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Your guide to SEO backlinks: The good, bad & ugly

Posted in: Content Writing, SEO

Having a good quality SEO backlink strategy can be a powerful way for improving your website ranking in the search engines. However, the consensus among SEO consultants is that backlinks are the most “unscrupulous” area in their field.

Many websites have risen to power then fallen from grace just as dramatically through backlinks. But what exactly are backlinks and why is there a questionable reputation for their use in SEO.

What are backlinks?

Google uses around 200 ranking factors in their algorithms when deciding which pages and websites to send to the top of their search results. Backlinks, which are also known as links, linkbacks, inbound links, incoming links, external links, inlinks, and inward links, have for many years been a major component of Google’s algorithms. They are links placed on other websites pointing to your site.

Google for a long time looked upon these backlinks as votes of trust for your site. If website owners thought highly enough of your site to send traffic from theirs to yours then much like any recommendation it increased your credibility. Backlinks are a good indication that a website is popular.

However, in the early days of search engines when it became obvious backlinks could increase rankings of sites, it was the start of a race to rival the Melbourne Cup. SEO consultants were rushing to get SEO backlinks for their clients’ sites and while many were legitimate, there were dodgy practices.

Black hat and white hat SEO practices

Before we get into SEO backlinks strategies, which can only be described as questionable at best, a brief understanding of black hat and white hat SEO practices is needed.

When I was a kid, I’d love watching old western movies with my dad. The terms black hat and white hat as they relate to SEO originated from these classic western movies where hat colour would distinguish the characters.

The villain always wore a black hat, while the hero wore a white hat. In SEO land, black hat techniques and strategies are used to get higher search rankings and break search engine rules. They’re used mainly by people looking for a quick return on sites rather than a long-term investment based on trust and credibility. Some techniques used in black hat SEO include:

  • keyword stuffing
  • link farming
  • hidden texts and links.

Consequences of black hat SEO can result in your site being banned from a search engine and de-indexed as a penalty for using unethical techniques (see further down).

In contrast, white hat SEO refers to using techniques and strategies targeting a more human audience opposed to trying to merely trick a search engine. Techniques typically used in white hat SEO include using keywords and keyword analysis, doing research, rewriting meta tags to be more relevant, link building to quality sites as well as writing quality content for human readers. Those who use white hat SEO expect to make a long-term investment on their website, as the results will last a long time.

What are black hat SEO backlinks?

The Online Co managing director James Parnwell says in the early days of search engines and the SEO industry, black hat SEO backlinks were rife and even remain a problem today.

“Backlinks are the most scammed place of SEO,” James says.

“Especially in the early days, websites were getting thousands of links to push up their SEO rankings.

“There were even whole businesses built around building websites to provide links to other websites.”

James puts the black hat backlinks into what he terms SEO 1.0 category.

“Businesses were even paying money, often even big money to have backlinks to their sites,” he says.

“They would be irrelevant backlinks but the more links to a site often the higher the ranking and of course a high ranking on Google for a term could make a business.”

How Google cracked down on black hat backlinks

So just as websites rose to the top of Google rankings, they fell as dramatically with some disastrous results for businesses.

To understand how this happened, we must realise just how far search engines, especially Google, founded in 1999, have progressed.

“Over the years, Google has solidly dispensed with their competitors one by one and they’ve become the doorway for millions of businesses to be found and grow worldwide,” James says.

“Google’s implemented numerous algorithm updates which have in effect cracked down on black hat SEO tactics including dodgy links.”

We won’t go into details about all these updates. However, some of the most significant to crack down on black hat SEO practices include Panda and Penguin. The first Panda update came into effect in early 2011 with regular updates continuing to ensure quality sites will rank higher.

Google’s former head of webspam Matt Cutts has said that with Panda the search engine took a big revenue hit with partners but its implementation has been a necessary crackdown.

“I believe it was the right decision to launch Panda, both for the long-term trust of our users and for a better ecosystem for publishers,” he says.

Webmaster Guidelines further worked to halt unscrupulous SEO practices trying to cheat the system and encourage good or white hat SEO practices.

“The Penguin update was rolled out in 2012 as basically a crackdown on users who insisted on prohibited SEO techniques like keyword stuffing and inappropriate link building,” James says.

For those sites considered by Google as trying to beat the system and in violation of their webmaster guidelines, the penalties hit hard.

Deindexing and penalties – Businesses hit hard

As James says the days of SEO 1.0 and trying to game the system are now over. Businesses practising in unscrupulous SEO methods have been met with harsh penalties by Google.

“Penalties can include Google putting you from the front page of search engine results to page 20 or even completely removing or deindexing the site,” James says.

“Google’s computing power and resources are vast. They know everything about your website and every other website on the net and how they fit together.”

His view is shared by Business Growth Digital Marketing founder David James, who in his ebook How to rank on the first page of Google admits to using black hat tactics in the early days of SEO.

“Back in the day, there were a lot of SEO tactics I used that contributed to spam but it was generally accepted in the SEO community and it worked,” David says.

“It was an era where many SEOs would do whatever they could to manipulate Google’s search results without considering the impact it would have on users’ experience.

“People were buying automated link building software to get 10,000 links in a day or using use article syndication software, paying for links and even publishing low-quality guest posts to obtain links on directories or article sites built purposely as link farms.”

David says it wasn’t until Google launched the Penguin and Panda algorithm along with other manual penalties that SEO consultants started to pay attention.”

“I’ll admit I was one of those people in the SEO crowd. “

David says he has seen many sad stories of businesses who’ve had their websites penalised.

