In July, I shared an update an update that foreshadowed a pivot around here. One where we would focus more on web traffic.
I also shared our own traffic graph spanning the course of four years. Here it is again:
It goes up, which I'd expect from well-executed content marketing. When you publish and promote optimized content, the effects are cumulative. The up-front costs are higher, but long-term, it can't be beat. It's a simple trade-off between owning or renting attention.
The big spike you see is Carter Bowles' 27 SEO Myths post. Which is still actually our most-shared and viewed post of all time. You'll notice that when it won, everything elevated for us thereafter. That's just what strong, evergreen content does.
That graph has been an otherwise steady incline through five of the most turbulent years of SEO because we do things right.
Then we ruined it.
If you're having trouble fuzzing the numbers from the graph, you're seeing an incline from 10,862 sessions in August to 57,855 sessions in September.
I'd like to take you through what made this project, our Google Ranking Factors fact-check, go.
Building Epic Content
The concept here isn't entirely new. Our industry has been talking about something called "skyscraper content" for a while. If your name were Rand Fishkin you might call it "10X content".
It's basically recognizing one fact: no longer is it enough to just write a 500 word blog post that uses a lot of the right words and watch it rank. That's a 2010 mindset. There's just too much content competing with you now.
If you want to win rankings, you need the best piece of content on a topic. Anything less leaves you swimming upstream. You'll still get a major edge by having a totally optimized site and a lot of good link building/generation tactics.
But Google is intentionally designed to reward what people love. If having the content that people like best is not a part of your tactics, your approach is wrong.
I already wrote about my qualms with similar resources, so this post won't be about that. I'll just say that another list was one of the most useful things I found when I was first learning SEO in the early 2000s. Given how much further that idea had been taken since (or rather, how much it hadn't), I thought we could do better.
So I started writing.
And I filled our project management system with the same task for every day: write 20 factors.
Everything was written from scratch, though influenced by more than a decade of my own notes and agency resources. Each set of 20 factors actually only took a few hours.
With this approach it took about three weeks to write 20,000 words. That's literally a book by many standards. And by forcing myself to put that many words out there, I did what I've been wanting to do since I moved on from my first company: write a book about SEO.
In the fourth week, I spent some time editing and tinkering with jQuery so that it was easy to filter and sort factors, and it was time to begin promoting.
A few days prior to launch, I stumbled on a Reddit thread with a familiar story and a funny title.
Man, if only we had a resource that could be used to prove that 99%+ "SEO experts" knew nothing at all about SEO and did more harm than anything.
Something well-cited and fact-based that could be used to quiz such a consultant.
Fine. I'll get involved, but only a little for now.
It's not edited yet. Half the jQuery filters still don't work. But can I let this guy go on damaging his business with more discount 'SEO workers'?
No. No I can't.
And then this happened:
My PM box looked even worse - in the end, totaling 68 requests in a couple of days.
It's kind of incredible, really. For how many pieces of SEO content exist right now (355 million, if the U.S., English Google.com is any indicator), people are still seeking just one, expert-written, experience-driven, comprehensive piece that could lead to action.
This tells me that no industry is too saturated for content that just strives to be better and more complete.
I sent 20 emails to other SEO experts that I respected. About half of these people I'd met in the past at conferences and such, and a quarter I talk to kind of regularly.
But most of them I really didn't know all that well.
There was no outreach template. I thought best to customize, and everyone's role was a little bit different as well. All emails were kept brief, and In most situations, I was doing a few things:
- Asked for their honest feedback.
- Let them know if a study of theirs was cited (many were).
- Noted how many very simple scientific studies that our industry is still blatantly missing. Things that became glaringly obvious with a comprehensive approach made.
- Suggested that if they did studies to fill in any existing gaps, or already had and I'd missed it, that I'd add it to the resource.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Of 20 emails, 15 responded, 18 actually ended up tweeting/retweeting. Too often I hear people lean on firm metrics like "a 10% success rate is pretty good". In less thought-out endeavors, I've actually found that to be true.
To me, this proved that 90% success rates are possible when you put in enough caring and drop the email template.
I won't name the SEOs that blew me off, but feedback was overwhelmingly positive from people like Barry Schwartz, Martin Macdonald, Jon Cooper, John Doherty, Bill Slawski, Dr. Pete.
