I’m sorry, my dear reader, but this article is supposed to be an introductory article, so let’s look at the basics first. We’ll sort out all the details for an uninformed audience (which becomes less and less broad, thanks to penguins and pandas!) and explain the simplest key points which we constantly discuss on our site, and then we’ll move to the case study.
Briefly speaking: SEO doesn’t exist anymore. It was replaced by content marketing, if you still didn’t know. The main differences between SEO and content marketing are:
- Content marketers approach e-commerce sites as media.
- Content marketers don’t search for weaknesses in search engine algorithms (they don’t exist anymore), we work on a site by improving the value of its’ content and information and, thereby, audience’s demand for a site.
- Content marketers don’t buy low-quality backlinks (nowadays it’s just ineffective), but we won’t deny that backlinks are still a ranking factor. Building a link profile in content marketing is based – you have probably guessed already – on producing high quality content.
That’s all. These are the major differences, everything else is the same. Just like in SEO, content marketers think of a list of keywords for every project, know everything about meta tags and internal linking, about social signals and user behavior.
Accordingly, just like SEO works on internal and external ranking factors, content marketing can also be internal and external. Internal content marketing works by implementing content marketing strategies within a site itself. External content marketing concentrates on third-party platforms.
Of course, all of the projects which we undertake for customers’ sites are also conducted on our sites – texterra.biz and texterra.ru. Our customers still didn’t give us permission to divulge their information, but we can tell you about our Russian site.
We only started working on external content marketing for texterra.ru in the second half of 2012. Before this, we simply had no budget – yeah, the cobbler always wears the worst shoes! We applied this principle while working on customers’ sites, but we were unable to use it on our site for a long time.
Internal content marketing
Starting with the spring of 2012, we had totally reconstructed our site and started blogging intensively. The growth of our pages as indexed by Yandex (the most popular search engine in Russia) can be seen on the following graph:
The number of indexed pages started growing significantly in May 2012 – the moment at which search engines (such as Yandex) began indexing the updated pages of “Our services” section, and when we also started blogging.
At the time we conducted this study (19/07/2013) there were 218 posts on our Russian blog (articles and infographics). After about 3 months of active blogging, it started having a positive impact on results.
Since July 2012 we have had a constant upward trend in the number of daily visits from search engines (with little “stops” on December 2012 and May 2013 – just usual seasonal falls). Here’s the Yandex.Metrica statistics for a period from 01/06/2012 to 02/07/2013:
Our max monthly traffic in July 2013 was – 4447 visits from SERPs. 26% of traffic from search engines led to services pages, 44% to blog articles, 30% to other sections of our site.
Talking about conducting a comparative analysis of other sites in the niche we operate in (these are mostly sites for SEO companies), then there are several moments that we would like to pause and look at.
- Talking about the SEO market, we have a high volume traffic from search engines, which is comparable to the market leaders in Russia (pay attention one more time – I’m talking about search engine traffic).
- Concerning quality of traffic, you can reasonably reproach us – our traffic is not completely SEO-oriented. It’s true, a significant part of traffic is not connected with queries, which are directly related to promotion, but all of them concern online marketing in this or that way (for example, “content writing for websites”, “landing page”, “examples of landing pages”, “Facebook page promotion” and so on). In general, we don’t just have a task to fix in terms of “promotional” queries. Yes, our audience is there. But! On the one hand, this niche is small, competition is high (we just don’t have a large enough budget to get to the top for some high-frequency queries), and, in general, we would like to abstract ourselves from the SEO industry as such.
- We bet on low-frequency queries in most cases. We don’t have a single query that would contribute more than 0.7% of the overall number of queries (even the top position of our Russian site on google.ru for “internet marketing” query can’t change this situation). It’s good – we are free from Google updates, you know what? – we don’t track these updates at all. During a one year period we attracted visitors from over 9000 queries (no, it’s not a meme-joke, just real numbers obtained from every possible search engine). That’s right, there were fewer really topical and, especially, transactional queries, but we still think it was a pretty nice number.
- What is great: search engine traffic was always in an upward trend. What is bad (talking about our Russian site and Russian SEO realities): Google traffic was much higher than Yandex traffic (look at the graph above). It’s easy to explain. Our link profile (number of backlinks) was significantly “weaker” than that of most SEO companies in the Russian market. It’s not very important for Google, after the launch of both Panda and Penguin, but for Yandex the size of your link profile still played a big role by the time we conducted this study (Google already follows the “quality over quantity” principle). However, what is especially important, we spent less than $2800 on link building. Wherein, we spent $0 on buying sh*tty backlinks. Read the next chapter to learn where we have spent our link building budget.
External content marketing
We started posting on third-party platforms even later than we had started working on our internal content marketing – in fact, we’ve worked on it since October 2012. There is one huge problem in external content marketing, which we had faced a long time ago – at first when we had been working on customers’ sites and then on our own site: where should we post our articles? We never spent any money on buying backlinks – it’s a one way ticket. If you want to develop your link profile, then you should do it to capitalise on your profile, without any connection to purchased backlinks. It’s clear that by working accurately with purchased links you can get better results and avoid Penguin penalties, but the time of such link building has obviously passed. In terms of a strategy, it would be a great mistake to buy them.
