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6 Things I Love About Zapier’s SEO Strategy: A Case Study

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6 Things I Love About Zapier's SEO Strategy: A Case Study

Zapier is an “automation platform.” If you look at this single phrase that defines its category, there is not much search demand: 200 monthly searches in the U.S. and around 1.1K globally. It doesn’t seem quite like a $144M ARR business opportunity. And judging by search demand, it’s not something you’ll promote with SEO. 

Yet, Zapier’s blog alone brings 1.6M organic visits every month. That’s traffic worth about $3.7M and 67.5% of its overall organic traffic. 

Organic traffic to Zapier's blog

So let’s see why Zapier didn’t turn away from SEO and how it managed to make SEO work like a charm.

1. Pitching the product through the back door 

SEO is generally worth it if one of the following things is true:

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  1. Potential customers are searching for what you sell or do.
  2. Potential customers are searching for solutions to problems your business helps to solve.

But there seems to be a third way. It’s when potential customers are searching for solutions you can improve upon or even disrupt. Zapier seems to follow this tactic exceptionally well. 

Chart about pitching a product through the back door

The whole concept reminds me of using a back door. Here’s an example. This article about “to-do list” apps can’t possibly talk about Zapier directly because Zapier is not that kind of app. 

Zapier's article header: "best to do list apps"

So instead, the article introduces the app through a series of “back doors.” Here’s back door #1:

Example of "back door" product pitching in content

And back door #2:

Example of "back door" product pitching in content

There are even more back doors here leading to product marketing articles:

  • Link to another blog post with more automation ideas
  • Links to product landing pages explaining the entire integration with a given app (example)
  • Link inside the “related reading” section 

Why build these back doors? Because thanks to high-volume keywords and their long-tail… 

High volume organic keywords for Zapier's article

… this one article gets 58.8K organic search visits monthly. 

"Best to do list" article's total estimated organic traffic

That’s a ton of traffic Zapier can channel to its money pages. 

Add some more articles like that, and you’ve discovered the pattern behind the best-performing articles on Zapier’s blog. 

Best-performing articles on Zapier's blog

But not only is the organic traffic impressive here. Rankings are too. There are 2,397 keywords with the “best” pattern ranking in positions #1–3 in the U.S. alone. 

Keywords with the “best” pattern ranking in positions #1–3 in the U.S.

There’s more. Some of those “best” articles earned backlinks from hundreds of referring domains, including high-DR ones. 

Backlinks from high-DR domains

Takeaway

If you’ll like to replicate the “back door” tactic, the process can look something like this: 

  1. Publish an article explaining a use case of your product 
  2. Look for keywords with high search demand related to that use case
  3. Write an article directly targeting that high search volume keyword and insert a link to the article explaining the use case—that link is the back door 

This way, searchers can get what they expect from an article directly targeting the broad keyword and then some more, thanks to your use case. Keep in mind, though, that some of those broader keywords can be tough to rank for. 

There may be another approach to creating the back door. You can start from keyword research:

  1. Look for keywords with high search demand and are somehow related to your product 
  2. See if your product can improve what people are searching for and write an article describing that use case (the back door) 
  3. Write the article targeting the broad keyword and insert the back door inside the article 

It may also be worth noting that this tactic is as good as the sign on the back door, i.e., the call to action. I mean, who wouldn’t want to automate their tasks for free? 

Zapier's irresistible CTA button
Automate the what? Oh… then yes, please.

2. Ranking for other people’s keywords. Because Google and searchers demand it

Let’s take a look at the next biggest source of traffic after the blog. 

Site structure report for zapier.com

So what are “apps”? That’s a bunch of product landing pages that get their traffic from pure demand for Zapier’s apps or features, right? 

Not exactly. The main driver of traffic to those pages is demand for somebody else’s apps. 

Zapier doesn’t simply list its apps. It lists other people’s app integrations with other people’s apps. 

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And if I’m not mistaken, we’re not necessarily talking about the demand that Zapier invented. We’re not talking about an out-of-the-blue invention like Metallica + Lady Gaga. 

Unstable search demand caused by a one-off event
Don’t get me wrong. This cross-over connection makes sense when you think about it.

We’re talking about things that people all over the U.S. actually plug into Google because they need things like Dropbox and Google Drive integration in their lives. 

Organic keywords showing Dropbox and Google Drive integration demand

But why are we even talking about integrating Dropbox with Google Drive and not Dropbox and Zapier? 

