[Case Study] How We Ranked #1 for a High-Volume Keyword in Under 3 Months
Posted by DmitryDragilev
This blog post was co-written with Brad Zomick, the former Director of Content Marketing at Pipedrive, where this case study took place.
It’s tough out there for SEOs and content marketers. With the sheer amount of quality content being produced, it has become nearly impossible to stand out in most industries.
Recently we were running content marketing for Pipedrive, a sales CRM. We created a content strategy that used educational sales content to educate and build trust with our target audience.
This was a great idea, in theory — we’d educate readers, establish trust, and turn some of our readers into customers.
The problem is that there are already countless others producing similar sales-focused content. We weren’t just competing against other startups for readers; we also had to contend with established companies, sales trainers, strategists, bloggers and large business sites.
The good news is that ranking a strategic keyword is still very much possible. It’s certainly not easy, but with the right process, anyone can rank for their target keyword.
Below, we’re going to show you the process we used to rank on page one for a high-volume keyword.
If you’re not sure about reading ahead, here is a quick summary:
We were able to rank #1 for a high-volume keyword: “sales management” (9,900 search volume). We outranked established sites including SalesManagement.org, Apptus, InsightSquared, Docurated, and even US News, Wikipedia, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We managed this through good old-fashioned content creation + outreach + guest posting, aka the “Skyscraper Technique.”
Here are the eight steps we took to reach our goal (click on a step to jump straight to that section):
- Select the right topic
- Create bad-ass content for our own blog
- Optimize on-page SEO & engagement metrics
- Build internal links
- Find people who would link to this content
- Ask people to link to our content
- Write guest posts on leading blogs
- Fine-tuning content with TF * IDF
Before we start, understand that this is a labor-intensive process. Winning a top SERP spot required the focus of a 3-person team for the better part of 3 months.
If you’re willing to invest a similar amount of time and effort, read on!
Step 1: Finding a good topic
We wanted three things from our target keyword:
1. Significant keyword volume
If you’re going to spend months ranking for a single keyword, you need to pick something big enough to justify the effort.
In our case, we settled on a keyword with 9,900 searches each month as per the Keyword Planner (1k–10k range after the last update).
That same keyword registered a search volume of 1.7–2.9k in Moz Keyword Explorer, so take AdWords’ estimates with a grain of salt.
One way to settle on a target volume is to see it in terms of your conversion rate and buyer’s journey:
- Buyer’s journey: Search volume decreases as customers move further along the buyer’s journey. Fewer searches are okay if you’re targeting Decision-stage keywords.
- Conversion rate: The stronger your conversion rate for each stage of the buyer’s journey, the more you can get away with by targeting a low search volume keyword.
Also consider the actual traffic from the keyword, not just search volume.
For instance, we knew from Moz’s research that the first result gets about 30% of all clicks.
For a keyword with 9,900 search volume, this would translate into over 3,000 visitors/month for a top position.
If we could convert even 5% of these into leads, we’d net over 1,800 leads each year, which makes it worth our time.
2. Pick a winnable topic
Some SERPs are incredibly competitive. For instance, if you’re trying to rank for “content marketing,” you’ll find that the first page is dominated by CMI (DA 84):
You might be able to fight out a first-page rank, but it’s really not worth the effort in 99% of cases.
So our second requirement was to see if we could actually rank for our shortlisted keywords.
This can be done in one of two ways:
The old-fashioned way to gauge keyword difficulty is to simply eyeball SERPs for your selected keywords.
If you see a lot of older articles, web 1.0 pages, unrecognizable brands, and generic content sites, the keyword should be solid.
On the other hand, if the first page is dominated by big niche brands with in-depth articles, you’ll have a hard time ranking well.
I also recommend using the MozBar to check metrics on the fly. If you see a ton of high DA/PA pages, move on to another keyword.
In our case, the top results mostly comprised of generic content sites or newish domains.
Moz Keyword Explorer
Moz’s Keyword Explorer gives you a more quantifiable way to gauge keyword difficulty. You’ll get actual difficulty vs. potential scores.
Aim for a competitiveness score under 50 and opportunity/potential scores above 50. If you get scores beyond this threshold, keep looking.
Of course, if you have an established domain, you can target more difficult keywords.
Following this step, we had a shortlist of four keywords:
- sales techniques (8100)
- sales process (8100)
- sales management (9900)
- sales forecast (4400)
We could have honestly picked anything from this list, but for added impact, we decided to add another filter.
3. Strategic relevance
If you’re going to turn visitors into leads, it’s important to focus on keywords that are strategically relevant to your conversion goals.
In our case, we chose “sales management” as the target keyword.
