Guest speaker Courtney Cox Wakefield discusses the 4 pillars of building out a content strategy in pursuit of Position Zero: Audience Research, Competitor Research, Content Optimization and Technical Optimization.
Be sure to listen in so that you can hear Courtney’s best practices for optimizing Position Zero worthy content.
Featuring: Courtney Cox Wakefield, Digital Marketing Expert and Speaker
Courtney is a born-and-raised Texan with a passion for serving her community. She’s spent her career working on private sector marketing teams, but last year made the transition to nonprofit marketing when she joined the mission to “make life better for children” with the Children’s Health team. Courtney studied both Emerging Media & Communication and Nonprofit Management at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her free time, she uses her SEO and UX experience volunteering for local nonprofits with her wife, Hollis, in their neighborhood of Oak Cliff in Dallas.
Ben: Welcome to the Voices of Search Podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro, and today we’re going to continue our month long deep dive into one of the hottest topics in the ever changing world of search engine optimization: Position Zero. Before we get started today, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are a team of SEO content marketers and data scientists that help enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions using a mix of software and SEO expertise. TO support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we are offering a complimentary content diagnostic consultation. A member of our digital services group will advise you on how you can optimize your content, understand what topics you need to cover next, and how to ensure that your writers are producing effective posts. To schedule your free content diagnostic with Searchmetrics, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.
Ben: OK. Lets get down to business. Joining us today is Courtney Cox Wakefield who is the head of consumer digital marketing at Children’s Health Hospital which is one of the top care facilities in the United States. In addition to her role helping to market health care services, Courtney is a digital marketing consultant, a speaker and the author of a soon to be released book about voice search. Courtney! Welcome to the voices of search podcast!
Courtney: Hey Ben. Happy to be here.
Ben: It’s great to have you here. And honestly it’s wonderful to talk to somebody outside of the Searchmetrics organization. If I have to hear Jordan ramble on one more time, I’m going to lose my mind. Kidding aside, Jordan I love you buddy. But it’s good to have you here and I’m excited to talk to you about Position Zero, and a little bit about building content strategy, specifically for Position Zero.
Ben: So, to get started, first off let’s talk about your background and your expertise. So the SEO’s and digital marketers that are listening understand who you are. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Courtney: Sure. I started in the marketing industry almost 15 years ago as a graphic designer, and as a part of that process started learning more about web design. And I got a job at a gymnastics company doing some digital marketing for them. And one day my boss came in and he slid this book across my desk and he said “Hey Courtney, I want you to learn about this SEO thing.” And the rest is kinda history. I read the book, fell in love with it. To his disappointment, decided to take a 20% pay cut to go to an agency at the time to intern with them as an SEO intern.
Courtney: Ever since then I’ve been working with companies, clients and employers to optimize their SEO strategy and really to take advantage of the things Search has to offer. In a unique way, I’m always looking at what’s next, trying to build strategies that are going to take advantage of those things that the industry as a whole isn’t focused on. A lot of times we get focused on best practices and we aren’t focused on that next thing that’s going to help us to build an audience outside of what the rest of the industry is focused on. So that’s been kinda my calling card.
Ben: So you mentioned that marketers aren’t always focused on what the next thing is. And this month we’re focused specifically on understanding Position Zero. Position Zero isn’t necessarily a new thing, but voice search is. And, I know that you’re both a content expert, an SEO expert, and specifically focusing more and more on voice search. I want to focus in on building a content strategy that is optimized for Position Zero. Can you help me out and understand how to think about building a content strategy that gets you above the top of search results pages.
Courtney: Yeah, there’s really 4 pillars involved in a great Position Zero strategy. The first is audience research and it’s the most important piece. I can go a little bit into what that means in a moment. There’s competitor research. And then there’s the content optimization and the technical optimization. And for the most part those two things are things that people are already doing from an SEO perspective. There’s a few things that differ from a technical optimization and a content optimization perspective but most of the things that you would do are related to general SEO, and those phases are the biggest piece that differs for Position Zero strategies is that audience and competitor research.
Ben: So you said that there’s 4 pillars, there’s audience research, doing your technical optimization, your content optimization, what was the fourth piece?
Courtney: The competitor research.
Ben: Okay, let’s talk through each of those in … Keeping in mind that we’re trying to build a Position Zero research. Talk to me a little bit about your strategy for doing audience research. Let’s talk a little bit about, if it’s okay with you, about Children’s Health and your role there. When you’re building content for Children’s Health, [crosstalk 00:05:39] how are you thinking about your audience and how are you trying to get to Position Zero?
Courtney: So, part of the problem … actually it’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity, with our Position Zero and the way that Google decides on Position Zero content, is that it’s all about the long-tail … the head terms that we’re generally used to optimizing for SEO, they don’t work for a Position Zero strategy. You might get them now and then. You might get rankings for Position Zero with those head terms but when you focus on the long-tail, that’s where you’re really going to have the best results.
