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4 Tactics for High-Quality Backlinks That Move the Needle [+ Examples]

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Many popular link building tactics produce low-quality links that don’t improve SEO performance.

Even if these techniques make an impact, it’s often for a short time, and Google can easily devalue them down the line. 

Here are four tactics for building high-quality links that help you stay ahead of your competition, expose your brand to new audiences, and are less likely to be devalued in future algorithm updates. 

Digital PR is the process of creating content that appeals to journalists and promoting it to them. 

If they like the content, they’ll write a feature about it or include it in a piece they’re writing. This can land you many high-quality backlinks from big sites and news publications for free.

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Examples

In the months following ChatGPT’s release, Fery Kaszoni and his team at Search Intelligence compiled statistics about Open AI’s popularity since launching ChatGPT and compared it to other popular platforms like Instagram and TikTok. 

The result? 60+ free link placements, including mentions on Yahoo News (DR 92), The Wrap (DR 84), and Time magazine (DR 92). 

A few examples of backlinks earned by a piece of content about Open AI’s popularity since launching ChatGPT

In another campaign, Fery and his team calculated how much money beloved video characters would earn in real life. This campaign earned 20+ free links including a DR89 link from British newspaper, The Daily Express. 

Example of a high-DR like from Daily ExpressExample of a high-DR like from Daily Express

How to do it 

Successful Digital PR requires some creativity, but this is the process in a nutshell: 

  1. Find a trending topic 
  2. Create relevant newsworthy content around that topic 
  3. Tell journalists about it 

For example, AI has been a major topic of conversation in all industries since it launched. Any new data or insights about it would go well in news cycles while it remains a topic of interest. 

Once you have a topic, you need to come up with interesting content ideas that are relevant to your business.

The best topics for digital PRThe best topics for digital PR

This is the hard part. It’s really a case of brainstorming ideas until you land on something you think could be interesting. 

For example, here are a few random content ideas for a company that sells furniture online: 

  • Have AI refurnish rooms from popular TV shows in new styles. 
  • Have AI design a new item of furniture, create it, and sell it. 
  • Ask 100 interior designers if they’re worried about AI taking their jobs, share the data. 

After you find your winning idea, create the content, give it an attention-grabbing headline, and write a press release about the most interesting insights. 

Then, promote your content to journalists. You can try services like Roxhill or Muck Rack to find journalists who might be interested in your content. 

You can also use a tool like Ahrefs’ Content Explorer to find sites that have recently published content about your topic and reach out to them. 

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Here’s how to do that: 

  1. Enter your topic into Content Explorer 
  2. Filter for pages published in the last 90 days 
  3. Filter for pages on DR70+ websites (big sites that you probably want links from) 

For example, if we do this for the topic of “chatgpt,” we see thousands of well-known websites that have recently published about ChatGPT including Business Insider, Tech Republic, and Wired. 

Finding websites that recently published about a topic with Content ExplorerFinding websites that recently published about a topic with Content Explorer

Data journalism is a way of enhancing or creating newsworthy content by analyzing unique data sets. It can fall under digital PR, though it typically requires more detailed research. 

This technique works because reporters love a good statistic they can either quote or write an opinion piece about. Be the source of such data, and you can earn many high-quality links anytime your data becomes relevant to trending news topics. 

Examples

Data journalism can be quite simple. For example, in another case study from Search Intelligence, Fery’s team used Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer as a data source for a cybersecurity PR campaign. 

The study reveals the top UK banks where customers seek help with fraud, allowing journalists to report on which banks are more secure than others. 

The data fuelling these insights is keyword search volume. That’s it. 

Ahrefs' data that fuelled a cybersecurity PR campaignAhrefs' data that fuelled a cybersecurity PR campaign

This method doesn’t take very long, doesn’t need a data scientist and can very easily be replicated in other industries where search popularity can unearth interesting insights. 

In another example (and perhaps one of our all time favorites), marketing firm Yard created a data study comparing the CO2 emissions of various celebrities and ranking the worst offenders. 

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Data study on the C02 emissions of celebritiesData study on the C02 emissions of celebrities

If you follow celebrity news, there’s no way you missed reports of Taylor Swift’s private jet emissions being among the highest compared to other celebrities. 