Here’s the thing. Zapier integrates with Dropbox, which can be integrated with YouTube, Gmail, Office 365, Notion, and tons of other apps. This means that Zapier integrates with the above apps too. On top of that, there are also three-way connections like Dropbox + Drive + Slack. 

If that’s the actual functionality of the app and some of those connections have “impossible to ignore” search demand, then Zapier will need to create a landing page for each of those situations. 

Guess what. That’s exactly what Zapier did. And it turned out beautifully, driving 16% of the entire organic traffic. Here are some of the top-performing integrations in terms of traffic. 

Zapier's top-performing app integrations landing pages (in terms of organic traffic)

Let’s see what’s inside that “apps folder.”

When you pick one of the apps, you get a landing page with a corresponding title, H1, and URL. 

Example of programmatic landing page

Then you add another app to the mix. Again, a landing page with custom H1 and URL. 

Example of programmatic landing page

But what if the customer wants to connect Google Sheets, Trello, AND Slack? This calls for another landing page (just one more connection before turning into a Rube Goldberg machine). 

Example of programmatic landing page
By the way, these app logos act as breadcrumbs.

Perfect. However, the longer that “train” gets, the fewer keywords the consequent “wagons” rank for. The first page from the above gets an estimated 1.9K organic visits while ranking for 444 keywords. But the last page (Sheets-Trello-Slack) gets no organic traffic.

Programmatic landing page with no organic traffic

The way you create tens of thousands of landing pages within one lifetime appears to be programmatic SEO and Zapier Partner Program.

Thanks to programmatic SEO, Zapier was able to generate the pages instead of manually creating them. While the “human touch” quality of inserting unique content into each of those pages was provided by allowing owners of the apps to write it. 

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Recommendation

According to this study by Ryan Berg, Zapier has recently transitioned to a pure programmatic approach. I’m not entirely sure this is the case, but it seems that the amount of original content on the “integrations” pages has, in fact, diminished. 

Before:

App profile before the change
More text, and it’s unique.

After: 

App profile after the change
Less text, and it’s pulled from another page.

Check out Ryan’s case study to learn more about the effects of the programmatic approach over time. (Ryan started analyzing Zapier in 2018.) And while we’re at other Zapier case studies, this is also an interesting one by Jessica Greene: Does Updating Website Content Work? [Zapier Case Study].  

Zapier uses this kind of landing pages to leverage branded search too.

Keyword research for “zapier” shows over 25K results in the U.S. And that list is full of branded keywords like these: 

Some of Zapier's branded keywords

Most, if not all, of those keywords already have corresponding programmatically generated landing pages. 

By the way, I won’t be surprised if it uses keyword research for market research. It can just see what people plug in Google to invite new partners or build new features. 

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Takeaway

There are probably multiple takeaways here. But the main one is search intent, if you ask me. 

Zapier’s app landing pages get so much traffic from other people’s branded keywords because those pages align with search intent flawlessly. 

If you look at the SERP for “google sheet integrations,” there are hardly any content types different from a product landing page. So the investment in devising a system to generate all of those app landing pages seems to work really well. Good thing Zapier didn’t try to target those with how-to blog posts. Blog posts likely don’t stand a chance here. 

SERP for "google sheets integrations" with a clear dominating content type

By the way, I find it fascinating that its Google Sheets integrations landing page ranks at #12 for simply “google sheets.” 

Google Sheets integrations landing page ranks at #12 for “google sheets”

I wonder if there’s anything SEO-wise it can do to jump back to the top 10 like in 2018. 

Google Sheets integrations landing page used to rank at #8 for “google sheets”

3. Self-building content hubs

What I call a self-building content hub (aka topic cluster) is a situation where you organize your existing content into a content hub structure and link new related content (subpages) as you create it. 

Using this strategy, you can commit to creating more content only if the subpages make sense themselves. In other words, you don’t need to take big risks investing in creating or expanding a content hub.

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Let’s look at the big picture to give this more context.

Some content marketers build topic clusters in a set-and-forget approach. You see an opportunity, design a topic cluster, build it, and that’s it. You never or hardly ever come back to it. 

Nothing wrong with that. 

But here’s the thing. If you continue to create more content on the same topic, that means that the initial cluster has been expanding all along. And a bigger topic cluster is usually a better topic cluster because it’s more comprehensive. All you need to do is to make the connection like Zapier does. 

