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When Does a Content Strategy Fail? 11 Factors to Blame

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When Does a Content Strategy Fail? 11 Factors to Blame

The success or failure of your content strategy is very subjective.

It can be nuanced and multifaceted due to many factors – varied objectives, long-term impact, changing goals, complex data interpretation, content attribution, and many other external factors.

But then I’ve heard many business owners and marketing managers complaining about not seeing results despite publishing 12-20 blogs a month, aggressive social media promotions, and segmented email drip campaigns.

It could be because the content strategy itself is flawed, which can cause it to fail in achieving its intended results.

And because there can be many flaws in a content strategy, I would like to highlight the critical ones that most commonly cause your strategy to fail.

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1. Not Sticking To Your Target Audience

The most common yet highly critical reason behind the failed content strategy is deviating from your target audience.

While we have worked with many IT companies, we have seen this as a major issue. They usually have some of these target audiences:

  • Tech Business Owners.
  • Non-tech Business Owners.
  • CTO or Project Managers.
  • Developers.

But most IT companies follow the trends their competitors have chosen, irrespective of what their sales team wants.

  • They want to sell Flutter development if their competitors start delivering that.
  • If their competitors have started doing it, they want to shift to staff augmentation from custom end-to-end development.
  • They want to start writing technical blogs if their competitors have written them.

It’s not their fault because they are trying to follow trends in the IT industry. But in following the trend, they unknowingly mix up all their audiences.

Deviating from your target audience can happen unintentionally due to shifts in business goals or strategies, inadequate or outdated audience research, customer base expansion, data misinterpretation, changes in industry dynamics, and more.

However, this is problematic for content strategy, because it results in content that is misaligned, inefficient, and ineffective in reaching and engaging the right people.

Why? Because:

  • You create irrelevant content for other sets of audiences.
  • You waste time, effort, and budget.
  • This results in inconsistent brand messaging.
  • You may attract the wrong type of leads or lower conversion rates.
  • With all these, you cannot measure the effectiveness.
  • And hence, the ROI is never justified.

A successful content strategy should be laser-focused on addressing the intended audience’s needs, building a strong connection with them, and ultimately driving meaningful outcomes for the business.

2. Missing Out On The Purpose Of Creating The Content

When planning content topics, you must know why you want to create this content. Because until you know the purpose, you can’t define its success metrics.

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And when you don’t know the success metrics, your content remains orphan, cannibalized, or unhelpful.

With more such content, you only keep investing where there are no returns.

And never stick to the below as the only purpose of your content:

  • Because competitors have written them.
  • Because we want rankings.
  • Because we want all of our blogs to generate sales qualified leads (SQLs).
  • Because we think such topics would be helpful to our audience.
  • Because our product team wants to focus on that
  • Because our sales team wants to target this list of features to be promoted across a particular geography.

Where are the audience’s needs here?

Consider what the audience wants to read or consume while buying your products or services.

Your purpose should be divided into two:

  • What do readers expect out of this content?
  • What will we achieve when the user consumes this content and is happy about it?

I hope that’s clear to ensure your content strategy doesn’t fail.

3. Not Setting Up Each Content’s KPIs And Its Timeline

We know the purpose of creating content, but what if we don’t know how to measure whether the purpose was fulfilled?

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That also will lead to the failure.

Most content calendars include the following basic things:

  • Content topics.
  • Content types.
  • Target audience.
  • Team involved.
  • Publication timelines.
  • Keywords data.
  • Word count.
  • Graphics requirements.
  • References.

But people don’t talk enough about what each piece of content has to deliver. We never used to add any content metrics in our SEO content strategy.

Content KPIs can vary depending on the content’s purpose and your overall content strategy.

Image created by author, November 2023Common content KPIs to ensure your content strategy doesn't fail

But just defining the KPIs is not enough; setting up their timelines ensures they are achieved.

Let me share what happens to your content strategy if you haven’t set the content KPIs and their timelines to achieve:

