Over the last year and a half, we’ve slowly and steadily increased The Write Life’s search traffic.
We did it in just a few hours each month, without any full-time employees.
We went from 275,000 pageviews in June 2019 to 460,000 pageviews in December 2020, a 68 percent increase. Search traffic went from 142,000 users (not pageviews) in June 2019 to 252,000 users in Dec. 2020, an increase of 76 percent.
Here’s what that increase looks like:
When I left The Penny Hoarder in April 2019, one of the projects I wanted to spend time on was The Write Life. Even then, search accounted for the majority of our traffic. I wrote an audit that summer about my goals with the site, including improving SEO (search engine optimization).
Here’s what I realized right out of the gate: SEO is much harder now than it was 10 or even five years ago. It takes more effort to see gains or even to maintain rankings. I’d known this at a high level, but I experienced it in a nitty-gritty way as I got my hands dirty. And yet, I still recommend search as a way to earn traffic over almost every other acquisition channel, including social, because it’s fairly reliable and results last for a long while (as opposed to a short-lived peak of social traffic that quickly dies out).
There’s a misconception that SEO is bad for the reader, that optimizing your content for search engines will result in boring, robot-like content. Some writers do fall into that trap. But with good writers and the right training, it is absolutely possible to optimize your content in a way that benefits both the reader and search engines.
To succeed at this, you have to put the reader first, and sometimes that means making compromises on optimization. But in most cases, this isn’t a one-or-the-other choice. It’s a win-win.
Going into this SEO project, we had several factors working in our favor:
I think of SEO in three buckets of action items:
For this project, we focused on the third piece, on-site content. I chose this approach because it’s what I enjoy, it’s relatively easy to execute without a lot of my own time, and I wanted to learn more about it.
We did some technical clean-up initially, including increasing site speed. We could most definitely use more back-links, but my hope was that we’d gain some of those organically as we improved our content, by appearing higher in Google searches and through our distribution channels, mainly email and social media.
Here are the steps we took to get results.
The audit gave us a big-picture sense of our strengths and weaknesses, identified action items, and helped us prioritize which of those action items to pursue first.
While I have a decent amount of SEO knowledge, the firm I use for audits is far more skilled. Staying up on the latest and greatest in SEO is their job, so these audits always suggest items I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
The added benefit of working with an SEO specialist in these initial stages is I get to learn. It ends up being an investment in my personal development. Plus, it’s fun.
While pricing for this type of work depends on which agency or individual you hire and the size and complexity of your site, you should be able to get a high-quality audit and action plan for $5-10K. If you want a recommendation for who I use, email me.
This was the biggie: we’ve updated hundreds of pieces of content, which is a lot for a small team. I’m proud of how we’ve fared in the writing space when the resources we’ve chosen to put into this brand is so much smaller than many of our competitors.
Updating individual pieces of content is relatively easy from a strategic standpoint, because it requires looking at each piece in a vacuum, as opposed to thinking more big-picture about how all the content fits together. However, it takes quite a bit of research, writing and editing work.
We achieved this by splitting the workload between myself, our editor and a team of freelance writers. I identified which posts to update based on SEO potential, then our editor and freelance writers updated them.
For each post, we looked at keyword optimization, internal and external links, length, and — this is the most important part — quality.
While all of the posts we’ve published over the last seven years were well done, some offered lots of opportunity to flesh out and add more information, while others just needed to be cleaned up a little. As a result, some posts took a lot longer than others, especially in instances where we went back to the original writer (who may have wrote the post years ago) and requested updates.
💡 Here’s an example: A post on grant writing we’d originally published years ago. We got back in touch with the original writer, who runs a grant-writing agency, and paid her to add more information to the post. It’s now in position 5 for “grant writing” (13,000 volume, or how many searches this term sees each month), position 1 for “grant writer” (3,700 volume), position 1 for “how to become a grant writer” (1,100 volume) and ranks for hundreds of other keywords.
We had several posts that ranked well for a topic with a bare-bones piece of content, so we scouted out an expert on that topic to write a completely new post. Then we’d update the same URL with the new, better content.
💡 Here’s an example: How to become a technical writer. This post gained traction years ago when we published the first version, but it wasn’t until we worked with a freelancer who transitioned from journalism to technical writer to create a more detailed explainer that the piece increased significantly in search results. It now ranks in position 1 for “how to become a technical writer” (1,200 volume), position 7 for “technical writer” (13,000 volume), position 1 for “how to become a technical writer without experience” (250 volume) and hundreds of other keywords.
We also publish lots of list posts that need updating every year, like this post on writing retreats. We push ourselves to add new content to each of those lists each year so it’s fresh, and we republish at the same URL to retain back-links and SEO power.
To continue going after new keywords, we identified gaps in our content, primarily through competitor analysis, where we could rank for keywords but hadn’t written about the topic yet.
When creating content that targeted new keywords, we did two specific things:
💡 Here’s an example: Targeting “how to become an editor” (3,100 volume) we wrote this post on how to become an editor. It was written by a writer who transitioned into an editor role, and now ranks in position 3 for that term.
💡 Another example: Many of our competitors rank for grammar terms. While this isn’t totally our jam, I wanted to experiment here. We found a former grammar teacher who now has a career as a freelance writer to explain the difference between ensure vs. insure. (These grammar posts aren’t super long because there’s not all that much you can say about it.) Now we rank in position 3 for “insure vs ensure” (37,000 volume), position 4 for “ensure vs insure” (26,000 volume) and lots more. One of the reasons I wanted to try this particular post was because there were several similar keywords that all had significant volume of searches.
Some of the new posts we wrote haven’t yet fulfilled their search potential, and we’ll probably need to focus more on back-links to help them get there.
Of course, we also published new content that wasn’t explicitly for the purpose of attracting search traffic, covering topics we thought would be interesting or helpful for our audience. While many of those posts won’t bring in a lot of search traffic over time — like this piece on a woman who earned six figures from writing — some surprised us and caught on in search, too!
For example, this piece featuring writers that earn money on Substack now ranks in position 12 for “substack” (22,000 volume).
We deleted dozens of posts that were no longer helpful to the reader and didn’t make sense for updates. For example, reviews of courses that no longer exist.
Before doing so, we checked to make sure these posts weren’t carrying influential inbound links or ranking for high-volume search terms; if they checked any of those boxes, we’d sometimes redirect them to another post instead. It felt good to declutter the site in this way!
There were a handful of instances where we had several posts competing for the same high-volume keyword. That’s inefficient because it makes it more difficult for each one to rank.
We addressed this by choosing a dominant post — based on which had the best content or which post had a URL that was closest to the target keyword — and redirected all the other posts there. We used a WordPress plug-in called Redirection to do this easily.
Whenever possible, we combined content from the non-dominant posts into the dominant post, both to beef up the dominant post and to avoid losing quality advice in the posts that readers would no longer be able to access. We added a double-byline functionality to the site to make it easy to give both authors credit.
💡 Here’s an example: For years, we wrote a new gifts for writers post before the holidays that included lots of Amazon links. Amazon links hold cookies for 24 hours, which means if a reader clicks one of the links in that post and then buys anything else on Amazon — not just the item they clicked on — we earn a commission.
For years, this post has brought in thousands of dollars in December, when people ask Google what to gift to their writer friends. A few years ago it brought in $10,000, but that dropped as Google inserted more ads and excerpts at the top of its results pages. This year the post brought in about half that in December, which I was happy with.
We consolidated all our gifts for writers posts from the last six or so years into one epic post of 59 gifts for writers, then redirected all other posts to that one. We also updated the post once more before the holiday season. As a result, we’ve held tight to position 1 for “gifts for writers” (volume 5,600) and hundreds of related terms, despite having lots of competition in the space.
Some of our list posts and evergreen posts had numbers or dates in the URL, a newbie mistake we made years ago. For example (a made-up one), say we had a post about 23 of the best books for writers, and the URL was thewritelife.com/23-of-the-best-books-for-writers. Nowadays we know to make the URL a target keyword or phrase, but years ago we let WordPress auto-populate URLs, so they often matched the headline.
If we added more content to that post and got the list up to 30, the URL wouldn’t match, and we didn’t want the URL to dictate the content. In most cases, we created a new post with a new URL that would forever match the content — simply: /best-books-for-writers — and redirected the old URL to the new post. In a few instances where the URL was ranking well and had hundreds of comments we didn’t want to lose, we kept the old URL and just accepted that it wouldn’t match the content perfectly.
Finally, we improved our internal linking. Previously our internal links were all the over the place, and we still have some work to do here. But we made an effort to link more strategically, by using each post’s target keyword as the anchor text.
We always prioritize the reader experience, so if that anchor text was awkward, we let ourselves off the hook. But generally speaking, we made a real effort to be more consistent with anchor text, so it’s clear to Google which post should rank for which topic.
We use ahrefs for all our SEO needs at their $179/month tier. They also offer a $99/month tier, and if you don’t want to invest in ahrefs, you can find similar insights through Neil Patel’s free SEO analyzer.
We organized this work in the simplest of ways: through one big Google Sheet. I’ve organized it that way for several content clients as well. (I want to try organizing it in Google’s new Tables at some point.)
I begin these projects by downloading a list of all the posts from Google Analytics — for The Write Life, we’d published about 1,000 posts since 2013 — and filtering by traffic. Your posts with the most traffic don’t necessarily represent the highest SEO potential, but it’s usually a good place to start. In the spreadsheet, I track details like which target keywords we’re going after for each post, which related posts we should link to, when we last updated it, etc. (I’m not going to share a screenshot of my spreadsheet here because it’s too messy.)
It sometimes also makes sense to have another tab or sheet with a list of posts you want to prioritize for internal links (posts you most want to see climb in Google rankings) and which keyword to use as anchor text for each one. Having this short list easily accessible makes editors more likely to reference it and link strategically.
There’s still so much we could do to further optimize and streamline The Write Life, not to mention growth opportunities for new content. But working on low-hanging fruit over the last 1.5 years has helped us increase search traffic drastically, and that feels satisfying.
I hope this post gave you a glimpse into how we did it, and offers some ideas you can apply to your own site. I’m happy to answer questions in the comments!
💡 More resources from an SEO writer I trust, Carson Kohler: