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How to make web pages rank high in Google, and other secrets from HubSpot’s Matthew Howells-Barby

If you’ve wanted to learn how to drive real demand for your website, you’ve come to the right place. SEO is a part of digital marketing that businesses can often find challenging. On top of that, there’s always a constant need to stay updated with the latest trends in the marketplace.

Matthew Howells-Barby, Senior Director of Acquisition Marketing at HubSpot, has been at the company for about five years. With his team’s help, he has built the SEO demand engine to what it is today. In his Ask Anything Live session at Inbound 2020, he answered all our SEO-related queries and explained how we could make our web pages rank high on search engines. 

While most of us do seem to have a basic knowledge of SEO, we can learn about what marketing aspects to focus most on from this talk in current times.

So, to find out more, let’s get right into the question-and-answer session.

Q. How do you sell SEO to “non-believers”?

In this question, it is implied that while you may be super excited to implement SEO in your content-building strategies, there can be people (from your team or superiors) who can seem less than interested in it. So, how do you sell the idea of SEO to them?

Well, according to Matthew, you must realize that driving traffic is excellent, but that it may not be the primary goal of your team. And hence, you should ask yourself what metrics would make a difference to your team lead’s decision-making process?

For example, if you’re managing an e-commerce website, you’ll be thinking about the number of sales you drive from your website. Similarly, if you’re working in a lead generation business, it could be the number of leads you’re generating. Whatever the metric is, you can start there and then work your way back from it. In other words, determine what your end goal looks like in quantifiable terms, so that you’re clear about what you’re trying to achieve before you try and convince your team of it.

Next, you can create a benchmark to model out the potential opportunity of what SEO can do for your website. By looking at what you currently have (from an organic search perspective), you can realize where you stand today. It doesn’t matter what you want to achieve if you’re not first aware of where you’ll start. 

So, whether that metric is sales/leads/trials, identify it to the “non-believers” and then emphasize the conversion rate problem. Tell them what areas you can improve. e.g., taking a conversion metric from 0.8 to 1% or something similar.

That aside, another essential aspect to consider is the total addressable market or TAM. This concept essentially means the total number of customers in the market you operate in that you could potentially reach.

After determining this, you can consider how you’re going to generate conversions – such as modeling out the search volume for all the keywords related to a particular topic.

After this, the next step would be to figure out a rough estimate of traffic that you can generate from search volume. There are several digital tools like keyword-research platforms that can quickly help you do this. BetterMetrics’ CEO, Christian Godoy Jørgensen’s, favourite is Ahrefs.com as they have made it very easy to do keyword research. 

So, let’s say you want to capture 3% of the TAM. You can then run this figure against your previously-set benchmark to have a baseline goal to meet and an aspiring long-term one.

If you follow this strategy, it will help you make a stronger case justifying SEO to “non-believers.” You should also be precise about what resources and time you’ll need to get there. 

The question to ask is, how can you prove it on a small scale first before taking it to a broader level? 

In other words, when you show people smaller, achievable goals, you’re more likely to convince them vs. going all in from the start.

Q. Getting quality backlinks is increasingly difficult. How do you solve this?

With time, it’s only going to become more challenging to acquire “high-quality” backlinks. Matthew describes high-quality backlinks as the ones that come from high authority websites but are also relevant. According to him, about 10 – 12 years ago, the SEO world was a much simpler space; the goal was to get as many backlinks as possible from authoritative sites, and relevancy wasn’t too critical. 

However, the most important thing today is relevancy. If you create links from a highly authoritative website, but they aren’t relevant, it’s not going to matter. Because of this, Matthew recommends aiming for a few super-relevant links over a hundred high authority links. It shows us just how essential relevancy is.

Instead of increasing the number of backlinks, try to improve the quality by having a narrow focus on sites related to your content.

Q. How do you feel about long-form feature pages to garner traffic and for conversions? 

Instead of focusing on optimizing your key domain pages, you may think that having a lot of supplemental content to your subject matter will help, but you’d be wrong.

Google has gotten a lot better at understanding what a page is about without it being very lengthy. And having longer-form content doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll rank higher. If you know this, it can save you a lot of money and time. The idea that writing a lot of content on everything will lead to fantastic traffic results is outdated now. 