“I’ve worked on several websites to remove penalties so their business will get back on track again,” he says.

I wanted to hear from businesses affected by Google penalties for their link strategy. There were many sad stories shared, including of businesses who took a long time to recover.

One such business hit hard was printing, design and online marketing services giant Snap, which had its website just disappear from Google.

In investigating why Snap was penalised marketing manager Cindy Haylen says the company made some important discoveries.

“Many toxic links were found to be the result of negative SEO,” Cindy says.

Negative SEO is another black hat practice of putting backlinks to a competing site to increase its probability of being hit with a penalty and consequently drop in search engine ranking.

“Other bad backlinks had been added on behalf of Snap by SEO consultants who were following widely accepted pre-Penguin SEO practices.

“Guest blogging, which is essentially syndicating company generated and attributed content onto third-party sites through well-known intermediaries, caused a lot of damage too.”

Cindy says Snap engaged SEO firm Area Ten to their site out of the ditch and back up on Google. Each link to the website was manually assessed for quality and relevancy to their website with careful attention not to remove any good backlinks.

“Google guidelines were used to manually assessing each link,” Cindy says.

“Removing a harmful link involves either using the Google Disavow Tool or directly contacting the webmaster to request its deletion.

“Either of these can take months, and there’s no guarantee they will work but we had to try.”

Ultimately, after removal of all the bad links, snap.com.au recovered its enviable Google search ranking.

Cindy says Snap has now implemented a strategy to prevent future problems including:

Analysing new links appearing on the site and addressing any threat identified before it can escalate to a penalty. Analysing links is important because of the unfortunate reality of negative SEO which businesses like Snap have no control over so can only monitor and respond to these threats as they appear.

The Snap website was redesigned to ensure every landing page was useful and relevant to its visitors, and that it loaded quickly on any device.

Following Google guidelines by only providing content that is relevant and fresh, along with a user experience that includes live chat support and a postcode-based office locator.

“The experience was a painful reminder that bad SEO can do much more harm than good,” Cindy says.

How to avoid backlinks dramas

Having your site penalised by Google can be a major and expensive drama for any businesses so in this case prevention is the best cure.

All the consultants interviewed for this piece recommend ensuring you only link out good quality and relevant sites.

“Having an experienced SEO consultant monitoring your site periodically you can also ensure dodgy sites are not linking to yours, again risking penalties by Google,” James says.

He also recommends a few tools you can use yourself to check and remove backlinks to your site starting with the Google Search Console (previously known as Google Webmaster Tool).

“It’s free and should already be enabled for anyone working on SEO for their website,” James says.

His other favourite tools for checking backlinks include SEMrush and Majestic.

While David is also a fan of the tools David mentioned, he also suggests Ahrefs, Rmoov and Link Research Tools.

“Probably my favourite is Ahrefs as it provides the most exhaustive list and is well-regarded in the SEO industry,” David says.

What to do if hit by a Google penalty

Discovering your site has lost its Google ranking or at worst removed from the search engine all together can be a devastating and costly blow for any business.

You may have received a Google manual penalty notification in your Google Console or noticed your website traffic suddenly take a nosedive. But if you have been penalised by Google what do you do?

Well, the first thing is to clear up your site from black hat SEO links. Clearing up your site can be a big and difficult job so you’ll probably need to enlist someone with experience.

If you feel you’ve done as much work as possible to remove spammy or low-quality links from your website, you can request Google to disavow the remaining links. In other words, you can ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing your site.

You must then request to have your site re-indexed by Google.

“Basically, you’re writing an apology to Google with an assurance of not using black hat SEO tactics which are against their rules in the future,” James says.

“But for anyone who has gone through the pain of a Google penalty I’m pretty sure they’ll be careful to use white-hat SEO strategies in the future.”

David has written a useful article on 60 white hat SEO link building tips.

Some of these have already been mentioned in this article but other great ones include:

  • Contributing to web forum discussions.
  • Mentioning and citing experts (one-way anchor text backlinks).
  • Contributing to question and answer forums like Quora.
  • Pitching to journalists.


Remember, while backlinks are a great way to build authority and credibility on your website they can take time to build. Rushing in and using black hat tactics are not worth the risk. As James says everyone should now be thinking about adopting a reputable SEO backlinks strategy or as he calls it an SEO 2.0 approach: “If it feels wrong then it probably is wrong.”


SEO Basics 101: Make your site rank

Posted in: Content Writing, SEO

SEO was for a long time an area shrouded in mystery to me, so it feels rather strange to be writing a guide on SEO basics for beginners. Despite my training in journalism and PR, I felt unqualified to write content for blogs and websites. I had this idea that SEO consultants or copywriters were geniuses working with code and secret formulas to get sites ranking highly on Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).

Through research and training, I’ve certainly become more SEO savvy. If you’re creating content for a website or even if you have outsourced SEO or content writing for your site a basic understanding of the subject is valuable.

What is SEO?

SEO or Search Engine Optimisation refers to techniques, which enable your website to rank higher in organic search results. There are numerous components to improving SEO of your site pages. Search engines, the main these days being Google, examine title tags, image tags, keywords, backlinks, design structure along with even visitor behaviour to determine how highly ranked your site should be in their search results pages.

I like to imagine search engine crawlers or bots, which are programs search engines use to scan website pages to determine what they are about and their importance, as librarians cataloguing information.

The Online Co managing director James Parnwell says SEO consultants often work on upwards of 200 points when optimising a site. If we went into all of them, this post would more resemble a PhD on SEO than a basic SEO guide for beginners. Fortunately, James categorises these different points into four different areas and this guide covers the basics.