Courtney: So, you don’t get those types of questions that are answered in the long-tail by sitting in your desk and going to Google Key-word Planner or going to SEMrush and entering a bunch of terms to hopefully have the tool spit out related terms right? That’s not going to get you those long-tail answers. The best thing to do is to get out of your office chair and go get in front of the people who are dealing with your customers every single day. Or get in front of your customers if your able. SO that’s people who are working at the front desk, people who are working in your call center, your sales teams. For our hospital its working with your actual care providers, to figure out what questions people are asking them.
Courtney: So that’s doctors, its nurses, sometimes its call center folks. And were asking them “What are the things that people ask the most often about this condition? What are the things that are real pain points for our customers? When they ask about us as an organization, what are the things that they ask first? What are the words that they use, before they know what the condition that they have is called, or the treatment that they need is called?”
Courtney: So for example, we may call it oncology, but they call it cancer. So how do we position the content that we have around the way that our customer speaks? That’s what’s the most important thing for the Position Zero, is making sure you really understand your audience, what questions they ask, and how they speak. And then the next step to that audience research is taking everything you learn, all the questions that people ask and using the correct wording and taking that and putting it into Google and seeing what comes up. Do you get an answer box for that result? If you don’t why not? What types of results are you seeing and are they answering the questions well? ‘What people also ask’ questions are coming up, right?
Courtney: Because you’re never going to get 100% of the questions that people ask by doing this audience research with your team or with your customers but the good thing is Google has this tremendous treasure trove from the 20 years of search that they’ve collected. They know if somebodies asking this question that you just plugged in as a query, what there next question is and what the question that they had before that was. They put the ‘what people also ask’ questions to reduce clicks for the user but it also can be a research tool for us as SEOs to say “Okay, what other content to I need to be writing alongside this piece of content that I already know I need because my customers are already asking for it.
Ben: Its interesting. I appreciate when you’re doing your audience research that you actually go and talk to your audience. As much as I and the team at Searchmetrics believe that data can solve this, there is also a qualitative component to understanding the problem that you are trying to solve. I do think that when you have some general themes that you’re looking at you can use technology, data-driven tools, things like Searchmetrics to be able to find the additional answers. One of the things I want to ask you about, the process you’re talking about feels very manual. Like, go and talk to people in the data center, get all of the questions, go into Google, see what the next question is, see what the previous question was and create your answers. Is there a way to do this at scale?
Courtney: There are some scrapers you can build, or you can use to do that. If you don’t have the ability to purchase really big tools like Searchmetrics or get STAT. We do use an agency who does most of this expansion research for us. So we will do the initial audience research and collect all the initial questions, we provide that back to the agency and they do the work to extrapolate that out. I think they’re using some automated tools and also some tools that they’ve built in house, that scrapers to pull the ‘people also ask’ questions. I don’t know 100% what their step by step process is at Seer, but I do know that the way I preform it is manual except for one case in which I used a scraper to pull the ‘people also ask’ questions.
Courtney: And I can send a link to you, Ben, if you want to add that in the show notes for folks to use.
Ben: Sure. Let’s move on to the next topic where you mentioned first, do your audience research, understand the questions that they’re asking and understand the language that they’re using. And then you mentioned doing competitive research. Tell me what your thoughts for competitive research as it relates to position zero.
Courtney: Yeah, the thing that I have found, and I think this is true for most industries, it’s certainly true for the health care industry, that most of the sites that are ranking in Position Zero aren’t trying very hard. They’re ranking because they answer the question well-ish and Google can understand their content well. SO they, by default, have made it into that position. But most of the time, they haven’t actually attempted to get into that space. So what you’re doing when you’re doing this competitor research is plugging these question sin, seeing who’s ranking and then starting to write down the trends that you see.
Courtney: Are there certain types of questions that are being asked? Are they in a certain format? So do you see tables more often than you’re seeing bulleted lists for certain types of content? So, for example for recipes. If you were like a cooking company … or actually health care is a perfect example. Sometimes we right recipes that are like heart healthy or good for diabetics. Where all of our other content is paragraphs or bulleted lists, for recipes they like to see numbered lists. So were making sure we write our content in a way that is a numbered list for recipes because we want to follow that trend that Google has said, this is the way that they like to see recipes written when they implement them in the answer box.
Ben: So is there a set of guidelines that you can follow that Googles published somewhere or is this just institutional knowledge that you’ve built?
Courtney: They’re not guidelines that Google has published. I mean, we know as an industry Google does not publish their algorithms. So we do not know what they’re doing that causes people to rank. But we know trends that we can see from tools like Moz or groups like Moz who are doing these large, sweeping analyses of all the data that they have from their clients. People who are using their platform to make some pretty educated guesses about what works and what doesn’t work. So we know things like if you use Schema, then Googles going to be able to better understand your content.
