The Step By Step SEO & Content Strategy Guide For Digital Publishers

    Fact checked by Vahe Arabian
    Vahe Arabian

    Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and promote their efforts, my passion is to uncover talent and… Read more

    Edited by Vahe Arabian
    Vahe Arabian

    Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and promote their efforts, my passion is to uncover talent and…Read more

    SEO Content Marketing

    Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and...Read more

    For the past three to four years, there has been a trend for publishers to use long-form to leverage SEO & content marketing. In terms of longtail traffic and rankings, this has been proven to be beneficial, and awareness of this only continues to increase.


    Content marketing vs. SEO

    One big unanswered question that remains is how content and SEO overlap. If you tend to write good content that users are searching for it will naturally appear in search engines, right? What’s the point in having an SEO or content marketing specialist if an editor can just crank out strong SEO content?

    Here are differences I see in how SEO and content marketing approach content creation:

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    SEO tends to be more narrow and technical. When focusing on SEO, you’re looking at how to build up a page to give the right answer to the right users to a given search result. A core component of building up a page is the content. But SEO will also evaluate other factors such as meta tag and schema optimization, site speed, site architecture, coding and more.

    On the other hand, content marketing is broader. Because it is channel agnostic, it focuses more on the quality of exposure a piece of content receives and tactical steps taken to reach a specific outcome.

    For example, a brand’s goal might be for it to be a thought leader or the most entertaining in its category. In that case, a content marketer’s focus will be on crafting the best and most appropriate story using the best and most appropriate medium to distribute the content.


    What makes great content?

    Organic search and content marketing can work together to formulate a solid content strategy. This strategy will focus on the continual planning, creation, and management of great (valuable, engaging and rankable) content.


    So what defines great content?

      1. Practical – no fluff or overstated claims; it provides a variety of perspectives; it gives people steps to take after you’re done reading the content
      2. Credible – Authentic people write about real topics and link to reliable external sources
      3. Informed – In-depth overview of the topic; provides a mixture of definitions and describes what is working, what isn’t, trends, a proposed solution, and potential solutions from others
      4. Original – Considerably different in scope and detail from other works on similar topics
      5. Strong headlines – Sparks interest and entices users to read the content in depth; breaks up the content into sizeable chunks to allow users to read standalone parts
      6. Accurate – Doesn’t encourage fake news
      7. Engaging and thought-provoking – Provokes a positive emotional response to your message
      8. Evergreen – Ability to make continual/minimal updates
      9. Communicative in diverse formats – Based on a user learning styles, offer different forms of consuming information, such as video, infographics, and images
      10. Technically sound – Loads quickly on the page and sits in an ideal location within the site hierarchy; has been optimised for all SEO


    Here is a list of current great content from leading digital publishing and media companies:


    The Content Marketing SEO process

    There’s no particular way to guarantee you will rank in Google and receive a large number of shares every time you follow this process. But it isn’t to so difficult
    that you can’t increase your likelihood of doing well. What success comes down to is aligning your goals with an evergreen topic. Then you need to effectively structure long-lasting and high-quality content that users will always return to, reference, link to, and share.

    This post assumes that you have already completed a content audit and that this audit forms part of your existing content strategy. So here is the content marketing SEO process.



    Step 1: Identify your objective/s

    It goes without saying that if you don’t know your end goal, you will start by producing low-quality content. Particularly when it comes to content marketing and SEO,
    marketers produce content to generate organic search traffic and awareness and to reach a potential user base. However, there are other tactical goals you can aim for in
    order to have a more creative, topic-focused content strategy:

    • Increase in the number of referring domains that are adding referring traffic to the site
    • Stabilize ranking flux
    • Second-page rankings to the first page for proven  keywords
    • Increase new page indexation rate
    • Defend positioning from competitors
    • Broaden topic cluster portfolio
    • Mindshare of a particular topic
    • Increase link volume 
    • Improve localized rankings and presence


    There are tools you can use to start researching and identifying opportunities to help you inform your goals. These resources are predominantly link research tools, such as Ahrefs, Majestic SEO, or Moz. They can help you meet secondary metrics and can also help you partner with sites so that you can benchmark and syndicate content. You can compete by producing a better version of the topic in which you are looking to perform. To do so, conduct keyword searches or look at competitor link profiles.

