One of the most common questions asked by publishers after implementing Freestar’s traffic growth suggestions is when there will be evident reward for their efforts. Along with it comes THE most common SEO answer of all time: it depends.

The full list of potential answers is a post for another day, but seeing hard work pay off at the time of Google’s next core algorithm update is what we tell publishers most frequently. And this last one, on May 25, was a strong one.

Many enterprise sites we monetize remained steady, but for those that did see either a positive or negative impact, it was noticeable and happened right on the 25th. In the weeks following the May 2022 core update, we’ve analyzed traffic, cross-referenced our 6 months of audience development initiatives and spoken to publishers about the SEO modifications and content strategies implemented in the months leading up to May 25.

Here are some of our findings.

Winning SEO Strategies

As a reminder, organic search increases are almost never due to one glaring issue resolved, but from the combined improvements made by many changes over a period of time, that ultimately improved user experience and content quality.

The list below is SEO strategies used in the last 6 months by publishers who saw organic search traffic gains at the time of Google’s last update.

1. Niche Down, Even Further

Google favors the niche, these are words I say regularly. Publishers who once covered a broad range of topics from finance, to food, parenting, beauty, wellness and culture have over the years, consolidated their areas of editorial expertise.

Now, even being a site of a singular broad focus isn’t enough. Sites dedicated to food, travel, and parenting have taken even more steps to carve out authority by specializing solely in topics even more specific, like gluten-free recipes, travel hacking and Gen-Z beauty product reviews.

And it’s paying off. Over the past few months, several Freestar publishers in our audience development program consolidated site verticals that weren’t performing to allow for more production bandwidth of the content that was getting traction in Google.

Result: One Freestar publisher refreshed their primary navigation in Q1 of this year and is in the process of consolidating some of the harder-to-rank-in categories (read more: YMYL). Along with that, they’ve tightened up on-page SEO best practices and doubled down on content production for the topics driving organic search traffic. Since May 25, they’ve seen a 36% increase in organic impressions and a 37% increase in organic clicks (source: GSC). They also made several modifications to improve site E-A-T.

2. Update Outdated or Low-Quality Content

Updating top evergreen performers (especially seasonal content) is still a popular strategy for publishers, but to see any traffic boosts from this strategy these days, you’ll need to do the work of actually improving the post quality.

Quick Tips For Refreshing Content:

– Before you hit republish, google the term you hope to improve rankings for. Who ranks in the top few spots? Look at their post quality, the information they provide, and the images and videos they include. Use this as your quality benchmark.

– Don’t touch your top-ranking posts.

– Use tools like SEM Rush Topic Research, Answer the Public or the People Also Ask section of search results to get ideas for what info to enhance the post with.

– Updates can include changes other than content. Add better or more images, optimize the images, add h2 or h3 heading tags, make sure it’s monetized properly, double-check that it’s brand safe, and add a video. These are all ways to improve the user experience.

– Add to the post, vs. removing information unless it’s completely false. Less risk.

Result: One Freestar publisher I started working with back in March had never updated any posts from their 15 years of publishing digital content. With an extensive archive of tutorials, how-tos and best-of lists related to their niche, much had become outdated. Each month, the editorial lead selected 10-15 pieces of content to improve. Since the algorithm update, their organic sessions have increased by 42%, and pageviews by 35%.

3. Improve Quality of New Content

New content production is one of the most important aspects of a digital publisher’s business. No matter what niche you’re in, you can connect with your audience through content. Google likes to see new and interesting info hit the web.

Another site we’ve been working with outlined their new editorial approach after we spoke about being intentional and targeted when deciding what kinds of new content to publish. Instead of publishing content angles in hopes your audience likes it, make data-informed decisions on the content you know they’ll like.

Here are the steps as outlined back to me by the publisher:

  1. Identify a currently high-ranking query or article from Google Search Console
  2. Search that topic on Google (or other keyword research tools) to find what related topics people care about
  3. Create an article based on those extended topics
  4. Interlink these pieces of content together

Result: This process, along with updating author bio pages, consolidating channels that were muddying their niche and some adjustments to article formatting led to a 30% increase in organic search pageviews since May 25.

4. Homepage Optimization

Somewhere along the way publishers became too cool for basic SEO homepage optimization. Like, even the recommendation to do so is an automatic signal to the eyebrow-raised webmaster slash developer sitting before me, that I’m an SEO novice.

Thing is, the homepage is still the most heavily weighted page on a site, even if most of your traffic goes to deeper pages. Google gleans from its details on your core business or expertise, and it’s easier for them to do that with meta tags. Is it going to have some profound impact on its own? No. Should you have an optimized homepage title tag and meta description? Yes.

Other areas of homepage optimization:

– Make sure the layout is clean, uncluttered

– From the homepage, a user should be able to tell what the site is about

– Tell Google even more about your business with organization schema

Result: One Freestar News-niche publisher updated their homepage HTML title and meta description by removing the phrase “rumors”. Google has strict journalistic standards, it’s best not to associate your brand with speculation, gossip, or conspiracy theories. On May 25, organic search traffic to their homepage increased by 2,000%, roughly +100,000. I sent him a screenshot and joked about exactly how much Google must hate misinformation. The boost they experienced was because of much more than this one change, but as he put it, “removing that term sure didn’t hurt anything!”.

5. Increase Evergreen Content

Adding evergreen content into your editorial strategy does two major things. First, it provides content that people intentionally search for, and this increases the chances of discovery through organic search.

Second, by accompanying your trending News content with evergreen stories, it can carry traffic through times of slow seasons.

Result: One Freestar publisher hired 2 writers back in Q1 to focus on adding evergreen content to their News site. They also made readability improvements that led to better engagement metrics. In addition to the traffic gains, this publisher has experienced an 81% increase in overall revenue and a 60% increase in impressions.

6. Implement Structured Data

The essence of structured data markup is that it provides machine-readable context for what your website is about, directly on your site. It was designed so that you can provide clear and specific information in a standardized format for all major search engines.

Whenever I’m looking at a Freestar publisher that was bumped down in rankings, I’ll run the site that dropped and pull one of the top ranking sites and run them both through this Rich Results test. In the last year, media mammoths like Hearst, Dotdash Meredith and Penske have added more schema markup to their owned and operated properties. Entity types like FAQ, Product, Breadcrumb, and Video are just the beginning.

Additional Observations

I read recently that in the last few core algorithm updates, Google is more heavily favoring sites in the search results that have a high ratio of branded searches. Branded queries are easy for them to track and at the same time, they can give weight to the website being searched for as a brand of quality, authoritativeness, and trust. That makes sense, right?

Creating something of quality, that people find valuable has to be the base, the bare minimum. And then, marketing your own business, to the point where people recognize the name and trust it, will prove a valuable endeavor in the long run. Both must be part of the strategy.

Google’s algorithm updates can be devastating for publishers who depend on ad revenue, and after a lengthy analysis process of properties seemingly stung by the latest, I leave you with this. I still see cases where low-quality content and worse UX are beating *what I perceive* as better options. Other factors (BACKLINKS, brand queries, security) are still at play. Continue down the road that leads to the best possible content creation and website experience and stay true to yourself and your audience.

As evidenced by the above list, for publishers who are doing those things, the payoff can be substantial.