We did this because Pipedrive is a sales management tool, so the keyword describes us perfectly.
Additionally, a small business owner searching for “sales management” has likely moved from Awareness to Consideration and thus, is one step closer to buying.
In contrast, “sales techniques” and “sales forecast” are keywords a sales person would search for, not a sales leader or small business owner (decision-makers).
Step 2: Writing a bad-ass piece of content
Content might not be king anymore, but it is still the foundation of good SEO. We wanted to get this part absolutely right.
Here’s the process we followed to create our content:
1. Extremely thorough research
We had a simple goal from the start: create something substantially better than anything in the top SERPs.
To get there, we started by reviewing every article ranking for “sales management,” noting what we liked and what we didn’t.
For instance, we liked how InsightSquared started the article with a substantive quote. We didn’t like how Apptus went overboard with headers.
We also looked for anomalies. One thing that caught our attention was that two of the top 10 results were dedicated to the keyword “sales manager.”
We took note of this and made sure to talk about “sales managers” in our article.
We also looked at related searches at the bottom of the page:
We also scoured more than 50 sales-related books for chapters about sales management.
Finally, we also talked to some real salespeople. This step helped us add expert insight that outsourced article writers just don’t have.
At the end, we had a superior outline of what we were going to write.
2. Content creation
You don’t need to be a subject matter expert to create an excellent piece of content.
What you do need is good writing skills… and the discipline to actually finish an article.
Adopt a journalistic style where you report insight from experts. This gives you a better end-product since you’re curating insight and writing it far better than subject matter experts.
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to speed up the writing part — you’ll just have to grind it out. Set aside a few days at least to write anything substantive.
There are a few things we learned through the content creation experience:
- Don’t multi-task. Go all-in on writing and don’t stop until it’s done.
- Work alone. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Work in a place where you won’t be bothered by coworkers.
- Listen to ambient music. Search “homework edit” on YouTube for some ambient tracks, or use a site like Noisli.com
Take tip #1 as non-negotiable. We tried to juggle a couple of projects and finishing the article ended up taking two weeks. Learn from our mistake — focus on writing alone!
Before you hit publish, make sure to get some editorial feedback from someone on your team, or if possible, a professional editor.
We also added a note at the end of the article where we solicit feedback for future revisions.
If you can’t get access to editors, at the very least put your article through Grammarly.
3. Add lots of visuals and make content more readable
Getting visuals in B2B content can be surprisingly challenging. This is mostly due to the fact that there are a lot of abstract, hard-to-visualize concepts in B2B writing.
This is why we found a lot of blog posts like this with meaningless stock images:
To avoid this, we decided to use four custom images spread throughout the article.
We wanted to use visuals to:
- Illustrate abstract concepts and ideas
- Break up the content into more readable chunks.
- Emphasize key takeaways in a readily digestible format
We could have done even more — prolific content creators like Neil Patel often use images every 200–300 words.
Aside from imagery, there are a few other ways to break up and highlight text to make your content more readable.
- Section headers
- Bullets and numbered lists
- Small paragraphs
- Highlighted text
- Use simple words
We used most of these tactics, especially blockquotes to create sub-sections.
Given our audience — sales leaders and managers — we didn’t have to bother with dumbing down our writing. But if you’re worried that your writing is too complex, try using an app like Hemingway to edit your draft.
Step 3: Optimize on-page SEO and engagement metrics
Here’s what we did to optimize on-page SEO:
1. Fix title
We wanted traffic from people searching for keywords related to “sales management,” such as:
- “Sales management definition” (currently #2)
- “Sales management process” (currently #1)
- “Sales management strategies” (currently #4)
- “Sales management resources” (currently #3)
To make sure we tapped all these keywords, we changed our main H1 header tag to include the words definition, process, strategies, and resources.
These are called “modifiers” in SEO terms.
Google is now smart enough to know that a single article can cover multiple related keywords. Adding such modifiers helped us increase our potential traffic.
2. Fix section headers
Next, we used the right headers for each section:
Instead of writing “sales management definition,” we used an actual question a reader might ask.
- It makes the article easier to read
- It’s a natural question, which makes it more likely to rank for voice searches and Google’s “answers”
We also peppered related keywords in headers throughout the article. Note how we used the keyword at the beginning of the header, not at the end:
We didn’t want to go overboard with the keywords. Our goal was to give readers something they’d actually want to read.
This is why our <h2> tag headers did not have any obvious keywords:
This helps the article read naturally while still using our target keywords.
3. Improve content engagement
Notice the colon and the line break at the very start of the article:
This is a “bucket brigade”: an old copywriting trick to grab a reader’s attention.
We used it at the beginning of the article to stop readers from hitting the back button and going back to Google (i.e. increase our dwell time).