So, where do you find platforms? Of course, the cheapest and the most reliable way is via exchange systems, where you can buy so called “permanent” links. We’ve tried them – the quality of donor sites didn’t completely meet our requirements. We then started working directly with platforms. We contacted them, we asked how much it would cost to make a single post, and then we posted. In the end we abandoned this method as well. Total annual spending was less than $2800. A single experiment was enough. In reality, we got all our best publications (providing not only direct links, but visits as well) from “guest blogging”. We contacted a platform that we are really interested in, coordinated a topic and then wrote an article. Then, if it was necessary, we edited and corrected it until the article met the platform owner’s requirements. Then we got our article guest posted. In most cases we didn’t pay a single dollar for such posts, but we had to work hard on these articles, because it was a really serious deal. We were not ashamed of that articles, we were sorry for not leaving them to ourselves :) These are some of our Russian guest posts (in random order):
It’s just a little piece of our content. All of these posts were absolutely free. I repeat one more time: we’ve got, not only quality backlinks, but also direct traffic from these platforms. Overall traffic from different sites is pretty significant for us and can be compared to search engine traffic (there were some days when referral traffic from sites exceeded search engine traffic). Let’s take a look at the graph from Yandex.Metrica for the period from June 2012 to July 2013:
There is no clear dynamic, but there are obvious “explosions” – we’ll talk about them later.
I would also like to talk about one Russian guest blogging platform – cossa.ru. Most articles there are published in the sandbox, there are very few edited posts. Starting in October 2012, we’ve posted more than 30 articles there. Of course, we did some hard work. Each article took more than one working day. We had been posting and answering comments, and then, all of a sudden, I realised that we reached the top of publishers list.
In total, we got 3120 visits (according to Yandex.Metrica) from these posts, which is not bad. However, it’s not the main idea. The main idea is that “cossa” has one magical feature – it drives mass republications of content posted there, if it is of high quality and interesting for an audience, of course. Almost every piece of material we posted was republished, the best content had about 10 republications. Some of them were republished on high quality platforms, which would have been to achieve with our bare hands, so to speak. Here are just a few examples of such republications. All of them are in Russian, but we need to show you the proof:
In fact, that’s all I wanted to tell you about both internal and external content marketing. The only thing I haven’t mentioned in this article is traffic from social networks and our email newsletters.
However, there’s one thing that I just can’t leave aside. The following idea can be found in many articles on content marketing. There is one very important metric, which shows you that your content marketing strategy is correct, and which you should implement systematically and efficiently – it’s growth in direct traffic. Direct traffic refers to users who found you once (it doesn’t matter through which channel they did it) and keep visiting you, because they are interested in your site – it’s a very important metric indeed. Frankly speaking, I have never expected that direct visits will become – attention, please! – one of the main channels for driving traffic.
There were some days when direct traffic had exceeded search engine traffic, link traffic and other channels. The max number at that time was 370 direct visits in a single day. That’s not bad, right?
What’s the result? Well, we’ll put our cards on the table. Looking at the period from June 2012 to July 2013, we had record traffic in June 2013. We had a total of 17196 visits from all channels (according to Yandex.Metrica). Only 1168 of them were driven by PPC channels (ads on Liveinternet.ru statistics section – one of the most popular Russian statistics services), the rest were almost free. Wherein, we didn’t use Google AdWords and Yandex.Direct (analogue of AdWords in Russia) at all. What was the traffic-to-sales leads conversion rate? In June we had 135 quality sales leads, wherein more than 55% of them sent requests for site promotion. From our point of view a quality sales lead is a sales lead, who was fixed in our CRM, which means one who asked for a commercial offer.
One more time: 135 sales leads from our site in June, without taking so called “word of mouth” into account.
However, the sales-leads-to-customers conversion rate was still very very low, but there were some factors that came into play against us. Here are some of them:
- June is a “poor” season (customers are not ready to sign long-term contracts);
- We don’t focus on sales, so we don’t rush into a project at any cost. I’ll tell you that most sales leads in June were low-budget projects with high expectations for traffic to come 3-4 months later. We were already sick and tired of such projects. We are not interested in working with them, because they leave after 3-4 months without seeing any results.
- We had more unqualified customers than qualified ones (nowadays it goes better).
Well, of course all of these are excuses. We are better at getting traffic than at sales. By the end of June we had only 8 real customers – 2 for long-term promotion and 6 for one time campaigns, but still huge projects. It was not so bad and not so good at the same time. There was still a lot of work to do. On the other hand, signing a contract for work is a long process - as we’ve seen from our own experience. Between the time we finished this study and the present moment we have signed a lot of contracts.
This study was conducted one year ago, but we still keep using the same methods. Here’s the result (Google Analytics – Audience – Overview – Sessions).
In short, content marketing really works. Nowadays it is these investments in the creation and promotion of content that are driving traffic. The results capitalise, which means that you don’t have to constantly pay for traffic and increase your budget – just do your job from day to day, from month to month – systematically, efficiently, inevitably – and you’ll achieve results.