  • Content Strategy
  • Technical SEO
  • Backlinks
  • Local SEO

The four crucial elements of SEO

1. Content Strategy

Producing high-quality, informative and educational content should be the key focus of your SEO strategy. Remember the number one rule – you are writing for humans first and search engines second.

According to Yoast the leading SEO plugin for website creation tool WordPress, you should have a minimum of 300 words on a page to rank well in the search engines.

Longer posts can do well but are not always that practical. It’s a bonus to offer your readers the occasional extra-long blog, say 1500 words but generally, it’s stretching the friendship when clients are asked to submit a 1500 word blog to their website weekly.

Weekly or fortnightly blogs don’t need to be thousands of words long, short and sweet can be a great recipe, say 500 to 600 words, then link them to a centrepiece blog and each other.

It’s all about getting to the point for Google. Relevant, unique content gives you the greatest opportunity in getting your blog or business site ranking well.

Part of ensuring the search engines know what your content is all about are keywords (see below), which you should include throughout your content.

But don’t test your luck and fall into any black hat tactics of keyword stuffing– incorporate your single ‘focus’ keyword into your H1 Header, first paragraph, imageALT tag and then once or twice into the body of your content – no more than four or five times all up in a single 500 – 600 word blog post.


Still considered one of the vital elements of algorithms the crawlers, bots (or my imaginary librarians) use to classify your site is keywords. Keywords define the topics which your content is about and are words or terms users enter in search engines. Your goal with SEO is to drive organic traffic to your site from the search engine result pages (SERPs). The keywords you choose to target i.e put in your content will determine traffic to your site. It’s important to target the right keyword so your content is found by the search engines and target audience.

2. Technical SEO

Page title tag – Meta Title

A page title tag is the title of your page as read by the search engine. You want to ensure you’re telling Google and your page visitors about the subject of your website so include your keyword/s. The title tags for each of your website pages or blogs should be unique and relevant to the topic.

Meta description

The meta description is a short summary of the page, like a blurb on a book. A meta description should tell the search engines the content of your page so that when people put in a search term relating to your keyword it will appear in the SERPs.

You won’t see the meta description on your actual website or blog, rather it will show up under your title and URL on the SERPs.

Hubspot has some great tips for writing a meta description including:

1) Use action-oriented language.

2) Provide a solution or benefit.

3) Keep it under 155 characters.

4) Don’t deceive searchers.

5) Make it specific and relevant.

A word of warning using a black hat backlink tactics (see our blog on backlinks) like keyword stuffing in your meta description will not get you ranking any higher. Simply, a meta description should be a concise paragraph about your website.

Header Text – H1

Header text is larger text used for your content and read differently by search engines. It tells search engines that this is important and to take notice. Header text size varies and is usually labelled H1-H6. The most important header text on the page is H1 text and I like to think of it as much like a magazine or newspaper article headline.

I’m not going to go into all the different uses for the various header texts from H1-H6 but H2 is usually for subheadings and H3 subheadings of H2 subheadings. Take note of the format for this post.

James suggests putting your keyword into one or more of your headers. However, you don’t want to overdo it and stuff your keywords into header text.

“It makes sense you mention the main topic of a blog post in one or more headings,” James says.

“However, using your focus keyword shouldn’t feel unnatural or weird and my rule of thumb is that if it does you’re probably trying too hard and even over optimising.”

Headers are a great way of breaking up chunks of text, like in this post. However, Google guru and former head of its web spam team Matt Cutt warns against the overuse of H1 headers, recommending only one on a page.

Alt Text

Alt text is short for alternative text and known also as alt attributes, alt descriptions, image text and alt tags. Alt text is used to describe the appearance and function of an image on a page.

Adding alt text to an image is an element of good web design and principle of accessibility for all web users. The visually impaired with screen readers will be read an alt attribute to better understand an image on a web page.

Alt text displays a description in place of an image if an image file cannot be loaded and finally will provide context and descriptions to search engine crawlers who can’t decipher an image.

According to Yoast, you should include a keyword into your image or alt tag on a page.

“We’re specifically not saying you should spam your keyword into every alt tag,” Yoast wrote on their blog.

“You need a good, high quality, related image for your posts in which it makes sense to have the focus keyword in the alt text.”

Here’s an example of writing the alt text for an image of our golden retriever puppy for a veterinarian website.

ALT Tag –  “Buddy Golden Retriever Puppy with blue collar – XVeterinarians”. The code of the website will translate this to <img alt=”Buddy-golden-retriever-puppy-with-blue-collar-xveterinarians”>

Site and page speed

Google has made it clear that page speed is one of their main considerations in ranking websites. Google defines site speed as “how quickly a website responds to web requests”.

“Speeding up websites is important — not just to site owners, but to all Internet users,” according to Google Webmaster blog on site speed.

“Faster sites create happy users and we’ve seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there.”

To increase site speed a good web developer should ensure the speed of your site is good in numerous ways.

Look at compressing and optimising files and images, leveraging browser caching, reducing redirects and making sure you have a good reputable host just to name a few.

No one likes a slow loading site so this really is an important area for not just SEO but for users to experience your brand.

3.Backlinks and anchor text

Anchor text is the clickable text in a hyperlink. Blue underlined text is considered the web standard and most common. The backlink anchor text is the anchor text used by other websites linking to your website (see our post on backlinks).

