How gutefrage successfully turned its SEO strategy around

October 22nd, 2018 | Analysis No comments

The German Q&A platform, gutefrage (www.gutefrage.net), has one of the biggest online audiences in Germany – and yet in the past it has often featured in the loser lists following Google Updates. In this success story, Melanie Ruf, Head of SEO at gutefrage.net, explains how the platform implemented an SEO strategy that helped it to a 150% boost in SEO Visibility following the Google Core Update in August 2018. If you’re in rush, you can get the bitesize case study with all the most important details of this success story here. Otherwise read on below for more detailed background and strategic insights.

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Overview: What is gutefrage?

gutefrage is run by gutefrage.net GmbH, a 100% subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Digital GmbH. With around 17 million unique users a month (AGOF digital daily facts, August 2018), the Q&A platform has, since its foundation in 2006, been one of Germany’s online success stories, with few websites reaching a bigger audience.

On average, gutefrage users ask 5,000 questions a day on the platform. They also write around 17,000 answers and 15,000 comments. This makes gutefrage larger and more diverse  than any other platform. It’s a place where everyone can quickly find new perspectives – whatever the topic.

gutefrage promotes honest and open discussion among its users – at all times and in all places. This approach is what allows for such a large variety of topics and opinions to exist on the platform.

The challenge: Buck the downward SEO trend

For gutefrage, search, visibility and content have always been interdependent: The content that ranks with search engines is generated by the users, as they ask questions and write answers. As the amount of content on the platform has grown, so too has its dependence on Google web search.

Search engine optimization used to be a top priority for gutefrage’s founders and executives. This changed over time, as the product developed from a platform primarily driven by SEO to become Germany’s largest Q&A portal – this transformation brought a switch in focus. SEO increasingly drifted into the background and external support was only infrequently called upon. At this stage, there was no internal SEO team at gutefrage. Then Michael Maretzke (COO, Member of the Executive Board) recognized the relevance of SEO and the role it could play, and appointed me as Head of SEO in September 2017.

When I joined, gutefrage, the platform was coming off the back of the negative impact of several Google Updates (Panda, Phantom, Core Algorithm Update, Fred etc.). Something clearly had to change. As a result, SEO was re-established as a major part of the company’s internal processes and it became closely integrated into product management. A strategy had to be developed that would enable a significant increase in gutefrage’s reach and help discover areas of potential. Concrete SEO measures had to be defined, prioritized and implemented in order to reverse the downward trend in the platform’s fortunes.

With this challenge ahead of me, I spent the first few months at gutefrage building up an overview of the current state of the platform and defining SEO measures, and I began introducing members of the gutefrage team to the topic of SEO.

As a platform built on user-generated content, gutefrage has to deal with considerable challenges. The most important realization that we defined with product management was that we had to view the product from two distinct points of view. The community members, producing the content and asking their own personal questions, are in conflict with the users, who have a particular search intent and arrive at the platform via search engines. Once here, they want to quickly find the relevant information and answers they’re looking for.

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Given the complexity and size of the challenges the platform faced, I quickly decided to look for expert support and a source of second opinions – an SEO sparring partner. I didn’t have to think long about where to look for this consultancy service. The consulting provided by the Searchmetrics Digital Strategies Group has assisted me for more than seven years now, and we have worked together on the implementation of several successful projects.

The SEO consulting team at Searchmetrics stands out from its competitors thanks to its expertise, international SEO know-how and an understanding for the context surrounding products and business processes. I need a consultant who I can discuss challenges with at a high SEO level and whose opinion I can ask for at any time. I also like to feel that suggested measures have been thought through and are clearly prioritized. I appreciate the customer commitment that is on display when the consultant pro-actively gets to grips with our platform and shares their ideas with me, reports bugs or introduces me to new SEO trends. Last but not least, I value how direct the consultants are: I would rather be shown SEO errors clearly than have problems swept under the rug or sidestepped.

