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In Search [Episode 18]: Targeting Users, Staying Creative, & Building Team Harmony with Content Pillars

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The In Search SEO Podcast Poll Question of the Week!

Poll Question Episode 18

How important is mapping out your content to the smallest detail? Let us know so we can feature you on the next episode of the In Search SEO Podcast! 

Summary of Episode 18: The In Search SEO Podcast 

In Search SEO Banner 18

In this episode we hear from content and SEO expert Carolyn Lyden as we get into content strategy:

  • Thinking about brand identity when setting up content pillars
  • How to best target users with your content while keeping a dash of inner creativity alive!
  • Learn a great way to create harmony between your content and SEO teams!

We’ll also have a look at the most recent Google update and some new SERP feature trends data.

Looking at Early March’s Google Update and Image Box Shift [1:42 - 6:14]

The most recent update, per our Rank Risk Index, began on Feb 26th and ended on March 2nd. With it were two big spikes in the rank fluctuations with one being on the 27th and the other the March 2nd.

It’s hard to dig into a Google update and come out with a conclusive look at the new ranking patterns. That said, what we did see pretty conclusively, in this case, was that the 2nd spike (on March 2nd) was not a reversal. In other words, it wasn’t the case, per our data, that Google hit sites on the 27th and brought them back from the dead on March 2nd. If your rankings crashed they crashed and if you got a boost you got a boost.

That’s not to say that there were not some reversals. A few sites did display that tendency, but it was not across the board. For example, Mordy noted that for a select group of keywords Amazon saw a reversal on March 2nd of its ranking losses for these specific keywords. Mordy also tracked the visibility of some of the top travel sites (again, for a small set of keywords). Here, some of these sites saw what a reflected reversal, though it was entirely marginal. For example, TripAdvisor’s visibility score went from 2,085 on February 27th down to 1,549 on March 2nd and slightly up to 1,603 on March 4th. Thus, there was a slight pick up for these sites, but it was extremely slight and therefore not a genuine reversal.

Concurrent to the update was a change to Image Box display levels. Since February 18th, Image Boxes have undergone a 20% loss on the SERP. This pattern was seen on both desktop and mobile and in multiple markets around the world. To be clear, that 20% loss was on desktop in the US, and while each market saw the same trend, the actual losses were unique.

So Mordy dug into this a bit and found a TON of local keywords that lost the image box with a tendency for some product keywords as well. Keywords like:

  • hotel in los angeles ca
  • hotel in monarch beach
  • hotel job durham
  • hotel jobs raleigh nc
  • hotel kentucky derby
  • hotel los angeles
  • hotels near lax with free shuttle service
  • hotels near los angeles convention center
  • hotels near oakland
  • hotels near rodeo drive
  • hotels near t mobile arena
  • hotels near universal studios florida

Creating Content Pillars and Content Harmony: A Conversation with Carolyn Lyden [6:14 - 24:56]


[This is a general summary of the interview and not a word for word transcript. You can listen to the podcast for the full interview.]

Mordy: I don’t always have the joy of having a true "content” person on the show… So I have to ask… favorite thing and/or weirdest most out there thing you ever had to write about?

Carolyn: I really like writing about marketing but I also like writing about tech - I worked at a few software companies. I also enjoy writing about how businesses run. The weirdest thing I’ve written about had to do with one of my first jobs working in content. I was working with a small agency that would write for plastic surgeons. So I had to watch the surgery and write about it. And I’m one of the most squeamish people out there. So I’ll be watching a rhinoplasty and they’ll be chiseling this hammer into someone’s nose and I had to write in a way that didn’t sound like the most painful thing in the world. It was pretty gross.

M: Wow. Yeah, I totally understand. Let’s start our talk with content pillars. For those in the audience out there who may not be familiar with content pillars, can you please explain what they are?