One-way anchor text backlinks

I frequently interview and quote people for my online content. I include a link to their site however, don’t seek a link back from their site to ours. Their expertise is more what I am after to make my content valuable. Mentioning and citing other sites is known as one-way anchor text backlinks. James says one-way anchor text backlinks are sought out. Interviewing James and linking to his company website is an example of a one-way backlink.

“What we call page rank juice flows between one domain to another so the more one-way anchor text backlinks a web page has from websites with high page rank, the better they’ll rank on search engines,” James says.

“Google doesn’t like spammy backlinks though, so if you link to one site on the condition they link to yours then this will not look good.”

4. Local SEO, Google My Business & reviews

If you’re a ‘bricks and mortar business’, local SEO is a vital area of SEO, ensuring you will be found in the geographical area your business operates.  Helen says business listing sites or ‘citations’ should be a fundamental foundation of a local SEO strategy. She says any prospective clients or customers are most likely to search for you and a location in their search eg ‘pyschologist Kenmore’.

Google understands people are searching for local businesses so you’ll receive a higher ranking if you can show you’re both local and relevant. Make sure you have your website optimised for local SEO, register with Google My Business and encourage local reviews.


An effective SEO strategy is about ensuring the search engines can appropriately categorise your content and ensuring you’re noticed by your target audience. Understanding SEO is important, just like cataloguing a book correctly in a library so it will be found. However, remember you are writing for people first and computers second so quality content will always win out.

Additional Resources

There are some great resources available on SEO for further learning. Some of my favourites include:

Google SEO starter guide

Google Webmaster

Yoast – There’s lots of educational articles on their blog about various elements of SEO and if you want to learn more you can undertake some of their courses.


Pillar pages & topic clusters 101 for SEO

Posted in: Content Writing, SEO

When inbound sales and marketing software Hubspot unveiled pillar pages and topic clusters as the new best model for SEO it made sense. It was similar to how I’d practised as a journalist and news producer for many years.

There are strategies news outlets follow when a major story breaks to ensure thorough coverage. We have a meeting where journalists will be assigned to cover different aspects of the story. A longer story will give a complete overview of the event with shorter relatable breakaway stories.

Here’s an example of the strategy in practice.

The facts

  • Major bushfires have broken out in the Adelaide Hills.
  • Authorities are evacuating homes and warning people to take refuge in designated areas.
  • The fire has destroyed several houses while there are fears for missing people.
  • There are also concerns for native, farm and domestic animals.
  • Temperatures have been exceptionally high for a week and conditions have been like a tinderbox.
  • The weather bureau is forecasting further high temperatures for several days.
  • Firefighters have been flown in from interstate to assist exhausted firefighters who have been battling the blaze for up to 20 hours without a break.
  • There is a number to call if you are worried about the safety of loved ones.
  • Charity organisations like the Salvation Army are working to raise funds and supplies for people affected.
  • The local Country Women’s League (CWL) is making sandwiches and cooking meals for emergency services.
  • Health authorities are helping victims deal with fallout and stress of the disaster along with warning people at risk to take precautions with the smoke.

The story structure

For television, online and print news outlets covering this bushfire story, the structure would be similar.

A main, longer story will give an update touching on most, if not all, of the above facts. Shorter stories will focus on one or two key topics for example:

  • Buildings destroyed and homes lost.
  • Forecasted weather conditions.
  • CWL preparing food and interstate firefighters arriving to help.
  • Health authorities are helping victims etc. and who to contact if you are worried about loved ones.

I’ve always liked this structured, ordered approach to dealing with a story.  But most blogs have never had a clear structure. A preoccupation with keyword rankings resulted in blogs with a seriously disorganised structure with posts which were disconnected and often doubled up on content.

However, Hubspot’s pillar pages and topic cluster model as a strategy for blog content curation is based very much on the mainstream media model or even that of a good textbook.

Pillar Pages and Topic Clusters

Hubspot director of Acquisition and one of the world’s leading experts in SEO, Matthew Barby came up with pillar pages and topic clusters as a way to organise blog content.

Matthew was working to enhance the experience for searchers to find content, along with ensuring blogs would rank more effectively on Search Engine Result Pages (SERPS).

Matthew realised it made more sense to ditch the obsession with keywords variants and work to become an authority on topics because how people search online had changed, while search engines algorithms had also improved.

Google’s has been consistently focusing on better organising and showcasing content they think is helpful to their searchers. Algorithm updates like the Hummingbird update in 2013 focused on better understanding the intent of searchers. The Rankbrain update, which is Google’s artificial intelligence system, interprets search queries to find pages which may not have the exact words they searched for but are still relevant.

Hubspot’s content and campaign manager Elissa Hudson improvements in technology meant the obsession over keywords had to change.

“You can write conversationally with questions in the search bar or use voice search and get back what you wanted to know most of the time,” Elissa says.

“Google reports around 15 per cent of searches are new, never before entered into the search engine.”

Personal search results, based not only your location but search history, the sites you visit frequently and device you are using means people in the same room typing in the same search query could end up with different results.

“You may be under the impression you’re ranking well for a keyword and it may sound good to say you’re ranking number one for a certain keyword but it’s probably not true,” Elissa says.

“That’s why it’s better to focus on monopolising topics in industries rather than keywords.”

How Pillar Pages and Topic Clusters work

While you can’t completely abandon keyword research, being across all keywords is getting harder. Under the pillar page and topic cluster structure, instead of creating blog posts designed to rank for specific, long-tail keywords, posts cover specific topic areas related to an overall topic and are known as topic cluster posts. These topic cluster posts are anchored together by the pillar page, providing a longer, broad overview of the main topic. The pillar page includes hyperlinks to these more specific posts and so they’re all joined together designed to monopolise a topic.

