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What This Agency Did to Rank Its Blog at the Top of Google (Case Study)

Editor’s note: As the winner for Agency of the Year (less than 100 employees) at the 2019 Content Marketing Awards, Ireland-based 256 has lots of lessons to share. Read on to learn its process to rank at the top of Google.                

Creating content isn’t easy. Creating content that ranks highly on Google’s search results page? Well, that’s a downright obstacle course – complete with the mud, barbed wire, and that slicked wall you think should be a piece of cake to climb but isn’t.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Creating content to rank highly on @Google is an obstacle course, but it is possible, says @bryanisnott via @cmicontent. Share on X

We developed a method that helps us rank high on the first page of SERPs already dominated by companies with an established digital presence. Let’s walk through the process to rank our content for the keyword phrase “cornerstone content” for searchers in Ireland. You can use the method for your high-value content.

The Google SERP objective

In late 2018, we wanted to write a comprehensive blog post about cornerstone content. It would detail what it is, why it is valuable, and how readers can create it. It’s a piece that fills the goal of giving our readers advice they can use AND of positioning ourselves as thought leaders in a niche where our target audience is likely to be.

The only problem was everyone else wanted that too – and they had published theirs.

If we poured effort and resources into creating the best stop for cornerstone content, we had to be sure we would get a return on investment. For us, that meant ranking on the first page of Google for the keyword “cornerstone content.”

The term wasn’t too competitive in Ireland – roughly 30 searches per month when we discussed our plans. Over the year, the term averaged 20 searches per month (compared to the U.S. search volume of 320 searches per month).

Despite its low search volume, we targeted “cornerstone content” because our prospective audience was likely in the consideration phase of their buyer’s journey. Therefore, a top position in search results for the term presented valuable digital real estate for our agency.

But with so much content existing on the topic, we knew it would be an uphill battle. Throw in position zero and the top two spots were owned by Yoast and ranking highly on Google in Ireland was looking a lot like that slicked wall.

The Google search solution

We asked ourselves what those front-page ranking sites had that we didn’t.

Ask what the #content on front-page ranking sites has that your site doesn’t, says @bryanisnott via @cmicontent. #SEO Share on X

For one, they had the content that we wanted to write. Creating a guide for cornerstone content wasn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but depending on what was in our guide, we could potentially reset the market.

Next, we gathered all the H2 headers for each top-ranking URL for the keyword “cornerstone content.” At a minimum, our cornerstone content blog should include all the topics covered in the ranking articles.

Create new #content that includes all the H2 topics in other high-ranking content, says @bryanisnott via @cmicontent. #SEO Share on X

The spreadsheet with 10 columns didn’t tell a whole lot at first glance. Here’s a look at three of the columns – each column represents its order on the page:

TIP: Here’s an Excel template to create your own H2 analysis.

There are a lot of different ways to pull together this information and even supplement it through platforms using artificial intelligence once you know what you’re looking for. For the sake of this exercise, we did it manually.

From there, we grouped similar H2 headers. For example, “keyword research” and “ranking” were commonly used words, as was the definition of cornerstone content and the use of examples.

By the end of this analysis, we had a color-coded representation of the common topics appearing in the content on the front page of Google in Ireland. Here are the first three columns coded by color as well as an outline of a blog post that would incorporate all the key topics discussed on the first results page for our target keyword:

This exercise took us an hour and led to:

  • Six distinct categories included in at least one blog on the first results page
  • Word length of these blogs and the page space they give to H2s
  • Understanding of the best way to order our H2s, both logically for the reader and for Google’s crawler
  • Grasp of redundant topics that could be condensed for readability and other topics where more information could be included without losing the reader interest due to length
  • Working headers as a basis for optimized H2s in our blog post

With this information, we could create a blog post that addressed all those key points under one URL – something only the first result on the SERP had done. The result, Cornerstone Content: Your Lift to the Top of Google’s Front Page, was optimized for standard best SEO practices. It included:

  • A title with the keyword “cornerstone content” prominently featured, within the 70-character count and checked per Moz’s title tag tool
  • Keyword-rich H2s and body copy
  • The keyword in the meta description, which was capped at 155 characters, that gave a high-level overview of our content
  • Image titles between three to five words and keyword-rich sentences for the alt text on the images
  • Healthy mix of internal and external links throughout the blog post

After the blog post was published, we saw instant results. Within the first few weeks, the article was at the top of page two for “cornerstone content.” After a month, it fluctuated between the bottom of page one and the top of page two.

The post-publication tweaks for Google

Eight months after posting the blog post, our position on the unusually active SERP fluctuated between the middle and bottom of page two. We wanted better.

We had made minor changes to the copy since its original posting – extending examples, elaborating on certain topics and replacing images. But we hadn’t revisited it from a technical standpoint.

First, we reviewed the title and URL.

While the title contained the keyword and the gist of the blog, it wasn’t targeted enough. Given that the URL (in right image above) was derived from the title, it also wasn’t bringing the value a straightforward, no-nonsense title would. Without a clear question being solved or an action being explained, the title wasn’t seen as valuable to Google’s crawlers.

Develop a user-intent-focused title within 70 characters, says @bryanisnott via @cmicontent. #SEO Share on X

We changed the title and URL to better match the searcher’s intent:

Up next on the chopping block was the original meta description:

We revised the meta description to optimize for mobile (one-third of our readers access the site on a mobile device). We made sure the first 120 characters delivered the full story and the call to action to read the post. We also made it more targeted and relevant to our audience, using more keyword-rich copy with words and phrases that people search and kept it short and simple.

Optimize the meta description for #mobile with no more than 120 characters, says @bryanisnott via @cmicontent. #SEO Share on X

Then we went through and updated the alt text on all the images to include longtail keywords and longer sentences that more comprehensively explain the blog post.

The hidden SEO value in image alt text isn’t often discussed. It offers another chance to get the keywords in front of Google’s crawler and improves accessibility for visitors who have trouble seeing.

We also added the word “guide” to the image title, giving the crawler a bit more context about the blog post.

Two days after the optimization update, the article position jumped from the bottom of page two to above the fold on page one on the Google Ireland SERP.

While the changes might seem small, they had a tremendous effect on the article’s ranking given the legwork we had done in compiling the H2s that we needed to include to rank on the first page.

Even small changes to your #blog post can have a tremendous effect on its ranking, says @bryanisnott via @cmicontent. #SEO Share on X

How can you rank at the top of Google?

It’s not easy to rank high on a Google search engine results page, but it’s possible if you follow the fundamentals:

  1. Review content on the first page of SERP for your topic to create an established list of topics that must be covered.
  2. Figure out what content you can bring to the table that’s new, original, or at least not “borrowed” from any high-ranking blogs.
  3. Create H2 subheads that match the general theme in your initial research and optimize them for search.
  4. Develop a user-intent-focused title within 70 characters.
  5. Optimize the meta description for mobile with no more than 120 characters.
  6. Use the image alt text to incorporate more keyword-rich SEO for crawlers.

We hope you have just as much success as we’ve had in using this method to rank on the front page of Google.

Enter your great content marketing in the 2020 Content Marketing Awards. Sign up today to be notified when the submission process opens in February (and get some helpful tips, research, and more, too). 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute