Feedback optimization: A user-first approach to SEO

Feedback optimization is the process of using readers’ comments to improve your content. See how this strategy can improve SEO performance while creating better search results for your audience.

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In my last post, I shared how UGC (User Generated Content) helped my nonprofit client create authoritative articles that 1.) saved both of us loads of time and 2.) crushed it in search and social. (Update: that same client’s organic blog traffic is now up +776% Y/Y).

But the wins don’t stop there. I discovered that users’ comments on the posts themselves not only provide great supplemental content that may help the page rank, but also offer amazing insight into how to further optimize the content.

I call this “Feedback Optimization” – the process of using readers’ comments to improve a piece of content for relevancy and user intent. 

Doing this improved a top query’s click-through-rate (CTR) by +96% P/P with no change in ranking position. Intrigued? Here’s how it works:

Feedback optimization process

1. At the end of your article, include a call-to-action (CTA) to comment. A clear next step can encourage more engagement on your site. Simply ask users to leave their thoughts and ideas on the piece. 

Here’s an example of a comment CTA: “We’d like to hear it from you: what are some of the best ideas you have around this topic? Leave a comment below!”

2. Promote the article on social and email. Cross-channel promotion can spark a burst of comments from users who are already engaged with your brand. 

3. Analyze the comments, both on the article itself and on social. Once your piece has gathered a few comments, read through them and take notes of what you find. Pay special attention to ideas that multiple users share. 

And remember: it’s best to remain true to your business’s values and perspective. A user who simply disagrees with your stance may not provide the most relevant feedback. Focus on consistent, helpful responses rather than singular opinions.

4. Update the article to incorporate readers’ ideas. This can mean adding relevant tips that users share, or updating/removing content that has received negative feedback. The goal is to tailor your content to what your audience truly wants. Then, you can re-promote to get feedback on your improved article!

5. Add Feedback Optimization to your ongoing content strategy. Consider checking the comments on top pieces every 3-6 months, rather than this being a one-off project. Regularly incorporating user feedback can supply new ideas that keep your content fresh (which we know is a search success factor).

Now you may be wondering – will I actually see an SEO benefit from this effort?

The results

I tested this exact process on one of my client’s listicles. I read through the ~100 comments and quickly noticed a pattern: three of the suggestions missed the mark for a handful of commenters.

Fortunately, many of these users also offered ideas on what to replace those items with. We were able to quickly pivot the list items and descriptions to what our audience felt was more helpful. 

Note: Comment analysis may sound time-consuming, but for reference, it took me less than 30 minutes to comb through all the comments and understand what needed to be changed.

After updating the content and submitting to Google Search Console for faster indexing, we saw nearly immediate results. CTR on the best-performing featured snippet increased +96% P/P, from 14.2% to 27.8% with no significant change in ranking.

We also saw a +21% traffic boost to the page, with improvements across most keywords.

It’s interesting to consider: you can own the snippet—the holy grail of ranking positions—but if people don’t like what they see, they may simply move on. 

And even if you don’t own the snippet, user perception still impacts a variety of factors that may affect your page’s performance: backlinks, dwell time and comment sentiment, to name a few.

Short on comments? Try these 3 tips

1. If you don’t receive a lot of comments or social engagement on your own pages, try looking at competitors’ articles for the same keywords. They may have comments on their pages that would be relevant for your own content!

2. It also never hurts to directly ask (if appropriate) a few people you think the article’s topic applies to. Gathering even a few opinions can bring to light obvious ideas you may not have thought of. 

3. Finally, look at your article’s queries in Google Search Console to see if searchers are finding you for topics that you should dive deeper into in the piece. 

For example, one of our SaaS clients has an article about team meetings that started gaining traction for “online” and “conference call” keywords when quarantine began. We updated the language to be more relevant for virtual meetings – applicable not only during the COVID-19 pandemic but also as the working world shifts more and more remote. 

