The SEO’s Content Hub Playbook for World Domination

content hub

At Avalaunch Media Google Day 2020, Jared Gardner encouraged marketers to utilize evergreen content hubs to gain relevance on Google. In his presentation, he discussed ways in which a content hub can increase traffic and give a website a competitive edge. As you’ll see below, Jared is an expert in identifying ways to build and organize a content hub, the elements every effective hub needs to have, and explaining the benefits you’ll see from having one.

Qualtrics is a growing company, and it hasn’t ended with the $8 billion acquisition. In fact, our revenue is growing at over 40% year over year, and this number is extremely hard to keep up with and puts a ton of pressure on the marketing teams. They have to grow as fast or faster than that, so imagine having to grow all of your numbers by 40% this year, next year, and the year after that. It’s an extremely high-pressure situation, and it requires us to take really big bets with our marketing activities. 

One of these big bets we took on a couple of years ago was our content hub project. This project generated 29,000 leads and 4.3 million users to our site in a little under two years. We paid basically nothing for this traffic. 85% of it was organic and the other 15% was from other unpaid channels, such as direct social and referrals. Obviously, this was an SEO play. Below is a SEMRush screenshot for the sub-directory of experience management where our content hub is. 

You can see that this is the gift that just keeps on giving. It’s up into the right since we launched it. This illustrates the fact that we didn’t just get lucky. This playbook really works, and I think it can work for most of your businesses. We ran the same playbook in two other languages, actually in France and Germany, and we’ve seen the exact same hockey stick growth.

It worked better in those countries because those markets are less competitive than the English market. We could publish content and succeed because nobody else in those markets was that advanced on the topic. Let’s talk a little bit about how we did it. I’ve mentioned an evergreen content hub, which for us has over a hundred pages per language and is designed to work together. I define that as a multi-page web experience that’s designed to cover a topic completely or in simple terms. It’s a lot of articles designed to drive a lot of organic traffic. This is not the same as a blog; a blog, almost by definition, is not evergreen.

Almost every blog in the world is arranged from newest post to oldest post. That is chronological, not evergreen. The other problems you have with blogs is that blogs get distracted. They have too many stakeholders, and there’s too much brand junk on there. All these titles below are either very editorial or very news driven and they’re tied to a point in time: 

So for example, the Samsung article has an interesting headline, but nobody’s ever searched why Samsung is staying ahead in the innovation race. The other two examples are tied to a point in time. So the 2020 CEO predictions are not going to be relevant in a couple months and neither will the spring 2020 release. Plus, the people who care about that are probably customers, and it’s not really going to drive demand generation.

Why You May Need a Content Hub

Let’s talk a little bit about why you might need a content hub or what you might want to think of before you build one. I like to ask two questions, and I think if you can answer yes to one or both of those questions, it probably makes sense for most businesses.  

1. What does the competitive landscape look like?

If it’s highly competitive and there’s a lot of opportunity, it might make sense. Whenever there’s a high search opportunity and a lot of market demand for whatever it is you’re selling, there’s also going to be a whole lot of competition, too. 

In 2018 when I joined Qualtrics, we were in fourth place between big competitors, and we were less than half of what Survey Monkey was. So we created a content hub and did a lot of other SEO work. Today, I’m happy to say that we are actually in first place, mostly because of the content hub.

2. Do you need to create search volume? 

What happens if people aren’t searching for the thing that you care about yet? I mentioned earlier that we are creating the category of experience management. Well, two years ago, nobody knew what that meant. I’d argue that even today, not very many people know what that means, so we still have a long way to go, but CEOs love talking about category creation. Category creation is when you create a product nobody knew they needed, and then you have to convince them that they need it. The most popular Harvard Business Review case study for this is the CRM category. Salesforce and I actually didn’t create it if you go look at the history books, but they’re the ones that made it famous, and they’re the ones that made every company think that they needed a CRM. 