To illustrate, we’ve got this guide (a topic cluster, technically speaking) on remote work. In 2017, it was a set of 14 links. It contained only content developed specially for that hub. 

Remote work content hub in 2017 via Wayback Machine

But Zapier hasn’t stopped publishing more stuff about remote work. It’s been busy with creating more guides, listicles, videos, case studies, and reports. 

So it’s included links to all of that new content in the hub. And right now, some five years later, that list of 14 links has grown to over 50 links and some embedded videos. All of them organized into seven categories, plus the initial guide from 2017. 

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Seven categories in Zapier's remote work content hub

But why create a content hub in the first place? 

So let’s imagine it hadn’t created that cluster at all. Then it wouldn’t have amassed 4.4K backlinks from 1.1K domains to date. Nor would it have reached the point of 1.1K organic traffic every month to that single page. And that’s on top of the results that each of the linked subpages gets. 

Overview of Zapier's remote work hub via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

And like I said, Zapier doesn’t need to create more content for the hub. As it creates content, it can simply link subpages that make sense to the hub.

SEO metrics overview from one of the cluster content pieces linked to the hub
An example of a subpage incorporated into a content hub. Judging by organic traffic, Zapier could create it just for the sake of itself and not necessarily for the hub.

What if it hadn’t added all of those additional links to the cluster? That’s a tougher question to answer. But I guess that is part of the reason why referring domains to the pillar page keep growing steadily over the years. After all, adding more helpful content should make the hub more attractive, hence link-worthy. 

Referring domains graph for Zapier's remote work hub

Let’s not forget those links are, in fact, internal links that distribute link equity from the pillar page to the linked pages. 

All in all, the whole structure of this topic cluster reinforces itself. More content makes the topic cluster more helpful and link-worthy. And when the pillar page gets backlinks, it “gives back” to the linked content by distributing link equity. 

Takeaway

Simply put, consider creating a content hub utilizing your existing content. You can then expand it with new subpages only if they make sense themselves. 

Have a content hub already? See if there is any additional content you can link to on the pillar page. 

Of course, creating a content hub from scratch is still a good idea. That’s what Zapier initially did and then expanded. As we can see from its results, it creates a new “entity” able to generate backlinks and traffic on its own. 

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4. Link baiting at the rate of 1.5 domains per word 

Original research makes great link bait

But what makes original research good enough to make people link?

This Zapier research shows that it’s not necessarily about the length of the study. 

Header of original research by Zapier

Excuse me while I use a completely made-up metric. But just to show how “efficient” that link bait is, there are 1.5 domains linking to that page per every word used to describe it. That’s including the title and the methodology note. 

But are the linking domains any good?

Here are some of the +90 DR domains linking to this 637-word research, along with their traffic: 

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Some of the +90 DR domains linking to Zapier's research

I think this bite-sized research is so powerful because:

  • It answers a really well-posed question: How many Americans had a side hustle? 
  • Side hustles are a sign of the times. 
  • The research gets right to the point. It starts with the most important thing (the answer).
  • There are graphics that tell the story, just waiting to be shared by linkers.
  • After all of that goodness, I don’t think anybody has any problems with the study content including a soft PR pitch of Zapier and a few relevant links to its content. Naturally, those links help to distribute link equity. 

Takeaway

Original research can get you hundreds or even thousands of links. But doing that is no small feat. 

However, Zapier shows that this kind of content doesn’t have to be long to get a ton of links. You don’t even need to do it yourself (Zapier outsourced its own). 

Just make your research timely, important to your target audience and/or the audience you want to pitch to, and get right to the point. 

Some “auto promotion” here and there likely won’t be frowned upon. But first, give people what they came for. 

Oh, and don’t worry if your report won’t take off on social media.

Remember that one of the reasons people use social media is entertainment. Even LinkedIn.

Man celebrating Friday by sipping wine from a wine glass while sitting in a bathtub

5. In Zapier’s world, everything is connected. Or at least interlinked 

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What struck me about Zapier’s SEO is how everything is densely interlinked. 

We’ve got:

  • Links inside the blog posts to other content and product features. 
  • Links inside content hubs.
  • Links from original reports. 
  • Links as breadcrumbs in the app directory. 
  • Links to selected content on the homepage. 
Zapier's homepage footer with dense interlinking
The homepage’s footer, or should I say a carefully woven net of strategic internal links.

