{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Diminishing Returns in SEO

In this week’s episode, Katie and Chris talk SEO and how to deal with diminishing returns in SEO. What should you do when your efforts aren’t yielding as much juice for the squeeze? How should you balance pillar content? What’s the role of content recycling? Tune in to find out the answers to these questions and more.


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{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Diminishing Returns in SEO

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Christopher Penn 0:17

In this week’s In-Ear Insights, we’re talking about SEO, search engine optimization, and ways to make your efforts more productive.

And the first place we want to start is talking about what happens when you start getting what we call diminishing returns when you get less and less juice for the squeeze out of your SEO efforts.

So caving, anytime you’re dealing with diminishing returns, anytime you’re dealing with that reduction in effectiveness over time, it may be quick, it may be gradual.

What’s the first thing that you think about in and how to get out of that sort of slow decline?

Katie Robbert 0:55

I always kind of start to look at the keyword list, like what am I trying to be known for.

And that’s one of the challenges that we’re running into Now, Chris, is that I personally feel like we’ve exhausted our keyword list.

And we’ve added to our keyword list, we’ve amended our keyword list, we’ve redone our keyword list.

And the good news, bad news is we’re creating a lot of content.

So we’re trying, we’re trying to exhaust all those keywords.

But then the downside is we’re exhausting all of those keywords.

And so I find myself going back and repeating keywords.

And that’s where I start to get nervous of am I undoing the work I did for one post by writing about the same keyword in another post, and then they start to compete against each other.

So that’s where I start to look at what the heck are we doing? Like what, how do we stop cannibalizing our own content to I don’t know, find new ways to write about the same topics.

So it just it’s, I’m sort of at a loss.

Christopher Penn 2:03

Okay, one of the things that I was thinking about, actually over the weekend, because, you know, for folks who have not been watching the show for a while, we typically plan our content the week before, sometimes several weeks before.

And one thing I was mulling over over the weekend is the goal is to get more organic search traffic.


That’s, that’s what we want.

And ideally, that then goes on to convert, but keywords in content on site are sort of the foundational layer in the sense of like, you have to have content.

Otherwise, you’re sending people to your site for no reason.

But what drives search, more often than not, when you when you do an assessment of all the different variables that are available to you is is inbound links.

It’s it’s going out and getting those links.

So I guess the question I would have is, is it a keyword problem? Like is it a is functionally a content problem that we have? Or is it that we’ve squeezed as much juice as we can out of the content we have, and now maybe that content gets put in maintenance mode, like in sort of recycling and refreshing it over time.

And we change our efforts to be focused more towards getting acquiring more links and and more attention on our content?

Katie Robbert 3:20

Well, it I mean, it sounds a little bit like horse and cart, or chicken and egg, you know, without the quality content, no one is going to link back to it.

And without people linking back to it, it’s going to be harder to get the content seen.

And so you kind of have to do both.

And so I would say it’s not one or the other, it’s a combination of the two.

Like right now, we don’t have the structure to be pitching out our content constantly.

We’re more so hopeful that people will see it, find value in it and pick it up.

So that is, you know, one challenge is we are not actively pitching out our content to get those links back to our website.

But then back to your question about, you know, just constantly refreshing one piece of content.

So let’s say, you know, we have a piece of content on SEO that does really well.

Are you saying that the that what we should be doing is only focusing on that one piece of content and refreshing it every week, every month? Or should we be writing supplementary pieces of content around that one piece of content?

Christopher Penn 4:30

The generally accepted best practice is to have a piece of pillar content that yeah, you do refresh, maybe once a quarter, you add new data, you refresh data, you brush it up.

At a minimum, you change the publish date, and then from that pillar, sort of a hub and spoke model where you have individual pieces that branch off of it.

So if we had SEO as you know, there’s there’s one post we had about SEO that did really well.

Maybe we would then link up internally Um, here’s a podcast episode on the here’s a live stream episode on that and things like that and sort of give Krita a topic cluster, essentially around that thing, but everything with the effort, to the extent that, you know, if you had a budget of 100 hours a month, 70 of those hours would be on on the pillar content on keeping it up to date.

Backlinko did a study on this, actually, they took an entire year off of their blog, they didn’t write a single new blog post, instead, they had 26 posts that they constantly refreshed every two weeks.

And they interestingly saw more traction out of that, in terms of obtain search traffic than they did creating new content.

Now they’ve they’ve since gone on to, to make that more balanced.

But there is something to be said for, like you said, if you there’s a piece that does really well, they could do even better.

Katie Robbert 5:57

So I have a couple of questions.