There are a lot of other examples of that as you go down the list. The first thing you think of with electric cars is Tesla. The first thing you think of with inbound marketing is HubSpot. These companies realized that they could either compete in a competitive space or they could create a market where nobody else was and be a category king. 

Building a Content Hub

Now that we’ve talked about what you might want to think about before you build a content hub and whether it makes sense, we can talk about actually building this thing. 

Domain Structure

You have two options with domain structure: on domain and off domain. With on domain, you can leverage your domain authority and monetize a little easier because all of this traffic is going to be tied to your brand. It’s going to be closer to your products, and you will get to market faster and have less tech overhead because you can use your current marketing stack. So, you have a CMS, you have a marketing automation platform, you have Google Analytics, and you can pretty much plug this new content hub into these things. 

Off domain does have its own advantages, though. The first is that it feels a little bit more authentic. So if you’re trying to do real thought leadership where you’re actually just trying to get people to think about a topic, this can feel more authentic. At times, it can actually be faster to market, depending on your company. It’s less political and easier to execute off domain. So if you have a brand manager or CMO that’s very protective of your .com, you can say, “Hey, we’re actually doing this off domain so there’s no risk to the site. We don’t have anything now, so there’s nothing to lose.” With that said, it’s also going to be a whole lot harder, so I almost always recommend that you do it on domain.

Here are a couple of examples of on domain:

REI is doing a lot of expert articles about how to use the equipment, which is more of a category focus — like how to choose sleeping bags, which will lead to interest in sleeping bags that they can then sell you. On the B2B side, they want everybody to have a chat bot in their marketing technology stack. Before we get more into this, I want to talk about some off-domain examples.

These are the two best examples I could think of, and in my research, they’re the ones that kept popping up. The first one is Adobe’s cmo.com. If I’m looking at it with an external lens, they probably realized they made a mistake with their domain and went to fix it either because of tech overhead or because of performance. On the flip side, Google has so many products that they need to tie together that impact on the digital world between ads, Google Cloud, Google Drive, Gmail, Analytics, YouTube — I can go on and on with all the products that we use every day. It’d be really hard for them to create a content hub that worked with all of those different brands. But it’s thought leadership about how to make the internet a better place. One thing to remember is these are really big brands with really big budgets. If you think you can go recreate the success of these off of domain content hubs, remember that this costs a lot of money both in terms of media and effort.

Site Structure

Site structure, or information architecture, is how the content hub is organized. It has a high impact on your user experience as well as your URL structure and how a search engine sees your site. 

Database

The first option for information architecture is the database. This is like an eCommerce-style user experience but for content. Here, you can filter by destination type, content, or continent. Some of the issues this creates is a really flat site structure and you can’t silo into topics. For example, Morocco is both a place in Africa and a beach, so do you nest it in a folder for beaches or do you nest it in a folder for Africa? It can’t be in both, so you have an information card sorting issue there. To solve that, you typically don’t put it in a structure, which then doesn’t create content silos, which I think are very valuable.

Topic Gateway

Next we have the topic gateway. This is what I call, “Here’s everything we have for this topic. Good luck.” This is really great for large sites that have a lot of different content types. This is an example from a site with reviews and stock quotes for Teslas, and all of those links are going to take you to different sections of the site. It’s not actually going to be a linear user experience. You want to start at one page and work all your way to the bottom. You’re going to jump around and keep coming back to this page. It’s easy to make these because you only need to make this page if you have the other content. It can be a portal into the content you already have, but it’s not going to be really a hub. It’s more of a jump-off point.

Hub and Spoke

The hub-and-spoke model is probably the most popular model of content. If you read SEO articles, you’ll hear about these content hubs all the time. This works really well for one specific topic. If you look at this example, everything that’s at the level two is very specific articles about kites. It starts to break down, for example, if you like other park activities, such as disc golf. Where do you put a page about disc golf in this content hub? You don’t; you build another content hub. This model is ideal if your company has one product that it does well and you aren’t planning on turning that product into a suite of products anytime soon.