Just a few of the thousands of posts about Taylor Swift's jet emissions following a successful data journalism campaignJust a few of the thousands of posts about Taylor Swift's jet emissions following a successful data journalism campaign

Every single one of these news stories originated from the data study. 

When the study was first released, it went viral and earned links from almost 2,000 referring domains within the first month. 

But that’s not all. 

This topic trended in news cycles again when rumours spread that Taylor Swift attended a Jets game to bury the original negative publicity about her private jet usage, earning Yard a well-deserved second round of links. 

Google Trends data for "taylor swift jet" Google Trends data for "taylor swift jet"

Today, this post has 1,861 links from 1,155 referring domains, 77% of them are dofollow, and 38.4% are higher than DR 60. 

DR distribution of backlinks to the celebrity C02 emissions content pieceDR distribution of backlinks to the celebrity C02 emissions content piece

Talk about drool-worthy results! That’s high-quality link building done right. 

How to do it 

Successful data journalism is similar to digital PR but relies on the intriguing, data-backed insights you can unearth. 

In a nutshell, the process looks like this: 

  1. Find a data-driven content angle that gets links and media attention 
  2. Gather data to provide new or updated insights on the topic 
  3. Tell journalists about your findings 

Start by considering “your money or your life” content angles that everyday folk care about. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking too narrow or pitching ideas only a small demographic may understand. 

For instance, cybersecurity is not a sexy topic journalists or their readers will likely care about. There’s also not a high degree of literacy about the topic among the general population. 

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But everyone cares about whether their bank is secure and how safe their money is. 

This concept needs no explanation and that’s exactly why data that helps answer the question “how safe is your bank?” worked exceptionally well as a link building tactic in the example above. 

You can also use Content Explorer to gather more ideas like: 

  • Evergreen yet stale topics that you can update with more recent data 
  • Data you can visualize better or repurpose into a different content format 
  • Trending angles in other industries you can apply to your industry 

For example, on the topic of ChatGPT, we found Rand Fishkin’s post claiming usage has declined 29% between May and August 2023 and that 30% of its usage is by programmers. 

Finding content ideas in Content ExplorerFinding content ideas in Content Explorer

You don’t need original ideas to succeed. If you’ve got the data to back it up, you can easily take the angles of a “useage patterns” or “most popular audience segments” and apply them to popular tools in your industry. 

Some decent data sources you can start with include: 

  • Search data: Like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer for uncovering interesting search patterns. 
  • Historical data: Like Google Trends for highlighting growth or decline patterns over time. 
  • Scientific research: Like on Google Scholar or in specific research journals. 
  • Public niche data: For instance, Yard’s study used the CelebrityJets Twitter page. 
  • Proprietary data: From within your (or your client’s) organization. 

When you find an interesting insight or pattern worth sharing, write a press release about it and share it with journalists who frequently report on the topic. 

Statistics pages are curated lists of facts and figures in a particular industry. These pages attract evergreen links for as long as the statistics remain relevant. 

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It’s one of our favorite link building tactics. Here’s how we’ve used it quite successfully over the years. 

Example

We first launched a detailed list of SEO statistics in 2020 and it has been naturally earning high-quality links ever since. 

Backlinks over time to our SEO statistics pageBacklinks over time to our SEO statistics page

Currently, the page has: 

  • 5,787 backlinks
  • 2,282 referring domains 
  • 82% “dofollow” links 
  • 37.7% from DR 60+ websites

While we used some outreach techniques in the early days, most of the success has come from the page’s ability to maintain top position rankings for competitive keywords.

Rankings for our SEO statistics pageRankings for our SEO statistics page

Do it right, and this tactic remains wildly effective for earning links naturally for many years. 

How to do it 

Start by entering a few broad topics related to your website into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. For example, we might enter the following for Ahrefs: 

  • SEO
  • Content marketing
  • Link building

Then navigate to the Matching Terms report and apply the inclusion filter for things like stats, statistics, facts, or figures. Make sure your filter is set to include any of these phrases. 

Then it’s just a matter of checking out the results to find a relevant topic you want to write about. 

We went for “SEO statistics”: 

Finding statistics keywords in Ahrefs' Keywords ExplorerFinding statistics keywords in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

Once you pick your topic, it’s a just matter of curating linkworthy stats and publishing them on a page. 

While you can earn some seed links with early outreach efforts, long term success comes down to keeping your content updated with the latest data. That’s the best way to compound performance year on year, earning many high-quality links with no ongoing outreach needed. 

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Relationship-based link building prioritizes long-term relationships with journalists, writers, and editors. 

It is an effective addition to digital PR campaigns as you can shortcut the time it takes to find the right people to distribute your content. 

Better yet, you can be a journalist’s first point of call when they write a story on topics you or your clients are experts in. 

Example

Imagine having journalists contact you asking to feature your clients in upcoming stories. That’s exactly what growth marketing firm, EngineRoom, has achieved.

A journalist from Mamamia (DR 78) made a call out on Sourcebottle, the Australian equivalent of HARO, seeking expert advice on immigration law. EngineRoom’s link building expert, Don Milne, responded and won the story along with a high-quality link. 

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Example of a backlink built with relationship-based link buildingExample of a backlink built with relationship-based link building

Then, the real magic started. 

Instead of ending things there, Don also shared a client list with the journalist in case they ever wanted to collaborate on future stories again. 

Sure enough, a few weeks later, the journalist reached out, asking to connect with another client in the drug rehab space to develop a story on heroin addiction. The client is featured in about 30% of the completed article with detailed quotes from the founder and (of course) a link back to their website. 

Example of a backlink built with relationship-based link buildingExample of a backlink built with relationship-based link building

No pitching. No outreach. Just a genuine partnership and collaboration now earning multiple high-quality links for their clients. 

How to do it 

This technique is all about the follow-up after you collaborate on your first story with a journalist. 

If getting the first foot in the door is where you’re stuck, you can check out our detailed guide on relationship-based link building by Irina Maltseva, the former Head of Marketing at Hunter. 

Once you get that first story, make sure you keep the relationship going. 

If you have a list of websites or clients you represent, create a professional document with a mini bio about each client. Make sure it’s also easily searchable for writers in a hurry and makes your contact details clear and easy to access. 

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Then, share it with journalists, writers, and editors you collaborate with so they can refer to it in the future if they need an expert on a specific topic for their content. 

Final thoughts

Earning high-quality backlinks can be much easier than many people realize and cheaper too! All the examples shared in this post earned free link placements on high-authority websites and with minimal outreach. 

These techniques have more staying power. They are also far less likely to be seen as “link manipulation” or devalued in future Google updates. 

And, if you get your content angle just right, they also have the potential to be earning links many months, if not years, down the track! 

Got questions? Ping me on LinkedIn.

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10 Completely Free SEO Training Courses

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10 Completely Free SEO Training Courses

Learning SEO doesn’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of quality free SEO courses teaching everything from the basics to keyword research to link building.

Here are ten that won’t cost a dime.

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 2 hours

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Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Beginner

Link: SEO Course for Beginners

What you’ll learn

  • The fundamentals of what search engine optimization is and how it works
  • Why SEO is important
  • How to do keyword research
  • How to optimize web pages for search engines
  • Beginner-friendly link building strategies to get backlinks to your site
  • Technical SEO best practices for beginners

This comprehensive course is ours and covers the fundamentals of SEO, including keyword research, on-page SEO, technical SEO, and link building.

SEO Certification Course by HubSpotSEO Certification Course by HubSpot

Course provider: HubSpot

Duration: 3 hours 51 minutes

Instructor(s): Rachel Sheldon, Matthew Howells-Barby

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Level: Beginner

Link: SEO Certification Course

What you’ll learn

  • How to evaluate and improve your website’s SEO
  • How to build backlinks to your website at scale to increase your website’s visibility in organic search
  • How to use insights from keyword research and reporting to improve your search performance

HubSpot’s SEO Training Course is tailored for marketers, content creators, and anyone looking to enhance their website’s visibility. Through practical lessons and real-world examples, the course participants will learn how to build a robust SEO strategy, analyze their website’s performance, and adapt to the changing algorithms of search engines.