Courtney: They’re going to know for a fact that this is a recipe because you wrapped it in recipe structured data, so then they’re going to be more likely to rank you in the answer box for a recipe because they know for a fact that that’s what it is. You’ve helped them understand your data better. So that’s one thing. Then, we know that Google is moving more towards semantic search, they’ve told us that. So we know that we need to start writing our content in a way that is more natural. We need to write headings in a way that is more natural. They can understand those things better, and they can understand that they’re more natural. So even though they haven’t told us “If you make the question the H2 on the page, that’s going to help you” we can deduce that that’s the case because they’ve told us that they’re moving towards natural language.
Ben: Yeah, makes sense. Speaking in the language that people can actually consume helps Google better rank your content. [crosstalk 00:14:12] Who would have guessed? Talk to me a little bit about the technical optimizations that you’ve made for Position Zero. You mentioned the schemas and formatting content building things into your rich snippets, your featured snippets. Talk to me about the technical component.
Courtney: So, one of the things that is really important from a technical perspective, and I alluded to this moment ago, is making sure that your header structure is well define. So when your pulling these questions out and developing the content for those questions, you’re going to want to make sure that you’re using the mark-up of a header for the question name. Whether that’s the H1 or the H2 or the H3 it can be any piece but you’re going to want to make sure that its labeled that way so Google knows “Okay, the content that comes below this is the answer to this question, and the answer to this question ends when the next heading begins.”
Courtney: It just helps Google to crawl that in addition to your schema, understand how the structure of your content works. When we don’t have that, when everything is sort of just dumped into a rich text format and we’ve done in line styling to make it look like a header but we haven’t structured it right Google has a much harder time making the decision about where the answer ends and begins and that just makes them less confident about publishing your answer. And you never want Google to question their confidence, or question the legitimacy of publishing your answer as the Position Zero answer.
Courtney: And then everything else is the other technical optimization you hear all the time. Make sure your site is crawlable, make sure that the site speed is strong, make sure that you’ve got the right language settings for different languages of content. Right? We’re developing English content and we’re about to launch Spanish content so that something that we’re going through right now. Its all that technical optimization that you would do form an SEO perspective already.
Ben: And the last piece that you mentioned in your outline for how to create a content strategy for Position Zero was the content optimization. Talk to me about the meat and potatoes of building a content strategy for Position Zero.
Courtney: Yeah, we’ve alluded to a lot of it already. Basically, all of the things that you learn from your audience research and your competitor research so, the questions that your audience is asking, how they speak, the ways that your competitors are failing to answer the question and the ways that they are winning, being aware of those things is going to help you to develop that content.
Courtney: So the first thing you’re going to do is take all the questions that you got for your research and start to group them into either page ideas or article ideas. Sometimes it’s going to be a page if it’s like content about a product, frequently asked questions about a product or a service or something like that. Sometimes it’s going to be like an article, so you’ll group things together for that. But basically you’re just going to be creating a content plan, essentially a road map.
Courtney: Then you’re going to take all the competitor research that you had. So what was working for your competitors, what wasn’t, and you’re going to append it to those different ideas depending on each individual question. So all of those data points were already attached to a question. So you’re just going to make sure that that’s just appended to those article ideas where those questions are used.
Courtney: And then you’re going to start writing that content keeping all those things in mind. And the most important thing from the competitor research piece is you’re going to want to make sure that you’re answering the question … you’re going to meet the status quo. So you’re going to answer the question as well as the competitor did. Then you’re going to say how can I go above and beyond? Where did they fail? How can I make this 10x better or 5x better than what they provided? And you’re going to do that with the audience research you already had. SO you’re going to already know what questions your audience is asking that the competitor didn’t answer. That’s the real meat and potatoes of the content optimization piece.
Ben: You know my big take away here is you mentioned start with your audience, and basically build your own list of questions that they’re trying to have answered. You’re going to take that list and look at what your competitors are doing and understanding how they’ve answered the question. You need to do at least as good of a job as they did to answer it, and then really the differentiation point is a lot of the formatting, and the difference between bulleted lists and numbered lists or you know exactly how you’re submitting your content to Google. Make sure that that is wrapped in a package that Google can easily grab so it is appropriate for a Position Zero spot. Are there any last tips that you have to make sure that you’re packaging your content in a way that Google is likely to grab it? Is there any rules of thumbs or industries and categories that you see that are specifically fitted for Position Zero?
