This Strategy Helped the HubSpot Blog Break a Year-Long Traffic Plateau

This Strategy Helped the HubSpot Blog Break a Year-Long Traffic Plateau

There are some days when it seems like we've covered all there is to cover, and others when it doesn't seem like we can possibly keep up with changing trends and technologies fast enough. Your approach needs to constantly evolve to fit your changing needs as a property. Up to this point, we thought we'd perfected the formula for sustainable traffic growth: Traffic from existing posts in organic search + new traffic from new posts = steadily increasing traffic, forever … right? In addition to featured snippets, there are also a number of other on-page search features that push a piece of content ranking number one even further down your screen. If a blog post doesn't fit into an existing cluster, it's probably not worth our time and energy to write it. Our team has had a historical optimization strategy in place for several years now, but it’s been years since we’ve had a full-time human dedicated to making sure our existing content is performing optimally in search. Each month, Braden works with our SEO team to develop an update strategy that works with the new content clusters we're producing. Under our new editorial strategy, we're more focused on seeding for the future -- and that means letting go of our monthly traffic goals. An article we publish this month on "How to Create a Content Marketing Strategy for Virtual Reality" might not have a ton of search volume right now, but we're betting it will sometime in the future. Getting out in front of future search terms and filling gaps in our existing topic cluster structure will pay off more than watching the monthly traffic numbers rise over a few well-timed, clickable posts.

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Presiding over a 10+ year old blog has a lot of unique challenges. There are some days when it seems like we’ve covered all there is to cover, and others when it doesn’t seem like we can possibly keep up with changing trends and technologies fast enough.

From where you sit, it might seem like we’ve figured it all out — we’re one of the largest and most visited B2B blogs on the internet, we have a team of extremely talented and motivated staff writers, and we still manage to find new stories you want to read on a daily basis.

But growth doesn’t just happen — you have to work at it, and then keep working at it.

There isn’t one magical strategy that will keep your blog growing forever. Your approach needs to constantly evolve to fit your changing needs as a property.

When I joined the HubSpot Blog team in 2016, our editorial strategy looked drastically different than it does now.

About once a month, our entire team would gather in a conference room for a brainstorm session. Armed with coffee and spreadsheets full of topic pitches, we’d spend a few hours going around the room, discussing what we wanted to cover for the month. At the end of the meeting, we’d leave with a solid list of articles to get started on.

For a long time, this process served our interests well. Our team developed a keen sense of what our audience wanted to read, and an extensive knowledge of what we’d already covered. But as our property grew and our audience expanded, it became clear that something was missing.

We could no longer manage our archives and identify topic gaps (areas we haven’t yet covered on the blog) by gut feeling alone. Although we had some processes in place to pinpoint gaps and select pieces for historical optimization on an article-by-article basis, none of these methods were scalable or precise enough to keep up with what our readers were searching for — and those issues starting catching up with us.

Rediscovering our momentum meant completely changing the way we plan, write, and optimize content. In March 2018, we started to see the impact of these changes: a new all-time traffic record across our three blogs — Marketing, Sales, and Service — and a renewed sense of purpose for the future. After months of traffic plateaus and uncertainty, we know where we’re headed now — and we’re ready to share our new strategy with you.

The Blog Traffic Plateau of 2017

I won’t sugarcoat it: 2017 was a tough year to be a blogger. Between 2014 and 2016, we’d become accustomed to seeing month-over-month traffic growth without regularly switching up our strategy. When 2017 hit, that line started to flatten out, and then — even more alarming — decline. And it wasn’t just us — Unbounce, Wordstream, and WordPress all saw some form of traffic decrease in 2017.

Traffic to the HubSpot Blog 2014 – 2017

To say we were confused would be an understatement. Up to this point, we thought we’d perfected the formula for sustainable traffic growth: Traffic from existing posts in organic search + new traffic from new posts = steadily increasing traffic, forever … right?

It turns out it wasn’t nearly that simple. Our usual protocol for fixing a slump — changing publishing volume, leaning into more clickable topics, historically optimizing a handful of our heavy-hitting posts — wasn’t having a significant impact. This downward trend wasn’t just a temporary dip in our numbers — it was starting to look like the new normal.

So we did what any good content marketing team would do, and cracked open our reporting dashboards to take a deeper look. Unfortunately, what we discovered after many hours of analysis and many coffees consumed wasn’t comforting. Much like the factors behind the mysterious decline of the bee population, there seemed to be multiple culprits converging to create a disaster.

We’d gone looking for a single root cause, and found several macro trends instead:

1. Social algorithms (and users) love native content.

Social media has long been a (relatively) dependable distribution channel for digital publishers, but recent algorithm changes across multiple social networks increasingly favor native content over links that take users off site. The shift makes perfect sense from the social networks’ perspectives — they want users to spend as much time as possible on their network — but it hurts publishers who depend on social traffic.

2. Conversational search is constantly improving.

Google has gotten a lot better at understanding the intent behind a specific query, and as a result, they’re able to serve up extremely relevant pieces of content to meet your exact query. This is great news if you regularly use a home assistant device, but bad news if you’re a publisher looking to capture organic traffic from multiple long-tail keywords with a single, comprehensive piece of content.

Back in 2012, a post on “The Best Interview Questions” might have appeared as a top result in searches for “great interview questions,” “interview questions to ask an interviewer,” and “what questions to ask during an interview.” But in 2018, those long-tail search queries are more likely to result in entirely different SERPs with entirely different top results. This means many of our “ultimate guides” started ranking for fewer long-tail keywords, resulting in organic traffic losses on some of our most highly-trafficked pieces.

3. Featured snippets and other on-page search features are taking a toll on CTR from SERPs.

You’re probably familiar with Google’s featured snippets: those short lists or paragraphs that appear at the top of a SERP and (usually) directly address your query. In addition to featured snippets, there are also a number of other on-page search features that push a piece of content ranking number one even further down your screen.

While these quick answers have certainly made the search experience faster for users, they’re eating our organic traffic — even on SERPs where we hold the number one organic result. People don’t have any reason to click through to a blog post (even if it’s ranking number one) if the answer they’re seeking is already on the top of the SERP. As a result, fewer users are clicking on the number one organic result. Ahrefs found that on SERPs without a featured snippet, the top result received 26% of clicks. When a featured snippet appeared on the SERP, the top result received only 19.6% of clicks.

None of these were things we could fix with a band-aid solution. These shifts called for a massive overhaul of our editorial strategy, and a completely new way of approaching blogging in general.

Our New Editorial Strategy

While these trends were scary for the future of our blog, they weren’t entirely surprising. We’d been aware for a while that future-proofing for Google algorithm changes meant restructuring our site architecture. Back in late 2016, Leslie Ye had begun the tedious and challenging work of transitioning the blog’s internal linking system into a pillar-cluster…

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