Make sure customers find you online by Google SkillshopMake sure customers find you online by Google Skillshop

Course provider: Google

Duration: 3 hours

Instructor(s): Google

Level: Beginner

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Link: Make Sure Customers Find You Online

What you’ll learn

  • How to get started with search
  • How to make search work for you
  • How to get discovered with search
  • How to help people nearby find you online

This free course from Google Skillshop helps businesses discover ways to reach and connect with more customers online. It covers improving SEO and using online advertising (SEM) to boost sales and awareness.

Google SEO Fundamentals by UC Davis on CourseraGoogle SEO Fundamentals by UC Davis on Coursera

Course provider: University of California, Davis

Duration: 28 hours

Instructor(s): Rebekah May

Level: Beginner

Link: Google SEO Fundamentals

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What you’ll learn

  • How to complete a competitive analysis on a webpage
  • How to interpret brand recognition through social media
  • How to create sitemaps and robot.txt files, plan redirects, and manage site errors
  • How to use a variety of SEO tools to conduct an audience analysis and develop personas of your ideal buyer

Offered by the University of California, Davis, this course on Coursera delves into the fundamental aspects of SEO, including how search engines work and how to implement effective SEO strategies to attract more organic traffic.

However, due to its length (28 hours), it may not be the most suitable if you want to learn SEO fast.

SEO for Beginners Training by YoastSEO for Beginners Training by Yoast

Course provider: Yoast

Duration: 2 hours

Instructor(s): Joost de Valk

Level: Beginner

Link: SEO for Beginners Training

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What you’ll learn

  • What SEO is and what Google does
  • Tips for quick wins to improve your site
  • Insights into the content and technical side of SEO

This free course discusses what SEO is and how it works. Some of the important points from the course are how to use keywords to optimize your website, how to write content that Google likes, and how to make your website crawlable by search engines.

Keyword Research Course by AhrefsKeyword Research Course by Ahrefs

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 2 hours

Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Beginner

Link: Keyword Research Course

What you’ll learn

  • How to do keyword research and drive targeted traffic to your website

This is our specialized course that focuses specifically on keyword research. It covers topics such as how to choose keywords, how to analyze search intent, and how to find low-competition keywords.

Technical SEO Course by AhrefsTechnical SEO Course by Ahrefs

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 1 hour 21 minutes

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Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Beginner to intermediate

Link: Technical SEO Course

What you’ll learn

  • The fundamentals of technical SEO
  • How to run a technical SEO audit
  • How to optimize your website’s technical SEO

Another specialized course from us, this course is designed for those looking to dive deeper into the technical side of SEO. It covers advanced topics such as site audits, page speed optimization, and how to resolve common technical issues that can impact search rankings.

Technical SEO Certification by Blue ArrayTechnical SEO Certification by Blue Array

Course provider: Blue Array

Duration: 7 hours

Instructor(s): Damion Edwards

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Level: Beginner to intermediate

Link: Technical SEO Certification

What you’ll learn

Aimed at professionals seeking to certify their expertise, this course covers a wide range of technical SEO topics, including crawling, indexing, ranking, and on-page optimization. From site architecture to schema markup, it equips learners with the skills to tackle technical challenges and improve website performance.

Local SEO Course by AhrefsLocal SEO Course by Ahrefs

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 44 minutes

Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Beginner

Link: Local SEO Course

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What you’ll learn

  • How to do local SEO
  • How to do local keyword research
  • How to do local link building

Ideal for businesses targeting local customers, this course teaches the basics of optimizing for local search. It covers essential tactics for improving local visibility, such as Google Business Profile optimization and local keyword targeting.

Advanced Link Building Course by AhrefsAdvanced Link Building Course by Ahrefs

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes

Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Intermediate to advanced

Link: Advanced Link Building Course

What you’ll learn

  • How to find prospects with the “seed and lookalike” approach
  • How to validate link building campaigns with a “blitz list”
  • How to craft personalized and benefit-rich outreach emails
  • How to create, structure and manage a link building team
  • How to scale your link building operations

Focusing on one of the most challenging aspects of SEO, Sam shares his years of experience creating campaigns, sending outreach emails, and building teams. This is a must-finish course if you need help building and scaling your link building operations.

Final thoughts

The best way to learn SEO is to do.