There are a series of around 10 posts, often many more, taking a deep dive into topics briefly covered in the pillar page. Each of these posts links back to the pillar page, which in turn links out to the posts. It’s just like my old reporting days where the news anchor would say:”We cross now to Nadine McGrath with the latest from the weather bureau to find out if there’s any reprieve in sight from these harsh bushfire conditions.”

Elissa’s pillar pages and topic cluster Tips

1. Choose a pillar page topic

Determine who your audience is by conducting thorough buyer persona research, then figure out what they’re searching for, which will determine how broad to make your pillar page.

The topic of a pillar page should be broad enough to enable you to write an in-depth overview of that topic and come up with several more specific keywords related to the broader topic (those will be your topic cluster blog posts).

2. Decide cluster topics

Conduct keyword research related to your pillar page topic to identify keywords and terms that dive deeper into that topic and look at more specific aspects of it. For example, if Instagram marketing is the topic for your pillar page, then Instagram captions is a narrow keyword that you might write a blog post on.

3. Create a comprehensive pillar page

There are no rules about word count, but you should try to make it as comprehensive as possible. Your pillar page should be an in-depth overview of your broad topic. If you’ve already been producing content, you might already have an in-depth blog post that you can adapt to a pillar page.

4. Include four key elements on your pillar page

  • A definition of the topic/term you’re covering somewhere in the first section.
  • A table of contents.
  • A specific topic-related keyword in each of your subheadings
  • Content that provides a simple overview of the subtopics discussed on the pillar page, which will make up new cluster blog posts.

5. Write your cluster topic posts

Your blog post should aim to provide all the information the title suggests it would. Aiming for at least 400 words is a good place to start as you’d probably struggle to write anything that’s informative enough to serve the needs of your reader with a smaller word count.

6. Link cluster topic blogs to pillar pages?

Your pillar page should link to cluster blog posts. For example, the Instagram marketing pillar page links out to the Instagram captions blog post. Then make sure your cluster blog posts link back to the pillar page. Use the anchor text of the broad topic to help the pillar page rank higher in a search.


The pillar page and topic cluster model provide a structure for your blog and ensures you provide valuable content on an overall topic for your target audience. It will make your blog easy to navigate and improve readability. This model makes writing blogs easier because you have a game plan. You can brainstorm, then research good topics for pillar pages and topic clusters and then start writing. The fun part is linking them all together. When you’ve finished all the posts, you can even turn them into an ebook to offer in a call-to-action (CTA) at the end of the posts to capture leads. What will your first pillar page and topic cluster project be about?  If you’d like help on your content management, then reach out to us at Creative Content Co.

How to build a loyal audience that lasts more than 50 years

Posted in: Content Writing

One of my favourite journalists of all time doesn’t work on a large, metropolitan paper. He was not an award-chaser but would get my vote for developing a loyal audience base for more than half a century. My father’s best childhood mate Gary (Gus) Underwood was the editor of the Kyabram Free Press, in rural Victoria. He inspired me to be a journalist with his witty, opinionated columns and for building up a paper, treasured among the locals.

In rural communities, local news outlets are deeply valued but sadly these days on the decline. As a journalist, if you write a good story people will buy you a beer in the pub and give you leads for another. On the contrary, if you produce a misleading or offensive story, even one which is grammatically incorrect you will feel their wrath and have to work hard to build up trust again. Content may be ‘king’, but correct spelling and grammar are still one of the most powerful tools a communicator can use to connect with their audiences.

One of the best quotes I’ve seen on grammar is from US Author and Business Trainer Jeffrey Gitomer. 

Your grammar is a reflection of your image. Good or bad, you have made an impression and like all impressions, you are in total control.’

Building a loyal following through content marketing is much like being a journalist on a country newspaper. While Gus doesn’t have a blog at age 75 he still tells a good story, writes regularly for the local paper (after locals lured him out of retirement) and offers sound advice for building an audience.

Gus’s story: How he built a loyal audience for over 50 years

Firstly, I would like to make it clear I’m from the old school. To be more precise the old, old school.  I got a job as a cadet reporter at the Kyabram Free Press in northern Victoria when I was 17-years-old in 1961. More than 50 years later and at the age of 75 I’m still providing articles for the same paper and its parent company, Shepparton Newspapers.

I got my start in journalism because my uncle was a good mate of the then editor Paul Easton. Producing some sporting articles for the paper on outstanding feats of some of my schoolmates while attending Kyabram High School in the 1950s, probably helped in securing the position.

Apart from a hidden passion of always wanting to get into journalism that was about it for me as far as credentials to the do the job. I’ll also admit I didn’t dare mention in my job interview that I had failed English grammar in my intermediate certificate school year.

Reflecting back on some of my earlier efforts as a cadet journalist, Mr Easton would have got the message very early I wasn’t a super speller. He was very diplomatic whenever this happened. He would tell me people with the ability to write and capture an audience in those writings are not always grammatically savvy or a spelling wizard.  Mr Easton also made a point that would-be journalists who were faultless spellers may have no idea about producing a story to capture an audience. In other words, some good journalists can’t spell and often those who can spell can’t write to inform or entertain. Personally, I interpreted this as Mr Easton seeing some talent in me as a journalist. I have worked hard on building up my word power and spelling over the years.

When I became editor of the Free Press, a position I held for 24 years, there was a lot more pressure to spell correctly and be grammatically correct because the buck stopped with me if errors made it to print.  Anyone in the newspaper game will tell you that you get nasty and uncomplimentary feedback more often when you get it wrong than complimentary if you get it right.