    An easy goal is trying to move all page 2 position keywords for a topic to page 1 of Google’s’ search results. Choose keywords you think will dramatically improve organic site traffic and mindshare.

    For example, according to SEMrush, the term, “Why is there a leap day,” results in 4 million monthly searches in Google in the U.S. alone. National Geographic has a historical news article that ranks on the second page. Assuming link building isn’t a requirement, have a look at the magazine’s on-page SEO, as well as that of its competitors. It’s worth noting that there are informational and editorial sites that are ranking and that explains what a leap year and leap day are.


    The Telegraph UK is the most prominent ranking page for “why is there a leap day.” The reason why is that in the site’s article, the writers explicitly include in their answer that a leap day is a day that occurs every four years. So they are optimizing for the “leap day” term.leap-year-telegraph

    The members of the content team have also built up the leap year article with related content sections, such as stats of the number of people born on a leap day, leap year traditions, famous people, historical facts, and leap year recipes. There are other sections as well that provide a comprehensive context for the subject of leap year.
    Going back to the National Geographic page, you will notice that it’s primarily optimized for leap year. And while it has a video and provides a historical overview (similar to The Telegraph UK), Nat Geo could add other historical facts and multimedia that would add more weight and depth to the subject, improving the page’s overall SEO.


    Step 2 – Conduct your research and establish your benchmarks

    For a complete approach to truly understanding your audience, you need to focus on the three C’s (company, customer, and competitor).



    This post provides an overview of relevant tools, as well as context for why each research layer is vital to achieving your data sweet spot. So let’s go through and explain the keyword research process step by step, using the “climate change” example we mentioned in Step 1.

    1. In Google Trends, enter in the topic you are searching for and take note of related topics and user search queries.

    Because there are different countries, choose your desired target location. In this instance, we’ll select the United States, but it’s surprising to see how low the search
    interest is for the U.S. when compared to other countries.

    There are searches related to Donald Trump’s and Barack Obama’s stances towards climate change, the Paris climate change deal, and climate change hoaxes.



    1. Conduct similar searches on Google Search, Quora, your preferred social media monitoring tool and record your results within the spreadsheet


    Take note of the type of pages and content Google shows in the search results.


    1. Use Buzzsumo and Ahrefs to see the most popular content shared around the “climate change” topic, and export the results.


    1. Conduct competitor research and related keyword research using SEMrush in order to discover alternatives and priorities for your targeting efforts.


    1. Use existing data (i.e., surveys), Google Search Console, Google Analytics and internal company databases like a CRM.
    1. Brainstorm from the data you’ve already collected and create your keyword seed list. This is your list of keywords that you think people use to search for related
      climate change topics.
    1. Expand and segment your list to polish and improve its focus.

    From a publisher perspective ask yourself:

    • What are the clusters (themes) that make up this topic?
    • Who are the people and companies associated with this topic?
    • In what location is this topic read? Or what locations do I want to reach for this topic?


    1. Enter segmented seed keywords one by one into the Google Keyword Planner Tool to validate the search volume and demand.


    Note: Make sure that you’re using Google Keyword Planner with an active Adwords account. Otherwise, you will not have full access to the data.


    1. Export the data into your spreadsheet and group your keywords by category and subcategory.
    1. Filter out the irrelevant data
    1. Create a prioritization score/matrix


    Below are the results.



    Step 3 – Develop your audience persona

    Now that you have user context and quantitative data, you need to add qualitative data. Qualitative data will break into sections the content you are planning on producing. Include story basics, such as each person’s name, archetype, demographic, personality traits, and image. Your goal is to map different types of content based on your audience’s user journey. You want to predict how your target audience will consume your content. You also want to identify problems and solutions that you can use for creating content examples and information.

    HubSpot has a make my Persona Tool, and there are many others like that one which you can use as well.

