Want to know the most underrated and not-talked-about skill of successful SEO practitioners?
It’s not knowledge of the newest SEO tips… Schema.org, site speed best practices, or AMP.
It’s not important but less-groundbreaking SEO techniques like link building, CTR optimization, or technical SEO.
It’s the ability to pattern match.
Over the years, solving for the SERPs, for me, hasn’t come from reading search engine ranking factors, or learning the next and best SEO initiative.
It’s come from Googling. And Googling. And testing. And Googling.
Through doing that.. and caring about doing it, you start to notice patterns. Patterns on one type of SERP to the next. Of the successful sites versus the worst. Of the top ten results versus the next twenty.
And in today’s SEO world, despite all the talk that SEO is still the same, those patterns are changing. They are changing for the better, and they have a lot of commonalities, but they’re different patterns from query to query.
This post, for the most part, is about those new patterns. The new patterns I’ve started to notice appearing on certain query types.. and also, patterns within the most successful search-driven websites. Hopefully a few of them are new to you, and can help you better optimize until the patterns change.
1. Deoptimize URLs with a One Word, Semantically Related Folder
If you read Brian Dean’s Backlinko blog – and many do, you might have caught his recommendation to use the keyword as the URL slug.
This sounds good on the surface – and may even help for a site of his size, but on the enterprise level, I have rarely seen this work.
Using the URL as the slug on enterprise level sites leads to patterns of overoptimization that almost always cause ranking issues – or at least seem to.
This is because the keyword as the URL is a clear sign of optimization, and if you tie that to the keyword sitewide in the navigation for a 300,000+ page site.. and an ecommerce page that has exactly the keyword as the H1 – you’re going to get crushed. Or at very least, you won’t be safe.
90% of the time, I don’t recommend using the keyword as the slug. My recommendation, for non-database-driven sites, is to most often introduce a folder level to your URL, and have that folder be a one word, semantically related term.
For this post, it’s /strategy/. If it’s a page about San Francisco, and you have many other city pages, that would be /california/.
If you have multiple long-tail levels, the folder can also act as the hub page for a bigger term, such as how /fashion-trends/fall.htm would work for both “fashion trends” and “fall fashion trends”.
Using one word, or two max, keeps the URL short (short URLs attract 250% more clicks), deoptimizes, and still shows relevancy to both the end user and Google. It’s the perfect 1-2 punch to keep your site safe at scale.
It’s just one case study, and we had a lot of other (hopefully) positive signals co-occuring, but we rolled this out for our blog in early March.. mostly as a test of the hypothesis. Organic traffic was up 37% MOM in April, and as of this week, organic traffic is up 100% since the rollout.
As I mentioned, and Brian Dean has proved, I don’t think this is critical for small sites. It’s just one of many possible factors, and it’s even likely it had no impact on ours. On bigger sites, though, I have much stronger confidence in this having an impact… where it’s possible to implement.
Side tip – I’ve seen /blog/, a frequently used folder, also (seemingly) serve this same aim. Be wary, though – if you are building content on /blog/ not fit for a blog, it can betray users and possibly, Google. Use a URL that makes sense for your content.
2. Use “What is KEYWORD?” as the First H1 on Jargon Keywords
Take a look around the web on two to three word jargon terms – terms like “SEO”, “content marketing”, or “inbound marketing”. Terms that only industry people really know, in whatever industry that given term applies to.
If you look at the mix of pages ranking page one, especially on the competitive terms, you’ll notice a universal trend. “What is KEYWORD?” almost uniformly appears either in the actual title of the post, or the first H1/H2.
Whether this is a direct ranking factor or an indirect one from engagement metrics, Google knows that people, when searching for these terms, often are simply looking for a definition.
By having the question in an H1, and then quickly solving for it right after by leading the paragraph with “KEYWORD is..” – you are telling Google you are solving for that user intent.
In addition to the valuable short-tail jargon term, you’ll almost certainly help yourself rank for the “what is X” longtail, too. Not a bad combination.
3. Use a Scannable List Within <ol> on “How to..” Queries
In working on how to posts, and also problem solving why some of our own content had not yet been ranking well, I noticed a pattern amongst how to queries.
Almost all of them ranking – and being pulled up to the answer box, were using easily scannable, 1. 2. 3. lists. And not only lists, lists that started with verbs (do this..) and that were marked up in ways that signified importance on the page, whether H2s, H3s, bold, or the ordered list markup, <ol>.
This made sense with further deduction. The best answer for a how-to is a quick 1-5 direction list, not an obscure, clunky 3,000 word post you have to spend hours reading in order to figure out how to boil an egg.
3,000+ word posts may rank well, but there are times – and query types – where Google shows the opposite may be the best answer, too.
