So you’ve hit a tough SERP wall. You’ve been doing everything right, but not seeing any progress. Well, you’re not alone.

Gigamon is a visibility and analytics network vendor who found themselves competing for the high-volume keyword of their dreams. There was just one problem: after years of doing everything right, they were still unable to get a permanent spot on page 1 of the SERP.

When 97th Floor stepped in, we ultimately decided to optimize the page to focus on a lower-volume keyword. This little (and counter-intuitive) change in strategy gave Gigamon what they had wanted all along: a permanent page 1 ranking for the high volume keyword of their dreams. Not to mention a #1 ranking for the lower volume keyword, top rankings for 300 more long-tail keywords, and increasing organic sessions by 94%.

SEO work can feel a lot like climbing a mountain. You’ve got to start at a base camp. And from that camp there are many different trails that lead to varying peaks and waterfalls. Maybe you’ve been trying to climb to the tallest, most difficult peak but can’t make it all the way there in one day. Well, if you instead hike a few different trails that slowly lead you to the peak, moving your base camp up just a little farther each night, eventually you’ll find yourself at that highest peak.

Making the tough call

If you find yourself climbing your own SEO mountain, maybe it’s time to take a step back and see what other smaller keyword trails you could take that might eventually lead you to your ultimate goal.

For Gigamon, the keyword “network security” was the tallest peak on the range, with 10,000 searches each month. Even the best SEO tactics couldn’t tackle the “network security” summit. That is, until we stepped in and chose to climb smaller peaks on our way to the big one.

We decided to switch our focus to the keyword “network security tools,” which gets searched just 600 times each month. Perhaps slightly more relevant, but much less volume than the 10,000 MSV mountain. A smaller climb on our way to the prize.

After a series of small optimizations, we jumped to the front page for “network security tools” in a month. A month after that, we hit spot 1.

Here’s how we did it.

Mine the metrics and make your move

Before you rearrange your strategy, ensure that you’ve collected enough data to make that big decision.

Gigamon was able to see that the keyword “network security tools” had potential because they were tracking what keywords their pages organically ranked for over time. Using this data, we could see that their page occasionally ranked on the second page of Google for “network security tools” without any kind of targeting strategy, making it a prime candidate for optimization.

Intentional metrics will help you see the possible opportunities that your own pages have. It’s important that you choose keywords that you see have potential, rather than shooting blindly in the dark. Only then will you be able to see the compounding benefits as they rank higher and higher through optimization.

Our biggest advice after this campaign (and others like it): don’t force yourself into an endless loop of frustration by trying to rank a keyword with sheer brute force. You’re smarter than that. Look for more data points, and smaller summits to climb on your way to the big one.

Behind each keyword is a wealth of metrics that defend or deny its success. Most SEO campaigns start with keyword research, but the successful ones look beyond rigid numbers-driven formulas so often accompanied with “keyword research.”

Kick it off with new keywords

It’s a common misconception that companies don’t need to run keyword research because they “know their customers” and therefore know what their customers search. This flaw is exaggerated when a business has been focusing on a single keyword for months on end without coming up for breath.

The truth is, even if you know your customers better than any other company out there, keyword research will help you find new opportunities you never would have thought of on your own. Without the research, you’ll often find yourself going after keywords that have too high volumes and difficulty scores, and not making much progress. Sound familiar?

I mentioned above how we changed our targeting from “network security” to “network security tools.” We found that opportunity by running keyword research.

Our approach is simple, but exhaustive. We analyze a handful of our direct competitors on the SERP, but also pepper in some niche publications to fan out the amount of results we get back. Research and analysis of all possible keywords will help you see which have the greatest potential for your specific purposes, which in this case was finding a good companion for “network security.”

Full SERP competitor analysis

A competitor analysis means different things to different SEOs, but pretty much everyone can agree that it begins with looking at your page and your competitors’ pages in the SERP you’re going after. The data you will receive from a competitor analysis will help you find optimization opportunities for your own focus page by identifying the gaps between your page and your competitors’ pages.

As marketers, we constantly hear views like: “don’t trust your gut, use data.” While we believe that the sentiment of this is true, in application we’ve found it to be false.

Your brain is constantly (without your consent) collecting data from many different sources as you go about your life. Your successes, failures, and everything in between. Your mind is logging all that data away in a special box. Why don’t you touch fire? It’s because years ago you learned (probably the hard way) that fire will burn you. You don’t consciously make the call to avoid touching fire, it comes from your “gut.”