  • Directionless content creation – You publish a blog post without clear KPIs or timelines. The content covers a general industry topic but doesn’t tie into specific business goals. As a result, it doesn’t drive relevant traffic or contribute to lead generation.
  • Ineffective resource allocation – You invest significant resources in creating a series of YouTube videos without defining KPIs. The videos receive views, but without KPIs, it’s unclear whether they contribute to brand awareness, customer engagement, or sales growth.
  • Measurement challenges – You regularly publish email newsletters to a subscriber list without establishing KPIs and timelines. You observe that the open rates and click-through rates vary across different newsletters. Still, without predefined KPIs, you are uncertain whether the content needs improvement or the variance is within the normal range.
  • Missed opportunities – If you’re into the ecommerce or D2C segment and fail to define the KPIs and the timeline for your holiday-themed content, you miss out on capitalizing on the season for maximum visibility or sales. After all, there’s no point in me sharing Black Friday marketing hacks for marketers when Black Friday has already been and gone.
  • Inconsistent performance – When you’re writing different types of blogs without the defined KPIs and timelines, some pieces might perform well. In contrast, others underperform, and there’s no basis for comparison or improvement. This inconsistency makes it challenging to identify what types of content work best.
  • Difficulty in adaptation – While creating a content strategy for a software review site doesn’t have a timeline for updating the articles during significant software releases, it can drastically lose rankings and website traffic. Without defined KPIs and timelines, it’s harder to identify when adjustments are needed. You may not notice content that’s not meeting expectations until much later.
  • ROI uncertainty – The absence of KPIs and timelines makes it challenging to calculate the return on investment (ROI) for your content efforts. You won’t know if the resources invested in content creation yield the desired results.
  • Demotivation for teams – Content creators and marketers may become demotivated when they don’t see clear objectives or results associated with their work. This can lead to a lack of enthusiasm and dedication to following the content strategy.
  • Inability to learn and improve – The lack of defined KPIs and timelines makes it challenging to learn which of your blogs are supposed to drive marketing qualified leads (MQLs), newsletter sign-ups, embedded video clicks, move to landing pages, SQLs, and more. So, you won’t have data-driven insights to make informed decisions and refine your strategy over time.

To avoid all the above pitfalls, let’s have a structured approach so that your content efforts are purposeful, measurable, and adaptable, leading to a more effective and results-driven content strategy.

4. Measuring Leads/Conversions As The Only KPI

We just finished discussing that KPIs are important – but all KPIs are important, not just lead generation or conversions.

However, because the top management of startups and ecommerce business owners have strict timelines for reaching the goals of specific annual recurring revenue (ARR) and turnovers, they ask their marketing teams to focus on strategizing content for generating leads or business.

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But here are a few very critical reasons why your content strategy fails if you only focus on leads or conversions:

Narrowed Focus

Relying solely on leads or conversions as KPIs can create a narrow focus on the end of the sales funnel.

While these metrics are important, they don’t account for the full customer journey.

Content should address various stages of the customer lifecycle, from awareness to consideration and retention.

We got an inquiry last month from someone who was into the home lifestyle industry in the US, and they were just starting in this highly competitive market.

We took days to build a strategy for them on how to showcase them as one of the emerging brands, and they just wanted to focus on whether our strategy would sell out their extensive inventory before a year.

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Being in a B2C industry, one must know that 66% of consumers are now allocating additional time to research and validate their purchases due to the cost-of-living crisis, as per the report by Akeneo.

So, if you’re not present at every stage of their research, you’ll lose them forever.

Misalignment With Content Types

Different types of content serve various purposes within the marketing funnel.

For instance, blog posts are typically better suited for creating awareness, while in-depth whitepapers may be more effective for B2B lead generation.

If lead generation is the sole KPI, the strategy may not leverage the full potential of diverse content types.

This means that even if your sole focus is driving more whitepaper downloads, you would need the below content types to support:

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  • Landing page content to encourage visitors to download.
  • Blog posts to introduce the topics covered in the whitepapers and links to the respective landing pages.
  • Email content to promote your whitepapers to your subscriber list and guide them to the landing pages.
  • Social media posts to highlight the whitepapers’ benefits and encourage followers to access them.
  • Guest posts or articles in industry publications to reach a broader audience and direct readers to your whitepaper downloads.
  • Compelling ad copy for paid campaigns, such as pay-per-click (PPC) or social media ads, to drive traffic to the whitepaper landing pages.

No matter what content type you choose to drive conversions, you need support of other kinds for maximized output.

Higher Customer Acquisition Costs

Not all visitors arriving at your site are ready to purchase or provide their contact information.

Many are in the early stages of the buying process, gathering information and evaluating their options.

But when the sole purpose is to drive conversions, the content strategy must consider paid advertising and email outreach. Paid advertising may directly bring you instant conversions but may be more costly in the long run.

Similarly, suppose you’re in the early stages of your business.

In that case, email outreach doesn’t always bring faster results, as your prospects might feel a lack of brand authority due to the lack of other content types on different channels for their research.

This ultimately results in higher customer acquisition rates, which cannot help you sustain for long.

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A successful content strategy should not focus solely on immediate lead generation.

It should be balanced with content designed for brand awareness and consideration, essential for attracting organic, social, and referral traffic, building trust, and nurturing long-term customer relationships.

5. Not Emphasizing The User And Their Content Experience

User experience – we know that it matters for your marketing success.

But what’s content experience?

Content experience refers to how users interact with and perceive content on various digital platforms, such as websites, mobile apps, social media, and other digital channels.

It encompasses the overall impression, engagement, and satisfaction that content creates for the user.

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Various elements, including design, usability, interactivity, and the quality of the content itself, shape the content experience.

