We saw bonkers search traffic – where's it from (and why)?
In issue no. 24, Jessie outlines how to find the keywords and phrases that sent traffic to your publication for a story. Plus – how reverse keyword research can help capitalize on a surprise win
Hello and welcome back. This week, it’s me, Jessie, reporting live from beautiful Ottawa, Ontario, where I’m plant-sitting and soaking in vitamin D on an outdoor patio. Don’t let anyone tell you Ottawa is the city fun forgot (it’s just the town where fun needs to be in bed by 10:00 p.m., which suits me JUST FINE).
This week we’re looking at understanding how readers arrived at your site (so you might replicate this in the future). We’ll walk through what to do from the moment a story lights up your analytics board and how to use keyword research to prepare to respond to future traffic spikes.
In this issue:
Google Search Console 101: Find top-referring keywords
Reverse keyword research: Answer questions about top keywords
Next steps: Optimize on-page and keep reader interest
Surprise! A story is doing bonkers in Google. Why?
Picture this: You published a story and it’s overperforming and bringing in way more traffic from search than average. But you’re not entirely clear where the traffic is coming from, or why they’re arriving on that specific page.
Not a bad problem to have! But a good egg to crack.
Understanding where and why you are getting clicks means you’re better positioned to replicate that success for future stories on a similar topic (or evidence this is an underreported beat for your publication).
Answering why and where is possible using tools such as Google Search Console and Google itself – along with keyword research to understand reader intent.
Start with Google
First up, look at Google Trends: For the topic of the story, was there a trending or breakout search term? Is it the same as the keyword you targeted for that story? Go incognito and search for that phrase. Is it in the top stories carousel? This placement can lead to a significant bump in traffic.
Recap: Top Stories (the carousel of news stories) is a rich snippet. It’s a collection of news hits from a Google News-approved list of publications. They are, naturally, very time sensitive and ranking in this section is usually very short-lived.
You can also use Google itself. How would you search for XYZ story? If you do, does your reporting show up in SERPs?
Pro tip: Get Google Trends alerts to your email for when a term is searched more than 5,000 times (aka, a trending search). Google will send you an alert as soon as the term is spiking.
Hop over to Google Search Console
Next, look at your analytics: Open Google Search Console (GSC) for your site. You might need to ask your developers to grant you access. (Note that it takes 24 hours for new data to show up in GSC.)
Once you have your site selected (under “Add a property” in the top level), GSC shows us lots of data – some useful, some irrelevant. Right away, GSC provides top-level data for your overall site.
Total clicks: When readers click a link in search results, then navigate to that site. This does not include paid results in Google;
Total impressions: Every time a URL from your site’s domain appears in a search result, it generates an impression (but it does not mean a reader actually saw your link if they didn’t scroll the link into view);
Average position: Where your site, on average, shows up. Google takes all your rankings, then finds the average (if you rank for 2 keywords, in positions 1 and 9, your average position is 5.5);
Click-through rate: Clicks divided by impressions, as a rate (i.e., multiplied by 100).
Scroll further, and GSC shows you the exact queries (phrases used to find your content), pages and countries sending you traffic. GSC also shows devices used and the search appearance of the content.
Top queries: The most popular phrases sending your site traffic. Includes branded and non-branded phrases;
Pages: Most populars page (including section/topic pages and individual story URLs);
Countries: Where users finding these links came from;
Search appearance: Where in results your URLs are showing up. Includes rich results, FAQ rich results, recipe gallery (and other types of snippets you can try to rank for).
Often the top pages and queries for your site overlap – potentially providing insight to the content your search readers most value. If they don’t overlap – if the top keywords sending you traffic don’t align with topics you know loyal readers are interested in – is that an area of opportunity? A beat you could cover more, to try to encourage those search readers to stick around and move through the funnel?
To analyze a specific single story, click +
Page > paste the URL for XYZ story and choose
"Exact URL." This applies a filter to only show queries that drive traffic directly to the chosen URL.
This is the most straightforward way to find out which keywords are driving traffic to a story that is overperforming.
You can easily see the search terms for a story in the Queries tab. For a story posted to my site (
JessiePersonalFinanceSite.com) about home values in Canada, the top-referring keywords might include both specific phrases (
toronto housing prices) and branded keywords (
jessie personal finance investing website).
Readers are both looking for specific information (news on current home values) and, more generally, for topical information from a trusted publication
(JessiePersonalFinanceSite.com - a news site that focuses on personal finance and investing).
To hide or filter out branded queries, click +
Queries filter > choose
Queries not containing and add the branded keyword of your outlet. Based on the screenshot above, I would filter out my brand’s name (jessie) to look for queries that are driving traffic without my publication’s name attached.
