiple slugs to work with Google these days?
Liam: I think it depends. It definitely can rank for a bunch of different keywords. There’s a separation that I see wherein you must create content that it better than what is currently on there in order for us to rank. That’s what I’ve been seeing. I think you can definitely rank for multiple keywords but it’s one of those things where you’re going to have to basically create 7–10 blogs targeting different parts.
I guess we can go back to the SEO guide. If you want to rank for “What is SEO?” and you also want to rank for “What are the top 10 SEO tools?” or something like that, each section has to be 15,000 words and it has to be perfectly laid out in a certain way for it to rank for both of them. I think that’s probably just not very realistic.
I think the approach of having different slugs definitely could be a better alternative. It just goes back to that “What are you really looking for?” I’ve seen a lot recently, though, with continuous pages to different slugs as you go down to a different header, it changes the URL. I’ve seen some good insights with that, but I’d have to dive a little bit deeper for sure.
Nathan: I find that fascinating. There are some sites such as Inc that have basically unlimited scroll through their articles. It’s just really easy to stay there and consume the content.
Liam: I think it probably provides really good user experience. It not so much forces the user to keep reading but it encourages the user, “Hey, you just read this one. Here’s another article about a very similar topic. You don’t even have to click anything, it’s already here for you.” You see, obviously, a lot lower balance rate so that would help with ranking as well, but it’s very interesting. I definitely would like to dig deeper into it.
Nathan: Thanks for letting me pick your brain, especially around guides. This is something that we’ve been testing at CoSchedule, too. For example, bringing a larger term such as agile marketing which is very broad, and then how do you rank for that along with some of the more intricate examples. It’s fun to hear how an agency is approaching it which is in a way similar to what we’re up to.
Liam: I think most of the marketing world regardless of whether you’re with an agency or not, at least with us, we’re trying to not stay in the scope of just agency marketing. We’re trying to go outside of that because you can get a lot of amazing insights from people who aren’t working for agencies because they’re working directly with one company and they spend a lot of time with that one company.
They’re actually able to grab a lot better insights because they are able to focus in on one group of data which is obviously that one company’s data for a longer period of time. We definitely like to take the approach of gathering information for as many people as possible and then applying what we think works best for our clients.
Nathan: That makes a lot of sense to me. Liam, just based on what you mentioned, do you have any examples that one of our listeners could go to and just kind of see what a guide might look like, whether that’s from your own company or something you’ve seen others do?
Liam: Yes. We actually just created one that’s really good because we’re expanding more on the concept of CRO within our own company, so we just created a really long-form guide called “What is CRO?” That’s on our website as well. I would say, honestly, if you just Google any big, broad term, there’s them all over the internet.
I know Moz is obviously one of those few companies where their blog is a centerpiece for education. I’d say Backlinko with Brian Dean is another one. You can just pretty much just Google any high volume, top of the funnel keyword and you’ll probably find that the first section is usually a guide on the SERP. I’d say Ahrefs, that’s a really good job with the easy table of contents navigation as well.
Nathan: Yeah. Ahrefs’s site and I learn a lot from them. Like I mentioned to you earlier, I have to know SEO enough but I’m not in it every single day. It’s a good way to keep up to speed.
Liam: Definitely. Directive is definitely a lover of Ahrefs in terms of the tool and the blog. We learn a lot from them.
Nathan: Actually, something that I wanted to pick your brain on just a little bit is I know keyword selection is important so do you have any tools there that you favor or do you have go-to tools that you might recommend if someone were to ask you?
Liam: Yeah. I would say the two main tools that at least I used are SEMrush and Ahrefs. I’ve noticed that there is some difference between the two in terms of search volume. Obviously the way that they explain your difficulty is a little bit different where Ahrefs’s numbers are a little bit lower, they’re not very high numbers, whereas SEMrush does it off of a percentage base. So, depending on what you like, that’s the differences, but I would say Ahrefs, I found has a lot more accurate data in realtime because they’re crawlers are being sent out pretty much every day.