When I first started in this game mistakes which got to print were extremely rare. A professional proofreader,  sub-editor, then the editor would read every bit of copy before it went to the press.

Unfortunately, in today’s digital age with increasing online competition manpower associated with producing many newspapers and publications has been reduced to try and remain economically viable. Many newspapers, particularly the country ‘local rags’ often go to print verbatim without adequate subbing.

Mr Easton also stressed to execute my writings in a manner in readers didn’t need to have a dictionary at the ready to check what some of the words I was employing meant. He said this was a sure way of turning off your readers. He also stressed all articles or stories needed to connect with people from age six to 106.

‘‘You are not writing exclusively for academics but for everyone who can read,” was his sound advice so many years ago.

“People who can understand exactly what you are writing about will continue to read it if it’s interesting enough.”

In a social media era when many people are after quick wins, likes and followers, we can all learn from Gus about building an audience not just for today but years to come.

What is an ideal blog post length?

Posted in: Content Writing

I’m often asked what’s the ideal blog post length? There has been plenty written on the subject with some people saying 500 words, others 1000. But before going into what exactly is the best blog post length let me share a bit about my experience with writing and numbers.

Throughout my career, I’ve had to follow many rules concerning the length of articles and stories. In the early days as a television journalist, I would write a script that would go for almost three minutes only to be reprimanded by editors.

“Even the top story of the day doesn’t get three minutes Nadine so go and halve it,” they would shout.

In print newsrooms, it was a similar scenario. The editors would just cut the story from the bottom, which taught me very quickly to ensure all relevant information is in the first few paragraphs. What I would consider an award-winning 2000-word article would be cut back to about 500 even less.

“We didn’t ask you to write a feature Nadine,” the editor would shout as I protested the butchering of my story. “There’s a lot of waffle in there so go and sit with the sub and watch him cut it.”

Holding back tears and with my confidence guttered, I would make my way over to the subs desk to learn how to write a story succinctly and to the point.

In PR, the protocol is a press release should be no longer than one page and it’s straight to the point. Quite simply journalists want to know your pitch in the first paragraph and don’t have time to read waffle.

My ability to write succinctly has its good points and bad however when it comes to writing for SEO. Yoast, regarded as the leading SEO plugin for website creation tool WordPress, recommends each blog post and content on a webpage should contain at least 300 words to rank well in search engines.

While a proponent of writing succinctly, it appears from research, interviewing SEO consultants and successful bloggers posts anything shorter than Yoast’s magic 300 words will struggle. Many bloggers have attributed their longer posts with growing organic traffic.

Why word count is important to increase Google ranking?

Yoast CEO Marieke van de Rakt says longer blog posts are better for numerous reasons, including Google crawlers just have more clues to decipher what your text is about and rank accordingly.

“You’ll probably have more headings, more links, and more pictures, in which the keyword will be mentioned,” Marieke says.

She says you’ll also probably rank long-tail variants of the keyword for which you optimised your post, further giving you the chance to boost your organic rankings.

What is the ideal blog post length?

When I interviewed Robert Rose, an early pioneer and one of the true thought-leaders on content marketing, his answer to how long a blog post should be reminded me very much of sub-editors who guided me with the length of a story.

“The answer is frankly as long as it needs to be,” Robert says.

“There is no template answer to this as short content works, long content works and both are appropriate for mobile.

“The real answer is understanding the context for where our audience will consume the content and providing the length as a contextual attribute to our strategy.

“For example, if we’re reaching our target market through a channel on their mobile device and are catching them in transit then snackable, short pieces are probably optimal.

“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also create the 1500 essay blog post to pay off that short content because the answer is truly in understanding our audiences.”

Under the pillar page and subtopic cluster model for writing blogs, pillar pages can be up to a few thousand words covering topics on a whole subject matter. In supporting subtopics, the word count is much less as only a single topic from the pillar page is being covered.

Writing, Readability and blog post length

Blog posts that are more than 1000 words can be more time consuming and difficult to read. To keep your target audience engaged takes skill, which we like to develop with our clients.

Written poorly longer posts will probably not be read through, people may click away, chances of sharing will diminish and poor user experience will mean they probably won’t rank well in the search engines either.

If you are going to write a successful lengthy blog post then don’t just waffle. Like the skilled sub-editors who taught me I help get rid of the waffle and make every word earn its place.

If you’re writing a long post, then make sure it is well-structured and readable. Break up the text with sub-headings and images or even add an index. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short and to the point.

So, what exactly is the ideal blog post length?

My apologies, you’ve got to the end of this article and just like Robert Rose I’m not giving you a definitive ideal blog post length.

We learned from Yoast it should be more than 300 words, otherwise, your post will have too few words to rank in the search engines. There is no right or wrong answer for the length of a blog post.

Remember, you should always be writing for humans not just the search engines and your blog should be long enough to explain a concept, attract new leads to your site and offer some thought leadership on a subject.

12 steps for updating old blog posts

Posted in: Content Writing, SEO

Did you know there are more than two million new blogs posts daily?  Blogging has become an integral part of a content marketing strategy to support business growth. Many organisations have been blogging for years now continuing to put out new posts regularly but what about all those old blog posts?

In a newsroom, as journalists and editors, we often give old stories a new “spin”. We know the stories which rank well with our target audience so periodically do similar ones or rework old stories with a new twist or information.

But in blogging, reworking an older post was not common practice. However, inbound marketing and sales platform Hubspot, has been raving about the success of updating old blog content in a project they call “Historical Optimisation”.