Final thoughts

Beyond the traffic gains, the point of this process is to listen to our audiences and create the best possible content to suit their needs.

I hope these results encourage content creators to prioritize user perception alongside the “search engine opinion.” Asking for feedback and acting on helpful suggestions is one way to create better search results that can truly make a difference. That’s something I think we can all get behind.

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Search competition: Who are you really competing with?

Assessing your traditional competitors in search is critical, but you also need to analyze who competes with you purely through search rankings.

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Competition is constant.

No matter what business you’re in, there will always be other people competing with you for customers, subscribers, viewers, partners, etc. Even Google technically has competition — maybe you found this article through Bing?

The point is…you have competitors trying to beat you. Do you know who they are?

“Of course, I know who my competitors are!” – You (probably)

But do you know who your search competitors are? Do you know who you’re really competing with for organic traffic? It may not be who you think…

Search is a unique channel, where competition can shift and change as the search results themselves change. Also, the only barrier to entry for new competitors is much lower than in other channels — they just need an optimized website.

And finally, search is a zero-sum game where if you’re not ranking on page one, you’re losing. If a new competitor sneaks up and bumps you off the first page for an important keyword, you’re going to feel it in your bottom line.

In this post, I’m going to dive into these questions to help you better understand and identify which brands, websites, people, etc. you’re competing with for the attention of your audience so you can position yourself accordingly and win.

Start with known competitors

As you (probably) said to yourself earlier, you know who your competitors are…so they are a good place to start your research. The companies that are traditionally your competitors in other channels are likely competing with you for many keywords as well.

To better understand how they are competing with you in search, you’ll likely need to invest in an SEO tool — Ahrefs, Moz, and SEMrush all offer viable options for analyzing competitor keyword rankings.

Using these tools, you can build lists of your competitors top keywords and compare them against your own. As you compare rankings, ask yourself:

  • Are they competing for the same terms you view as important?
  • Are some competitors investing in paid search rather than SEO?
  • Are they beating you in critical search results? If so, what strategies and types of pages are they using? 
  • Are there gaps in your own keyword rankings that seem to be driving substantial traffic to competitor websites?
  • Are there potential opportunities where a competitor is ranking with thin or weak content?
  • Are competitors siphoning organic traffic from you through long-tail keywords and phrases?

You won’t truly know how or where these brands are competing with you in search until you analyze their keyword rankings. But analysis goes beyond simply notating which position they’re in for a given keyword, instead you need to analyze that SERP to understand why they might be ranking there and whether your site should rank there too. Pay attention to other ranking sites as well, because if this SERP is relevant to your audience, you’ve just uncovered more competition.

Expand competitive research to ‘SERP competitors’

Did you notice some new websites consistently ranking amongst your competitors for the keywords you’re targeting? Are media sites or news publications dominating the top spots on many of your relevant SERPs? Do government websites take up valuable real estate for key head terms?

The answer to some or all of these questions will be yes  — I call these types of competitors “SERP competitors” and they are the reason you must dig into the actual search results to find out who you’re really competing with for your target keywords.

A SERP competitor could have only one page that competes with you, but if that page is ranking above you on an important SERP, they are your competition and you need to understand why they are beating you.

For example, if we look at the search results for [link building] an important term for my company, we can see this concept:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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While we do rank on this page, there are also a few results above us from sites like:

  • Moz
  • Backlinko
  • Wordstream
  • Ahrefs

These sites provide consultation, paid search services, and SEO tools — none of these are direct competitors to our service offerings, yet we ARE competing with them for real estate on this SERP, these sites are SERP competitors for us.

Like how you would analyze a direct competitor, you need to review SERP competitors in terms of:

  • Content structure (format, length, depth, media, etc.)
  • Number of referring domains
  • Keyword focus and optimization
  • SERP feature optimization (quick answers for snippets, videos for video results, FAQs for “People Also Ask” boxes, etc.)

Understanding how these pages are designed for the specific SERPs you’re competing for will help you better optimize your pages.