In short, content experience is nothing but all about fulfilling the user’s expectations from content, such as:

  • Relevance – Your users interact or engage with your content only if they find it relevant to their needs and interests.
  • Quality – Your users want to consume content that’s accurate, well-researched, and well-crafted to meet their needs.
  • Consistency – Whether you’ve consistently added such quality content for their queries also defines whether your content meets their expectations.
  • Clarity – Users seek clear and easily understandable content using plain language, structured layouts, and concise explanations.
  • Interactivity – Be it compelling storytelling or media, your users should find your content interesting.
  • Trustworthiness – Users need to trust the source. Transparent sourcing, evidence-based claims, and consistent brand messaging establish trust.
  • Accessibility – Users with disabilities expect content to be accessible. Compliance with accessibility standards ensures a broader audience can consume content.
  • User-centric design – Users anticipate user-friendly content and navigation. Prioritizing user experience (UX) design and responsive layouts fulfills this expectation.
  • Personalization – Users look for tailored content experiences. Using data to deliver personalized content based on user preferences meets this expectation.
  • Emotional connection – Users desire content that resonates emotionally. Creating content with relatable stories, empathy, and emotional appeal fulfills this expectation.
  • Solving problems – Users expect content to address their problems. This is achieved by providing practical solutions and actionable advice.

So, if we don’t ensure that every content created from your content strategy fulfills the users’ expectations, they will never contribute to the marketing’s success.

After all, winning marketing is all about UX – delivering a fantastic user experience and fulfilling users’ expectations from the content they’re consuming.

Winning marketing is all about UX - User Experience and User Expectations - Content strategy failure factorsImage created by author, November 2023Winning marketing is all about UX - User Experience and User Expectations - Content strategy failure factors

6. Unable To Understand The User Behavior On The Page

Content strategy is not only for new topics. Hence, an inability to understand user behavior on a page reflects a lack of critical insights and data for optimizing content and achieving your strategic goals.

Hence, any content we create for our website needs to be monitored not just using GA4 or any analytics plugin, but also using heatmaps and session recordings.

Unable to understand the user behavior on the content - Content strategy failsScreenshot from Microsoft Clarity [for one of our clients], November 2023Unable to understand the user behavior on the content - Content strategy fails

Let’s talk about a few insights you only get when you monitor the heatmaps and recordings to understand the user behavior on the page:

  • Incomplete forms – If your landing pages include lead generation forms, but users rarely submit them, an inability to understand user behavior means you won’t know where users are dropping off in the form-filling process. This can hinder lead generation efforts.
  • Neglected content sections – On a blog post, you may have sections with important information. Still, if users rarely scroll down to read them, you’re missing out on engagement and conveying valuable insights. Without user behavior insights, your content strategy may not address this issue.
  • High cart abandonment – An ecommerce site might notice that many users add items to their shopping cart but abandon it before completing the purchase. By monitoring user behavior, you can identify that users often drop off at the shipping cost calculation step. This insight allows you to make necessary adjustments, such as offering free shipping above a certain purchase amount, to reduce cart abandonment and improve the content of the shipping cost explanation.
  • Unoptimized landing pages – Suppose your landing page for a webinar registration isn’t performing well, with low sign-up rates. User behavior tracking shows that most visitors leave the page without scrolling down to view the registration form. This data indicates that the content at the top of the page is not engaging.

GA4 gives you data, but the heatmaps and session recordings give you the reason behind that data. If you have high bounce rates, you can find out why you have them.

And when you have those insights, you can create content strategies that hardly fail.

7. Investing A Lot In Product/Brand Content

Like the sole purpose of lead generation, we understand the reason behind building the brand or product-focused content, which we call bottom-of-the-funnel (BoFu) content.

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But investing a lot in such content can bring the below challenges:

  • It can overwhelm the audience with sales-oriented messaging, leading to disengagement and alienation.
  • It can lead to content saturation as you won’t find different topics to create content on.
  • When users encounter the same messaging repeatedly, they may become desensitized to it.
  • It can limit diversity and creativity in content creation.
  • Branded content is not always searched for, so it may never drive better SEO results.
  • Consistently putting out product-focused or branded content will make users build a perception about your brand and may never engage, even when you create educational content.

While product/branded content is essential for sales and conversions, an excessive focus on this type of content can lead to a content strategy failure by limiting audience engagement, diversity, and trust and missing opportunities to attract and nurture leads effectively.

So, even if you have targets for conversions, think of a balanced content strategy to make sure you don’t lose your audience for life.

8. Compromising On Quality Over Quantity (Especially After AI/ChatGPT)

You must have seen a lot of posts on LinkedIn or X/Twitter on how AI content or SEO has given them steady, hockey-stick growth.

Compromising on quality over quantity with the increase in AI/ChatGPT can lead to Content strategy failureScreenshot from YouTube, November 2023Compromising on quality over quantity with the increase in AI/ChatGPT can lead to Content strategy failure

Just publish one content per day, and voila, you’ve got 365 posts in a year with a whopping 5x organic growth.

