Search engine optimization has become focused on content—a marked departure from standard practices only a few years ago. In the past, on-page activities were front and center. SEO professionals focused on the accuracy of HTML tags, internal and outbound links, word count, and the like. Ranking well was a matter of using keywords as often as possible. Today, though, search engines prioritize meaningfulness and even penalizes outdated techniques like keyword stuffing.
The rise of mobile browsing, Google's use of the Knowledge Graph and schema, and the ubiquity of social media have made content one of the most important ranking factors today. Although it is not the only thing that affects rankings, underperforming content must be a cause for concern for website owners.
Content underperforms when it does not attract organic traffic the way it used to or never attracted organic traffic despite your efforts. This situation is unfortunately common; according to a 2021 Ahrefs report, more than 90 percent of content gets no traffic from Google. This, even if 68 percent of online experiences begin with a search engine.
There are many reasons why content wouldn't pull in the numbers you thought it would, but often, it's all about quality. Underperforming content is so because there are plenty more articles out there tackling the same topic and in a more compelling way.
Fortunately, content that doesn't generate ROI isn't dead weight. You can still use old articles, web or email copy, or blog posts. However, you would need to put in the effort and remake or repurpose them. Here are things you should keep in mind when repurposing or remaking underperforming content.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we emphasize user intent once more in this article, something we've done in previous posts. However, we highlight it because it is what you should start with if you want to write with relevance in mind. While article quality matters, your post needs to match the focus keywords in your market.
So, to prevent content from underperforming, you need to be clear on who you're writing for and what you want to tell them. Your audience's concerns should inform the 'how,' or the topics and structure of your post. Don't use a transactional keyword if your target audience is people who are unfamiliar with your brand. Similarly, don't preach to the converted—don't tell people that you sell the best running shoes if they have already subscribed to your email list. Let them come to that conclusion through case studies or compilations of customer reviews.
When your pages do not receive the visibility you want them to, it might be that Google favors a format that your content does not follow. For instance, if Google gives a higher ranking to long-form content, using plenty of infographics will cause you to rank lower, even if you align your text to the search intent and are thoughtful about keyword use and placement. Google changes their preferred format frequently—they are constantly testing it against dozens of variables—so switching to a format to rank higher is unadvisable.
Asking your audience about their preferences is better. Knowing what types of content they like consuming online, and producing that type, will bring you more traffic than blindly following what Google's algorithm is choosing to favor today.
When your content is "thin," Google tends to rank it lower than more substantial content. Don't equate substance with content length, though! There is no magical word count that would automatically place you above your competitors in SERPs. Relevance and comprehensiveness matter. It could be that your 800-word articles are underperforming because you only skim the surface of what you should discuss. Become more relevant by providing examples, new points of view, and fresh news.
If you're trying to make a mark using competitive keywords, you will need to write something more in-depth than a survey of terms! For example, there's nothing wrong with wanting to target "what is SEO." It is an evergreen topic, and there will always be people looking for a good jump-off point into the industry.
However, don't expect a 200-word blog post to provide all the answers people are looking for, especially now that optimization has evolved so much. Avoid leaning on content with laws and guidelines that often change unless you plan to write frequent updates and explainers.
One of the hallmarks of excellent literary writing is timelessness, and for a good reason. The stories that last a long time are the ones that tackle topics or themes that have always mattered to people. Although marketers should focus on selling a product instead of writing a poem or novel about it, ensuring timeless content should be. If your content is about something from the past, people will naturally be less interested in it as time passes. For instance, writing about last year's Black Friday, the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, or trends from Christmas 2019 will not pull a lot of traffic.
If you want to write about seasonal content, frame it in a way that keeps it relevant no matter the year. For instance, if you're writing about Black Friday sales, focus on 'why' and 'how' articles, ones that let you take a deep dive into an aspect of the event instead of staying at the surface.
If you cover the same or similar topics across pages, you might trigger keyword cannibalization, which causes a loss of visibility. Your content will underperform if Google penalizes you for creating duplicate content, so ensure that your writing is unique across articles. When you launch a new landing page, for example, its copy, metadata, and linking structure should be different from your current ones.
Additionally, not having backlinks or having too few can also cause your content to perform much lower than it could. Even if your content is top-notch, your lack of backlinks could be keeping your rankings low, especially in competitive niches.
Launching a blog today is challenging, but it isn't impossible. You need to understand your audience very well, so you can create a batch of articles designed to catch their attention and keep them reading. Once you've established an audience—no matter how small at first—keep yourself open to their feedback. After all, you won't underperform if you're directly serving your market!
Read Part Two of our posts on underperforming content, where we will discuss how to find the issues affecting your content.
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