This article will show you how I discovered an SEO opportunity on my website, the strategy I used to rank the target keyword, and exactly how I took the #1 position on Google for a keyword with 74,000 monthly searches, increasing my traffic by 3073.47%.
Increase Traffic by 3073.47%
People have said that SEO is dead. I think the people who say that really mean to say “SEO is very competitive, and therefore I quit.” While it’s true that ranking on the search engines takes much more effort, time, and skills than it once did, it’s still a powerful source of income for many of us.
For those who just want the step-by-step process, scroll to the bottom of the page.
The Keyword Research
It was a few years ago when I first realized that there was a particular group of keywords ranking high on Google for my real estate business. I was performing a competitive gap analysis for my Las Vegas real estate business website.
During the research, I found that zip codes were a high traffic generating set of keywords. When I looked at other states with many zip codes, I saw a correlation between high-ranking keywords related to zip codes and organic traffic from Google.
Then, I realized that if I employed the right SEO strategy, I might be able to take some of the market share and generate traffic to my website.
But, I had to explore the competition to be sure.
I dug deeper into each of the zip code keywords that were ranking and found that the top keyword phrase ‘Las Vegas Zip Codes’ had 74,000 monthly searches and a keyword difficulty of 48.
Any keyword difficulty score under 50, I’m generally pretty quick to take action on if it generates organic traffic from Google.
Of course, you can look up keyword difficulty on your favorite SEO tool, but their scoring system might be different.
While I won’t cover keyword difficulty in-depth in this article, you can read more about Keyword Difficulty Scores.
After looking over the keyword research, I moved on to look at what competition, exactly, I was going to be taking on.
At the time, I don’t believe Google had the zip code carousel at the top, which today takes a lot of the traffic away from the pages listed on the SERP (Search Engine Results Page).
The top position was a featured snippet (that’s the zero position at the top of the page when there is no carousel). How to get a Featured Snippet in less than 15 minutes
By optimizing your website for featured snippets, you’ll promote a positive experience for your site’s visitors…loriballen.medium.com
It had an image of a map and a link to a website all about zip codes.
I noticed that the website hadn’t been updated in a while, and looked like it was created about the same time as AOL. https://loriballen.com/media/360daefebe1dc1b5aed9a46901fc40b2
According to MOZ, the domain authority score was a 49, and my site was only in the high 30’s, but I felt confident in my approach that I could do better.
That’s the thing with taking on the competition when you want to rank on Google.
You have to believe that you can do it better. Google’s main objective is to return the most relevant pages on the SERP to the user.
So while backlinks are important for ranking (one of the top factors in domain authority), satisfying the user intent is most important.
Google uses metrics to determine which page matches user intent best such as:
- Dwell Time: How long they spend on the site
- Pogosticking: Did the user land on the page and then go back to choose a different page?
- Actions: Did they engage with the website while they were there?
Furthermore, Google looks at the expertise of the website and its owner, the authoritativeness of the website (topic authority), and the trust of the website (reputation).
You can learn more about E-A-T in Google’s search quality rater’s guidelines PDF.
Other real estate agents ranked on page one, indicating that Google liked a real estate website related to zip codes. While challenging to take on, the opportunity was now presented.
And I decided to go for it.
The actual content we create for articles is very important if we want to rank on Google. If our website is new, taking on competitive keywords is rarely a good idea. Even if we 10X the content, we aren’t likely to pass up websites that are already proven in that space.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There are always outliers in the SEO game.
In this case, the focus keyword was actually part of a large list of related keywords.
Then, each page in the topic cluster would link back up to the main page, and many would link to each other when appropriate to do so.
Put simply, a topic cluster is a set of articles that are all related. Also referred to as the Hub and Spoke model, or SEO Silo, the topic cluster consists of one main page which I call the pillar post (or the Hub), and several cluster pages (the spokes).
A topic cluster model is used when you want to bring in more authority by getting links from articles on other sites. It also works well for organizing information into a logical structure that people find easy to understand and navigate.
The Pillar Page
First, I created the pillar post that was my goal page for ranking for Las Vegas Zip Codes. Surprisingly, this page did not require as much content as most of the pillar posts I have created in the past. Most of my pillar pages are several thousand words.
This one did not require that much content.
Maybe, the size of the cluster itself was enough. We don’t always know the absolute ranking factors with SEO, and best practices don’t always apply.
I spend a lot of time trying things and then testing and measuring to create a general rule.
I included a list of zip codes, the areas of town and neighborhoods within the zip codes, and a zip code map. I also included a FAQ at the bottom, which helped me land questions in the People Also Ask question section on Google (PPA).
