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A Scalable Content Strategy in a Post-Panda World

The Panda has raged across the globe now, leaving a path of half-chewed website traffic reports in its wake.

Wow. That’s pretty dramatic.

But I get the sense a lot of people are underwhelmed by Google’s Panda up


. This update is a big, big deal. If you’ve been building your SEO content strategy around $3 articles, you’re in for a rude awakening. You need to start improving what you’re writing, asap. Here’s how, in 5 steps:

Before you start, create a spreadsheet, a text file, or just a whiteboard. You’ll need four columns:

  • Idea
  • Headline
  • Assigned
  • Date
  • Difficulty

This is just housekeeping, so don’t sweat the formatting.

You’re not eHow

A quick note: You’re not eHow. Thank God. You’re not building a content farm. You’re going for quality, not quantity, and you’re not basing your strategy on PPC prices. Instead, you’re going to build a great content pipeline based on audience need. See the difference?

1: Start building a headline list

Brainstorm 20-30 article ideas. Not headlines“”ideas.

Write them down.

Now, take each one and type it into Google. Use Google Suggest to give you good ideas for headlines, like so:

In this example, I want to write about folding bicycles’. But Google Suggest gave me a great idea: I’ll write an article comparing different folding bikes:
Folding Bicycle Suggest

Put each headline next to the idea on the spreadsheet.

In the difficulty’ column, enter a 1-5 score that reflects how challenging you think the article will be. This is a holistic, subjective score. Don’t over-analyze””just enter what you think makes sense.

You’ve just started your headline list. I call it a swipe list’, but this is a misnomer, since the old-style swipe list was a file full of sales letters and ads that ad agencies could steal for their own work. But I digress.

Now, any time you’re trying to come up with a topic, you’ve got some options.

Spend 5 minutes a day adding to this list. Every day.

2: Set up trends tracking

At the same time, you need to track the n-grams“”the multi-word phrases folks are using””and how they’re trending for your subject matter.

Unfortunately, I have no easy way to do this. Maybe someone can recommend an option in the comments, below. But here’s how I do it: I wrote a fairly simple Python script that uses the Python Natural Language Toolkit. The script grabs the entire contents of an RSS feed, reads it into a database, and then shows me the 2- and 3-word phrases (and more, if I want) most-used in that feed.

Google Reader lets me create feeds from tags and folders. So, I can take multiple RSS feeds, such as:

  • A Google Alert for folding bicycles’
  • The RSS feed from Folding Bicycles of America
  • A Social Mention feed for the phrase folding bicycles’
  • And a Twitter search feed for the same thing

&and read the contents of all four feeds into a single stream. Here’s an example of the geeky’ stream I set up in Google Reader. I point my script at that and can read in all of the content from all of the articles on the feed, then build my list of n-grams:

My little script grabs the contents and spits out a list of phrases. I run the script every day or week, and get to see which phrases stick around, and which ones get more and more mentions over time.

Voila  a poor SEO’s trend tracking.

You can find the Python Natural Language Toolkit at There’s also a fantastic book you can download from the same site. It takes you through using the toolkit, step by step. If you know Python, it’s pretty easy. If you don’t, I don’t recommend trying it. You may want to find a local geek and bribe him with Kit Kats and Diet Coke, instead.

3: Write based on trends

Don’t chase the Query Deserves Freshness algorithm. But you should still write based on the trends you find in step 2.

Those trends measure audience interest. If you write about the stuff your audience is looking for and use the phrasing they’re using to look for it, you’re in awfully good shape.

You can also brainstorm more headlines and ideas based on the trends data.

4: Recruit writers

You can’t do all of this yourself, so recruit writers.

Recruit’ does not mean hire for $5 on eLance’. You need quality people you can stick with.

Contact folks you know. Ask for writing samples. Keep track of them all in another spreadsheet. Score them based on response, writing quality and subject matter expertise. Use a score of 1-5.

Be picky. It’s far better to get 4 great writers you have to pay $50/article than to have 20 crappy writers you pay $5/article. Large quantities of lousy content aren’t going to do the trick any more.

5: Get systematic

Every day, assign headlines to writers. The higher the difficulty score, the higher the required writer score. They don’t have to match. There’s no fancy system here. Rather, you want to generally assign tougher articles to writers with higher scores. Get it?

When you assign a headline, enter the writer name in the assigned’ column. Enter the date assigned in the date’ column. That effectively locks’ the headline, so that no one else on your team will use it and/or so that you won’t forget and double-assign it.

When you receive articles from your writers, you can decide if you want to:

  • Send them out as guest blog posts
  • Post them to your site as standard content
  • Use them as link bait

&or whatever else. Don’t forget to update the writer’s score based on the quality of work they did. Yes, it’s true. You’re grading papers.

That’s it. Over time, you’ll build a steady pipeline of relevant, quality content from good writers.

Use it or lose it

Depending on your subject matter and writers, it could take a few days or a few weeks to build a steady flow of content into your site. That’s your pipeline. Once you start, be consistent. Keep new headlines flowing out to writers, and they’ll keep content pouring in to you. You don’t have to publish everything the instant it arrives. If an article covers a steeply-trending topic, publish it right away. If it’s not, or if you think the topic has staying power, bank it.

Most important, though, is that you’re going to build an editorial workflow that brings you great content. Over time, your database of writers will improve as you recruit, score and build relationships with the best people. You’ll get a scalable content strategy that doesn’t sacrifice quality.

Or, you can keep posting articles that read like they were written by drunken hedgehogs. I don’t mind.



  1. Ron April 15, 2011

    Nice article, Ian. It’s great to actually see a strategy at a time when a lot or marketers aren’t sure which way to go.

  2. dee oneal April 18, 2011

    With that, now I realize that content is king. With the right content and right way of optimizing it surely you’ll go places. I’m excited for it but I wonder why some high ranking site dropped down to their ranking. I’ve read that they are considered link farming.

  3. server support May 13, 2011

    When you find the winning formula, stick with it and you’ll def get more bang for your buck.

Comments are closed.

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