In my opinion, and in Richard Baxter’s, too, <ol> is the strongest way to signify the how-to order to Google. Styling with bold or within an H2 can help guide a user, but nothing is a clearer signal to both users and Google than using an ordered list.
4. Create a Query-Answering Post Outline
Building off the how-to tip, I also suggest you create a shell outline of every post topic you’re planning to create. This is something we’ve started to do for clients, and have seen nice value from – because it gets us thinking in the way a bot does, and sets us up for SEO best practices.
Google wants quick answers. That’s why the answer boxes exist. So if your post dilutes the path to answer, why would they want to return it? They want 10x content, yes, but they most importantly want the right answer.
By structuring your page to supply the answers within lists, H2s, H3s, and bold, you make it easy for users, and Google, to retrieve the answer, and be confident you have it.
For example, let’s think about a query like “how to boil an egg”. If you were going to answer this query without thinking or without any other depth, how would you do it?
You’d probably start with a title that had “how to boil an egg”, and then drill down a list of numbered sub-steps, probably bolded or in H2s. Such as:
How to Boil an Egg
- Place eggs in saucepan large enough to hold them in single layer.
- Add cold water to cover eggs by one inch.
- Heat over high heat just to boiling.
If you were Google, simply by looking at this list, you’d be confident that the page has a list of steps to boil an egg in a way that’s easily discernible by users. No doubt about it. You might not have a great idea about what additional value the page has outside the steps, but you’d at least be confident in the process as a good first check.
If you start with that outline that answers the query as a shell, and the answers end up highlighted in H2s, H3s, or bold in the end product, you’ll leave confident that you, at the very least, will have solved for Google.
Compare that to this post from BuzzFeed, shown below. It’s a solid piece of content, but it’s hard for Google, or users, to quickly extract a process for boiling eggs. There’s no numbered steps, and no easy to scan progression.
There will be no “quick answer” on this result. And as of today, the ranking shows that — page five.
That’s not to say every query can be answered with a subhead or bolded term. But most can at least be given a summary of the answer in that area, such as “1. Test Facebook Advertising” for the query “how to increase website traffic”. Google, and users, need these distilled summaries.
By creating outlines with quick answers as a starting point, you’ll think like a bot, help your users get quick answers, and also help your long-term rankings because of it.
5. Get Three to Four Line Meta Descriptions With Quick Answers
Piling on to the above concept, I’ve also noticed a pattern within meta descriptions. Google is now frequently ignoring coded meta descriptions, pulling content from our posts.
I’m noticing this happens when, like in point one, Google wants to return a quick answer — and possibly within the SERP. It’s the same quick-answer theory that informs their answer boxes — if possible, they want you to get it ASAP, and allowing for larger meta descriptions may occasionally do that.
Why this matters is the hard-coded meta descriptions we offer Google often, at max, go two lines. These descriptions, by contrast, frequently go 3-5 lines. It’s hard to CTR test this, but my bet is that a much taller result will result in many more clicks to our content.
Therefore, we should aim to get Google to pull these descriptions for us. I believe we can do this by:
- Properly structuring our posts like SEO tip 3 to give Google an easily retrievable quick answer, ideally as high as possible in our post content
- Where possible, actually avoiding a quick answer (such as a definition) in the meta description
- Leaving off the hard-coded description where we’re confident we’ve solved for the above two bullets
6. Move to Last Updated Post Dates
Blog traffic from search is a ticking time bomb. If you stick to the default constraints of a blog, your content almost certainly eventually be perceived as old, even if it isn’t. A 2011 timestamp is an immediate devaluation in the eyes of a user, especially for queries that change more frequently.
The best way to prevent this is having “Last Updated:” next to your publish date. This way, you’ll be able to change the post date and post content without lying to your users… and while still benefiting from the SEO rewards a more up-to-date timestamp will give you.
Don’t update the date just to do it, but if you actually make changes to the post, and know the rest is still as relevant today, make the change. You’ll see increased traffic. We saw a 61% month over month lift after implementing in December on our small site, and Anthony Nelson also saw a 66% lift when testing similar.
7. Leverage Keywordgraphics
When building content for our clients, one of the first questions we always ask about a topic is “what’s the sharable asset?”. Not every topic has a sharable asset by default. And if you’re not thinking about it, it’s quite easy to create content without ever having something for someone to link to.
It might still be great, but if linking is high friction, nobody will – and your content may never see the light of the first page.
This is where keywordgraphics come in – infographics tied to topics that have search volume, that can increase the number of links you generate to that content dramatically. In turn, that can help push your content higher in the SERPs, giving it a link advantage the other results simply can’t replicate.
For example, check out this example for the query “types of orchids” by FTD. It would have been quite easy for FTD simply to list out orchids and call it a day. Instead, they’ve created a sharable, visual compendium of orchids at the bottom – making it a lot easier for bloggers to cover the piece, while also adding value to the core topic.
