Thoughts on how bloggers SEOing their posts came to be a thing and why it’s so hard for them.
A completely biased and incomplete history of keywords
-or- “When keywords ruled”
Until about 2011-2012, you could see most of your keyword referral data from Google in Google Analytics (GA). Around that time Google started systematically taking away keyword referral data for sites in Google Analytics by growing their “not provided” data.
This resulted in a lot of hubbub and pain for SEOs. But as a pretty adaptable bunch we developed workarounds.
Ultimately to report on rankings, SEOs had to start looking at overall organic traffic to a page as well as what that page ranked for in search engines and then deduce based on available keyword phrase search volume estimates by third party data tools what effect efforts were having.
This was kind of a rough time for SEOs. Instead of reporting on rankings and being able to show exactly what keywords were bring traffic and conversions, we were forced to think more broadly and operate with more obfuscation as to the effectiveness of our efforts.
Other factors contributed to us having to deal with this level of uncertainty, like localization and personalization of search results, but that’s the gist.
So came groupings of keyword rankings by page
Top agencies sort of led the charge here. Instead of reporting on individual rankings of phrases, SEOs had to start reporting on groupings of keyword phrases per landing page and how they were moving up or down on average. You might track 10 to 20 phrases per landing page and see (report on) an average increase or decrease.
Doing this allowed for better testing and measuring impact of different efforts, therein allowing us to get better and keep up with the times.
It also made more sense. If you did SEO things to a page, rankings would increase for lots of similar keyword phrase variations, so reporting should account for those changes.
Of course, for the smaller shops out there, this level of complexity in reporting was a lot of work and hard to justify/explain to their smaller less web-savvy lower budget clients.
I don’t think it’s that it was hard to explain, just more that you literally couldn’t get a local business client to stay awake as you tried to explain it.
So for most clients reporting would just end up including traffic and rankings for an agreed upon list of phrases.
Topic clusters evolve as a best practice
It wasn’t just Google’s rolling out of “not provided” for most organic traffic. Users don’t do well diving into blogs, then categories, then digging into posts ordered by random (explained in the blog problem).
Curation of what content was available based on what the user was looking for makes a lot of sense.
If you’re doing keyword research, and you uncover groupings of related keyword phrases all around roughly the same search intent, then the next logical step is to think in terms of writing posts around those topics.
Going from groupings of related keywords that a page could rank for to a focus on topics ended up being very good for blog SEO.
But as enterprise SEOs figured this out, bloggers just kept blogging and reading copyblogger and hubspot for SEO tips or ignoring SEO altogether.
The “Ignoring SEO” SEO strategy
I don’t want it to seem like SEO dictated the way content works or should work. Some of the best content strategists, with the most traffic, completely ignore SEO and it works wonders for them. Still today.
A super cool example I’m reminded of is a time (years ago) I searched “algorithms” and this post about visualizing algorithms came up. Totally worth a read if interested in that kind of thing, or at least skimming, because there are pretty animations in it.
The “Ignoring SEO” SEO strategy stops working
But getting traffic to blogs from Google got harder over the past five to seven years. Corporations had recognized the opportunity of strategic SEO type content marketing while most bloggers didn’t adapt.
Keeping that same approach of “ignoring SEO” led to lower traffic and therefore lower monetization.
Bloggers that had quit their day jobs making $5k+/month on ads, sponsored posts, information products, or whatever – then slowly but surely, started getting edged out of key rankings on SERPs (search engine results pages).
Bloggers start trying to “SEO” things
By the time a blogger realizes that Google is trashing their content’s traffic in the SERPs, they no longer have the budget hire a real expert to fix.
Here are the most common missteps I see when bloggers try to SEO things:
1. They binge on posts about SEO typically written by copywriters
There is so much noise and advice out there re on-site SEO, the natural inclination is to read often dated content like list posts on the “6 ways to boost your blog’s traffic.”
The problem with this is it completely ignores your context which should be the number one consideration in crafting a SEO friendly content strategy.
2. They download “SEO” plugin(s)
Another thing I see a lot is they’ll download an “SEO” plugin and start optimizing posts with it. Many of the “SEO” plugins encourage on-page “keyword optimization.”
And then they’ll show you a score, “this post is now 98% optimized.”
Does this work? There is no binary answer here.
But almost no blogger I’ve ever talked to that does this will check to see if its having a positive or negative impact on their search traffic.
I’m not knocking SEO plugins, they provide a useful way to configure things site-wide or edit things at the page/post level, but in the hands of bloggers, they just add to the tunnel vision of “optimizing posts.”
3. Attempt to optimize posts with keywords
Often in tandem with #2, this has made using keywords in your blog posts a dangerous practice.
Three common ways bloggers go about this but shouldn’t are:
- Looking at keyword phrase search volume to choose what to write about and literally use those phrases in their title and/or h tags.
- Writing a post and then adding/changing keywords to match keyword phrases based on search volume before publishing.
- Writing a post, publishing it, then going back later and trying to change h tags and add keywords to posts.
The reason this is problematic is it considers SEO as though it can be boiled down to a checklist of granular things you do to a post after-the-fact.
You start serving crawlers over your users
And that’s why it backfires. Your posts stop being natural enjoyable things to read and they start being tactical. By trying to get more “traffic” you give your users and any new traffic a purposefully worsened version of your content.
You get distracted from your core reason for blogging in the first place.
You would be so much better off “ignoring SEO” when writing and editing your posts. Search is much more powerful when there is a more holistic site-wide strategy.
I will (attempt to) do a light review of a better way to go about informing your content (past and future) with keyword research next.