C: My interpretation with a content pillar is creating a theme for your business. Meaning, you have a target audience and there are certain things that they are interested in that relate to your business. So a pillar is creating the stacks of content that all relate to a top-level topic. In other words, it’s an overarching umbrella that all these other pieces can fall under so you can relate them to one another and relate them back to this overarching topic/idea.

M: Is that integrally tied to brand identity or does it not have to be?

C: In my opinion, I think it should be tied to brand identity. They’re tangentially related to what I’m doing. I know I have to create different content for different places along the funnel. You can put [brand related content] in the pillar but it will be top of the funnel content. For example, if you’re a shoe company and a user is searching for shoes you’re going to have to write content for keywords like best running shoes for women this year. That may not be what your brand is about but it’s a top-level piece that will draw in the people who will eventually convert into customers.

M: Where do you start with creating a pillar… I often have this "problem” - I have a vision of where I want to go and where I want my content to take me…. And a lot of my creativity comes out of this mindset. At the same time, it’s not very user-focused… so there are times where I start, not with a vision of where I want to go vis a vis my content but what user-based problems is my content trying to deal with. A more user-centric focus. How do you straddle these two different mindsets and which do you find more effective when setting up a content pillar?

C: I think one way to do that is to assign your pillars to target audiences. So you can say this quarter we’re focusing on this product area and we need to find who are the target audiences that have problems that our product can solve. Then make the pillars for that need for those audience members. Make the pieces of content that you think will serve them best and that also relate to your business or service. I mean, there will be times when I write an article and I think, "This is the article that I want to read.” But when you step out of your bubble you’ll notice that no one else cares about it. So it’s oftentimes recrafting the piece you wanted for yourself to the people you actually want to sell to.

M: When I used to teach there was this idea of " backwards” planning. You start with the test and the questions you want the students to be able to answer and only then create "content” (i.e., lesson plans) to ensure the lessons hit on those questions. This, of course, sounds like a great idea when creating a content pillar. Except when creating a "teaching unit” the process often leads to a stifling of creativity and to a certain amount of inflexibility. Obviously, having an end goal in mind is crucial, but to what extent should you " backwards” plan when developing a content pillar? How effective is it to first think about what channels you want to "hit” and with what sort of content? Are there are any pitfalls to be careful of when doing so?

C: In my previous job the SEO department was separate from the content department and this happened all the time. The SEO department would tell us, "You need to hit these bullet points. You need keywords in your titles. And this and that.” But the content team was saying, "We want freedom! We need to be creative! You’re stifling us!” So we had to find a way to meet in the middle where the SEO boxes were checked but the content team felt that they had the freedom and was not just transcribing what the SEO team wanted. One way we found middle ground was with the content matrix. As I said earlier, every quarter we would have a separate theme that targets specific groups and for each of those groups we will come up with a bunch of pain points. And we’ll go and ask people about their actual pain points so as to know what actually resonates with people. So now we have a goal of showing these users how our product/service solves these pain points. With that in mind, we will create a pillar for each individual target audience. Then line out the pain points in rows where in a spreadsheet the pillars will be the columns and the pain points the rows. Once you have this set up you can now start figuring out how to answer these pain points. And from there you can be as creative as you want.

M: Wow, that is very comprehensive. Can you tell me what the impact was like when you adopted this strategy?

C: Before there was a lot of contention between content and SEO but afterwards there was a lot of buy-in on our team. People were very involved in creating the matrix. We would have a big meeting, bring lunch in, and talk about things we had just seen, different possible pain points that we found. And it really helped each team to see each other’s perspectives. SEO has certain traffic and conversion goals and it’s sometimes harder to track content goals. "Content” likes to ask how can they have goals to prove that they’re driving traffic and conversions and bringing value to the company. So we both figure out how can we work together to reach these goals.

M: It used to be that the consensus was of the opinion that a pillar page was SEO manna from heaven. Do you think that still holds true considering how saturated the content market is, how competitive the content market is, and how predisposed Google is to use its SERP features thereby limiting traffic to a page?