The FAQ with schema markup also awarded me an enhanced listing which may have also attributed to the #1 ranking.
But with SEO, it’s often the chicken and the egg story: which came first? Did the FAQ help me rank in the top position, or did ranking #1 earn the PPA enhancement?
The goal is that anyone wanting to find out a zip code for a particular area, could find my page and be satisfied. A user’s intent is satisfied when they stop searching because they have found what they need.
The pillar page should include rich media such as images, video, audio, infographics, etc.
The Cluster Pages
Each cluster includes information about the subtopic without cannibalizing the pillar page focus keyword. That was my biggest challenge. Several times, I had to change cluster content to not include the main keyword as it was ranking for the goal keyword rather than the pillar post.
Sometimes, I had to add a rel=canonical tag, or redirect to pass the link flow to the correct page. This is some geeky stuff, so don’t worry about that now. If you reach page one for your desired keyword, and can’t climb to #1, that might be the time to look into this strategy.
Here’s an example of a content cluster in the topic cluster.Homes for Sale 89135
89135 is a zip code in the Southwest part of Las Vegas. It’s home to neighborhoods such as Red Rock Country Club…ballenvegas.com
The Internal Linking Strategy
The internal linking strategy is the key to the topic cluster. Whether it’s done manually, or automated, or set up in a physical structure, the links must be present.
I built a physical SILO by creating the content cluster pages under the Pillar post. In WordPress, this is a parent page, child page set up. That way, each child page is automatically linking to the parent page through breadcrumbs, or a table set up.
With breadcrumb navigation, it’s easy then to link the cluster in a way that both the user would find beneficial and gives Google the roadmap.
It’s easy for Google to crawl and see how the pages are related to one another.
I also used an auto-linking tool to create a link with every instance of the word Las Vegas Zip Code.
⚠️ Beware that auto-linking can result in over-optimization. It’s best to link manually unless you truly have an understanding of links.
It’s best to create a hyperlink in the beginning manually. (I include a link on how to do that in the step-by-step instructions at the bottom of this article.)
To date, I have never done backlink outreach. While I’m clear that gaining quality backlinks (when another website links to your page), I focus more on content that will naturally gain backlinks.
So while some of the domain authority scores are around the 50 mark, there aren’t any higher, and most are lower. And some of the links are those nasty little coupon sites that can be viewed as toxic. (more on that in another blog).
In short, the external links aren’t powering this #1 ranking, but rather the internal links of the topic cluster are. (most likely)
Surprisingly, I didn’t earn near as many backlinks as others have on page one of Google. My domain authority is lower, and my referring domains are as well.
The topic cluster and its structure appears to be a key factor in the overall results, and I believe my website matches the user intent. While other websites have created the cluster pages, their linking strategy falls short.
In addition, I have authority in the topic of ‘Las Vegas’ and ‘real estate’ have proven expertise in this space with many Google reviews, positive brand mentions, and a secure website that is all essential to ranking on Google today.
My website also generates the most organic traffic overall, which may also be considered. In fact, my organic traffic nearly doubles the #2 position’s search traffic, and then it drops quickly from there.
The Step-by-Step Process
- Choose a keyword tool that measures organic keyword difficulty. This is not the same as the competition score that measures paid ad competition. Research keywords in your niche, and look for the opportunity to build a topic cluster.
- Enter one of your competitor’s domain names in the search tool, and view their top ranking keywords and traffic. The key is to find a keyword that generates enough traffic to be worth working on, but low enough competition to win a position on the SERP.
- Make a list of related topics that could be part of a topic cluster.
- Create the Pillar Page first.
- Next, create your cluster pages. This can be done all at once, or overtime.
- Include frequently asked questions with schema markup. This is easy to do with WordPress and an SEO plugin like Yoast.
- Link each cluster page to the Pillar Post (page) by making a hyperlink.
- Where it makes sense to do so, link cluster pages to each other through contextual hyperlinks as well.
- Use breadcrumbs in a parent page /child page model to easily create a topic cluster on WordPress.
- Build as many backlinks as you can to your Pillar post.
- Link back to your topic cluster on internal pages outside of the cluster where appropriate.
Lori Ballen is a real estate agent in Las Vegas. She’s a digital marketing specialist, speaker, and marketing coach and loves to share her “Ballen Method” to generate website traffic and leads online. Lori’s specialties are SEO content writing (ranking on the search engines), social media strategies, and affiliate marketing. Need a website? Contact Lori’s brothers Jeff and Paul Helvin at Ballen Brands.