What is Historical Optimisation?

Hubspot started its journey into historical optimisation after its principal marketing manager Pamela Vaughan started using its new Attribution Reports tool to determine how many leads each of their blog posts generated.

Pamela found 76 per cent of their monthly blog posts views came from old posts (not published that month), while 92 per cent of monthly blog leads came from old posts. Pamela documents Hubspot’s Historical Optimisation journey, where she writes the whole blogging team could go on holiday for a month and it wouldn’t matter.

She also notes that 46 per cent of their blog leads came from just 30 individual posts. For a large organisation writing around 200 new posts a month, this is a startling result.

Pamela and her team went about re-optimising and figuring out how to get more leads to high-traffic but low converting blog posts and more traffic to high converting blog posts.

“In other words, we should stop focusing on only brand new content and try to get more traffic and leads out of content we already have – we should optimise the past,” she wrote.

Since Hubspot has been focusing on its Historical Optimisation project, organic traffic to its blog has risen by 200 per cent.

As we’ve discussed in other posts, Google rewards freshness in its Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS). If you update an older blog post, Google will use the modified date and it will display higher in the SERPs.

Hubspot’s content and campaign manager Elissa Hudson says historical optimisation gives blogs a new relevance while it’s a relatively easy way to boost SEO.

“Google rewards freshness, so it makes sense to keep content up-to-date, especially when it’s performing well,” she says.

“This has had a massive impact on the Hubspot blog with posts which were ranking on page two of Google coming back up to a high spot on page after being updated and re-optimised.”

A lot of hard work goes into writing a blog from scratch so by the re-optimising content, you’re making that blog post work harder and deliver a greater ROI.

“Marketers and bloggers should be updating old content.”

Updating a blog is like a wardrobe overhaul. Keep the timeless classics and pieces which still get compliments but trash, recycle or rework blogs which aren’t performing. Here’s a breakdown of 12 steps to go about updating your posts.

1.Identify top-performing posts

When updating your blogs a good place to start is to identify your top-performing posts. Which posts have generated a good number of inbound links indicating search authority? Look at your blog analytics for the last month or so to determine which old posts are still generating traffic? Has the post generated a lot of social shares, which indicates popularity?

2. Get rid of or rewrite amateur blogs

As an amateur, I made plenty of mistakes. However, it was all part of the learning curve. Go through your blog posts as some may have the information you can use in other posts such as quotes from experts. I’ve even taken down posts and sent them to other marketing agencies for reworking because they’re more relevant to their audience. I’ve also been sent posts to rework on topics I want to cover or are more relevant to my audience. It’s a thrill to receive a post they’ve worked hard on but no longer want to re-work, like getting the stylish hand-me-down jacket you’ve been eyeing off from your sister.

3. Look at keywords in old blogs & your keyword plan

Do you have any posts ranking for target keywords which could improve with some optimisation or reworking? How does each post fit into the overall structure of your blog? If you have a vast, complex blog how does each post fit together or could they even be competing against each other.

Hubspot found before they re-organised their blog, some posts were competing because they were so similar with overlapping content, similar URL’s and keywords. Do some keyword research and think carefully about keywords to determine how to optimise your existing posts better rather than just writing new ones.

4. Determine if the blog could form part of a pillar page and topic cluster?

Latest best practice for blog writing focuses on covering specific areas related to an overall subject. Known as topic cluster posts, these are anchored together by a pillar page, which provides a broad overview of the main subject. The pillar page includes hyperlinks to these more specific posts and so they’re all joined together designed to monopolise a subject. (See our post on pillar pages and topic clusters.)

Ensure you evaluate old posts to see how to adapt them to this new model.  Can they form part of a new main pillar page? Can they be rewritten as topic cluster post? If so then follow the best practice for writing topic cluster and pillar pages, including appropriate links.

5. Ensure the accuracy and relevancy of your posts

Is there a statistic or research which you have quoted, which is now old or could be updated? Just like an old report, over time, content can become inaccurate. I, like most people, will only look at the latest statistics or research. By analysing and updating posts for accuracy and relevancy, you could bring back traffic and that freshness will also boost your SEO efforts.

6. Check links to your post

Check, replace or add internal links to your posts. Over time as your blog has grown, you will have built up more posts which are relevant to each other. As you work towards adopting a more effective content curation model like pillar pages and topic clusters, you will want to update your links accordingly. Check and replace internal links, especially if you now have better or more relevant ones to use.

Have you ever tried to visit a restaurant but found it was no longer there? Perhaps you even checked out their opening hours online and there was no indication of the restaurant’s closure. Clicking on a link to a website or blog post and finding it doesn’t work can also be just as annoying. Google knows broken links are annoying for users, it looks sloppy like you don’t do regular housekeeping and can affect your SEO. Check your links regularly with tools like:

7. Correct typos, grammar and improve readability

Even though you proofread your articles before publishing, I can guarantee as a journalist and writer you’ll always find mistakes or ways to improve. Check the obvious like spelling and grammar in a post but also look for ways you could improve the structure of sentences, paragraphs or the overall blog to improve readability.

8. Update opinions or views on a topic

While writing your older blog posts, you may have had a different opinion. But now you have changed your opinion on that topic according to latest research, information etc. Your advice in that old blog posts may not be valid or effective in the present scenario. It’s alright to change your view or opinion.

9. Update the posts call-to-action (CTA)

Is your Call to Action (CTA) offer still the best option for the post? Do you have a better offer or could you create one? Does your post even have a CTA? Are the graphics on your CTA out of date? Evaluate your CTA’s and update them accordingly.