8. Use A.I.D.A. to Increase Time on Site
Over the last few months, I’ve tried to improve my copywriting skills. One of the key things I’ve improved on – or at least I think I’ve improved on, is applying A.I.D.A. It’s been powerful, not just from getting people to read our posts, but also helping with search.
The formula, Attention, Interest, Desire, Action, is most applicable for SEO in the attention stage. If you can grab your reader in the first two-three sentences, there’s a much bigger likelihood they’ll read the whole post.
And if they read the whole post, and the post is good.. there’s a much smaller chance they’ll return to Google, click other results, or search other things. Rankings will probably increase. Your conversions will go up. And on and on.
Attention is exactly that – what sentence, or two sentences, can you write about that topic in the intro to make the reader not want to leave? What will grab their attention and not let them go?
Here are introductions to some recent posts of mine that do exactly that:
- The Advanced Guide to Content Curation: Want to know a little secret? It’s something I’ve never shared with anyone before (not even my wife).
- How to Increase Website Traffic by 250,000+ Monthly Visits: I’ll be honest… the title of this post is a lie. The number is actually larger… but I thought you wouldn’t believe me.
While the fact that these posts are extremely massive definitely contributes to time on site, I think the copywriting that actually got people into the post contributed, too. The proof is in the numbers. The time on site average for these two articles is 6:12, compared to 2:58 for our site as a whole.
When attempting to do this yourself, you should speak with the best data point you have, and if you don’t have that, grab them with a powerful story hook that won’t let them go. And then go read more about A.I.D.A. to complete the equation and round out your skills.
9. Utilize Self-Referencing Breadcrumbs
For massive e-commerce sites, it’s tough getting direct anchor text links to the long tail of your pages. With thousands, if not millions of pages, it can be close to impossible to do. One shortcut is to link on-page to that same page – within the breadcrumb.
You can see this in action on e-commerce site NFLShop. The link to San Francisco 49ers t-shirts is self-referencing. It doesn’t stand out – or disappear, still offering a good user experience for those who might be confused by a link that points to the same place.
It’s hard to say exactly what kind of impact a link to yourself may have, or if this will have value forever, but it’s something I’ve seen add some incremental value for on the right site.
10. Identify “Sites Like You” Ranking
It’s 2016. If you look at a query and don’t see businesses like you, there’s a pretty good chance you can’t rank. As a starting point, that should define whether or not you should enter that space, and is a common question many businesses simply don’t get.
Want to rank for “best car insurance” as a car insurance company? You might have trouble. Users want curated lists from trusted sources, not a biased view from an actual insurance provider. Don’t think that having “best car insurance” in the title will actually get you to rank – it won’t.
Similarly, if you’re a leadgen company ranking for that query, good luck ranking for “car insurance”. Those are mostly car insurance companies, and users are looking for the actual businesses – not your opinion.
This is very, very important because the information architecture decisions you make based on these opportunities can make or break your ability to rank elsewhere. If you spend five years trying to rank your homepage on “car insurance”, those are 60 very wasted months of time.
Past the business strategy implications, “sites like you” also offer strong indications of what elements your page should have. If you’re a leadgen company on a blended SERP with actual manufacturers, there’s a good chance you’ll need a well written piece on “The Best PRODUCTNAME”.
A title tag with “PRODUCTNAME” at the front will not make sense for you and therefore, you’ll mightily struggle ranking.
I’ve seen the same thing occur on the other side of the spectrum. If you’re a manufacturer, trying to rank for “best PRODUCTNAME” is likely not something you can do in any kind of competitive space. That’s not to say you can’t appear on posts with that optimization, you can, but users don’t want to read that post from you.
Similarly, if you’re an SEO tool provider, and you’re not seeing SEO companies on the results for “business software”, you won’t be relevant there, either. I see many people try to rank for things that make some sense on the surface to them, but they simply don’t belong for. Identifying sites like you ranking as a qualifier is one shortcut to knowing you can rank at all.
11. Solve for the Problem, Not Just the Query
Sites ranking page two or three solve the query. The sites ranking in the top three? They probably solve for the problem.
What’s the difference? Well, most queries occur at some stage of a bigger problem. And for many problems, the answer can’t be solved with one query. Imagine the following query path for someone who just sprained their ankle:
It’s very possible each of these searches could be solved by single pages. And those pages could do a good job. However, it’s also possible a single site could have elegantly transferred me to every query in this path – without ever having to click another page.
You could have identified your ankle injury was a grade 1 ankle sprain, and then been shown a page with a lot more depth and context about said sprains, and everything you need to know about them. From there, the page could tell you about the common treatment – rest, ice, compression, elevate, and give you enough context to feel confident in it without doing more searches.