That’s not as easy as it sounds!

Suppose you also start following this process as is.

In that case, your content strategy may fail miserably, as your industry, business, audience, and more differ from the ones who share such experiences and learnings, and not just that, it also impacts your overall brand reputation.

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So, no, I’m not saying they are bluffing.

Still, a lot goes into identifying that one content topic, writing, proofreading, editing, publishing, and optimizing, such as adding keywords, avoiding keyword cannibalization, graphics, and more.

If that’s what you are supposed to do, do it, but it’s not a one-day task.

The people sharing those case studies should also have a strong content strategy in place, emphasizing both quality and quantity, despite using AI/ChatGPT.

9. No Guidance/Brief To The Writers On How To Approach The Content

Yes, content strategy is a plan, and without the right execution, it cannot succeed.

When creating the content strategy, it becomes important to share insights on what content creators should do.

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Here, too, you should do it for every content topic, not just for one (or overall).

I always say that not all content creators are subject matter experts; hence, they are not supposed to be always on-point about something.

As the strategist, marketing/product manager, or business owner, you must provide those details, which can be compiled in MS Excel, Word, Google Spreadsheet, Docs, Loom, or Notion.

Create a detailed brief for writers to avoid Content strategy failureScreenshot from author, November 2023Create a detailed brief for writers to avoid Content strategy failure

Such data compilation for the writers are called content briefs, and you need to share them in detail and make sure they understand what you want in the content.

Sometimes, we are not happy with what competitors have written on a topic; in such cases, we also provide the complete outline to the writers.

This makes it completely clear what they need to write, where, and how.

10. Having Miscommunication Or Misunderstanding Between Strategists And Writers

I want to say this loud and clear: Communication gaps and understanding glitches can lead to content strategy failure.

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Let me give you an example of a real-time breakup with our client, which they didn’t plan and we didn’t expect.

They kept asking us to convert spoke-page content into hub-like content while they were already ranking on page 1 for the spoke-like content.

However, due to the long-term process of making that hub content rank on other relevant but competitive queries, we were not convinced as SEO pros and couldn’t deliver as they expected.

Because it’s a difficult and time-consuming process to rank hub content with highly competitive queries, we were not convinced as SEO pros to accept that change.

If we could get a clear communication behind the purpose of this requirement, the situation would have been different today.

A successful content strategy relies on effective collaboration and clear communication between these key roles to ensure that the content created aligns with strategic goals, resonates with the audience, and delivers the desired results.

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11. Unaccelerated Distribution Plan

Yes! This does happen  –and happens a lot – with SEO pros.

Has your SEO team ever faced any or all of the below issues?

  • You published a lot of pages, but Google is not indexing them.
  • You feel some pieces of content on your website took a lot of time, effort, and resources to create, and now, they hardly receive any traffic.
  • You’ve been doing SEO for a long time, and you hardly have any keywords driving traffic to your website.

In any of the cases, it’s because your content strategy lacks distribution.

Our B2B clients have their marketing managers as our point of contact (PoCs) for our SEO services. It becomes frustrating sometimes for us to keep convincing some of them to share our traffic-focused content on their social media and email channels.

They believe that the content we have written or planned should be picked up by Google algorithms straightaway.

However, even Gary Illyes recommends promoting the content and increasing the brand’s popularity on social media to resolve the index bloat issues.

Social media promotions impact the speed of indexing on search engines - Gary Illyes from GoogleScreenshot from Search Engine Journal, November 2023Social media promotions impact the speed of indexing on search engines - Gary Illyes from Google

It was October 2022 when I recommended SEO pros focus on remarketing SEO, which mentioned how other marketing channels can contribute to SEO success. It’s high time now that you use it to your advantage.

Without an accelerated distribution plan, it can undermine your SEO efforts by limiting the visibility, engagement, and authority of your content in the eyes of search engines.

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You should know how marketing has evolved from independent channel-specific marketing to omnichannel marketing to avoid content strategy failureImage created by author, November 2023You should know how marketing has evolved from independent channel-specific marketing to omnichannel marketing to avoid content strategy failure

And when you don’t care to reach your content to your target audience on search engines, why should search engines either?

Revisit Your Content Strategy To Avoid The Above Pitfalls

Revisiting your content strategy is a dynamic and ongoing process to ensure content strategies are not set in stone.

They should be flexible, data-driven, and focused on delivering value to the audience. Identifying and rectifying these flaws can help ensure your content strategy’s success.

By continually assessing and adapting your strategy, you can maintain its effectiveness and deliver content that resonates with your audience while driving your business toward its desired outcomes.

More resources: 


Featured Image: Khosro/Shutterstock

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

Competitor keywords are the keywords your rivals rank for in Google’s search results. They may rank organically or pay for Google Ads to rank in the paid results.