10. Update images and photos

What are the images like on your old post? Are they outdated? Do you have or can you find images or photos that are better suited to the post? Perhaps you have more resources now to create better infographics. Keep the images and photos on your posts updated and fresh.

11. ‘Don’t change what ain’t broken’

You’re building off search authority of the old post so don’t go changing things like the post’s URL slug. It’s good practice to copy a live post over to a draft, make the changes then copy it back over to the original when ready. Don’t do anything to diminish the current authority the post has acquired. Include an editor’s note for transparency at the bottom of the post to let readers know it is an updated version. An editor’s note will avoid confusion for readers, especially if they see comments which don’t coincide with the updated blog publication date.

12. Promote your content and track results

Promote the updated content on social media or like you would a new post. Let subscribers know what is new in the post, such as statistics or findings from a report. Be sure to track the performance of the post after republishing. This will help you understand how your update affected its overall performance and also give you an idea about which posts are worth updating.

Conclusion:  Prioritise updating old posts

Now you know about the importance of historical optimisation or updating old blogs it’s important to make it a part of your ongoing content marketing strategy. Track the results, see what is working and not working on each blog to continually modify. A lot of time and expense goes into blogging so ensure you get maximum ROI on your investment by keeping posts updated and relevant. There will always be new trends, topics and developments in your industry to write about so of course don’t stop creating new content. However, periodically take time to delve into the past, revisit and update those old posts. If you’d like assistance reworking your old content then reach out.

Bob Hawke’s legacy of authentic leadership

Posted in: Content Writing, Reputation Management

My father is the type of man who loves a good conversation.  He loves people, hearing their stories, hopes, fears and problems.  I grew up in the regional Victorian city of Mildura, and my parents were both very much community stalwarts. Going grocery shopping seemed to take a couple of hours as they’d be chatting to someone in every aisle.

On a Friday night, we’d head for a counter meal at the local pub. It was an opportunity for Mum and Dad to catch up with friends.  As part of my dad’s work in policing, he always thought it was essential to remain connected and approachable with the community. He always encouraged all his officers to do the same.

I’ve been reflecting on dad’s approach to community and people very much lately following a conversation we had about connection. “Everyone is always on their phones these days people, and it’s damaging normal conversation,” he told me. “Everyone should get off their phones and talk like normal human beings.”

Dad’s from the old school, and we went on to debate how to build up that ‘know, like and trust’ factor necessary for business development.  This morning, on the eve of Australia’s federal election, our conversation went one step further as we discussed the death of former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Dad recalled meeting “Hawkie” during his days as a young policeman in Melbourne.  Hawke held the ACTU’s top job, and along with other union heavyweights would visit the same pub for a beer. He visited Mildura in 1989, with the local police involved in security.

As tributes flow today for Hawke, dad says there are lessons for us all to remember from the Rhodes Scholar, lawyer, politician, unionist, larrikin and even record-holding beer drinker.

“He was just the same in person as he came across in the media,” Dad says. “He always had time for a chat, would drink a beer with you and listen.”

So, what did Dad mean by listen? “He’d get out among the people of Australia, the ones who he knew would either vote him and the ALP in or out, listen and have a conversation.”

Dad went on to tell me to phone his old mate Gus Underwood, a journalist who inspired me to take my career path.

“Ring Gus and ask him his thoughts on Hawk and ask him his thoughts about bloody everyone on their phone all the time while you’re at it.”

Only about two weeks into my first job out of uni, I was sent to an unfamiliar regional Victorian area to fill in for the local journalist who went on holidays.

With no supervision, nervous and wondering where I’d possibly look to find a story, I phoned Dad and Gus who both gave me the same advice – to go and have a beer at the local pub and listen to what people are discussing  (I’d call it to eavesdrop). Soon people were introducing themselves to me, sharing their stories and providing great leads to follow-up.

I phoned Gus like Dad told me to do and asked him to share his memories of Hawke.  Gus remembers the Hawke days well and is saying what many are saying today, that Australia’s 23rd Prime Minister was a great storyteller.

“He had the common touch and was able to resonate with the majority of Australian people,” he says.

“He had great people skills and was as much at home talking to the Queen as talking to a bloke in the pub.”

While Hawke was well-loved, his career and private life were not without controversy, divorcing his wife Hazel and marrying his biographer Blanche d’Alpuget.

She has said that the intrusive media of today may have rendered the well-known womaniser and drinker unelectable. However, Gus is not so sure.

“He was always sincere and not secretive, he put his cards on the table,” he says.

“He got into strife, and his personal life may have shocked some people, but he didn’t try to hide away.”

In his first term in office, after what would appear a few celebratory drinks when Australia won the America’s Cup yachting trophy, Hawke told the media that any boss who did not give staff the day off was “a bum”.

While the way we communicate may have changed, understanding and knowing your audience has not. Hawke knew how to tell a joke, be compassionate when needed, be true to his convictions. He had a strong mission and vision for Australia, worked hard and there is much discussion today about his legacy.  But perhaps it was Hawke’s ability to be a man of the people and build trust that was his greatest legacy. This trust in Hawke and his policies enabled him to fulfil the legacies people are discussing upon his death, such as forging a path for Australia into the Asia Pacific, advocating for women’s rights, floating the Australian dollar and introducing the Medicare system we have today.

Bob Hawke was an authentic leader. So, what makes you authentically you? What is your mission and vision? What will be your legacy?

Bob Hawke and first wife Hazel visit Mildura in 1989. Photo courtesy of Sunraysia Daily