So can you define pillar content? You know, because I know in word like so, uh, we run our, our site through WordPress, and you can mark certain pieces as pillar content.

So that’s one question.

The other question I have for you is, you know, what, is it that you’re updating every two weeks? Is it new data, new links, you know, just, you know, this is sort of this reminds me of the old trick when you were looking for a job and monster.com was, you know, sort of a search engine for job applicants.

The trick was that you would go in and literally change like, a period or a space, and then your resume would show up at the top is something fresh and brand new again, every single day.

Christopher Penn 6:45

Yeah, real estate listings do the same thing.

Real realtors will do that.

So pillar contents, what you decide is, if we think back to sort of the YouTube Hero hub help model right of the three types of content.

It’s essentially looking at all of your health content, looking at what’s working really well.

And MAE promoting that up to hub content said, Okay, we’re now we’re going to put in some infographics, we are going to change the data, we’re going to make the post much longer and more in depth.

Are there aspects of it that, you know, maybe we didn’t dig into as much? A real simple example is, anytime we’re dealing with, like questions and answers and stuff, there’s an opportunity usually to expand on that.

Like when I do an interview for somebody else’s podcast, I’ll think of something like it’s kind of like having an impaired sense of humor, like you think of something funny to say, six minutes after the moment has passed.

It’s kind of the same thing with content marketing, where you say, oh, I should have written about this, or I should have talked about that.

And then you say, instead of just lamenting it, you say, Oh, actually, I’m going to dig into that.

And maybe add that into the pillar content, thing like that, you know, there’s a long post talking about, you know, modern SEO.

And when you’re talking about a topic model, and you go, Oh, you know, I forgot to mention academic papers, it almost like, it’s almost like software development, where that thought would go into the backlog.

And then the next time you do your scrum on that content, it goes in as a feature request.

Katie Robbert 8:21

So you’re just constantly rewriting the same post over and over again,

Christopher Penn 8:27

you’re improving, you’re adding to it.

So it is very much like software, where you’re adding new features to it.

Katie Robbert 8:35

Right? Well, you could also make the argument that in software, you’re removing things that aren’t working.

So is there harm in removing content that you’ve written to replace it with something else? Or are you and I think that this is where like, trying to understand the rules around good SEO best practices, you know, so if, let’s say I write a five paragraph post on SEO, and then it does really well, two weeks later, I go into edit it, and I decide that three of those five paragraphs, I don’t like them at all, so I take them out altogether and replace them.

Have I damaged my SEO?

Christopher Penn 9:14

Possibly, well, you’ve changed what Google will crawl and index.

But if you’re focused on the topic overall, and what you add, what you’ve removed and added, essentially is more valuable, then it should not impact that because some of the signals that Google pays attention to are things like what the user does when they leave a search listing and go to your website, like how quickly do they come back? If you wrote something that in the first time around, you saw that people, you know, your your retention time on that piece of content was just like two seconds? Clearly, that’s an indicator that what you wrote was not valuable to the user, right? They they got in they read like two sentences and boom, they’re gone.

So there’s that pogo stick In effect, and many folks, including Google have said that pogo sticking is bad.

You want someone to jump into content and then like, consume it, you know, if you wrote 300 words of content, most people read, what’s the average, like 200 words per minute or something on that.

So it should take someone, you know, 60 to 90 seconds to consume your content, if they’re gone in two seconds.

It didn’t do its job.

If they’re stuck around for 30 seconds, that’s, that’s better.

And we know, across Google’s family of products, that retention is important, like YouTube even gives you examples, like here’s where people drop off in your video.

So from that perspective, creating better content is is never the wrong answer.

You may see a short term effect where as Google goes through and crawls, and reindex is that page and maybe changes what it thinks that page is about.

But in the long term, the big picture perspective, the better content should do better for your SEO.

Katie Robbert 11:06

Is there a max number of pillar content pieces on your website that you should have? And does Google give more weight to pieces marked pillar content?

Christopher Penn 11:22

Google doesn’t see that Google does not understand what is or is not.

It just is looking based on how it interprets language, you know how thorough a piece is, and then tries to match that up to query requests.

This is particularly true, ever since they put BERT in the mix for processing language.

And there is no maximum limit to pillar content.

It’s, I mean, the any limits, there are resource limits on our part of how what how much time do we have to devote to this stuff? You wouldn’t ask the

Katie Robbert 11:55

user see how how does one know this is pillar content? If it doesn’t change the ranking with Google’s then what’s the point of calling it pillar content?