Rand Fishkin also was one to take time from (I'm sure) extremely busy schedule to review, responded, and was kind enough to share. That was in spite of the fact that Moz just released their own annual Google Ranking Factors update, which several suggested that our resource may have been meant as an "answer" to. It certainly wasn't - I was honestly so engrossed in ours that month that I could have missed the apocalypse.
In any case, I was super thankful for all of the above; without which this next subhead would not have been possible.
Our Google Ranking Factors launched on Tuesday, September 1st.
It wasn't until Friday, September 4th that the initial rush of traffic peaked, before eventually leveling out around September 19th, where it's remained ~2.5X higher since.
I watched our InterWorx resource graphs intently in case I was going to have to graft more dedicated servers onto our cluster at Nexcess. Luckily (?) that never happened.
The places that traffic originated over time are even more interesting.
Social media began the piece's popularity and was the largest driver throughout (green). Backlinks started rolling in three days later (orange). And the following week, we made it into some major newsletter calendars (yellow).
In the weeks to follow, organic search (purple) finally returned to its place as our #1 traffic driver, only now, driving much more traffic than before site-wide.
Even more interesting than the timeline is this:
One content push temporarily flipped our usual distribution of marketing channels on its head.
Huge, as you already saw above.
4,100 shares on the most commonly talked-about sites.
If we assume, conservatively, that each social profile has at least 200 engaged, unique followers, that's additional 820,000 impressions hidden away in the first month.
We can also include Reddit in this. The eventual post got 188 upvotes and stayed on TOP of /r/entrepreneur for several days. We have no way of knowing how many impressions that meant on reddit.com, but if Google Analytics is an indicator, traffic from just one thread was on par with the other top social sites.
Reddit sent 1,500 visits in two weeks and has fallen down to ~25 visits per day, every day thereafter (from about zero). Here's the full breakdown over those two weeks.
It's always also worth mentioning that social media is terrible to track, and that most of the real impacts are tucked away under "Direct" and a little under "Referrals". This is due to a phenomenon known as dark social.
Direct Links & Referrals
Referrals made for kind of an odd mix in the first few weeks. Immediately, it was cool to see much of the factors translated to German, Polish, and Russian on various sites. It was also popular across way more SEO forums than I knew even existed.
Search Engine Land, Search Engine Roundtable, and Inbound.org were also all big drivers. In total, Ahrefs has discovered 1,200 direct links across 114 linking domains so far.
That may not seem like a lot, but realize that these are mainly editorial links from authoritative and relevant sites: worth exponentially more than other varieties.
And,this graph is still trending upwards - I expect that Ahrefs will still continue discovering the initial blast of links for some time, and that this piece of evergreen content will continue to gather links as an idea source citation basically indefinitely, so long as we keep showing it love.
And now, direct referral traffic with social redacted:
At least two big email blasts came in the second week, which people actually had to tell me about as the GA Campaign tags that they used weren't amazingly clear.
The first spike was apparently SitePoint, and the second, smaller spike was the Moz roundup. Both deserve some extra thanks.
Finally, as we move into the next phase of things, organic traffic is on the rise.
One of the most competitive SEO-industry searches of all time, "Google Ranking Factors", at an estimated $13 per click, is now well on its way to the top. It actually outranks that very "Vaughn's One Pager" that I referenced earlier.
Phrases surrounding the introductory post (marked "blog" above) are also doing quite well.
But, more of the fun of writing 20,000 words about Google Ranking, are the long-tail searches surrounding specific factors, which should continue to trickle in outside of these core search phrases for a long time to come.
This is still only the beginning for this project. But if you include beyond our direct Analytics at social media impressions, email newsletter impressions, we're looking at easily over 1,000,000 sets of eyeballs for one content marketing push so far.
More importantly, that attention has stuck and is continuing to feed itself more than a month later; in a year from now, I expect another 1,000,000 new sets of eyes.
And so on.
So long as we maintain the resource and keep responsible on-site SEO, we never need to ask that question that so many people ask me: "how much do we need to spend to get 1,000 more visitors every day".
When you approach online visibility like we did here, they show up for free.
It only takes one big win.