Knowing your competitors’ keywords is the easiest form of keyword research. If your competitors rank for or target particular keywords, it might be worth it for you to target them, too.

There is no way to see your competitors’ keywords without a tool like Ahrefs, which has a database of keywords and the sites that rank for them. As far as we know, Ahrefs has the biggest database of these keywords.

How to find all the keywords your competitor ranks for

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Organic keywords report

The report is sorted by traffic to show you the keywords sending your competitor the most visits. For example, Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword “mailchimp.”

Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.

Since you’re unlikely to rank for your competitor’s brand, you might want to exclude branded keywords from the report. You can do this by adding a Keyword > Doesn’t contain filter. In this example, we’ll filter out keywords containing “mailchimp” or any potential misspellings:

Filtering out branded keywords in Organic keywords reportFiltering out branded keywords in Organic keywords report

If you’re a new brand competing with one that’s established, you might also want to look for popular low-difficulty keywords. You can do this by setting the Volume filter to a minimum of 500 and the KD filter to a maximum of 10.

Finding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywordsFinding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywords

How to find keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter your competitor’s domain in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis reportCompetitive analysis report

Hit “Show keyword opportunities,” and you’ll see all the keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap reportContent gap report

You can also add a Volume and KD filter to find popular, low-difficulty keywords in this report.

Volume and KD filter in Content gapVolume and KD filter in Content gap

How to find keywords multiple competitors rank for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter the domains of multiple competitors in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis report with multiple competitorsCompetitive analysis report with multiple competitors

You’ll see all the keywords that at least one of these competitors ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap report with multiple competitorsContent gap report with multiple competitors

You can also narrow the list down to keywords that all competitors rank for. Click on the Competitors’ positions filter and choose All 3 competitors:

Selecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank forSelecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank for
  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Paid keywords report
Paid keywords reportPaid keywords report

This report shows you the keywords your competitors are targeting via Google Ads.

Since your competitor is paying for traffic from these keywords, it may indicate that they’re profitable for them—and could be for you, too.

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You know what keywords your competitors are ranking for or bidding on. But what do you do with them? There are basically three options.

1. Create pages to target these keywords

You can only rank for keywords if you have content about them. So, the most straightforward thing you can do for competitors’ keywords you want to rank for is to create pages to target them.

However, before you do this, it’s worth clustering your competitor’s keywords by Parent Topic. This will group keywords that mean the same or similar things so you can target them all with one page.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Export your competitor’s keywords, either from the Organic Keywords or Content Gap report
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
Clustering keywords by Parent TopicClustering keywords by Parent Topic

For example, MailChimp ranks for keywords like “what is digital marketing” and “digital marketing definition.” These and many others get clustered under the Parent Topic of “digital marketing” because people searching for them are all looking for the same thing: a definition of digital marketing. You only need to create one page to potentially rank for all these keywords.

Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"

2. Optimize existing content by filling subtopics

You don’t always need to create new content to rank for competitors’ keywords. Sometimes, you can optimize the content you already have to rank for them.

How do you know which keywords you can do this for? Try this:

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  1. Export your competitor’s keywords
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
  4. Look for Parent Topics you already have content about

For example, if we analyze our competitor, we can see that seven keywords they rank for fall under the Parent Topic of “press release template.”

Our competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" clusterOur competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" cluster

If we search our site, we see that we already have a page about this topic.

Site search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templatesSite search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templates

If we click the caret and check the keywords in the cluster, we see keywords like “press release example” and “press release format.”

Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"

To rank for the keywords in the cluster, we can probably optimize the page we already have by adding sections about the subtopics of “press release examples” and “press release format.”

3. Target these keywords with Google Ads

Paid keywords are the simplest—look through the report and see if there are any relevant keywords you might want to target, too.

For example, Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter.”

Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

If you’re ConvertKit, you may also want to target this keyword since it’s relevant.

If you decide to target the same keyword via Google Ads, you can hover over the magnifying glass to see the ads your competitor is using.

Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

You can also see the landing page your competitor directs ad traffic to under the URL column.

The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”

Learn more

Check out more tutorials on how to do competitor keyword analysis:

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Google Confirms Links Are Not That Important

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Google confirms that links are not that important anymore

Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed at a recent search marketing conference that Google needs very few links, adding to the growing body of evidence that publishers need to focus on other factors. Gary tweeted confirmation that he indeed say those words.

Background Of Links For Ranking

Links were discovered in the late 1990’s to be a good signal for search engines to use for validating how authoritative a website is and then Google discovered soon after that anchor text could be used to provide semantic signals about what a webpage was about.

One of the most important research papers was Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment by Jon M. Kleinberg, published around 1998 (link to research paper at the end of the article). The main discovery of this research paper is that there is too many web pages and there was no objective way to filter search results for quality in order to rank web pages for a subjective idea of relevance.

The author of the research paper discovered that links could be used as an objective filter for authoritativeness.