Become a ‘SERP competitor’ yourself

While the intricacies and ever-changing nature of search means there is more competition for attention from your customers, it also means there is more opportunity.

If your website is new to the space and your primary competitors are firmly entrenched at the top of the SERPs for your relevant head terms, you need to become a SERP competitor yourself.

While you should still optimize both on and off-page elements for those highly competitive terms, that will be a long-term project and you need to find ways to attract traffic now. Instead of investing all your resources in the long-game, find opportunities where you can compete for specific, long-tail search rankings. Rather than trying to compete with big name brands or domains with thousands more backlinks, you just need to be a better result than the pages in those first ten results.

Look for tangentially related topics to your business, where the search volumes might not be as high, but the topic still intersects with your audience and can bring relevant visitors. As you research topics, look for search result pages with the following:

  • Poor results in terms of answering searcher intent
  • Poor results in terms of formatting, aesthetics, number of ads on the page, etc.
  • Pages with few or no backlinks ranking
  • And suboptimal keyword targeting by ranking pages.

These are opportunities for you to rank a page on your website and earn organic traffic while you build towards better rankings for your head terms. Secure these opportunities again and again, and it will add up to meaningful results for your website.

Recap

As a business, you’ll always face competition, and the first step to overcoming these competitors is, obviously, identifying them. However, in search it’s not always obvious who you’re competing with for attention and visibility. 

Assessing what your traditional competitors are doing in search is critical, but it’s only part of the picture. You need to suss out SERP competitors, or those who compete with you purely through search rankings, as well and analyze how they are winning in search.

With a complete picture of who you’re truly competing with, you’ll have the knowledge and understanding necessary to succeed in organic search.

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Why audience context matters

Knowing what challenges your audiences face and utilizing effective emotional writing to strike a chord is key to developing campaigns that connect.

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We all know how valuable audience personas can be for marketers. They outline demographic information and pain points for different types of customers, and can help us picture our customer. However, there is no way for a persona to account for context – what is a real person actually experiencing at the moment they encounter our content? If we’re to produce campaigns that truly connect to our audiences, we must go beyond personas and get specific. 

In an ideal world, we’d write 100% personalized content for every potential customer, but in the real world, we have to settle for using tools to better get into their headspace. Here are tools to help:

  • Keyword Planners: It’s a crutch to assume you can fire up an SEO keyword planner, pick a few phrases, and stuff your content in order to earn organic traffic. In my experience, it’s far better to think of keyword planners as tools to help us understand the specific language our readers are using. Focus on phrases that read as questions, and answer those questions to give immediate value.
  • Google Trends: Once you have keywords researched, enter them into Google Trends to see what else you can learn about people using those search terms. Look into what geographic locations the searches are coming from, what time of day, or week, or year that searches increase. Can you glean any insight from patterns?
  • Popular Content: Perform Google searches with terms you’ve identified to see how others answer pressing questions. Can you do a better job? Or maybe fill in gaps in the market?

Knowing what challenges your audiences face is only step one to developing campaigns that connect. Step two is understanding how your customers feel about their challenges and utilizing effective emotional writing to strike a chord.

  • Show, Don’t Tell. The easiest mistake to make when writing emotionally is to come out and broadcast that you’re doing it. Don’t tell the reader how they feel. Instead, imagine how they would prefer to feel and give them a taste of that. 
  • Resonate, Don’t Exploit. To prove a need for your product or service, you should evoke, not exploit, emotion in people. It’s easy to exploit intense emotions of fear, anger, agitation in our audiences in order to sell. But it feels fake. Instead, show the reader you understand their emotions and maybe even share them.

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4 elements every content medium needs to have

Your topic should be something your users and followers want to learn about with a clear call to action and flexible messaging to recreate the topic on multiple platforms.

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Have you ever started to write a new social media post, record a YouTube video or some other piece of content and sat at your desk waiting for inspiration to strike?

