This blog post was co-written with Brad Zomick, the former Director of Content Marketing at Pipedrive, where this case study took place.
It’s tough out there for SEOs and content marketers. With the sheer amount of quality content being produced, it has become nearly impossible to stand out in most industries.
Recently we were running content marketing for Pipedrive, a sales CRM. We created a content strategy that used educational sales content to educate and build trust with our target audience.
This was a great idea, in theory — we’d educate readers, establish trust, and turn some of our readers into customers.
The problem is that there are already countless others producing similar sales-focused content. We weren’t just competing against other startups for readers; we also had to contend with established companies, sales trainers, strategists, bloggers and large business sites.
The good news is that ranking a strategic keyword is still very much possible. It’s certainly not easy, but with the right process, anyone can rank for their target keyword.
Below, we’re going to show you the process we used to rank on page one for a high-volume keyword.
If you’re not sure about reading ahead, here is a quick summary:
We were able to rank #1 for a high-volume keyword: “sales management” (9,900 search volume). We outranked established sites including SalesManagement.org, Apptus, InsightSquared, Docurated, and even US News, Wikipedia, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We managed this through good old-fashioned content creation + outreach + guest posting, aka the “Skyscraper Technique.”
Here are the eight steps we took to reach our goal (click on a step to jump straight to that section):
Here’s the process we followed to create our content:
1. Extremely thorough research
We had a simple goal from the start: create something substantially better than anything in the top SERPs.
To get there, we started by reviewing every article ranking for “sales management,” noting what we liked and what we didn’t.
For instance, we liked how InsightSquared started the article with a substantive quote. We didn’t like how Apptus went overboard with headers.
We also looked for anomalies. One thing that caught our attention was that two of the top 10 results were dedicated to the keyword “sales manager.”
We took note of this and made sure to talk about “sales managers” in our article.
We also looked at related searches at the bottom of the page:
We also scoured more than 50 sales-related books for chapters about sales management.
Finally, we also talked to some real salespeople. This step helped us add expert insight that outsourced article writers just don’t have.
At the end, we had a superior outline of what we were going to write.
2. Content creation
You don’t need to be a subject matter expert to create an excellent piece of content.
What you do need is good writing skills… and the discipline to actually finish an article.
Adopt a journalistic style where you report insight from experts. This gives you a better end-product since you’re curating insight and writing it far better than subject matter experts.
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to speed up the writing part — you’ll just have to grind it out. Set aside a few days at least to write anything substantive.
There are a few things we learned through the content creation experience:
Don’t multi-task. Go all-in on writing and don’t stop until it’s done.
Work alone. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Work in a place where you won’t be bothered by coworkers.
Listen to ambient music. Search “homework edit” on YouTube for some ambient tracks, or use a site like Noisli.com
Take tip #1 as non-negotiable. We tried to juggle a couple of projects and finishing the article ended up taking two weeks. Learn from our mistake — focus on writing alone!
Before you hit publish, make sure to get some editorial feedback from someone on your team, or if possible, a professional editor.
We also added a note at the end of the article where we solicit feedback for future revisions.
If you can’t get access to editors, at the very least put your article through Grammarly.
3. Add lots of visuals and make content more readable
Getting visuals in B2B content can be surprisingly challenging. This is mostly due to the fact that there are a lot of abstract, hard-to-visualize concepts in B2B writing.
This is why we found a lot of blog posts like this with meaningless stock images:
To avoid this, we decided to use four custom images spread throughout the article.
We wanted to use visuals to:
Illustrate abstract concepts and ideas
Break up the content into more readable chunks.
Emphasize key takeaways in a readily digestible format
We could have done even more — prolific content creators like Neil Patel often use images every 200–300 words.
Aside from imagery, there are a few other ways to break up and highlight text to make your content more readable.
Bullets and numbered lists
Use simple words
We used most of these tactics, especially blockquotes to create sub-sections.
Given our audience — sales leaders and managers — we didn’t have to bother with dumbing down our writing. But if you’re worried that your writing is too complex, try using an app like Hemingway to edit your draft.