Kleinberg wrote:

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“To provide effective search methods under these conditions, one needs a way to filter, from among a huge collection of relevant pages, a small set of the most “authoritative” or ‘definitive’ ones.”

This is the most influential research paper on links because it kick-started more research on ways to use links beyond as an authority metric but as a subjective metric for relevance.

Objective is something factual. Subjective is something that’s closer to an opinion. The founders of Google discovered how to use the subjective opinions of the Internet as a relevance metric for what to rank in the search results.

What Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered and shared in their research paper (The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine – link at end of this article) was that it was possible to harness the power of anchor text to determine the subjective opinion of relevance from actual humans. It was essentially crowdsourcing the opinions of millions of website expressed through the link structure between each webpage.

What Did Gary Illyes Say About Links In 2024?

At a recent search conference in Bulgaria, Google’s Gary Illyes made a comment about how Google doesn’t really need that many links and how Google has made links less important.

Patrick Stox tweeted about what he heard at the search conference:

” ‘We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years we’ve made links less important.’ @methode #serpconf2024″

Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted a confirmation of that statement:

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“I shouldn’t have said that… I definitely shouldn’t have said that”

Why Links Matter Less

The initial state of anchor text when Google first used links for ranking purposes was absolutely non-spammy, which is why it was so useful. Hyperlinks were primarily used as a way to send traffic from one website to another website.

But by 2004 or 2005 Google was using statistical analysis to detect manipulated links, then around 2004 “powered-by” links in website footers stopped passing anchor text value, and by 2006 links close to the words “advertising” stopped passing link value, links from directories stopped passing ranking value and by 2012 Google deployed a massive link algorithm called Penguin that destroyed the rankings of likely millions of websites, many of which were using guest posting.

The link signal eventually became so bad that Google decided in 2019 to selectively use nofollow links for ranking purposes. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed that the change to nofollow was made because of the link signal.

Google Explicitly Confirms That Links Matter Less

In 2023 Google’s Gary Illyes shared at a PubCon Austin that links were not even in the top 3 of ranking factors. Then in March 2024, coinciding with the March 2024 Core Algorithm Update, Google updated their spam policies documentation to downplay the importance of links for ranking purposes.

Google March 2024 Core Update: 4 Changes To Link Signal

The documentation previously said:

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“Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

The update to the documentation that mentioned links was updated to remove the word important.

Links are not just listed as just another factor:

“Google uses links as a factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

At the beginning of April Google’s John Mueller advised that there are more useful SEO activities to engage on than links.

Mueller explained:

“There are more important things for websites nowadays, and over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time doing things that don’t make your website better overall”

Finally, Gary Illyes explicitly said that Google needs very few links to rank webpages and confirmed it.

Why Google Doesn’t Need Links

The reason why Google doesn’t need many links is likely because of the extent of AI and natural language undertanding that Google uses in their algorithms. Google must be highly confident in its algorithm to be able to explicitly say that they don’t need it.

Way back when Google implemented the nofollow into the algorithm there were many link builders who sold comment spam links who continued to lie that comment spam still worked. As someone who started link building at the very beginning of modern SEO (I was the moderator of the link building forum at the #1 SEO forum of that time), I can say with confidence that links have stopped playing much of a role in rankings beginning several years ago, which is why I stopped about five or six years ago.

Read the research papers

Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment – Jon M. Kleinberg (PDF)

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

Featured Image by Shutterstock/RYO Alexandre

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How to Become an SEO Lead (10 Tips That Advanced My Career)

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How to Become an SEO Lead (10 Tips That Advanced My Career)

A few years ago, I was an SEO Lead managing enterprise clients’ SEO campaigns. It’s a senior role and takes a lot of work to get there. So how can you do it, too?

In this article, I’ll share ten tips to help you climb the next rung in the SEO career ladder.

Helping new hires in the SEO team is important if you want to become an SEO Lead. It gives you the experience to develop your leadership skills, and you can also share your knowledge and help others learn and grow.

It demonstrates you can explain things well, provide helpful feedback, and improve the team’s standard of work. It shows you care about the team’s success, which is essential for leaders. Bosses look for someone who can do their work well and help everyone improve.

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Here are some practical examples of things I did early in my career to help mentor junior members of the team that you can try as well:

  • Hold “lunch and learn” sessions on topics related to SEO and share case studies of work you have done
  • Create process documents for the junior members of the team to show them how to complete specific tasks related to your work
  • Compile lists of your favorite tools and resources for junior members of the team
  • Create onboarding documents for interns joining the company

Wouldn’t it be great if you could look at every single SEO Lead’s resume? Well, you already can. You can infer ~70% of any SEO’s resume by spying on their LinkedIn and social media channels.

Type “SEO Lead” into LinkedIn and see what you get.

Searching for SEO Leads using Linkedin

Tip

Look for common career patterns of the SEOs you admire in the industry.