And it matters because internal links help pages rank higher. Google utilizes internal links to:

  • Discover new pages.
  • Pass link equity between pages.
  • Understand what a page is about.

Takeaway 

Use pages with a lot of backlinks to boost other pages. You can boost your “boring” money pages with link equity from pages with a lot of backlinks. This is called the middleman method

But keep in mind these two caveats to using internal links: 

  • Theoretically, the more links you have on the page, the more they will compete with each other for clicks and “dilute” the authority transferred to other pages. So just watch out for “spamming” your pages with internal links. 
  • Too many internal links, especially inside the content of an article, can lead to poorer UX. 

6. Zapier blogs about substituting coffee with hot water???

If Zapier is so good at SEO, why does it create content that gets little-to-no search traffic? Sometimes, those articles don’t even have any kind of search demand. 

And why are they so… unrelated? Examples:

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  • Don’t work more when you work from home.
  • ​​How to be a good co-worker to your pets.
  • Why I replaced my morning coffee with a cup of warm water.
  • What a giant pile of laundry taught me about productivity.
  • How a mid-day walk changed my energy levels—at work and at home.

Clearly, these articles haven’t been created for SEO reasons…

One of Zapier's articles ranking for irrelevant keywords

By no means is this an attempt to troll Zapier. I get it. All of the above titles are certainly an interesting read for people concerned about productivity and well-being. 

My point is that while Zapier is great in SEO, it doesn’t make its content marketing only about ranking for keywords with traffic potential.

When you tie only SEO goals to your content marketing, you risk creating an operations-centric approach instead of a customer-centric approach.

A customer-centric approach is when you know certain topics interest your audience, so you pursue them. Even if they have 0 search volume and you won’t rank in a million years. But hey, your audience will still appreciate your effort. 

One condition, though: You need to have a way to communicate with your audience directly, such as a newsletter. 

Zapier's newsletter sign-up form

Takeaway

When you’re great at SEO content, there is a temptation to focus only on SEO content that “converts.” It’s good to know where to draw the line. 

If you’re trying to nurture an audience, develop a relationship with them, make them read every newsletter you send them, and make them trust and recommend your blog, then maybe it’s a good idea to take a step back and think outside of keyword research. 

So if you have an opportunity to publish an interesting article that won’t necessarily bring you organic traffic, it still may be worth it if you can promote it via your direct marketing channels

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Final thoughts 

I’ve heard a couple of times from different marketers that they don’t pursue SEO because they are in “a new niche with no search demand yet.” I think Zapier’s case shows that if you dig a little deeper, you may hit a motherload of SEO opportunities. But you may need to enter through the “back door.” 

After all, theoretically, there must be some kind of market demand that you’re building your product on. And if there’s market demand, you will likely find search demand. 

Got questions or comments? Ping me on Twitter



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How We Built A Strong $10 Million Agency: A Proven Framework

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How We Built A Strong $10 Million Agency: A Proven Framework

Building a successful agency can be a daunting task in today’s ever-evolving space. Do you know the secrets to succeeding with yours?

Watch this informative, on-demand webinar, where link building expert Jon Ball reveals the closely guarded secrets that have propelled Page One Power to become a highly successful $10 million agency.

You’ll learn:

  • The foundational principles on which to build your business to succeed.
  • The importance of delegation, market positioning, and staffing.
  • More proven lessons learned from 14 years of experience.

With Jon, we’ll provide you with actionable insights that you can use to take your business to the next level, using foundational principles that have contributed to Page One Power’s success.

If you’re looking to establish yourself as a successful entrepreneur or grow your agency in the constantly evolving world of SEO, this webinar is for you.

Learn the secrets of establishing a thriving agency in an increasingly competitive SEO space.

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View the slides below or check out the full webinar for all the details.

Join Us For Our Next Webinar!

How An Enterprise Digital PR Firm Earns 100’s Of Links In 30 Days

Join us as we explore how to scale the very time-consuming and complicated process of earning links from digital PR, with proven case studies showing how you can earn hundreds of links in 30 days.

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SEO Woe or a Load of Baloney?

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SEO Woe or a Load of Baloney?

Toxic backlinks are links that some SEO tools say could hurt your website’s Google rankings. The implication is that you should disavow them to keep your site safe.

But there’s some disagreement and confusion among SEOs as to whether “toxic” links are actually a thing and what, if anything, you should do about them. 