    The top of your content funnel can be more informational with “how to” type pieces. The bottom of the content funnel can consist of breaking news, such as event recaps that will help users with actionable takeaways.
    The expectation here is not for you to do all of this work. Instead, you can split up the responsibilities of your team in order to capture the full user search lifecycle.


    Step 4 – Develop your content

    King Content describes “pillar pages” as “the thematic ‘buckets’ that describe and define the content that your brand produces. The pillars are either used internally to shape the content creation process or they might be reflected in website navigation, but they should always be thematic in approach.”

    Using content pillars is important because they keep you focused, both on your audience and on keyword targeting. They also help you maintain a tighter navigational site structure.

    Here are the five necessary steps towards building your content:

    1. Determine the pillar or the topic clusters for the pillar you are building towards.
    2. Develop your content topic/keyword map.
    3. Determine the content format for delivering the topic.
    4. Optimise the content.
    5. Publish it.
    6. Conduct ongoing testing.


    Now let’s go through the steps in detail.


    1. Determine your content pillar

    There are two types of pillar pages. One type is the content pillar page (aka “skyscraper”) that comprehensively covers the topic in-depth. The second type is the resource pillar page (or cornerstone content page) that provides some content, but primarily has links out to resources that cover different aspects of that topic.



    Source: Hubspot

    For expanding websites that require a new section for a chosen topic, use a resource pillar. Otherwise, use a content pillar.

    An example of a content pillar page is the Leap Year feature post we referred to earlier. This goes into the topic in detail.


    An example of a resource pillar is The Atlantic’s “Population Healthier piece. Even though it is a sponsored piece, it relates back to the central theme of healthcare in the U.S. in an organized and non-intrusive way. It also includes additional page links to topics related to the issue.


    Once you have determined your content pillar approach, go about using your research to plan the creation of new and existing pages by means of the keyword mapping method.


    1. Map your keywords to your content page

    Keyword mapping is the process of assigning or mapping keywords to specific pages on a website based on keyword research. Based on your mapping process, you can make on-page SEO recommendations in order to make the page more relevant.When looking at assigning your keywords to your pillar page/s:


    1. Use one query to identify a broader set of keywords, and optimize the primary elements of the page, i.e., the URL and title tag.
      2. Group keywords that answer the same question into secondary and tertiary categories.
      3. Identify the more significant search queries in order to create new sections for your secondary and tertiary keywords within that page. Use the remaining
      keywords naturally to vary the optimisation and content you produce for that page.
      4. Map keywords based on relevance, user intent, and conversion goals.
      5. Include word count and buyer stage as well to keep the page brief and as specific as possible.


    Here’s a picture to show you what your spreadsheet should ultimately look like.


    Once you are happy with your spreadsheet, make sure to benchmark your traffic and keyword rankings using keyword ranking tools and Search Console to compare your performance as you go.


    1. Build out your content

    Now you’re ready to build out your content page. But what are the different content formats that you can choose?

    The BBC has updated a Qz 2014 research study with examples from 2017 that show the different types of formats digital media organizations most commonly


    Source: BBC News Labs

    1. Short & vertical video; often with captions, pioneered by AJ+ and NowThis
    2. Horizontal *Stories; swipeable cards like Snapchat Stories and its clones
    3. Long-form scrollytelling; evolved from the original NY Times Snowfall
    4. Structured news; like the original Circa or the reusable cards at Vox.com
    5. Live blogs; frequently used for big events
    6. Listicles; like Buzzfeed
    7. Newsletters and briefings; which seem to be on trend right now
    8. Timelines; chronicle pieces
    9. Bots and chat; from the chat-style Qz app to the many attempts to deliver news within chat apps
    10. Personalised; which typically is used to filter the choice of stories, rather than the story itself
    11. Data visualization; from graphs to interactive
    12. VR and AR


    Again, rely on the research you have done to determine the best format for you. Leverage the SERP insights and what you know about what your audience values when it comes to engaging with content.