I used this method to understand how my favorite SEOs and people at my company navigated their way from a junior role to a senior role.

For example, when the Head of SEO at the time Kirsty Hulse, joined my team, I added her on LinkedIn and realized that if I wanted to follow in her footsteps, I’d need to start by getting the role of SEO Manager to stand any possible chance of leading SEO campaigns like she was.

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The progression in my company was from SEO Executive to Senior SEO Executive (Junior roles in London, UK), but as an outsider coming into the company, Kirsty showed me that it was possible to jump straight to SEO Manager given the right circumstances.

Career exampleCareer example

Using Kirsty’s and other SEOs’ profiles, I decided that the next step in my career needed to be SEO Manager, and at some point, I needed to get some experience with a bigger media agency so I could work my way up to leading an SEO campaign with bigger brands.

Sadly, you can’t just rock up to a monthly meeting and start leading a big brand SEO campaign. You’ll need to prove yourself to your line manager first. So how can you do this?

Here’s what I’d suggest you do:

  • Create a strong track record with smaller companies.
  • Obsessively share your wins with your company, so that senior management will already know you can deliver.
  • At your performance review, tell your line manager that you want to work on bigger campaigns and take on more responsibility.

If there’s no hope of working with a big brand at your current job, you might need to consider looking for a new job where there is a recognizable brand. This was what I realized I needed to do if I wanted to get more experience.

Tip

Get recruiters on LinkedIn to give you the inside scoop on which brands or agencies are hiring. Ask them if you have any skill gaps on your resume that could prevent you from getting a job with these companies.

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Being critical of your skill gaps can be hard to do. I found the best way to identify them early in my career was to ask other people—specifically recruiters. They had knowledge of the industry and were usually fairly honest as to what I needed to improve.

From this, I realized I lacked experience working with other teams—like PR, social, and development teams. As a junior SEO, your mind is focused 99% on doing SEO, but when you become more senior, your integration with other teams is important to your success.

For this reason, I’d suggest that aspiring SEO Leads should have a good working knowledge of how other teams outside of SEO operate. If you take the time to do this, it will pay dividends later in your career:

  • If there are other teams in your company, ask if you can do some onboarding training with them.
  • Get to know other team leads within your company and learn how they work.
  • Take training courses to learn the fundamentals of other disciplines that complement SEO, such as Python, SQL, or content creation.

Sometimes, employers use skill gaps to pay you less, so it’s crucial to get the skills you need early on…

Skills gap illustrationSkills gap illustration
Source

Examples of other skill gaps I’ve noticed include:

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If you think you have a lot of skill gaps, then you can brush up your skills with our SEO academy. Once you’ve completed that, you can fast-track your knowledge by taking a course like Tom Critchlow’s SEO MBA, or you can try to develop these skills through your job.

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How to Become an SEO Lead 10 Tips That AdvancedHow to Become an SEO Lead 10 Tips That Advanced

As a junior in any company, it can be hard to get your voice heard amongst the senior crowd. Ten years ago, I shared my wins with the team in a weekly group email in the office.

Here’s what you should be sharing:

  • Praise from 3rd parties, e.g. “the client said they are impressed with the work this month.”
  • Successful performance insights, e.g “following our SEO change, the client has seen X% more conversions this month.”
  • Examples of the work you led, e.g. if your leadership and decision-making led to good results, then you need to share it.

At Ahrefs I keep a “wins” document. It’s just a simple spreadsheet that lists feedback on the blog posts I’ve written, the links I’ve earned and what newsletters my post was included in. It’s useful to have a document like this so you have a record of your achievements.

Example of wins spreadsheetExample of wins spreadsheet

Sidenote.

Junior SEOs sometimes talk about the things “we” achieved as a team rather than what they achieved at the interview stage. If you want the SEO Lead role, remember to talk about what you achieved. While there’s no “I” in team, you also need to advocate for yourself.

One of my first big wins as an SEO was getting a link from an outreach campaign on Buzzfeed. When I went to Brighton SEO later that year and saw Matthew Howells-Barby sharing how he got a Buzzfeed link, I realized that this was not something everyone had done.

So when I did manage to become an SEO Lead, and my team won a prize in Publicis Groupe for our SEO performance, I made sure everyone knew about the work we did. I even wrote a case study on the work for Publicis Groupe’s intranet.

Silver prize winning at publicis groupeSilver prize winning at publicis groupe

I’ve worked with some incredibly talented people, many of whom have helped me in my career.

I owe my big break to Tim Cripps, Laura Scott, and Kevin Mclaren. Without their support and encouragement, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Even before that, David Schulhof, Jodie Wheeler, and Carl Brooks let me mastermind some bonkers content campaigns that were lucky enough to succeed:

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Digital Spy Coverage for emoji campaignDigital Spy Coverage for emoji campaign
Some of the coverage I got for a stag and hen do client, back in the day.

