What does Google consider “quality content”? And how do you capitalize on a seemingly subjective characteristic to improve your standing in search?
We’ve been trying to figure this out since the Hummingbird algorithm was dropped in our laps in 2013, prioritizing “context” over “keyword usage/frequency.” This meant that Google’s algorithm intended to understand the meaning behind the words on the page, rather than the page’s keywords and metadata alone.
This new sea change meant the algorithm was going to read in between the lines in order to deliver content that matched the true intent of someone searching for a keyword.
Write longer content? Not so fast!
Watching us SEOs respond to Google updates is hilarious. We’re like a floor full of day traders getting news on the latest cryptocurrency.
One of the most prominent theories that made the rounds was that longer content was the key to organic ranking. I’m sure you’ve read plenty of articles on this. We at Brafton, a content marketing agency, latched onto that one for a while as well. We even experienced some mixed success.
However, what we didn’t realize was that when we experienced success, it was because we accidentally stumbled on the true ranking factor.
Longer content alone was not the intent behind Hummingbird.
Let’s take a hypothetical scenario.
If you were to search the keyword “search optimization techniques,” you would see a SERP that looks similar to the following:
Nothing too surprising about these results.
However, if you were to go through each of these 10 results and take note of the major topics they discussed, theoretically you would have a list of all the topics being discussed by all of the top ranking sites.
Position 1 topics discussed: A, C, D, E, F
Position 2 topics discussed: A, B, F
Position 3 topics discussed: C, D, F
Position 4 topics discussed: A, E, F
Once you finished this exercise, you would have a comprehensive list of every topic discussed (A–F), and you would start to see patterns of priority emerge.
In the example above, note “topic F” is discussed in all four pieces of content. One would consider this a cornerstone topic that should be prioritized.
If you were then to write a piece of content that covered each of the topics discussed by every competitor on page one, and emphasized the cornerstone topics appropriately, in theory, you would have the most comprehensive piece of content on that particular topic.
By producing the most comprehensive piece of content available, you would have the highest quality result that will best satisfy the searcher’s intent. More than that, you would have essentially created the ultimate resource center for everything a person would want to know about that topic.
How to identify topics to discuss in a piece of content
At this point, we’re only theoretical. The theory makes logical sense, but does it actually work? And how do we go about scientifically gathering information on topics to discuss in a piece of content?
Finding topics to cover:
Manually: As discussed previously, you can do it manually. This process is tedious and labor-intensive, but it can be done on a small scale.
Using SEMrush: SEMrush features an SEO content template that will provide guidance on topic selection for a given keyword.
Using MarketMuse:MarketMuse was originally built for the very purpose of content depth, with an algorithm that mimics Hummingbird. MM takes a largely unscientific process and makes it scientific. For the purpose of this case study, we used MarketMuse.
Watch the process in action
1. Identify content worth optimizing
We went through a massive list of keywords our blog ranked for. We filtered that list down to keywords that were not ranking number one in SERPs but had strong intent. You can also do this with core landing pages.
Here’s an example: We were ranking in the third position for the keyword “financial content marketing.” While this is a low-volume keyword, we were enthusiastic to own it due to the high commercial intent it comes with.
2. Evaluate your existing piece
Take a subjective look at your piece of content that is ranking for the keyword. Does it SEEM like a comprehensive piece? Could it benefit from updated examples? Could it benefit from better/updated inline embedded media? With a cursory look at our existing content, it was clear that the examples we used were old, as was the branding.
3. Identify topics
As mentioned earlier, you can do this in a few different ways. We used MarketMuse to identify the topics we were doing a good job of covering as well as our topic gaps, topics that competitors were discussing, but we were not. The results were as follows:
Topics we did a good job of covering:
Content marketing impact on branding
Impact of using case studies
Importance of infographics
Business implications of a content marketing program
Creating articles for your audience
Topics we did a poor job of covering:
Marketing to millennials
How to market to existing clients
Crafting a content marketing strategy
Identifying and tracking goals
4. Rewrite the piece
Considering how out-of-date our examples were, and the number of topics we had neglected to discuss, we determined a full rewrite of the piece was warranted. Our writer, Mike O’Neill, was given the topic guidance, ensuring he had a firm understanding of everything that needed to be discussed in order to create a comprehensive article.
5. Update the content
To maintain our link equity, we kept the same URL and simply updated the old content with the new. Then we updated the publish date. The new article looks like this, with updated content depth, modern branding, and inline visuals.
6. Fetch as Google
Rather than wait for Google to reindex the content, I wanted to see the results immediately (and it is indeed immediate).
7. Check your results
Open an incognito window and see your updated position.
We have run more than a dozen experiments and have seen positive results across the board. As demonstrated in the video, these results are usually realized within 60 seconds of reindexing the updated content.
“Financial content marketing”
“What is a subdomain”
“Best company newsletters”
“Content marketing agency”
“Google local business cards”
“SEO marketing tools”
Of those tests, here’s another example of this process in action for the keyword, “best company newsletters.”
From these results, we can assume that content depth and breadth of topic coverage matters — a lot. Google’s algorithm seems to have an understanding of the competitive topic landscape for a keyword. In our hypothetical example from before, it would appear the algorithm knows that topics A–F exist for a given keyword and uses that collection of topics as a benchmark for content depth across competitors.
We can also assume Google’s algorithm either a.) responds immediately to updated information, or b.) has a cached snapshot of the competitive content depth landscape for any given keyword. Either of these scenarios is very likely because of the speed at which updated content is re-ranked.
In conclusion, don’t arbitrarily write long content and call it “high quality.” Choose a keyword you want to rank for and create a comprehensive piece of content that fully supports that keyword. There is no guarantee you’ll be granted a top position — domain strength factors play a huge role in rankings — but you’ll certainly improve your odds, as we have seen.
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