    1. Optimize content

    In the old days of SEO, people carried out the process of on-page optimization (and optimizing content) using keyword placement. A page that had enough keyword mentions would usually get you ranking. But now there is an exploding amount of content on the internet. The amount of content, the diversification of devices and connections, and the overall advancements in technology all make it harder to differentiate as a result of keyword placement alone.

    The below image looks at the new and necessary steps for optimizing content for a new page. This information is based on correlation studies and best practices
    provided by search engines with the intention of:

    • Having the best opportunity to rank in search engines such as Google and Bing
    • Earning traffic from your owned media properties, such as your social media profiles (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, e.t.c.)
    • Being worthy of links and shares from across the web
    • Building brand perception, trust, and conversions



    Source: Moz


    • Uniquely valuable – Content that is useful to users and that cannot be found elsewhere on the web
    • UX – Provides visually pleasing and functional design and accessibility
    • Keyword targeted – Looks at the most important elements in order to strategically insert keywords; important elements include URL, title, description, heading, image, and body content
    • Built to be shared through social networks – Makes social sharing as easy as possible
    • Responsive on multiple devices– While also part of UX, this a separate factor given the diversity of platforms and devices
    • Crawler/Bot Accessible – Makes sure that pages can be crawled, indexed, and ranked reliably
    • Authorship, metadata, schema and rich snippets – Uses additional markups so that search engines can assess and display information from a page.


    Organic search isn’t technically a distribution method. But having your new content pages primed with the above strategies can help you increase the potential
    SERP visibility and organic reach since Google is classified as a platform.

    The best method for upgrading old content pieces and showing up in the featured snippet results is best described in the most recent study published by
    SEMrush & Ghergich,


    If you’re a journalist or publisher, then your tech team or developer can already build all the technical aspects and templates for any page you create. The purpose of this
    information is for you to understand and troubleshoot the problems if for some reason a page isn’t ranking as well as you think it should. It is also important to realize
    that the above two diagrams provide you with a blueprint for distributing your content in search. Ensure that you rebuild your site content within those platforms’ specific
    parameters as you aim to share your content across other platforms and channels.

    To finish your optimization, review your headlines again using tools such as CoSchedule’s headline analyzer. Doing so will help you further maximize
    your results. Using the following steps for creating strong headlines:




    Source: Coschedule


    1. Promote your content

    Boom! You can now go live and see the magic happen. Or is it that easy?
    For larger publishers and digital media companies, it could be. They have sites that are generally authoritative and trustworthy. These companies can use other integrated
    owned and paid channels to promote their content pages. In addition, influencers and bloggers reference their content or other websites syndicate it.
    Your ultimate goal is to get into the green zone (see the image below) as a result of being recognized as the sole leader in your niche. For smaller publishers, your
    goal is to build up your online publications to the point that you’re recognized and have the capability of being earned media. Achieving this status will allow your
    content to disseminate to different outlets and platforms.

    hierarchy-of-recognition-1When you are looking to promote your content, consider the stage you are in for the topic about which you are writing. Then come up with the appropriate pre and post-launch promotional plan (as part of your editorial calendar) in order to give it the best chance for success.

    Take this post as an example: “Why Did ISIS Attack Paris ?” Because of The
    Atlantic’s position as a leading online media publication, other sites cited this article (even a Huffington Post contributor did so) due to its quality coverage and
    information. As shown in the screenshot below, this content page earned 54 unique referring domains.



    1. Ongoing review and testing

    Once your content page goes live, you can improve its overall performance by either reoptimizing it or by merging/removing the page if it’s conflicting with other,
    better-performing pages. Of course, you should avoid setting up conflicting pages in the first place. Not all pages on a website can be evergreen, and over time they can
    become outdated and less valuable. This is not a bad thing, but it’s important when you review your content that you not only look forward but also look backward.
    This process of removing dead weight pages from a website (and, therefore, from Google’s Index) is called content pruning. Sites that can benefit from regular content pruning are those sites that often have good content and few pages, versus a large number of low-quality pages.

    When I say “content pages,” I don’t mean just blog posts. I mean your entire website:

    • Legacy product/service pages
    • Irrelevant category or auto-generated “tag” pages
    • Dated blog, resource, or informational pages Doorway pages that don’t connect to your site’s core architecture Subdomains, forums, staging domains, etc.