I wasn’t even an SEO Lead at that point, but they gave me the reins and trusted me.

So, how can you find your tribe?

  • Speak to recruiters – they might hold the ticket to your next dream job. I spoke to many recruiters early in my career, but only two recruiters delivered for me—they were Natasha Woodford, and Amalia Gouta. Natasha helped me get a job that filled my skill gap, and Amalia helped me get my first SEO Lead role.
  • Go to events and SEO conferences, and talk to speakers to build connections outside of your company.
  • Use LinkedIn and other social media to interact with other companies or individuals that resonate with you.

Many senior SEO professionals spend most of their online lives on X and LinkedIn. If you’re not using them, you’re missing out on juicy opportunities.

Example of Linkedin recruiter messageExample of Linkedin recruiter message
Example of a recruiter message I got just after I joined Ahrefs.

Sharing your expertise on these platforms is one of the easiest ways to increase your chances of getting a senior SEO role. Because, believe it or not, sometimes a job offer can be just a DM away.

Here’s some specific ideas of what you can share:

I’ve recently started posting on LinkedIn and am impressed by the reach you can get by posting infrequently on these topics.

Here’s an example of one of my posts where I asked the community for help researching an article I was writing:

Linkedin post exampleLinkedin post example

And here is the content performance across the last year from posting these updates.

Linkedin-Content-PerformanceLinkedin-Content-Performance

I’m clearly not a LinkedIn expert—far from it! But as you can see, with just a few months of posting, you can start to make these platforms work for you.

Godard Abel, co-founder of G2, talked on a podcast about conscious leadership. This struck a chord with me recently as I realized that I had practiced some of the principles of conscious leadership—unconsciously.

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You can start practicing conscious leadership by asking yourself if your actions are above or below the line. Here are a few examples of above and below-the-line thinking:

Above and below the line thinkingAbove and below the line thinking

If you want a senior SEO role, I’d suggest shifting your mindset to above-the-line thinking.

In the world of SEO, it’s easy to blame all your search engine woes on Google. We’ve all been there. But a lot of the time, simple changes to your website can make a huge difference—it just takes a bit of effort to find them and make the changes.

SEO is not an exact science. Some stakeholders naturally get nervous if they sense you aren’t sure about what you’re saying. If you don’t get their support early on then you fall at the first hurdle.

Business plan with no detailBusiness plan with no detail
Source

To become more persuasive, try incorporating Aristotle’s three persuasive techniques into your conversations.

  • Pathos: use logical reasoning, facts, and data to present water-tight arguments.
  • Ethos: establish your credibility and ethics through results.
  • Logos: make your reports tell a story.
Persuasive techniquesPersuasive techniques

Then sprinkle in language that has a high level of modality:

Modality of languageModality of language

Some people will be able to do this naturally without even realizing it, but for others, it can be an uphill struggle. It wasn’t easy for me, and I had to learn to adapt the way I talked to stakeholders early on.

The strongest way I found was to appeal to emotions and back up with data from a platform like Ahrefs. Highlight what competitors have done in terms of SEO and the results they’ve earned from doing it.

Sidenote.

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You don’t have to follow this tip to the letter, but being aware of these concepts means you’ll start to present more confident and persuasive arguments for justifying your SEO strategies.

When I started in SEO, I had zero connections. Getting a job felt like an impossible challenge.

Once I’d got my first SEO Lead job, it felt stupidly easy to get another one—just through connections I’d made along the way in my SEO journey.

I once got stuck on a delayed train with a senior member of staff, and he told me he was really into Google Local Guides, and he was on a certain high level. He said it took him a few years to get there.

Local Guides is part of Google Maps that allows you submit reviews and other user generated content

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When he showed me the app, I realized that you could easily game the levels by uploading lots of photos.

In a “hold my beer” moment, I mass downloaded a bunch of photos, uploaded them to Local Guides and equaled his Local Guide level on the train in about half an hour. He was seething.

Google Local Guides Screenshot Level 7Google Local Guides Screenshot Level 7

One of the photos I uploaded was a half-eaten Subway. It still amazes me that 50,974 people have seen this photo:

1713812167 453 How to Become an SEO Lead 10 Tips That Advanced1713812167 453 How to Become an SEO Lead 10 Tips That Advanced

This wasn’t exactly SEO, but the ability to find this ‘hack’ so quickly impressed him, and we struck up a friendship.

The next month that person moved to another company, and then another few months later, he offered me an SEO Lead job.

Tip

Build connections with everyone you can—you never know who you might need to call on next.

Final thoughts

The road to becoming an SEO Lead seems straightforward enough when you start out, but it can quickly become long and winding.

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But now armed with my tips, and a bucket load of determination, you should be able to navigate your way to an SEO Lead role much quicker than you think.

Lastly, if you want any more guidance, you can always ping me on LinkedIn. 🙂



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