Starting a new piece of content can be a challenge, even when you know what you want to say. You have a general concept of the message you want to deliver, but not the faintest idea of how you’re going to share it all in a single blog post, video or social media caption.

Formulating what you want to communicate while ensuring you produce something of quality is a challenge that many face when it comes to content marketing.

There are many elements that go into a great piece of content. So much, that it’s pretty simple to overlook the key pieces that every piece of content, regardless of medium, needs to have.

The four elements below make up those key pieces and will help your content go far, maybe even hit that virality you’ve been hoping for. When it’s time for you to create a new piece of content, make sure to define each of the following.

1. A topic that addresses consumer pain points

Whether it’s an ironic tweet or a blog post addressing recent issues, the topic can make or break your content piece. If you don’t connect with your audience from the topic, even the most entertaining content won’t generate results other than a like or perhaps a share. Content topics need to address consumer pain points and provide solutions for its audience. 

Wynn does a great job of providing solutions and entertaining their audience with their email newsletter content during COVID-19 times. Their newsletter offers customers a way to still have an experience with Wynn without stepping foot in their hotel chain. 

Each section of the newsletter features a different topic about connection and addresses their customers pain points as they navigate this pandemic. 

Wynn understands what their customers’ pain points are and how to provide solutions, without opening their physical doors. You need to define these paint points for your own audience by answering the following: 

  • What issues does your demographic currently face?
  • What kind of information are they searching for?
  • What questions are they asking on social media versus search engines?
  • Are they looking to be entertained, informed, or both?
  • What do you want them to do with your content? 

Think of this step as your topic KPIs of content creation. If after creating the content a brand new user can easily explain what the content is about and what they are expected to do, then you’ve accomplished addressing a topic that matches what your users are looking for. 

You can measure this a step further by analyzing time on page vs bounce rate metrics for content published on a website. 

Low Bounce Rate + High Time on Page

This is the magic combination that you want to aim for. When you have a low percentage of people bouncing away from the content and a high amount of time spent on the page (the visitor engaging with the content) then you’ve created a topic that the visitor was able to connect with. 

High Bounce Rate + Low Time on Page

This is the worst combination and generally means that a visitor is bouncing right off of the page, not digesting the content, and is usually due to not meeting topic expectations. This happens a lot with clickbait style topics – those types of articles or social media posts that don’t deliver past the headline. When you receive results like this it’s best to re-evaluate the content topic and medium choice.

2. Discovery keywords to help your content be found

Google receives over 63,000 searches per second on any given day, supporting the argument that every piece of content must have some form of keyword optimization in order to accommodate searches and be found. 

Think about your own search habits. When you look for anything specific on a search engine, a video streaming platform, or one of the many social media platforms, how do you find it?

Generally, it’s by typing a keyword related to your inquiry in the search box.

Facebook has the option to search using names, locations, and terms. Instagram allows you to search by username, locations, and hashtags. Pinterest allows you to search by term or topic. 

Google, Yahoo!, and Bing can produce results for just about any bit of information you could possibly enter. YouTube allows you to search by video channel and search term. The list goes on and on, and results are generated based on relevance and popularity. 

This is why choosing discovery keywords, keywords with the sole intent of being used to help a piece of content be discovered, is included on this content template. If you want your target audience to find your new content it must be properly optimized by the platform and utilize discovery keywords. 

How else will anyone naturally find it? 

However, as you have probably gathered, choosing discovery keywords doesn’t always look the same. For example, for social content, this means hashtags sprinkled within the text accompanying any photos or videos that you are sharing. For website content, this means inserting short- or long-tail keywords within your web copy, titles, blog posts, articles, etc. aka good old fashioned keyword optimization. 

Of course, you have to avoid overstuffing. On social media overstuffing can look like going over 30 hashtags on Instagram or tweeting just a bunch of hashtags. You want your keywords to serve the purpose of optimizing your content to be found, and only that.