Step 3: Optimize on-page SEO and engagement metrics
Here’s what we did to optimize on-page SEO:
1. Fix title
We wanted traffic from people searching for keywords related to “sales management,” such as:
“Sales management definition” (currently #2)
“Sales management process” (currently #1)
“Sales management strategies” (currently #4)
“Sales management resources” (currently #3)
To make sure we tapped all these keywords, we changed our main H1 header tag to include the words definition, process, strategies, and resources.
An Introduction to Activity-Based Selling [LinkedIn]
7 Tips for MBAs Entering Sales Management Careers [TopMBA]
We weren’t exclusively promoting our sales management post in any of these guest posts. The sales management post just fit naturally into the context, so we linked to it.
If you’re guest blogging in 2017, this is the approach you need to adopt.
Step 8: Fine-tuning content with TF * IDF
After the article went live, we realized that we had heavily over-optimized it for the term “sales management.” It occurred 48 times throughout the article, too much for a 2,500 word piece.
Moreover, we hadn’t always used the term naturally in the article.
To solve this problem, we turned to TF-IDF.
Recognizing TF-IDF as a ranking factor
TF-IDF (Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency) is a way to figure out how important a word is in a document based on how frequently it appears in it.
This is a pretty standard statistical process in information retrieval. It is also one of the oldest ranking factors in Google’s algorithms.
Hypothesis: We hypothesized that dropping the number of “sales management” occurrences from 48 to 20 and replacing it with terms that have high lexical relevance would improve rankings.
Were we right?
See for yourself:
Our organic pageviews increased from nearly 0 to over 5,000 in just over 8 months.
Note that no new links or link acquisition initiatives were actively in-progress during the time of this mini-experiment.
July 18th – Over-optimized keyword recognized.
July 25th – Content team finished updating body copy, H2s with relevant topics/synonyms.
July 26th – Updated internal anchor text to include relevant terms.
July 27th – Flushed cache & re-submitted to Search Console.
August 4th – Improved from #4 to #2 for “Sales Management”
August 17 – Improved from #2 to #1 for “Sales Management”
The results were fast. We were able to normalize our content and see results within weeks.
We’ll show you our exact process below.
Normalization process — How did we do it?
The normalization process focused on identifying over-optimized terms, replacing them with related words and submitting the new page to search engines.
Here’s how we did it:
1. Identifying over-optimized term(s)
We started off using Moz’s on-page optimization tool to scan our page.
According to Moz, we shouldn’t have used the target term — “sales management” — more than 15 times. This means we had to drop 33 occurrences.
2. Finding synonymous terms with high lexical relevance
Next, we had to replace our 28+ mentions with synonyms that wouldn’t feel out of place.
We used Moz’s Keyword Explorer to get some ideas.
3. Removed “sales management” from H2 headings
Initially, we had the keyword in both H1 and H2 headings, which was just overkill.
We removed it from H2 headings and used lexically similar variants instead for better flow.
4. Diluted “sales management” from body copy
We used our list of lexically relevant words to bring down the number of “sales management” occurrences to under 20. This was perfect for 2,500+ word article.
5. Diversify internal anchors
While we were changing our body copy, we realized that we also needed more anchor text diversity for our internal links.
Our anchors cloud was mostly “sales management” links:
We diversified this list by adding links to related terms like “sales manager,” “sales process,” etc.
6. Social amplification
We ramped up our activity on LinkedIn and Facebook to get the ball rolling on social shares.
The end result of this experimentation was an over 100% increase in traffic between August ‘16 to January ‘17.
Don’t just build backlinks — optimize your on-page content as well!
There’s a lot to learn from this case study. Some findings were surprising for us as well, particularly the impact of keyword density normalization.
While there are a lot of tricks and tactics detailed here, you’ll find that the fundamentals are essentially the same as what Rand and team have been preaching here for years. Create good content, reach out to link prospects, and use strategic guest posts to get your page to rank.
This might sound like a lot of work, but the results are worth it. Big industry players like Salesforce and Oracle actually advertise on AdWords for this term. While they have to pay for every single click, Pipedrive gets its clicks for free.
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