Courtney: I think every industry can live in Position Zero. There’s not a single product that people aren’t asking questions about. Even things like toilet paper, I’ve been thinking about this recently, because my wife … There’s this whole thing with sustainability and straws and my wife was like “Everybody’s freaking out about straws but there’s all this other stuff that we do that’s completely unsustainable. Like let’s talk about toilet paper”. So I started doing some research on toilet paper and actually she ended up finding this bamboo based toilet paper which is interesting. And even toilet paper has people asking questions, right? So it doesn’t matter how banal the industry you’re in is, people have questions about your products and your services and you should be online answering them.
Ben: There actually is a Position Zero placement, it’s just below an ad for “Whogivesacrap.org”
Courtney: Yep, and that’s the company we finally ended up ordering from.
Ben: There you go. SO, a couple of things that we talked about, how to build a content strategy for Position Zero, starting with figuring out who your audience is, looking at your competitors, making sure that you’re doing your technical optimizations, you’re getting your heading right, building your content in a format that easily accessible for Google to put into Position Zero. And then doing your content optimization, making sure that your writing good answers to your questions and you can rank ahead of whogivesacrap.org for bamboo toilet paper if you follow those steps. So Courtney before I let you go, talk to me about the value of Position Zero. When you’re building out your content strategy and you’re trying to get that placement above spot #1, do you see an incremental lift? Is it worth it to go through all of this pain?
Courtney: Yeah, I think this is a really interesting question because it can go in a lot of different directions. The first one is an interesting thing to talk about is Voice Search. Because if you do a query using Alexa or using Google Home and you say “What’s the best podcast” or “Hey, Alexa. What’s the best podcast about SEO?” She’s not going to list 10 blue links, right? She’s going to give you one answer. And whatever that one answer is the one that occupies the Position Zero space. So whether or not we’re seeing a lift in traffic or not from having the Position Zero on Google SERP is sort of irrelevant as Voice Search starts to grow in prominence.
Courtney: I’ve seen some predictions by Gartner that 30% on searches are going to be done on a device without a screen by 2020. That’s a lot of searches that you’re only going to be getting one answer for. And they may come up with some solutions to help you browse more answers but for the most part, you’re going to get one answer. Most people, when it’s in a voice interaction they’re not going to have the patience to scroll through 10 different answers and remember what the different options were.
Courtney: So that’s the first one. I think voice search is really important.
Courtney: The second one, is I think some people are going to lose traffic in some cases, to the instant answer right? So there’s this question and lots of people are asking it on Twitter of as Google starts to answer questions on SERP is that a problem? Should we be mad at Google for doing this? Should we be worried about our future success because of that? What I would say to those people is, if you are building a brand that is based on influence and you are really concerned with helping your clients then it doesn’t matter if Google uses your content to answer questions on SERP because they’re still going to see that you are the site that that answer came from and that’s going to build your authority and your influence.
Courtney: Do you think Gary Vaynerchuk cares if Google answers the question on the SERP as long as they give him credit? No, he doesn’t care about that because he’s building an influence machine. He’s building an audience that’s going to find him no matter where he is. They’re going to go to his website if they need an answer instead of going to Google because they trust him so much. And that’s what we as marketers need to focus on building is trust and authority instead of focusing on building clicks which at the end of the day are just a vanity-metric if they don’t lead to ROI. So I think that’s the other piece that important to keep in mind. You can use these answer boxes to build an audience, not just to direct traffic.
Ben: Great. Lastly, before we let you go, give us a 30 second preview! You’re writing a book on Voice Search, tell us a little bit about it!
Courtney: So, the book is a step-by-step guide is in many ways. It helps people understand what the importance of Voice Search is, what the future of it is going to look like. How to sell it internally, for folks that are maybe frontline staff or managers that are trying to into to directors. And then it’s a step by step guide. We talk a little bit about building skills but we are really talking about organic first. Trying to make sure that we have a great organic strategy first before we go into investing in apps or skills and actions. And then, we talk a little bit about measurement. How are we going to measure this moving forward? Because I don’t think we have a great answer for measurement about Voice Search yet and I suspect that we’ll start seeing a lot of applications for that coming out here soon.
Ben: It sounds interesting, I’m looking forward to reading the book as soon as it comes out! And… that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thank you for listening to my conversation with Courtney Cox Wakefield from Children’s Health Hospital. We’d love to continue this conversation with you over the internet, so if you’re interested in contacting Courtney you can find a link to her bio in our show notes, if you have any general marketing questions or if you want to talk to me about this podcast you can find my contact info in the show notes or you can tweet to me @BenJShap. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic search traffic, online visibility, or to gain insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.
Ben: If you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights, in addition to the rest of Position Zero week we’ve got some great episodes lined up over the next few months so hit that subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed next week. Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed the show and you’re feeling generous, we’d really appreciate it if you’d leave us a quick review in the iTunes store or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Okay, that’s it for today, but until next time remember, the answers are always in the data.