To find keywords on social media, type in a topic in the search bar and see which hashtags populate. Hashtags with posts or reach under 500,000 are usually competitive, but reachable. Hashtags with a million+ are generally too competitive and can be compared to the top 3 results on Page One, which  sometimes only the big players accomplish. 

Keywords for your video and website content can be found using a variety of keyword tools. I like to take it a step further and research what questions people are asking about specific topics. Doing so not only generates new topic ideas, but also generates long-tail keyword options. 

3. A clear call to action and defined user intent

No matter what type of business you are operating, the goal is for your consumers to do something as a result of your content. 

Think about what that “conversion” means to you. What action would a consumer have to make as a result of your content for you to consider your content efforts a success? 

This could mean signing up for your email list, liking a post, purchasing a product, opting into a subscription, attending a webinar, downloading a freebie, or… anything, so long as it reaps positive results for your business and sales cycle. 

When content is well-donned with a call to action, it leaves little question as to the intention of the message and what your audience should do next. It essentially handholds them toward your end goal, making their journey simple and obvious

For example, website content can (and should!) have an “above-the-fold” call to action that visitors can see as soon as they land on the site, as well as reminders throughout. This is often in the form of a newsletter opt-in button that is pasted halfway through a blog post, a #linkinbio hashtag on an Instagram post, or a bulleted list at the top of an infographic page. 

Facebook content creators and advertisers have the option to add a button telling readers to “Shop Now,” “Learn More,” “Book Now,” etc. YouTubers can add linkable graphic overlays directing viewers to products, social media pages, business websites, and more.

It’s essential that every piece of content you create include a clear call to action, so your connection with your consumer isn’t short-lived. If you’re not sure if the call to action is clear, send the content to a family member and see what action they take. If they missed the point entirely, evaluate the following:

  • Your Positioning: What you are asking a visitor to do and if it’s something they can easily do from their device (mobile vs desktop)
  • Your Topic: Did the content topic align with what you expect the visitor to do? Is it a clear pathway from the social media copy to the landing page?
  • Your Content Medium: Is the medium you chose the best funnel to guide a visitor to take the action? Asking someone to make a purchase through a LinkedIn post isn’t as effective as in a Facebook Ad. 

4. A message that can be shared across multiple mediums 

The content your business creates should communicate how and why your brand’s perspectives, values, products, and services stand apart from the rest. Concurrently, it should be relatable and tailored to whichever platform you are creating for and the users you want to see the content. 

Content creation is a healthy combination of story-telling and convincing, which requires highly valuable and authoritative writing and creativity – necessary, if you are going to get your consumers to act on that carefully crafted call to action we talked about. 

However, these stories shouldn’t be thrown together willy-nilly; they should be born from the aforementioned keyword research and a strategic topic ideation process.

Once you have identified worthwhile topics, ensure that you are able to create multi-purpose content out of it. Let’s face it, the content creation process isn’t quick or easy, so it makes sense to publish all your hard work and research across multiple platforms and content mediums. 

Leverage this time and effort by creating content that can be formed into a blog post, infographic, social media post, and video – multiple mediums using the same topic. Your messaging will be the same, but each medium is used to help guide a visitor through a different stage of the sales cycle. 

For example, a piece of content about iron skillets can be featured in the following ways:

  • A YouTube video demonstrating five quick, hands-on tips for cleaning your cast iron skillet
  • An infographic illustrating the benefits of cleaning this skillet a certain way, linking to the video demonstration
  • The demonstration may then direct viewers to a blog post reviewing the company’s favorite cast iron skillet recipes, as well as an e-commerce store where consumers can purchase one. 

Each one of these mediums helps to educate a visitor and carry them through the sales cycle as they gather more information and become more comfortable making a purchase decision.

Having flexible content topics that your demographic wants to learn from or be entertained by will allow you to create this kind of content on multiple mediums. This also sets you up for being able to reuse successful content topics in the future and update some of those lesser-performing content pieces.

Content creation is no simple process for any medium, so don’t forget to include these four elements with every new piece of content.

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