C: I won’t go so far as say it’s manna from heaven. I think it was HubSpot that created this concept of killer pieces of content when they said they "created inbound marketing.” And because inbound marketing is "a thing” now consumers have control in what type of marketing we engage in. We can fast forward through commercials now, we recycle the direct mail we receive, we unsubscribe to emails we don’t like. So as consumers we have more control over the marketing messages that are presented to us. Because inbound marketing is about solving user problems and answering their needs and it's more about them than us means this whole concept of content pillars is now up on a pedestal and like you were saying, "manna from heaven.”

And it really depends on your business. You have to do what’s best for your business and sometimes that’s not a content pillar. You asked earlier about my weirdest stories so I did work in plastic surgery but I also worked in funeral homes. So you can create content with them but there’s only a certain amount of content you can create and oftentimes what drives the most business and conversions isn’t necessarily the content. The content helps create the community and brand awareness. What’s better for these companies is local SEO tactics and advertising and building online communities in social media.

So I can’t say what I’m doing is the best thing that happened in the SEO universe. I think content is important but it’s not the end all be all especially when small local businesses can forego it.

There was another podcast where their guest was saying that if you just expand your mind that everything out there on the internet, and even not on the internet, is "content.” In short, everything is content, but there are some things that don’t work for every business and they may have "content” in certain places that may serve them better.

Optimize It or Disavow It [24:56 - 29:42]

M: Sound and robust content pillars or energetic link building…. If you could only do one…. Would you create comprehensive content pillars at the sacrifice of really focusing on link building or would you create your standard sort of mediocre content but give link building your full attention….

C: So this is super easy for me. A lot of SEOs I know are very introverted and we do not want to do things like link building. I host an SEO chat on Twitter and every time we talk about link building everyone says, "Just create great content and then you won’t have to actually call and talk to people!” And I’m in that camp too. I hate asking for a link. I know this is theory over practice, but in theory, if you create excellent content it will show up in search engines, it will serve users’ needs and people will link to it. I understand it does require promotion sometimes and you have to be the person who is begging for a link but if I had to disavow link building I would 100% go with creating awesome content and hoping the world will recognize it for what it is.

M: Thank you so much for coming on, Carolyn. I really love talking content and I do really appreciate having you on the show.

C: Thank you for having me.

SEO News [33:29 - 35:17]

Google Adds Popular Products Carousel: Google has added a carousel of popular products that appears within the organic results fittingly calling it a Popular Products carousel.

New Additions to Image Search: New really innovative additions are coming to image search… For starters, Google is adding sponsored images that look like a regular image… but when you hover over it you can see how much some of the items within the image cost.

Also, Showcase Shopping Ads will be coming to image search. This ad format will be a carousel of cards with each card reflecting a single brand's products. The ads will appear at the top of the image SERP.

These new editions, as well as the Popular Product Carousel, create a more seamless way for Google to go about product placement, whether paid or organic, on the SERP. The paid options here have the added bonus of also offering a less noticeable and again more seamless way of placing ads before the eyes of users.

Business Offers Boosted in Google Posts: Google is letting businesses put a carousel of offers into their business profile. This means the Local Panel will show a carousel of offers on the SERP for branded queries. Here again, seamless product placement on the SERP that one has to assume has to do with Google trying to compete with Amazon.

Fun SEO Send-Off Question [35:17 - 37:39]

Which kitchen appliance is Google? 

According to Mordy, Google is a blender… because it’s so good at blending ads and product placements onto the SERP!!! To Kim, the only answer to this question is a standing mixer with all the accessories. It is the monster of the kitchen, and it is a tool you can use it for whatever you like and once you start using it; you can not live without it. Kind of like Google!

That will do it for the 18th episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.

Thank you so much for joining us! Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast!

About The Author
In Search is a weekly SEO podcast featuring some of the biggest names in the search marketing industry.

Tune in to hear pure SEO insights with a ton of personality!

New episodes are released each Tuesday!

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