If you believe Google’s John Mueller, they’re not: 

Yet, according to my poll, the majority (just!) of SEOs think they are: 

So… what’s the deal here? Are toxic backlinks actually a thing? Are they hurting your site? And if so, what should you be doing about them? 

Before we can answer those questions, we need to understand the terminology… 

Every website has some spammy backlinks that just don’t make sense. But that doesn’t necessarily make them manipulative or “toxic.”

For example, here are a couple of obviously spammy links to our site: 

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Example of spammy links, via Ahrefs' Site ExplorerExample of spammy links, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

We didn’t build or buy either of these, so they’re not “manipulative” by definition. They’re just low-quality links we’ve attracted over time because the internet is rife with spammers. 

If you study Google’s link spam documentation carefully, you’ll see that, in theory, these aren’t the kind of spammy links they have a problem with. They warn only against the ill effects of spam links intended to manipulate rankings. 

Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages. Any links that are intended to manipulate rankings in Google Search results may be considered link spam. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site. 

Here are the examples Google gives of these manipulative links: 

What Google says are manipulative linksWhat Google says are manipulative links

As for “toxic backlinks,” this is just a term made up by certain SEO tools to describe backlinks they think could hurt your rankings based on several so-called “markers.”

Key takeaway

  • Spammy links are low-quality links that every site attracts through no fault of their own. 
  • Manipulative links are links built or bought solely to improve Google rankings. 
  • Toxic links are links that certain SEO tools say could hurt your website’s rankings. 

If you asked this question before September 2016, the answer would have likely been “yes.”

So what changed? 

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Penguin 4.0.

With this algorithm update, Google switched from demoting pages to a system that tries to ignore bad links.

Penguin is now more granular. Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site. 

Since then, Google’s stance has been that you can ignore spammy backlinks. 

If you’re seeing individual links that pop up and you say, “oh this looks like a spammer dropped the link” or whatever, I would completely ignore those. […] because these spammy links happen to every website and Google’s system has seen them so many times over the years that we’re very good at just ignoring them. 

John MuellerJohn Mueller

But is this true? Is Google really as good at ignoring low-level spam as we’re made to believe? 

Judging by my colleague Chris’s recent poll on LinkedIn, a good chunk of SEOs (38%) don’t think so, as they’re still disavowing them. 

Most SEOs either disavow or do nothing about spammy backlinksMost SEOs either disavow or do nothing about spammy backlinks

Does that mean they’re right to do so? Not necessarily. It just means they don’t fully trust Google that they won’t do any harm. They’re being careful. 

Personally, the person I trust most to answer this question in 2024 is Dr. Marie Haynes. I don’t think anyone’s done more research into this than her. She’s spent well over a decade working to understand Google’s search algorithms and auditing link profiles on behalf of business owners. 

Now, the interesting part of that statement (and why I actually trust her!) is the obvious conflict of interest. Until fairly recently, she made her living selling link audit and disavow file creation services—and for a pretty hefty sum at that! 

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Pricing from Marie's link audit services page in March 2023Pricing from Marie's link audit services page in March 2023
Pricing from Marie’s link audit services page in March 2023

Clearly, it would be good news for Marie if Google were still terrible at ignoring spammy backlinks because she could sell more link audits! 

Yet, these days, she no longer appears to offer such services. In fact, she’s actually been warning folks against the need to disavow low-quality, spammy backlinks for a few years. 

Here’s a quote from a 2022 blog post of hers:

While there is no harm in disavowing low quality spammy links, it likely does not help improve rankings. We believe that Google’s algorithms are already ignoring these links. […]. When we do see improvements these days after disavowing, it is always in sites where we have disavowed links that were purposely made for SEO and very little else. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

It’s clear that Marie is being cautious with her words here. But overall, her opinion after digging into this for many years seems to be that, yes, Google is now pretty good at ignoring most low-quality spammy links. 

Does that mean they’re perfect? No. But it does mean that worrying about obvious low-quality link spam is probably a waste of time for most people.

If you’re buying or building the types of links that Google class as “link spam” then, yes, they can absolutely hurt your rankings.

But before you panic about that link exchange you did with your best friend’s wife’s brother, Google is likely looking for patterns of manipulation here. In other words, manipulative link profiles rather than manipulative individual links: 

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Danny Richman, founder of Richman SEO Training, agrees: 

Here’s a bit more context from Danny: 

As for Marie Haynes, she echoes a similar sentiment in this post. She states that manual actions aside, she would only recommend a client disavow links if they have “a very large number of links that [they] feel the webspam team would consider to be ‘manipulative.’ ”

In these cases, Google often slaps the worst offenders with an unnatural links manual action. If you get one of those, that’s Google telling you, “Hey… you’re being demoted in search because we think you’ve been trying to game the system with manipulative links.” 