As the digital world has moved forward, Google’s purpose has become to get people to the information they want as quickly as possible, with as few clicks as possible. So, it’s evident that people aren’t exactly looking for length. On the contrary, they’re looking for short, concise answers, which explains why Google has featured snippets to help people navigate through content quickly. 

Hence, your focus should be on user experience and conversions. Remember that conversions will almost always outweigh webpage traffic when it comes to the benefit they offer.

Q. How long, on average, does it take to see results from SEO?

Every website is different, and what works well for one website may not for another. So, context is essential. Merely having expertise isn’t enough. HubSpot is probably one of the best SEO teams in the world, and what makes them great isn’t just that they have knowledge but that they know what to leverage!

For example, if you have millions of web pages, the last thing you should be doing is to build individual blog posts to increase traffic across the board. Instead, a smarter approach would be to focus on primary sets of pages and make the necessary tweaks to them to improve your conversion rates.

Similarly, if you have an incredibly authoritative website but a lack of content to rank for keywords and your answer is to build more links or drive more authority, it’s the wrong step. 

The point is that SEO only works when you know what you’re doing and when you’re using strategies that fit your website’s needs. Your goal should be to achieve the highest possible results with the least amount of resources and time.

Meanwhile, if you’re starting a brand-new website/domain, you will likely need to have a lot of untapped (low competition) search potential to be successful. But even despite that, the first few months of a new SEO project are usually always slow. In other words, it takes time

Q. Does pillar-page strategy still work? Where can you start with it?

If you’re not familiar with the pillar-page model, it essentially means building topics in clusters. It consists of content pieces on the same subject matter that you can internally link to each other to build relevancy. 

You can also go in-depth into specific topics through topic clusters instead of merely having surface-level information about several different issues. Grouping your posts in clusters is a crucial strategy to implement, no matter what kind of website you have.

Meanwhile, a pillar page is an extensive, broader piece of content that focuses on each piece of content in a topic cluster. And Matthew suggests that you don’t need to have exhaustive content for a pillar page. 

It should be focused around an end-conversion. Yes, it can be a comprehensive blog post, but it could also just be a product page or an Ebook (or any other downloadable feature)! The key is that it should drive a competitive keyword and be relevant to your keywords.

Q. What’s your take on using mixed media (infographics, videos, podcasts) within the blog content you publish?

You can create an individual piece of content and rework or repurpose that content in multiple formats that are more suitable to be shared on different platforms.

But you shouldn’t try to push everything into a single blog article. Be considerate about the user experience and only share other mediums in your content if it makes sense. Your primary aim should be to keep things simple for people. 

But that aside, you can still build upon the same piece of content for sharing purposes. You can use different formats to share the same material on separate social platforms, depending on what works best for your brand. You can tweak and update the content too. It’s important to remember what your audience(s) expect of you and then deliver material accordingly.

Q. If you’re starting from scratch, what would be your first SEO task?

According to Matthew, the first task he would do if he were beginning SEO from scratch would be to conduct a TAM analysis. He would take the time to understand “the entire keyword universe to go in, and then narrow it down to a specific solar system.”

Likely, you won’t be able to focus on all your keywords at once. Besides, there’s a lot of competition too. The solution is to build a smaller section of content that you can add to overtime. You should consistently focus on driving internal and external backlinks into this content, and you can keep updating it as part of a long-term strategy. 

However, you should also pay attention to low competition topics because they will lead to traction.

After determining what kind of content you need to be building, you can start designing the information architecture for it on your website.

After doing all of this, should you think about the practical aspect of SEO – page templates, formats, models – and finally, project management, team, budget, etc.

Matthew emphasizes that it’s always important to scope out the opportunity first and then set time-specific milestones and have longer-term goals simultaneously.

Key Takeaway

When it comes to backlinks, remember to prioritize relevancy over authority. You should have a sharp, narrow focus on keywords and topic clusters. Focus on aligning your content with your audience’s needs and what they’re searching for. Don’t just create content purely for search engines because it won’t work long-term and won’t lead to any conversions. That aside, always aim to keep your content short and precise. And finally, continue to enhance and update your content as you go along to stay relevant.

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