To analyze a specific topic, click +
Page > choose
"URLs containing" then add the keyword that should* always appear in a URL for this topic – maybe the section page.
*This only works if you optimize your pages properly, so get to it!
You can see the queries sending you traffic, your top-performing pages and if any rich snippets were triggered for content with a keyword in the URL. (This is an imperfect snapshot.)
A few other tips & tricks:
By default, GSC looks at the previous three months of data. Edit the Date filter using a custom range to see search data starting from the day your story was published.
GSC will show all web results (Search type: Web); you can edit the filter to include or disclude images, video or Google News/Google Discover data.
Apply both filters to see if the top queries for a URL changed over time or in the type of search performed.
Now we know 🎉 how readers arrived 🎉 at your unexpectedly popular story.
A note: GSC allows one filter at a time. To dive deeper into your data, export the parameters you want into a Google Spreadsheet, then apply filtering to your spreadsheet. (GSC is an imperfect tool. Great for a quick audit, but there are other, more robust options for wider analysis.)
✔️ Action item: Identify your top-performing search stories. Use Google Search Console to identify the keywords that are most frequently used to find this story.
THE KNOW HOW
Reverse engineer keyword research
Now that you know the traffic-driving keywords, it’s time for keyword research – this time, in reverse.
Recap: Keyword research is the process of finding the terms, phrases and questions readers use to find information on a specific topic or developing news story.
The search intent for each keyword explains why a reader performed that search (in the context of news SEO, it’s usually informational intent). When targeting keywords, the phrase and the intent should align with the content you create.
We know from Google Search Console which phrases readers used to find our stories. Open that list of exported keywords.
Understand the intent behind these keywords or phrases. Google each individual keyword – in our example, we have
toronto housing prices driving a ton of traffic. Does Google tell us:
There was a major story that broke around housing prices, and people were interested in the selling price of a house in Toronto?
Are new mortgage rules coming into effect – or some other legislative change around housing? Are people wondering what the new parameters would be?
People are worried about a sudden housing crash?
Make note of this intent. Use this data, and keyword research, to answer some questions for future coverage on this topic:
What is the main-focus keyword? (The keyword that generated the most clicks.)
What is the secondary keyword(s)? (Keywords or related phrases that generated significant clicks or impressions.)
Use keyword research to answer questions for your top-referring keywords, including:
What is the relative popularity or regional interest for top keywords?
What is the search volume per month? Is it above 10 searches per month (the minimum to consider it worth targeting)?
What is the keyword difficulty? Is ranking for that phrase possible for your organization?
What is the trend for these keywords? Is it increasing, decreasing or consistent over the last week, month, year?
What are the long-tail opportunities related to my main-focus keyword?
Keywords Everywhere, Google Trends and SEMRush are useful news SEO tools to answer these questions. Keep this data in your spreadsheet for the next time the story bubbles up in the news – you will know where to focus your SEO efforts and which stories rank for specific keywords.
CAPITALIZE ON SEARCH
Review your SEO checklists
Now you know your top-performing pages, keywords sending you traffic and their search intent. Don’t sleep on this search interest opportunity.
Capitalize on this surprise SEO success. Review the content and our on-page SEO checklist. Review the list of things to tweak to maximize the reach this content can have in search.
Return to your top-performing pages. Include internal links between pages that are relevant to each other (and consider building content pillars around a popular topic). Review your inventory of evergreen content, then hyperlink to any relevant pieces from your surprise SEO success.
Search interest can sometimes feel like a fluke, but don’t waste that captivated audience. When a page is bringing in bonkers search interest, how can you make the page more sticky (i.e., hold reader interest and encourage internal referral traffic)?
Use Google Search Console to understand the keywords, phrases and questions used to find your content
Keep track of these insights for the next time a story on this topic bubbles up – make use of reverse-engineered keyword research to inform your SEO approach.
Leverage this traffic! Link out from top-performing pages (including to evergreen content), build topic pillars and consult on-page SEO efforts to maximize search interest.
The bottom line: Bonkers SEO traffic is a nice surprise – but it doesn’t have to be unexplained. Use Google Search Console and keyword research to understand why you’re generating clicks from search – then make note of those lessons for future stories on this topic.
FUN + GAMES
What percent of pages have zero backlinks?
Dan Smullen on Twitter: Get more out of Google Search Console by using regex to uncover your queries for who, what, where, when and why questions.
Have something you’d like us to discuss? Send us a note on Twitter (Jessie or Shelby) or to our email: email@example.com.
(Don’t forget to bookmark our glossary.)
FUN + GAMES
The answer: According to an Ahrefs study, 66.31 per cent of pages don’t have even a single backlink.
Written by Jessie Willms and Shelby Blackley.