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So, don’t just go through the courses, take notes, and leave it aside. You need to actually execute to find out what works and what doesn’t. Create a website, implement the ideas you’re learning, and see if you can get more organic traffic to it.

That’s how you become an SEO pro.

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Google Answers A Crawl Budget Issue Question

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Google Answers A Crawl Budget Issue Question

Someone on Reddit posted a question about their “crawl budget” issue and asked if a large number of 301 redirects to 410 error responses were causing Googlebot to exhaust their crawl budget. Google’s John Mueller offered a reason to explain why the Redditor may be experiencing a lackluster crawl pattern and clarified a point about crawl budgets in general.

Crawl Budget

It’s a commonly accepted idea that Google has a crawl budget, an idea that SEOs invented to explain why some sites aren’t crawled enough. The idea is that every site is allotted a set number of crawls, a cap on how much crawling a site qualifies for.

It’s important to understand the background of the idea of the crawl budget because it helps understand what it really is. Google has long insisted that there is no one thing at Google that can be called a crawl budget, although how Google crawls a site can give an impression that there is a cap on crawling.

A top Google engineer (at the time) named Matt Cutts alluded to this fact about the crawl budget in a 2010 interview.

Matt answered a question about a Google crawl budget by first explaining that there was no crawl budget in the way that SEOs conceive of it:

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“The first thing is that there isn’t really such thing as an indexation cap. A lot of people were thinking that a domain would only get a certain number of pages indexed, and that’s not really the way that it works.

There is also not a hard limit on our crawl.”

In 2017 Google published a crawl budget explainer that brought together numerous crawling-related facts that together resemble what the SEO community was calling a crawl budget. This new explanation is more precise than the vague catch-all phrase “crawl budget” ever was (Google crawl budget document summarized here by Search Engine Journal).

The short list of the main points about a crawl budget are:

  • A crawl rate is the number of URLs Google can crawl based on the ability of the server to supply the requested URLs.
  • A shared server for example can host tens of thousands of websites, resulting in hundreds of thousands if not millions of URLs. So Google has to crawl servers based on the ability to comply with requests for pages.
  • Pages that are essentially duplicates of others (like faceted navigation) and other low-value pages can waste server resources, limiting the amount of pages that a server can give to Googlebot to crawl.
  • Pages that are lightweight are easier to crawl more of.
  • Soft 404 pages can cause Google to focus on those low-value pages instead of the pages that matter.
  • Inbound and internal link patterns can help influence which pages get crawled.

Reddit Question About Crawl Rate

The person on Reddit wanted to know if the perceived low value pages they were creating was influencing Google’s crawl budget. In short, a request for a non-secure URL of a page that no longer exists redirects to the secure version of the missing webpage which serves a 410 error response (it means the page is permanently gone).

It’s a legitimate question.

This is what they asked:

“I’m trying to make Googlebot forget to crawl some very-old non-HTTPS URLs, that are still being crawled after 6 years. And I placed a 410 response, in the HTTPS side, in such very-old URLs.

So Googlebot is finding a 301 redirect (from HTTP to HTTPS), and then a 410.

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http://example.com/old-url.php?id=xxxx -301-> https://example.com/old-url.php?id=xxxx (410 response)

Two questions. Is G**** happy with this 301+410?

I’m suffering ‘crawl budget’ issues, and I do not know if this two responses are exhausting Googlebot

Is the 410 effective? I mean, should I return the 410 directly, without a first 301?”

Google’s John Mueller answered:

G*?

301’s are fine, a 301/410 mix is fine.

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Crawl budget is really just a problem for massive sites ( https://developers.google.com/search/docs/crawling-indexing/large-site-managing-crawl-budget ). If you’re seeing issues there, and your site isn’t actually massive, then probably Google just doesn’t see much value in crawling more. That’s not a technical issue.”

Reasons For Not Getting Crawled Enough

Mueller responded that “probably” Google isn’t seeing the value in crawling more webpages. That means that the webpages could probably use a review to identify why Google might determine that those pages aren’t worth crawling.

Certain popular SEO tactics tend to create low-value webpages that lack originality. For example, a popular SEO practice is to review the top ranked webpages to understand what factors on those pages explain why those pages are ranking, then taking that information to improve their own pages by replicating what’s working in the search results.

That sounds logical but it’s not creating something of value. If you think of it as a binary One and Zero choice, where zero is what’s already in the search results and One represents something original and different, the popular SEO tactic of emulating what’s already in the search results is doomed to create another Zero, a website that doesn’t offer anything more than what’s already in the SERPs.

Clearly there are technical issues that can affect the crawl rate such as the server health and other factors.

But in terms of what is understood as a crawl budget, that’s something that Google has long maintained is a consideration for massive sites and not for smaller to medium size websites.

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Read the Reddit discussion:

Is G**** happy with 301+410 responses for the same URL?

Featured Image by Shutterstock/ViDI Studio

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SEOs, Are You Using These 6 Mental Models?

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SEOs, Are You Using These 6 Mental Models?

People use mental models to comprehend reality, solve problems, and make decisions in everyday life. SEO is not an exception here, yet it’s not a topic you often hear about in this industry.

The thing is, you need to be careful with mental models because they’re sneaky. We tend to develop them during our lives, inherit them from our colleagues and mentors, and rely on them almost instinctively while not fully aware of their influence or the existence of better alternatives.

So, let’s talk about mental models you will find helpful in your SEO work and the ones you should approach with caution.

3 helpful mental models

In the noisy, uncertain world of SEO, these will be your north star.

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First principles thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves breaking down complex problems into their most basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up.

It’s about asking oneself what is absolutely true about a situation and then reasoning up from there to create new solutions.

Using first principles thinking to rearrange the same building blocks into a brand new shape. 

Uncertainty is a chronic condition in SEO. And it is so by design because the whole industry is based on Google’s secrets. Access to the truth is extremely limited. We got to the point that we got used to accepting speculation and theories on SEO so much that we started to crave them.

This is where the first principles come in. Whenever you need a brand new solution for a problem or when you feel that you’ve gone too far into speculation, come back to the first principles — things that have the best chance to be true in this industry. For example:

The Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule) is about a disproportionate relationship between inputs and outputs, effort and results, or causes and effects. A small number of causes (20%) often leads to a large number of effects (80%).

The Pareto principleThe Pareto principle
The 80/20 rule: 80% of results come from 20% of the projects.

This concept was named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who, in 1906, noticed that 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of the population.

If we use this principle as a mental model in decision-making, we’ll find it easier to prioritize work. It’s ok to ignore some things because they likely won’t matter that much. The result that you’re after will come from focusing on the things that will likely have the biggest impact, and not from spreading yourself too thin.

For example, if you want to build links to your site, pitch your best content. That can be the content that has already proven to earn links in the past.

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Best by links report in Ahrefs.Best by links report in Ahrefs.

Or if you need to recover some of that lost traffic, home in on the pages that lost the most traffic.

Top pages report in Ahrefs. Top pages report in Ahrefs.

The key is to treat the 80/20 as an approximation, a heuristic, and not take the numbers literally. To illustrate, roughly 80% of our site’s traffic comes from no more than 6% of pages.

Total organic traffic breakdown in Ahrefs. Total organic traffic breakdown in Ahrefs.

But on the other hand, if we try to find the top 20% pages that contribute to the traffic the most, we’ll find that they bring not 80% but 96.8% traffic. However you look at it, the idea still holds — a small amount of causes led to a large portion of effects.

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Sounds very much like SEO already, doesn’t it?

This quote comes from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” and it’s how the Red Queen explains to Alice the nature of her kingdom, where it requires constant effort just to maintain one’s current position.

It was used to name an evolutionary biology theory which posits that each species must adapt and evolve not just for incremental gains but for survival, as their competitors are also evolving. Sorry, we’re in an endless race.

The Red Queen Theory as an endless race.The Red Queen Theory as an endless race.
SEO is like a road with no finish line—the race continues forever.

You can probably already guess how this applies to SEO — rankings. If you want to maintain high rankings, you can’t stop improving your pages. There will always be enough competitors to challenge your position.

But in our world, pressure comes from competitors and the environment. Google keeps evolving too, pushing the bar for content higher, making elements that used to give you an edge a standard.