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But this doesn’t have to happen for manipulative links to be a problem. It’s possible for Google to algorithmically demote a site if they detect a large volume of spammy and manipulative links, at least according to John Mueller.

If we see a very strong pattern [of spammy links] there, then it can happen that our algorithms say well, we really have kind of lost trust with this website and at the moment based on the bigger picture on the web, we kind of need to be more on almost a conservative side when it comes to to understanding this website’s content and ranking it in the search results. And then you can see kind of a drop in the visibility there. 

John MuellerJohn Mueller

Either way, the point remains: it’s patterns of manipulation that are likely to hurt rankings. There’s very little chance that you need to worry about the odd potentially dodgy link here and there. 

While it might be tempting to use an SEO tool that finds “toxic backlinks” for you, I’d seriously urge you to reconsider. Trusting these can do more harm than good. Way more. 

Just look at this unfortunate Redditor’s reply to John Mueller: 

Someone on Reddit's traffic tanked 60% after disavowing "toxic" backlinks in one SEO toolSomeone on Reddit's traffic tanked 60% after disavowing "toxic" backlinks in one SEO tool
A 60% drop in traffic! That’s no joke! 

Even if this is an extreme case, worrying about these links likely only wastes time because, according to Marie Haynes, they’re rarely truly toxic: 

I find that the truly toxic links…the ones that could have the potential to harm your site algorithmically (although you’d have to really overdo it, as I’ll describe below), are rarely returned by an SEO tool. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

Sam McRoberts, CEO of VUVU Marketing, seems to agree: 

So… how do you find truly toxic backlinks that are likely to be hurting your site? 

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The truth? You might not even need to look for them. If you haven’t built or bought links that Google considers link spam at any reasonable scale, chances are you’re good. 

If you’re not confident about that, do a manual backlink audit with a tool like Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

The Anchors report is a good starting point if you’ve never done this. It shows you the words and phrases people use when linking to you. If they look unnatural or over-optimized (lots of exact matches of keywords you’re trying to rank for), that could be a sign you have paid or other links intended to manipulate rankings. 

Example of keyword-rich anchors, which are often a sign of paid backlinksExample of keyword-rich anchors, which are often a sign of paid backlinks

If things look fishy there, use the Backlinks report to dig deeper and check the context of those links. It’s usually quite easy to spot paid and unnatural ones. 

The Backlinks report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer showing the context of the backlinkThe Backlinks report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer showing the context of the backlink

Just remember that you’re looking for patterns of unnatural links, not just one or two. 

WARNING

If you’re not 100% sure what you’re looking for when doing a backlink audit, hire someone who knows what they’re doing. You need to be confident that the links are truly “toxic.”

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If you have a manual action for unnatural links or a bunch of what you believe to be truly toxic backlinks, yes. Google’s advice is to disavow them (assuming you can’t get the links removed). 

You should disavow backlinks only if: 

You have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, 

AND

The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site. 

Marie Haynes advises the same: 

There are two situations where we will recommend to our clients a thorough link audit followed by filing a disavow: 

  1. The site has a manual action for unnatural links in GSC. 
  2. The site has a very large number of links that we feel the webspam team would consider to be “manipulative”.
Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

If you just have a bunch of spammy backlinks that most sites naturally attract or the odd paid backlink, probably not. Google probably ignores most, if not all, of these links, so disavowing them is likely a waste of time. 

While there is no harm in disavowing these links other than the time spent analyzing them, there is likely no benefit either. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

But what about negative SEO?

Being the victim of a negative SEO attack is indeed the possible exception here. This is when a competitor sends a load of spammy or toxic backlinks your way to try to get your site penalized. 

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Google remains adamant that it basically never works, but it really comes down to what you believe. 

[I’ve] looked at hundreds of supposed cases of negative SEO, but none have actually been the real reason a website was hurt. […] While it’s easier to blame negative SEO, typically the culprit of a traffic drop is something else you don’t know about–perhaps an algorithm update or an issue with their website. 

Gary IllyesGary Illyes

If you see a traffic drop after an influx of backlinks in Site Explorer, I’d say that it’s at least worth a bit more investigation. 