This same mindset is applied to competitor analysis and keyword rankings. Following your gut doesn’t mean you avoid data, it’s the opposite. Gut decisions are fueled by passive collection of data. Taking the time to collect and analyze data will fuel good decision making.

Using 97th Floor’s patent-pending software, Palomar, we analyzed the following metrics from every competitor across the SERP:

  • Load time
  • Metadata
  • Keyword count (and density)
  • Word count
  • Domain-specific link metrics
  • URL-specific link metrics
  • Domain size

Together, and with the data we collected, we made the decision to alter the title and h1 tags, increase word count, expand our keyword targeting, improve our semantic alignment, and build links to our focus page.

Semantic analysis (AKA, the most overlooked on-page tactic)

Semantic analysis is the process of finding semantically related words to include in your content to increase its chances of ranking in Google. If keyword research is knowing what people search, semantic analysis is knowing what people expect to see once they click. Semantic analysis is hands-down the most overlooked optimization tactic in SEO right now.

There are many ways to run a semantic analysis, from simple TF-IDF analysis, to just reading the articles and making assumptions around consistent themes. But our favorite semantic analysis is found in our homegrown software: Palomar. This allows you to align your content with the highest performing on the web, while at the same time giving your users the best on-page experience possible.

Semantic analysis, when executed on the foundation on good keyword research, leads to massive keyword lifts on micro and macro levels. This is one of the best ways to pick up traffic from those searching for these semantically connected words when you target your specific keywords.

Thanks to the keyword research we performed earlier, we found a small pool of contextually relevant keywords that would pair well together on this page including “network security,” “network security tools,” and “top network security tools.” After running the semantic analysis on these words, we discovered the following themes that needed to be included in our rewrite:

  • open source
  • Windows
  • Linux
  • penetration testing
  • vulnerabilities
  • intrusion detection

Remember how our competitive analysis indicated that we would need to increase the word count? Well, with semantic analysis it’s pretty clear what we needed to write about. These themes make it easy to add value and copy to the page.

Intentional link building

Link building is an important piece of any SEO strategy. Earning links is good, but intentionality in link-building is what really moves the needle. You can’t be intentional without knowing the landscape, and the specific needs of your page compared to the SERP. It’s a good thing we already ran our competitor research based on the SERP, which called out virtually every domain- and URL-specific link metric under the sun in our SERP. This deep analysis illuminated places where we were falling short.

The first thing to think about in link building is which sites to link from. In this case, we sought links from websites catering to a relevant audience (i.e. cyber security, information technology, networks, etc.). These kinds of links are not only contextually relevant when seen by a reader, but by a Googlebot as well.

A contextually relevant link is a powerful one.

We worked to earn links from a wide range of new domains all directing at our newly optimized page. Just like your links need to come from relevant sites, they also need to pack a punch. So we ensured that every link met the following criteria:

  • It came from a website that has at least a 30 Domain Authority (most were >50)
  • The domain needed to have a Moz spam score lower than 5%
  • The website giving us a link needs to have increasing organic traffic month over month on their own website

With these stipulations, we built 40 links from new domains in a single month. This, along with our optimizations sealed the deal in the SERP. The very next month, we hit our high-water mark: #1 position for our smaller keyword, “network security tools,” and #5 for our dream keyword, “network security.”

And just to be safe, we ran an internal linking audit for Gigamon and built some new links on the Gigamon site to our newly optimized page.

But what were the results?

After this strategy revamp, and it’s resulting ranking jumps, Gigamon saw a 94% increase in sessions. Even now, this page drives more organic traffic than any other page on their site. It has been the biggest contributor to a 50% YoY organic increase— and all this during a time they were expecting to see a drop in traffic due to Covid-19.

While this is a win for Gigamon, and a great one, don’t forget that ranking isn’t everything. It’s just one piece of the holistic marketing puzzle. Gigamon has taken great care in turning their growing traffic and sessions into actual conversions that drive revenue and push their business toward even greater goals.

Lessons learned

The basics of SEO are often the most important. Don’t get stuck on ranking and forget that your underlying goal is conversions. When your original plan isn’t working, you need to get creative, or in some cases, more basic. Head back to the drawing board and figure out a way to pivot.

It’s easy to get lost in the thrill of ranking for a single tough keyword, but more often than not a more holistic SEO strategy will yield the greatest results. Make sure you continue to check your page’s backlinks, and look for new keyword opportunities, rather than just keeping tabs on a single keyword rank checker. Don’t be afraid to change directions when a new strategy is in order.