The strategy: Content relevance instead of quantity

The biggest challenge facing gutefrage was how to intelligently manage the large volume of content that had been generated over the years by the platform’s users. In September 2017, there were more than 16 million pages indexed in the Google Search Console. As part of its new SEO strategy, gutefrage discarded its old principle of “quantity before quality”, and replaced it with a “focus on content relevance and search intent”.

1. Quality instead of quantity

gutefrage’s new strategy included a content audit, with the aim of differentiating between relevant and irrelevant content – and only having content deemed as relevant in the Google index. The huge volume of content means that this is only possible with the use of automated processes, for which gutefrage’s own Quality Answer Score was a useful part of the puzzle.

For every answer on the platform, a score is calculated based on several different criteria (e.g. content length, positive user reputation, user reactions to answers). These criteria are supplemented by a semantic analysis that analyzes how well answers address questions. The results of this analysis also contribute to the overall Quality Answer Score. Any questions that never receive an answer are defined as thin content and should also be directly removed from the index.

In order to reduce the 16 million indexed pages mentioned earlier to the current level of around 5 million pages, traffic analyses were used in combination with the Quality Answer Score. Step by step, pages were identified for “cleaning up” i.e. removal from the index. The 11 million pages identified were removed from the index over the course of several months.

In parallel, an SEO service and an automated indexing process were created that preventatively ensured that qualitatively weak pages were not displayed to Google users.

As well as reducing the absolute number of pages in the index and focusing on relevant content, we also optimized the user flows and the user experience on our pages.

The positioning of ads and considerations regarding the placement of main and secondary content have also been very important. Our optimizations have led to great improvements in the results for the user signals we measure.

2. E-A-T and YMYL

Based on the Quality Rater Guidelines published by Google, we have conducted various measures aimed at improving the way gutefrage is perceived by users and strengthening its overall reputation. By working with sales, marketing and community management, we were able to establish exciting cooperation agreements with media outlets and acquire the services of experts. gutefrage is a particularly valuable cooperation partner when dealing with trends and topics that are important to the target group and that people are currently concerned about. The experts and partners are highly valuable for our community because their reputation passes to the content generated by the community members. Internal reports make it possible to identify the latest trends and topics that are of interest to users more quickly.

The Google Core Update in August 2018 showed again that Google’s evaluation of a platform’s expertise, authority and trust continues to grow in importance.

At gutefrage, moderators aim to react immediately to YMYL (your money or your life) topics. Content quality is hugely important in these areas. For this reason, the automated checks are supplemented with a manual quality assessment. Other topics that are also explicitly mentioned in the Q&A section of the Quality Rater Guidelines have also been optimized. For example, we have ramped up our efforts against link spam and started to pro-actively control the content published on YMYL pages.

3. Page speed, mobile-first index and other technical optimization measures

As well as improving the quality of content and the platform’s reputation, further measures were implemented: establishing a “mobile-first” approach in product development, conducting technical page speed optimization measures and addressing an array of other technical SEO issues. For example, we actively guide crawler bots to our listing pages with the help of Ghostblock pagination, we correct false canonical links and we repair “broken” internal links. For SEO questions in particular, Searchmetrics provides valuable input and suggestions for implementation.

The consultation: Workshop and calls with Searchmetrics

In the first months of our work together, the Searchmetrics Digital Strategies Group provided me with great support with impact assessments. A consulting team that works with many companies and is able to call upon such a wealth of experience is extremely well positioned to advise on how to best prioritize different measures. After taking care of the “SEO basics” (e.g. index management, sitemap, schema.org, link spam, pagination), it was time to set about creating a long-term strategy. I developed ideas and defined gutefrage’s guiding principles for the product. For these ideas, I was grateful to have Searchmetrics as a sparring partner, as the measures planned went well beyond correcting technical errors, and required both a change of focus for the product and the investment of considerable internal resources.

In January 2018, we invited our Searchmetrics consultant to our Munich office. Searchmetrics Consulting also prepared their main ideas, which we were then able to discuss with the Executive Board of gutefrage. The results of the workshop formed part of the SEO strategy and contributed to the creation of a catalogue of measures for implementation in 2018.