Site with traffic drop coinciding with an influx of backlinksSite with traffic drop coinciding with an influx of backlinks
This site experienced a traffic drop coinciding with an influx of referring domains. Maybe there’s benefit to disavowing here… and maybe it’s something else!

As Gary said above, something else could be to blame—but you never know. There’s always a chance that Google’s algorithms rule it was you who built or bought those backlinks to try to manipulate rankings and penalize you for it. 

If you just found a bunch of so-called “toxic backlinks” in an SEO tool, probably not. Again, most of these are probably just link spam Google already ignores. 

Here’s yet another quote from Marie Haynes backing this up: 

While there is probably no harm in disavowing [links reported as toxic in SEO tools], you are not likely to see any improvement as a result. Disavowing is meant for sites trying to remove a manual action and for those who have been actively building links for the purpose of improving rankings. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

There’s also the risk that you could end up disavowing links that are actually helping you… 

Patrick showed further evidence that this can absolutely happen when he experimented with disavowing links to the Ahrefs blog. Traffic dipped, then went back up after he removed the disavow. 

The impact of disavowing links to the Ahrefs blogThe impact of disavowing links to the Ahrefs blog

Final thoughts

“Toxic backlinks” is a term made up by certain SEO tools to scare you. That’s not to say bad links can’t hurt your site. They absolutely can. But fortunately for most site owners, it’s rarely a problem worth worrying all that much about. 

Got questions? Disagree? Ping me on Twitter X.

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On-Page SEO Checklist for 2024: A Comprehensive Guide

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On-Page SEO Checklist 2024

On-Page SEO Checklist 2024

Want to make your pages rank high on Google? You won’t be able to do that if you don’t know where or how to start your on-page SEO — and with each Google update, this pillar of SEO gets more and more complicated. To keep you updated with the best and most relevant practices when it comes to this aspect of your website, I have prepared an on-page SEO checklist for 2024. 

On-Page SEO Factors

On-page SEO, in simple terms, is all the ways you can optimize your website take place on your website. Tweaking certain elements of your pages can enable them to climb very quickly up the ranks when done right. These elements include essentially everything you can see on your webpage, like its title tags, headers, and images.

Webmaster’s Note: This is part two of our SEO checklist series. Part one covers our technical SEO checklist, so go back if you haven’t seen that yet. I also do deep dives into other aspects of on-page SEO in other articles, like the best content strategy for SEO, how to hack on-page factors, and ways to dominate niche keywords in your industry.

1. Identify Your Target Keyword

This is where any SEO effort should start. Identify which basic keywords you would like each page to rank for. From there, you can expand into common phrases, questions, and related words people use to find pages like yours through keyword research. 

Key Aspects of Keyword Optimization:

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  • Keyword Research: Identifying the right keywords that your target audience is searching for.
  • Keyword Placement: Sensibly incorporating keywords in titles, headings, the first paragraph, and throughout the content.
  • Searcher Intent: Catering to why someone is performing a search, whether it’s to find information, make a purchase, etc.

Effective keyword optimization allows you to create pages that best meet user intent. This boosts your chances of ranking highly for your chosen keywords. 

Using a Keyword Research Tool for On-Page SEOUsing a Keyword Research Tool for On-Page SEO

I have longer guides on the types of keywords you should look at, and another on how to do keyword research you can follow for this step.

2. High-Quality Content Creation

Quality content is the keystone of on-page SEO. It is, after all, fundamental to the selling point of Google — which is that it is the go-to place to find answers to your questions. It’s why Google pushes Helpful Content Updates every so often.

So, your content must meet Google’s standards of quality in order to make it to the top. To do that, your content must be authoritative, valuable to the reader, and deliver on the promises made by your meta tags and headings.

What Constitutes Quality Content:

  • Originality: Your content must be unique and offer fresh insights.
  • Relevancy: It should align with your target user’s intent and be updated regularly.
  • Engagement: Content must encourage users to spend time on your site and interact with your offerings.

Creating content that exceeds user expectations can dramatically bolster your SEO as it can directly affect user engagement metrics and boost the credibility of your site. 

Webmaster’s Note: Beyond making sure all new content is high-quality, however, is ensuring all of your existing content is also up to par. I’ll be covering that in part four of this series, so keep an eye out for that. 

3. URL Structure

URLs are not only a ranking factor but also enhance the user experience when structured logically. 