Content Library

The content library is how almost every media site is designed. So if you think of CNN or The New York Times, they use a content library, which consists of a hub page that lists all subtopics, and those subtopics link into individual articles. This is great for organizing tons of content. One of the problems you’ll run into is that a subtopic page actually has a hard time getting traffic because they’re navigational by nature. So if you think of hitting that subtopic page, either from an internal link or landing on it externally as a landing page, the first thing you’re going to do is click on something else. You’re not going to sit there and ingest information. Because of that, Google doesn’t actually like to show those in the search results, so they’re not very SEO-friendly.

To combat that problem, we made a content library plus a hub-and-spoke hybrid. We focused on making sure people knew what experience management is, and then we created five different categories of all the different experience areas to make sure that we could catch the traffic for those topics that people are already searching for. People search for “customer experience” a lot, but they don’t search for “experience management.” So if we can capture the traffic for “customer experience” and then educate them as to how that’s part of experience management, that’s a big win for us.

At level two, we jump into what is basically a subtopic navigational page. This is really meant for users to navigate. It’s not going to rank well. It doesn’t get a lot of traffic. But we’re okay with that because we had these level-three pages. These pages are where the hub-and-spoke model starts. They’re very long and in-depth because they are meant to cover the topic at the broadest level. If you think of a topic like customer experience, NPS, or employee engagement, those are all very important topics to us. They have a lot of long-tail keywords as well. The long-tail keywords are targeted on the page below, so it’s pretty easy to see closed-loop customer experience as a subtopic of customer experience. Level-three pages are linked down to level four, and then they’re all breadcrumbed together so you can get your way back up. That’s how we did a hybrid model. It worked for us because we have so many topics we’re trying to cover. Not everybody needs to be this complex, but it worked for us and we’ve been happy with it.

Requirements

When you think about requirements, I want you to think about whether the content works with 20 pages. Does it work with 120 pages? Does it work in five languages? Does it work in 10 languages? What about different CTA types? Can a nontechnical marketer build kickass pages in your content hub? This will enable you to go faster.

On the front end, I usually like to start with the big UX pieces. These are the UX pieces that support your information architecture. They’re usually at the top, like navigation and breadcrumbs. From there, you can layer on the bells and whistles and the nice-to-haves, such as modules for customer stories or sharing or CTA sidebars. These are all optional. You can have a page with or without them, which means if you can have optional modules, you could build content faster. Sometimes you may have a customer story that makes sense, and sometimes you may not. Making those optional makes these really flexible.

On the back end, you want to focus on the marketer’s life. The first iteration of the content hub we did in Europe was an absolute train wreck on the back end. The front end was great, but the backend was terrible. It didn’t scale. It was always broken. You’d have to manually edit thousands of links. It wasn’t dynamic at all. We rebuilt it and made this super easy. You’re looking at a very customized version of WordPress on the back end with drag-and-drop prebuilt modules, easy text editing, so on and so forth. 

Content Strategy

Now that you have this awesome CMS and content hub, where are you going to put it? Now you’ve got to fill this thing. You had to make a lot of content to put in it. Your content strategy is going to be something that you’re probably going to partner with the content team on, but you want to know where you’re going to start. 

The XM hub today has 140,000 unique words in it. That is a lot of writing. If you pay freelance writers by the word, it’s going to get expensive, so don’t try to boil the ocean. Don’t try to launch with everything you’ve ever thought of, but make sure that you have an idea what the end state looks like.

  1. Create a phased plan
  2. Head terms or long-tail first?
  3. Look for content to migrate

Map It Out

I like to map it out in a spreadsheet. This is all the content we’ll ever want: 

Turn these into phases. Phase one is our minimum viable product, which is what we’re going to launch with. Know that and start there. Know which terms are difficult, too difficult, or easy enough for you to rank for. For example, if your most important term is very competitive and you’re nowhere first on the first page, don’t target that one first. Target terms you can actually get traffic for. Go really big on those terms you think you can win and on the terms that you think are longer-term plays.