Christopher Penn 12:05

It’s, it’s an internal designation for where we are going to spend our time.


So if we have a blog post that was kind of like a funny one off, you know, maybe it was like, you know, John’s yacht rock lit, you know, playlist we’ve put up as a blog post, we’re not going to spend a whole lot of time, you know, tune that up, and things like that, to where you started originally, looking at individual content traffic, right, but pieces of content that already get decent traffic.

Those are the ones that should be pillar content candidates to say, Okay, this is doing well and organic search, we’re getting organic search traffic to this post.

Now, can we get even more? And what things can we add? And that’s where you would almost look at, you know, some of your things like Search Console and stuff to say, Okay, well, how can we get more traffic to this content that we know is already doing? Well? What are the related terms and topics and ideas? That should be the what are the questions that somebody would still have, after reading our content? Go? Oh, you know, how can we add more to that?

Katie Robbert 13:05

So let’s say SEO posts on SEO is our piece of pillar content.

And the key word that we’ve optimized for is SEO? Is it a bad idea to write other pieces of content about SEO as well, that are also optimized for the same keyword? Like how many times should you be optimizing for the same keyword? And is that a bad idea? Because that’s sort of where we started was, I feel like we’ve exhausted our keyword list.

So what do I do?

Christopher Penn 13:40

Right? The, the the answer, the generally accepted practice for that is to have a focus a page that’s focused.

So that you have, you know, that page is about that term.

And then you can have subsequent pages that are breakdowns of that term.

So you have a pit a pillar page about SEO, and then you have a secondary page talking about, you know, optimizing for, you know, YouTube or SEO for YouTube or something like that, or, you know, understanding natural language processing and SEO, where it would, it would still be related to that main term.

But you also want to do some internal linking, to make sure that when you’re talking about SEO, you’re focusing your your link traffic back to your pillar content, that’s from an organizational structure inside the site.

Katie Robbert 14:31

So what you’re saying is I shouldn’t have five posts that all are trying to optimize the keyword SEO.

Christopher Penn 14:37

That’s right.

You have one piece of of pillar content, that’s the hub and then the spokes are the sub the are the sub keywords under that.

Katie Robbert 14:47

So how do you find those sub keywords, you know, that’s where it starts to get.

That’s where more work has to be done for a content marketing team of okay, we have our list of 100 keywords How do we know what’s related? How do we know what makes sense for us to rank for?

Christopher Penn 15:06

And that is where market research and domain expertise will fill that gap.

Right? If you understand and you know, SEO very well, then you should be able to say, Okay, I know that when someone’s talking about this, it means they’re also probably gonna be having questions about this.

So your domain expertise should fill in a lot of those gaps.

And then the other part is market research.

Asking people like in you know, for example, if if you wanted to create some spoke content off of an SEO pillar piece, you might put a question in our free slack group and elixir marketers and say, Hey, folks, what questions do you have about SEO? And then those sub questions, either would inform the pillar content, or create spoke content?

Katie Robbert 15:48

So let’s say I’ve asked our community what questions you have about SEO.

And so then I create subsequent blog posts about, you know, answering those questions.

But the key words or the phrases that I’m optimizing for, have almost no search volume, like that’s sort of where I feel like marketers content marketers try to start to hit a wall of Sure, I could write, you know, 20 different related posts about this thing.

But there’s no keywords that get a lot of traffic.

So So in my career, am I creating a new lane? Am I like, so what I guess that’s sort of where I get stuck is, how do you move forward?

Christopher Penn 16:36

I mean, the short answer to that is that every SEO tool out there that pulls keyword volume has limitations, in terms of how much data it can see.

And it’s actually gotten worse over the years, rather than better, because the number of third party data sources these tools can pull from keeps getting shorter and shorter.

So the shorter answer is you put up some of that content, and then you check in Search Console and see, are you getting any traction? Are you getting any traffic? So just as a real quick example, when we look at our own SEO report here, you’ll note that this there’s one post in here, you know, disadvantages of predictive analytics that shows up a few times.

These are, you know, limitations of predictive analytics is not a hot term.


But yet, we’re still getting some traffic for it.

And so this post would be a good a potential candidate for pillar content, right? And we’d want to look at that page and go, Oh, do we have enough disadvantages lifts it out? You know, are we thorough? And I think, you know, semantically, there’s a difference between disadvantages of predictive analytics and limitations, like they’re, they’re two separate things.

So that limitations, one could be a separate sub post, you know, it could be a spoke off of the main, or it could be incorporated into the pillar content itself, you know, talking about what’s the difference between the predictive analysts disadvantages, and the mathematical limitations of it.