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Features of an Effective URL Structure:

  • Concise and Descriptive: A URL should be concise and explain your page content. No stop words.
  • Keyword Inclusion: A relevant keyword can enhance a URL’s performance.
  • Use Hyphens instead of Underscores: Conventional use dictates using hyphens to separate words.

A clear URL helps users and search engines make sense of the page’s content before they even reach it.

Here’s an example of a bad URL slug. 

Example of Bad URL StructureExample of Bad URL Structure

And here’s an example of a good, optimized one.

Example of Good URL StructureExample of Good URL Structure

4. Title Tag and Headings

I find that certain practices for these two elements give the most benefit to a page’s SEO. 

Best Practices for Title Tag and Heading Optimization:

  • Use a Keyword-First Approach: Place keywords first in your title tag, as uninterrupted by stop-words as possible.
  • Keep it Simple: Title tags should be concise to ensure the entire tag is displayed on the SERPs.
  • Same Keyword, Different Phrasing: Use the same keyword in your title tag and heading 1. However, use different phrasing or wording for each. 
  • Insert Related Keywords: Do this for your heading 2, 3, and so on, where it makes sense.
  • Avoid Duplicates: Use different title tags and headings for every unique page.

4. Meta Tags Enhancement

Meta tags, such as the meta description, serve as a brief pitch to users on search engine results pages. Other meta tags, like your image alt text and links, provide important context to both the user and crawlbot.

Tips for Enhanced Meta Tags:

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  • Compelling Copy: Write title tags and meta descriptions that accurately summarize the page content and entice clicks.
  • Keyword Usage: Try to insert target keywords and/or related keywords effectively in your meta descriptions, and within the limit.
  • Uniqueness: Each page should have unique meta tags. 
  • Be Descriptive: Your image alt text should not only include a related keyword but should also adequately describe what is seen on the image. 
  • Add internal and external links: Semantic search means Google can use the links in your pages to gain a better understanding of its content. Always add relevant internal links, and only include external links from trusted websites. 
  • Use Noindex Robots Meta Tag: Add this to prevent any pages with thin content, or pages with little value and no intent from appearing in the SERPs.
  • Use rel=”canonical” Link Tag: Use this for any duplicate pages you have on your website. Doing this can help you control which version of the page gets indexed and ranks for your targeted keywords. 
  • Set your Open Graph Meta Tags: This will let you optimize how your pages look when they’re shared on social media.
  • Set your Viewport Meta Tag: This configures how your pages are scaled and displayed on different devices and platforms, which is important for user experience (more on that later). 

To get the most out of your SEO, don’t neglect this part of your on-page SEO checklist. The small tweaks here can add up to the big picture. 

Well-crafted meta tags have the potential to increase click-through rates, boost your visibility on organic search and image search, enhance user experience, and also distribute link equity throughout your pages. All these contribute to how well your page ranks. 

5. Internal Linking

Internal linking spreads link equity throughout your site and can help search engines discover new pages. Always link back to pillar content, or other high-value content on your website. 

Benefits of Strategic Internal Linking:

  • Navigation: They guide users through other relevant pages on your website.
  • Page Authority: Anchor text can help to convey what the linked-to page is about, which can aid in ranking for those terms.
  • User Time on Site: Providing relevant links can keep users engaged on your site for longer periods.

Good internal linking can significantly increase your engagement rates and contribute to building a robust site architecture. I have a separate post on how to build topical authority through internal linking you can check out.

6. User Experience (UX)

User experience affects on-page SEO because search engines favor websites that provide a positive user experience.

UX Factors to Consider in Your Website Design:

  • Mobile-Friendliness: The site must perform well across all devices — but especially on mobile-view, as most users use Google through their phones.
  • Ease of Use: The site should be navigable and logical in its layout. Navigation bars and other menus should be intuitive and prioritize the most important pages of your website.
  • Page Speed: Pages should load quickly to reduce bounce rates. Follow this guide to site speed optimization for this point.

As UX becomes an even more important ranking factor, I find it is necessary to add to this on-page SEO checklist. Sites that deliver a high-quality user experience will dominate search engine results pages.

Key Takeaway

Mastering this pillar of SEO is crucial for achieving high rankings on Google, and staying updated with evolving best practices is essential. But with every update, what works best changes. 

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My 2024 on-page SEO checklist provides basically the most up-to-date practices for the elements on your website. Follow it, and you should be able to boost your website’s authority, credibility, and long-term SEO performance.

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