I would say Ahrefs and SEMrush are the two. Obviously, going back to what we were talking about before is Google is your best keyword tool. If you’re interested in a topic, Google it. If there’s a bunch of companies that are writing blogs or they have product pages about that topic, you could probably not even have to do research around the actual search volume around it. You could probably just write about it. I think using a combination of the information that Google’s providing you, and then these tools, SEMrush or Ahrefs, are you’re one-two punch.
Nathan: I really like that latter advice there. At some point, you just need to ship something. You could look at data all day long but hey, if you don’t publish, you don’t rank.
Liam: Yeah, and we really like to be data-backed. I like to make all of my decisions based on some form of data because I think it gives clients a better understanding why we’re making the decision. I don’t necessarily like making decisions based off of gut feeling. I like to make sure that I know that they’re going to work. The way that we implement that can have some form of gut feeling just from experience, but I think once you’re in the strategy process of things, the more data you have, the more confident you can feel about your strategy.
Nathan: Absolutely. Love that last little bit of advice, Liam. I agree. Something I wanted to circle back on just because we’re talking about long-form content, guides, and ranking for these keywords, something that you mentioned was the term interactive. I just want to ask you from being in the industry pretty deep, do you see things like interactive tools doing well or is it still just very much word-based for SEO? Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
Liam: I’ve seen a couple of AI-driven interactive tools. I know there’s a couple of different companies out there that are trying to create these products based off of creating interactive content. I know that Uberflip is one of them and there’s a couple others around there but in terms of interactive content, with the way that SEO is going, I’m a huge proponent of voice search.
I’ve been doing a lot of research around voice search because I think it’s just so fascinating that we’re still focusing a lot on hopping directly into Google when a lot of these different technologies are going in that direction of ease with basically that’s not having you use our hands. I’ve been diving a lot into that. That’s a very interactive part of SEO because you’re literally having a conversation with the search engine.
As well, to balance off of that, a different direction, I think that video is still a huge part of SEO. Not only just because videos can rank, but obviously, if we were typing out the conversation we’re currently having right now, that would take a really long time, whereas if you create a video and you’re actively thinking about that target keyword in your head, then you can have that transcribed pretty quickly and make that into a blog. You can even embed that video into the blog to make it interactive in that sense.
There’s a lot of different types of interactive content that can be created and it’s interesting to see where all these new companies are trying to get into that market, like Uberflip is trying to create the interactive content through a tool itself.
Nathan: That’s awesome advice. Thank you for sharing all of that. Maybe as a last question for us today, Liam. I know I’ve heard it all the time that SEO just takes time. If I were to start creating something today with the goal of ranking, how would recommend getting results without it taking forever?
Liam: I think it’s going back to the basics. I know you constantly read about new SEO tactics that you want to try and you want to test out. Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t work. I think it’s just going back to the basics and understanding what the search engine really cares about. I think that’s creating quality content, making sure that you have highly authoritative links going back to your site, and making sure the user has a good experience.
Breaking those down, one, writing good content. I know it’s been in the forefront of our brains since you got into marketing. I know since I got into marketing is content, content, content and just try to drive as much as good quality content as you can. That’s obviously one of them. There are some caveats that we could have a whole nother conversation about.
The second thing was highly authoritative links. I think the way that Google obviously can tell that you’re a trustworthy site is if people link to you. That could be through a couple different ways. If you rank for content, then people naturally will link back to you. You can’t really rank for content if you’re not that authoritative, it’s very difficult. Things like guest posting and different types of very targeted link building can help that.
And then the last thing, user experience. Like we said before, if you’re not creating a good user experience, people don’t want to stay on your site. There’s those technical data-backed indicators to Google saying, “Look, people are bouncing out at 95% rate, so the content must not be good, so this website must not be good.” I know it seems like it’s a lot to do all at once, but I think once you get into the role of things, you can see huge changes very quickly.
Nathan: I love that and to be honest, I think you said it really well that SEO, there’s so much you could do, that concentrating on the basics, those three things—quality, links, and experience—I couldn’t agree more. Anyway, thank you for being on the show today, Liam. I appreciate all this. I know our listeners are getting a lot of value out of this. Thanks for being here.
Liam: Yeah, thank you for having me. It was a great time.
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