I’m sure we’ve all been there – even our top backlink-earning, top traffic-generating, most time-consuming content gets pushed down. But if you keep optimizing, you get a chance to come back to the top.

Position history graph in Ahrefs.Position history graph in Ahrefs.

This mental model is another way of saying that SEO works best as an always-on strategy without a set end date or final goal.

3 mental models to watch out for

It’s not so much about avoiding them but being able to spot them when they happen or could happen.

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A local maximum (aka local optimum) refers to a solution that is the best solution within a neighboring set of solutions, but not necessarily the best possible solution overall (global optimum).

Local maxima.Local maxima.

So if you’re feeling that you’re spending immense effort just to make marginal improvements, you have to be willing to assume that you’ve hit a local maxima. Then, the question to ask is: what can I do differently?

Here’s an example.

Until November last year, traffic to our site was a series of local optima. Our content marketing was delivering the results, but the growth was relatively slow. Obviously, we were doing the same tried and tested stuff. But then we launched two programmatic SEO projects that instantly elevated us to a level we’d have to work years for — look how fast the yellow line grew (pages) and how that corresponded with the orange line (traffic).

Organic performance graph in Ahrefs.Organic performance graph in Ahrefs.

The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that occurs when people continue to do something as a result of previously invested resources (time, money, effort) despite new evidence suggesting that the current path will not lead to a beneficial outcome.

Sunk cost fallacy as a graph.Sunk cost fallacy as a graph.
Sunk cost in action: the more you invest in something, the more attached to it you become.

We all know SEO is a long-term game, right? Strategies like these are crowded with long-term projects with big time and money investments. Sometimes, despite the investments, you just can’t go beyond a certain level of traffic, backlinks, etc.

Now, this mental model, this voice in your head, will tell you to keep going down the same path no matter what. Loss aversion kicks in, acting like a defense mechanism for your past selves and actions. And the more aggressive and blind the “hustle” culture is at one’s team, the harder it is to see clearly.

But, overall, it could be better for you and the company to let it go and focus on something else. You can even come back to it later with a fresh mind. But continuing something just because you’ve been doing it for some time is a losing strategy.

Example. Despite several attempts and time counted in years, Ahrefs doesn’t rank for “seo”.

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Position history for "seo" via Ahrefs.Position history for "seo" via Ahrefs.

Sad but true. And from our point of view, it’s frustrating. Almost like we’re the only ones not to get invited to the party, the only ones not to graduate from high school… you get the idea.

But not ranking for “SEO” hasn’t hindered our growth, so it’s better to cut losses and deal with unfulfilled ambition than to let that goal hold us back from other projects (like that programmatic project mentioned above).

Confirmation bias is the tendency to give more attention and weight to data that support one’s own beliefs, while simultaneously dismissing or underestimating evidence that contradicts those beliefs.

Confirmation bias - beliefs outweigh the facts. Confirmation bias - beliefs outweigh the facts.

We’re all guilty of this. It’s human nature. And it’s not exclusively a bad thing. I mean, in some situations, this tendency can keep us on “the bright side” and help us go through tough times or keep our motivation up.

So, I think that it’s not something to get out of your system completely. Just be mindful of situations where this can negatively affect your judgment:

  • Selective evidence in ranking factors. You see a page ranking high, and you think it’s because of an aspect you strongly believe in, disregarding all of the evidence against it (e.g., long-form content, social signals).
  • Bias in keyword selection. Your keyword selection runs along the lines of your beliefs about the audience preferences without substantial evidence to back up these beliefs.
  • Bias in strategy development. After developing a new strategy, you encounter a talk or an article advocating a similar approach, which immediately reinforces your confidence in this strategy.
  • Focus on confirmatory data during audits. During a content audit, you find a small piece of data that confirms your belief. As a result, you may prioritize minor findings over more significant but less personally affirming data.
  • Overconfidence in familiar tactics. Leaning on SEO tactics that have worked in the past, you develop a sense of overconfidence in them. You resist trying anything new or the idea that a dip in performance comes from an unfamiliar factor.

Keep learning

If you like what you’re reading, I think you will find other mental models fascinating:

Want to share models you find useful? Ping me on X or LinkedIn.



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