Over the course of the year, we worked with product management, marketing, community management, IT and sales to carry out the different measures. Every department within gutefrage was involved and every department contributed to changing the overall focus and implementing the processes.

At the peak period of implementing the strategy, we had a weekly call with our Searchmetrics consultant, which we used to keep up-to-date with the project’s progress. Support was provided with testing and checks were carried out on all aspects of the strategy that were implemented. We also received highly valuable tips regarding technical SEO measures. While managing the wide variety of topics that we have to deal with at gutefrage, there are often smaller concrete measures or short conceptual tasks that need working on. I can ask for support from the consulting team on such assignments at any time. And the results of their analyses are always inspiring and extremely valuable for my ongoing work within the company.

In early 2018, we suggested holding another strategy workshop with the Searchmetrics Digital Strategies Group and Marcus Tober. This took place in July 2018 in Searchmetrics’ Berlin office. The workshop was prepared by Searchmetrics and we generated numerous ideas for the further development our strategy. We were particularly interested in the strategic ideas developed based on the latest international SEO trends, for which Searchmetrics is always able to provide reliable insights.

Overall, working with Searchmetrics gives us a clear consulting focus. We use the Searchmetrics Suite for monitoring weekly visibility, for topic and keyword research, and for evaluation of our traffic potential. We are, of course, also interested in monitoring the performance of our competitors and seeing where rankings overlap.

The result: 150% increase in SEO Visibility

I am very proud of what we at gutefrage have achieved in cooperation with Searchmetrics. We have been focusing on SEO for nine months and had to show patience regarding our visibility and website traffic. In SEO, things don’t always happen overnight. However, with the Google Core Update in August 2018, we were finally able to reap the rewards of our efforts and see the benefits of all the measures we had implemented. In terms of absolute increase in Searchmetrics SEO Visibility, gutefrage emerged from the Google Update as one of the top 10 most-improved domains in Germany. The platform increased its Visibility by 150% as a result of the update and has remained stable since. For gutefrage, this was the biggest increase in its online visibility following a Google Update since 2014.

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We hope that the current positive development in our platform’s visibility will remain stable. Of course, there are still many challenges that gutefrage has to tackle. Our aim is to create a product that the community members enjoy using but that also fulfils users’ expectations of finding high-quality answers and information. If we continue to succeed in providing both community members and Google users with added value, then they will generate more positive signals and we will make the most of the platform’s potential to gain online visibility and traffic.

Next steps: What lies ahead for gutefrage?

Together with the Searchmetrics Digital Strategies Group, we have discussed new ways of leveraging the potential of the wealth of content that gutefrage has to offer. In the future, gutefrage will follow a new approach to the planning and management of community content, instead of simply putting all available question pages online.

In order to avoid having duplicate content on the domain, there will be stricter controls regarding which content is publised. There will also be new incentives for experts and brands to participate in our community. The aim is for Google to find high-quality content on the gutefrage platform and for the search engine to evaluate the entire domain more positively.

Content clustering and more relevant secondary content on the question pages should also lead to an increase in time-on-site and an improved user experience.

With its enormous community, which constantly produces its own content, gutefrage is a unique project in Germany, and one with vast amounts of potential and exciting challenges not found elsewhere.

We are looking forward to continuing our cooperation with the Searchmetrics Digital Strategies Group, and, with the help of their consultancy and support, creating a product that will enjoy long-term relevance in the search engine results pages.

I’ve been working as Head of SEO for gutefrage.net GmbH since September 2017. I previously worked for four and a half years for 12Auto Group GmbH, a subsidiary of ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE. There, as well as SEO, I was responsible for the development of cross-media campaign concepts, including TV advertising, and the implementation of performance-oriented online campaigns. I’ve also worked on exciting projects in online marketing with ProSiebenSat.1 Digital and been involved in community management with Lokalisten Media GmbH.
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