That would be an example of how you would expand this out.

But it’s also an example where you have to have the subject matter expertise to pull that off.

Katie Robbert 18:11

So then, if I decided to add in the limitations to the disadvantages post, but I’m already trying to optimize for the keyword phrase disadvantages of predictive analytics, do I add in limitations of predictive analytics as a second keyword phrase to be optimizing for? Because to me, it sounds like what we’ve been talking about is that would become a separate post with its own keywords to be optimized for that is the back to the first post.

Christopher Penn 18:42

Yeah, in this case, I would say limitations of predictive analytics should be its own piece of content.

And keep the disadvantages post very clean in terms of like, here are the disadvantages of predictive analytics.

You know, it’s always reverse facing, it’s ever forward looking, you’re not going to see anything novel, and so on and so forth.

And the limitations would be things like, you know, anomalies, trend detection, breakouts, them and the mathematics of it.

And it might be interesting, because then over time, you would see, okay, well, maybe the limitations posed starts to do better, maybe volume for that increases over time.

And that’s when you can start, you know, poking around going, Oh, that’s interesting things happening in that space, maybe it’s something that we need to pay attention to.

That’s a whole other topic about using your content marketing as an early warning system.

But in terms of our SEO thing, we would take that disadvantage as post focusing on it every quarter, maybe, can we you know, if I were to pull up that post and look at it, and in fact, let’s do that.

Let’s pull up that post and look at it.

Because it’s been a little while since we’ve looked at it that’s I want to Oh, that’s not good.

Because work.

Let’s see.

Yeah, yeah.


But then looking at that content going, Okay, well, what? What do we have in that post that we can improve? What’s What are some things that dispatch we didn’t mention, and maybe even put together an editorial calendar over time to say like over the next quarter, here’s two more things we’re going to focus on over the next quarter.

Here’s another thing we’re going to focus on, etcetera.

Katie Robbert 20:26

No, and that makes sense.

And I think that that’s where I hate to use this phrase, but it’s appropriate here thinking outside of the box of the standard checklist of what to do for content marketing is necessary.

So we’ve talked about a few different tactics outside of just refreshing your keyword list that you can do to work with your existing content.

And I think that that’s I think that that’s one of the hurdles that content marketers myself included need to get past is you don’t have to keep creating fresh brand new content in order to have your content marketing be effective.

Christopher Penn 21:08

Exactly get through the sort of the content treadmills sort of recycling of content, something that we’ve talked about for eight or nine years now.

And, and putting your content on that treadmill is an important thing to be it’s part of your strategy.

It’s not everything, because you do want to have new stuff as new stuff is warranted.

But if you’ve got really great content that’s doing well, okay, already, maybe improve on it, because one of the things that seems to be more and more true as more as algorithms get more and more complicated and more sophisticated, is that we will typically have more success doubling down on what’s working, rather than necessarily trying to create something from new wholecloth.

Katie Robbert 22:02

Well, it’s, you know, you could make that you could draw the parallel to, you know, customer retention.

So it’s less expensive and less energy to retain a current customer and get them to sign up for more services, versus attracting a net new customer and educating them on the services that you do.

So it sounds like a similar mentality could be applied to content marketing.

Christopher Penn 22:25


I think it’s a great analogy, because you know, what’s working already.

And one of the advantages of recycling content is, all of the link building that’s already been done on that content will continue to persist as you improve it, right.

So you’re not putting up something new that you then need to go and pick out new links for if you’ve got something that’s got a good number of links already.

You can continue to improve on on that.

And as the content gets better, probably more people will will link to it.

Make sense?

Katie Robbert 22:57

Makes sense.

So I have my work cut out for me.

Christopher Penn 23:01

We all do.

We all have our work cut out for us.

So I immediately after this episode wraps.

I’m gonna go open a support ticket and figure out what’s up with our website.

Katie Robbert 23:10

Well, yeah, well, there’s that I met Justin for SEO in general.

But yeah, oh, yeah.

I need to find out why our site is down.

Christopher Penn 23:17


If you’ve got some thoughts or questions about how you’re approaching your SEO strategy, and you want to chat about a pop on over to our free slack group, go to trust insights.ai/analytics For markers, where you and over 2500 other marketers are asking and answering each other’s questions every single week.

And wherever it is, you watch or listen to the show.

If there’s a platform you’d rather have it on, go to trust insights.ai/t AI podcast, where you can find us on pretty much every platform that offers podcasts.

Thanks for tuning in.

I will talk to you next week.

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