Create Good-Enough Content

When we launched this content hub, you can see we started to gain a ton of second- to 10th-page keywords. Those keywords weren’t getting traffic when we launched, but those are turning into next year’s first-page terms. 

By creating a bunch of “good enough” content to launch, we start to see what Google thinks we’re relevant for. Then, we can go take that content that’s on the second page and turn it into the best of the internet and really start to pour on the content optimization by adding multimedia, videos, gifs, and making it an awesome page. 

Start With Long-Tail Keywords

This is what I like to call the “content fly” or the “SEO flywheel.”

If we start in the blue section, which is when you publish a page and start to rank for a term, it’s going to be a long-tail term. Beginning with that long-tail term is going to start to get a little bit of traffic, which is going to bring links. As journalists and writers start to find your informational content that’s valuable to them, they’re going to link to it. You get more authority, which means you can rank for more stuff. As you can tell, this is going to go around and around again, getting momentum each time. So getting something indexed and getting traffic today might bring a ton of traffic and leads a year from now. Keep that in mind when you’re thinking about scaling. As things go around, this is where the SES job comes in. 

Once you start to rank for a long-tail term, this is the moment to pour gas on the fire. This is when you jump in and say, “Hey, we’re getting a little bit of traffic for this term. What can we do to make this flywheel start to spin faster and faster?” And that’s when you optimize the page, add internal links, and more.

This is the flywheel and action with two graphs from the same URL. It isn’t for the whole content hub, just a single URL. 

We first started to get a couple first-page rankings, illustrated by the darkest orange at the bottom. Shortly after that, we start to get links to that page. After we get a few more links, we get a few more rankings and then a few more rankings, bringing a few more links. You can see that both of these charts go up into the right together, and it’s really an illustration of how the content flywheel worked.

On this page, the SEO flywheel took off on its own. We didn’t build any of these links and they’re not just junk scraper links, either. If you know anything about SEO, you know that these are not easy links to get. These are links from domain authorities, including Forbes, and they all came naturally because we had good, quality content that was informational and helped people understand the topic that we were trying to cover.

Don’t Get Fired

As I wrap up, I want to focus on how not to get fired for this. I just talked a whole lot about links and rankings and traffic. Never tell your boss that you’re going to get a bunch of rankings by doing a project. They don’t care. You need to focus on conversions and creating the business value. While we know that it takes rankings to get traffic, traffic to get leads, and leads to get revenue, your boss doesn’t care about that. Cut right to the chase. This is a graph of the conversions from this site section. 

This is content download, which is our number-one lead-driving lever that we pull there. You can see that it goes up into the right in the same way the organic traffic visibility did at the beginning.

The main way we do that is with the content upgrade model. 

Content Upgrade Model

This was made famous by Brian Dean of Backlinko, a pretty famous SEO. He writes a lot and has really good resources. This example is a customer satisfaction survey template, which isn’t a crazy idea. Somebody needs to know how to do it, and you can invite people to download the solution. Because of this, we actually ended up spending a ton of time working on gated pieces. In the past as an SEO, I would have never spent time working on a piece of content that’s behind a gate that a search engine can never see. But by doing this, we get the conversions, and the conversions are what basically keeps our bosses happy. So we actually spend a lot of time doing this, and we have over a hundred different pieces of gated content that we can map across to our ungated article style content that gets a lot of traffic.

Map CTAs to Search Intent

And in the same way we want to map topic to topic. We also want to map intent to intent. So from the top here, we have a very informational intent search query and as it goes down it gets more and more transactional. And if you look on the side of the CTA, the CTA does the same thing. So we start with a research report, then we go to a free Qualtrics account, and then we go into a product demo. So those CTA is get more serious and get more towards purchase the same way the search query does. So I understand your topic, understand your intent and make sure your CTA is lined up well against those.

Presented by Jared Gardner

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