From there, it’d prep you for the days to come with a treatment and rehab plan, which would likely be emphasized nicely at the end of that page. In essence.. it would do everything this page does, which ranks well.
If you think about how Google would perceive those two types of pages, you might start getting why they’d rather return the result that gives you the answer to the problem, not just the query.
If you think deeper, if Google can tell your page solves for the answer based on the lack of future searches down the problem path, they may also have reason to better surface those subsequent pages for the people who may have not entered down the first step. They know they help solve for the bigger problem.
12. Utilize Aggressive Anchor Text in Your HTML Sitemap
It’s harder and harder to use anchor text in an aggressive fashion without suffering the anger of the Google gods. However, it still clearly has value when used properly, and needs to be used from time to time in order to communicate the topic relevancy that you want.
I’ve found that the HTML sitemap is the perfect place to apply said aggression. It’s a page linked sitewide, therefore it has some authority, but it’s also not linked sitewide in your navigation — so it’s still one link.
Custom Ink, who dominates the custom t-shirt space, does exactly this with their sitemap. They keep it user friendly, get in the aggressive anchor text, and see the benefits on both sides of the equation.
13. Stick to Two or Less Exact Match Keyword Mentions in URL/TT for Three+ Word Terms
Rarely does “do exactly this” ever make sense in the SEO universe. I can’t speak to the perfect formula as it comes to Google’s ranking algorithm. But, I do have 7+ years of experience doing the following things:
- Identifying trends from looking at thousands upon thousands of SERPs, and also hundreds of sites also not ranking well, to identify possible ranking correlations
- Learning and implementing user experience best practices that blend with SEO, using the same experience and trend analysis to identify which help and which hurt
From this, I’ve noticed a clear pattern, whether correlation or causation, of sites that rank well. They rarely, if ever, use three exact match keyword mentions, or two exact mentions plus one strong partial match (two of three words, for example) in their title tag or URL in total, especially at scale across the site.
They use two exact or one exact and two partial match uses in most instances. There are of course exceptions, and overoptimization doesn’t mean you automatically won’t rank well, but that’s not to say it’s something you should walk into the fight with.
For example, let’s look at the keyword “best credit cards”. If you were trying to rank for this term, and you owned CreditCards.com, a beginner SEO might think the following is a good idea.
- TT: Best Credit Cards – CreditCards.com
It’s not. From the bold above, you can see there are two exact mentions, and two partial mentions. Even if you dropped “CreditCards” from the title tag, which is probably not a good idea if they think they have any brand power, you still have 2.5 mentions.
This very rarely ranks well. It’s something only SEOs would utilize for URLs. It’s redundant, inelegant, and importantly, it’s something Google can solve for.
By sticking to the magic 1.5-2 number range, you stay in the clear, while still signifying relevancy. Normally, 1.5-2 is the perfect number, where we define one as an exact match, and .5 as any partial match.
If I was CreditCards.com, I’d go with something closer to the following:
- TT: The Best Credit Cards of 2016 – CreditCards.com
Rankings passes some semantic significance for users plus Google for “best”, and you still end up getting to the 1.5-2 number.
The rankings URL also opens up the opportunity for some nice longtail off the most competitive set, allowing them to add layers like /rankings/travel/ and /rankings/business/ without ever breaking the partial match rule.
But Ross.. CreditCards.com Ranks #2
You might counter by saying that currently, CreditCards.com ranks #2. That’s true. But they’re not #1, and they have one of the most valuable domains on the internet. It’s also possible having “offers” at the beginning of their title tag deoptimizes slightly as well.
With that domain name, ranking #1 should be easy — but they’ve found a way not to. I think overoptimization (as well as a user experience considerably worse that NerdWallet) contributes mightily to being second place. And their longtail isn’t really in an amazing place, either.
Who Does This Apply To?
It’s possible you’re the SEO for Pepsi.com and have no idea how this would ever come up for you or why you should care. That’s a likelihood for most. This is most relevant for webmasters of exact or partial match domains.
These domains still have a ton of potential benefit to them – however, they’re often misused, as the owners rarely start off utilizing them with a strong base of UX best practices. They bought them for their SEO worth – and very frequently push them too far because of it.
My Best SEO Tip: Pattern Match
Beyond this post, my ultimate “SEO tip”, if you want to become great at SEO or provide SEO services for your clients, is to instinctively start looking for patterns, and also, to start developing enough intuition through exposure to data to develop your own hypothesis about patterns behind what can’t be seen on the surface (site-wide factors, links, etc).
It’s this skillset that will basically allow you to problem solve for any SEO issue. It’s inevitable that you’ll run into a query or two where you don’t moonwalk into the #1 ranking — and in those instances, you’ll need to problem solve for inconsistencies. Pattern identification allows you to do that.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to do this, you should probably find someone who can. Learn more about our SEO services.