We also added outgoing and internal links to the article.
4. Fix URL
According to research, shorter URLs tend to rank better than longer ones.
We didn’t pay a lot of attention to the URL length when we first started blogging.
Here’s one of our blog post URLs from 2013:
Not very nice, right?
For this post, we used a simple, keyword-rich URL:
Ideally, we wouldn’t have the /2016/05/ bit, but by now, it’s too late to change.
5. Improve keyword density
One common piece of on-page SEO advice is to add your keywords to the first 100 words of your content.
If you search for “sales management” on our site, this is what you’ll see:
If you’re Googlebot, you’d have no confusion what this article was about: sales management.
We also wanted to use related keywords in the article without it sounding over-optimized. Gaetano DiNardi, our SEO manager at the time, came up with a great solution to fix this:
We created a “resources” or “glossary” section to hit a number of related keywords while still being useful. Here’s an example:
It’s important to make these keyword mentions as organic as possible.
As a result of this on-page keyword optimization, traffic increased sharply.
We over-optimized keyword density in the beginning, which likely hurt rankings. Once we spotted this, we changed things around and saw an immediate improvement (more on this below).
Step 4: Build internal links to article
Building internal links to your new content can be surprisingly effective when promoting content.
As Moz has already written before:
“Internal links are most useful for establishing site architecture and spreading link juice.”
Essentially, these links:
- Help Googlebot discover your content
- Tell Google that a particular page is “important” on your site since a lot of pages point to it
Our approach to internal linking was highly strategic. We picked two kinds of pages:
1. Pages that had high traffic and PA. You can find these in Google Analytics under Behavior –> Site Content.
2. Pages where the keyword already existed unlinked. You can use this query to find such pages:
Site:[yoursite.com] “your keyword”
In our case, searching for “sales management” showed us a number of mentions:
After making a list of these pages, we dove into our CMS and added internal links by hand.
These new links from established posts showed Google that we thought of this page as “important.”
Step 5: Finding link targets
This is where things become more fun. In this step, we used our detective SEO skills to find targets for our outreach campaign.
There are multiple ways to approach this process, but the easiest — and the one we followed — is to simply find sites that had linked to our top competitors.
We used Open Site Explorer to crawl the top ten results for backlinks.
By digging beyond the first page, we managed to build up a list of hundreds of prospects, which we exported to Excel.
This was still a very “raw” list. To maximize our outreach efficiency, we filtered out the following from our list:
- Sites with DA under 30.
- Sites on free blog hosts like Blogspot.com, WordPress.com, etc.
This gave us a highly targeted list of hundreds of prospects.
Here’s how we organized our Excel file:
Finding email addresses
Next step: find email addresses.
This has become much easier than it used to be thanks to a bunch of new tools. We used EmailHunter (Hunter.io) but you can also use VoilaNorbert, Email Finder, etc.
EmailHunter works by finding the pattern people use for emails on a domain name, like this:
To use this tool, you will need either the author’s name or the editor/webmaster’s name.
In some cases, the author of the article is clearly displayed.
In case you can’t find the author’s name (happens in case of guest posts), you’ll want to find the site’s editor or content manager.
LinkedIn is very helpful here.
Try a query like this:
site:linkedin.com “Editor/Blog Editor” at “[SiteName]”.
Once you have a name, plug the domain name into Hunter.io to get an email address guess of important contacts.
Step 6: Outreach like crazy
After all the data retrieval, prioritization, deduping, and clean up, we were left with hundreds of contacts to reach out to.
To make things easier, we segmented our list into two categories:
- Category 1: Low-quality, generic sites with poor domain authority. You can send email templates to them without any problems.
- Category 2: Up-and-coming bloggers/authoritative sites we wanted to build relationships with. To these sites, we sent personalized emails by hand.
With the first category of sites, our goal was volume instead of accuracy.
For the second category, our objective was to get a response. It didn’t matter whether we got a backlink or not — we wanted to start a conversation which could yield a link or, better, a relationship.
You can use a number of tools to make outreach easier. Here are a few of these tools:
We loved using a sales tool called MixMax. Its ability to mail merge outreach templates and track open rates works wonderfully well for SEO outreach.
If you’re looking for templates, here’s one email we sent out:
Let’s break it down:
- Curiosity-evoking headline: Small caps in the subject line makes the email look authentic. The “something missing” part evokes curiosity.
- Name drop familiar brands: Name dropping your relationship to familiar brands is another good way to show your legitimacy. It’s also a good idea to include a link to their article to jog their memory.
- What’s missing: The meat of the email. Make sure that you’re specific here.
- The “why”: Your prospects need a “because” to link to you. Give actual details as to what makes it great — in-depth research, new data, or maybe a quote or two from Rand Fishkin.
- Never demand a link: Asking for feedback first is a good way to show that you want a genuine conversation, not just a link.
This is just one example. We tested 3 different emails initially and used the best one for the rest of the campaign. Our response rate for the whole campaign was 42%.
Step 7: Be prepared to guest post
Does guest blogging still work?
If you’re doing it for traffic and authority, I say: go ahead. You are likely putting your best work out there on industry-leading blogs. Neither your readers nor Google will mind that.
In our case, guest blogging was already a part of our long-term content marketing strategy. The only thing we changed was adding links to our sales management post within guest posts.
Your guest post links should have contextual reference, i.e. the post topic and link content should match. Otherwise, Google might discount the link, even if it is dofollow.
Keep this in mind when you start a guest blogging campaign. Getting links isn’t enough; you need contextually relevant links.
Here are some of the guest posts we published:
- 7 Keys to Scaling a Startup Globally [INC]
- An Introduction to Activity-Based Selling [LinkedIn]
- 7 Tips for MBAs Entering Sales Management Careers [TopMBA]
We weren’t exclusively promoting our sales management post in any of these guest posts. The sales management post just fit naturally into the context, so we linked to it.
If you’re guest blogging in 2017, this is the approach you need to adopt.
Step 8: Fine-tuning content with TF * IDF
After the article went live, we realized that we had heavily over-optimized it for the term “sales management.” It occurred 48 times throughout the article, too much for a 2,500 word piece.
Moreover, we hadn’t always used the term naturally in the article.
To solve this problem, we turned to TF-IDF.
Recognizing TF-IDF as a ranking factor
TF-IDF (Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency) is a way to figure out how important a word is in a document based on how frequently it appears in it.
This is a pretty standard statistical process in information retrieval. It is also one of the oldest ranking factors in Google’s algorithms.
Hypothesis: We hypothesized that dropping the number of “sales management” occurrences from 48 to 20 and replacing it with terms that have high lexical relevance would improve rankings.
Were we right?
See for yourself:
Our organic pageviews increased from nearly 0 to over 5,000 in just over 8 months.
Note that no new links or link acquisition initiatives were actively in-progress during the time of this mini-experiment.
- July 18th – Over-optimized keyword recognized.
- July 25th – Content team finished updating body copy, H2s with relevant topics/synonyms.
- July 26th – Updated internal anchor text to include relevant terms.
- July 27th – Flushed cache & re-submitted to Search Console.
- August 4th – Improved from #4 to #2 for “Sales Management”
- August 17 – Improved from #2 to #1 for “Sales Management”
The results were fast. We were able to normalize our content and see results within weeks.
We’ll show you our exact process below.
Normalization process — How did we do it?
The normalization process focused on identifying over-optimized terms, replacing them with related words and submitting the new page to search engines.
Here’s how we did it:
1. Identifying over-optimized term(s)
We started off using Moz’s on-page optimization tool to scan our page.
According to Moz, we shouldn’t have used the target term — “sales management” — more than 15 times. This means we had to drop 33 occurrences.
2. Finding synonymous terms with high lexical relevance
Next, we had to replace our 28+ mentions with synonyms that wouldn’t feel out of place.
We used Moz’s Keyword Explorer to get some ideas.
3. Removed “sales management” from H2 headings
Initially, we had the keyword in both H1 and H2 headings, which was just overkill.
We removed it from H2 headings and used lexically similar variants instead for better flow.
4. Diluted “sales management” from body copy
We used our list of lexically relevant words to bring down the number of “sales management” occurrences to under 20. This was perfect for 2,500+ word article.
5. Diversify internal anchors
While we were changing our body copy, we realized that we also needed more anchor text diversity for our internal links.
Our anchors cloud was mostly “sales management” links:
We diversified this list by adding links to related terms like “sales manager,” “sales process,” etc.
6. Social amplification
We ramped up our activity on LinkedIn and Facebook to get the ball rolling on social shares.
The end result of this experimentation was an over 100% increase in traffic between August ‘16 to January ‘17.
Don’t just build backlinks — optimize your on-page content as well!
There’s a lot to learn from this case study. Some findings were surprising for us as well, particularly the impact of keyword density normalization.
While there are a lot of tricks and tactics detailed here, you’ll find that the fundamentals are essentially the same as what Rand and team have been preaching here for years. Create good content, reach out to link prospects, and use strategic guest posts to get your page to rank.
This might sound like a lot of work, but the results are worth it. Big industry players like Salesforce and Oracle actually advertise on AdWords for this term. While they have to pay for every single click, Pipedrive gets its clicks for free.
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