    Take Buzzfeed as an example. This site is good at having its community produce pop culture posts. However, which one of the bottom posts will rank for “Game of
    Thrones Final Season” if they are all targeting that topic?game-of-thrones-final-season

    How will posts rank compared to existing competitors who already have a specific news piece on that topic?game-of-thrones-final-season-news


    How should I prune my content?

    Luckily, you can use automation. Particularly with large publishing sites, it is essential to break up the work (using site categories, for example). Otherwise,
    you’ll get overwhelmed.

    To prune your content, you will need to conduct a content audit to assess your current site performance and then determine the next steps from there.

    David Krevitt and the team at Webris have put together a simplified and automated process in Google Sheets. They used Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Ahrefs, Screaming Frog (website crawl) and Logz.io (server log) data integrations.



    Continually testing for improved content performance

    Your content pages still might not be ranking on the first page. Or maybe they are, but you do not see the expected traffic and landing page conversions from an organic search perspective. This situation could be due to an engagement (relevancy), click through, or ranking issue. So what’s the best method for continually monitoring your performance and testing it in a methodical fashion?

    David Krevitt has come through with the goods again. This time, he has created a “Search Efficiency by Page” tool. Using Supermetrics (linked to Google Analytics and Google Search Console), you can focus on your SERP snippet optimization or on-page optimization for better content performance. Check out the video below to see how to set up the tool step by step.



    Whatever cycle you choose, where it be 30, 60 or 90 days, being consistent with your testing can help you develop a tailored optimization method. Being consistent
    will also increase your chances of success with your future content marketing and SEO efforts.


    Step 5 – Keeping it evergreen

    Unfortunately, not every single content page will be evergreen. Refreshing content pages you’ve produced is an awesome way of making the most out of your work.
    This tactic refers to historical optimization because you’re going back and updating older posts. Out of the different types of content, the following are easiest to

      • Question and answers – Use the knowledge of your audience to answer it like nobody else
      • Step by step processes – Focus the article on the core idea and concept application, rather than the tools
      • How-to posts and ultimate guides – Make sure these focus more on the strategic thinking behind what you have in mind as opposed to the nitty gritty
      • Timeless fundamentals for success – Present many alternatives in your work
      • Thought leadership and new methods – Come up with the idea that no one has ever thought of before :).


    Regarding creative techniques you can use to update your content, try:

    • Conducting new keyword and competitor research mapping; update your content with more related keywords or visuals; also known as a content
      expansion method
    • Including information that didn’t exist when you originally published the post; info can stem from the additional competitor or industry information
      that you find
    • Republishing old content as a new page, removing the timestamp, and encouraging content freshness
    • Repurposing content into new formats, e.g., get a trend report and repurpose it into statistical slides
    • Putting a reminder for yourself on the calendar to review your evergreen pieces that have the possibility of being updated on a regular basis.


    Let’s recap the Content Strategy & SEO process

    In this exercise, we learned a five-step content marketing and SEO process. We looked at a data-led approach to creating content that both search engines and users will
    love. Make sure you first understand what content Google and your readers will love. Otherwise, what’s the point of creating content that no one is going to read? Use your research data (internal and external) to create audience profiles that you can then use to map topic clusters of the reader lifecycle.

    Then work towards building your content by mapping, optimizing, and creating your content page. Use your targeted topic clusters anchored to a pillar page if it
    already exists, or create your new pillar page.

    You are now ready to publish, promote, and test the performance of your content pages and overall SEO campaign. Your editorial calendar and Google Sheets are your best friends for executing and monitoring your efforts.

    Finally, make sure that you always take time for historical optimization because doing so can drive more results with less effort. Consider expanding optimization, repurposing content and implementing other tactics on a consistent basis.

    I know that as a professional, this might seem like a lot given the limited time you have. However, don’t forget SEO and content marketing is an organizational effort. Encourage your colleagues to join you in this process, and together you can achieve great results!



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