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How To Grind Out Q&A Content For SEO Success

Every content-driven SEO strategy targets a tiny sliver of a giant Venn Diagram, with content that is either a) valuable enough that someone out there will search for it, and b) unique enough that it can rank.

There’s one company that has turned that from a guideline to a credo: Demand Media. Demand Media’s financials may be raising eyebrows, but anyone who has competed with them knows that they have a handle on SEO.

Demand Media’s goal is right there in the company website’s title tag: “Publishing what the world wants to know.” They determine “what the world wants” by crunching public traffic numbers, buying up ISP data, and using the information gleaned from their massive domain name business.

The next step for Demand Media is scalable content creation. They pay a notorious army of freelancers a small fee per article in order to create content that answers highly specific questions–from “How to find last-minute gifts” to “How to stop a puppy from biting your pants.”

Here are  four things Demand has that you can’t beat:

  1. Better research. They can afford to know how many people Googled “puppy biting pants” last month; you can’t.
  2. More freelancers. They know someone willing to write about puppies biting pants. Maybe you do, too, but you don’t necessarily know someone who will do it for as low of a cost. With thousands of freelancers, they’re more likely to find a willing writer at the right price.
  3. More established properties. Wouldn’t you love to own a site registered back in 1998, with 26 million inbound links? That’s eHow.com!
  4. More funding. Demand Media has raised $375 million to date.

So, you can’t fight them head-on. But you can use their  approach—especially if you’re doing SEO for a site that offers a fairly complex product that people don’t often think about unless they need to actually use it. That’s the kind of product that leads to lots of questions—some of which get expressed as search queries, which you can rank for.

Duplicating The “Demand”

Ultimately, content driven websites are looking for demand; using empirical evidence that searches are happening. You can’t beat them with data, but you can start to find evidence that a particular audience has frequent questions.

The content creation process goes like this:

  1. Start following a relevant topic on Q&A sites.
  2. Answer relevant questions, and note which questions come up more often.
  3. When possible, write a  standard answer to a frequently-asked question, even if it’s not phrased the same way each time. Post the answer on the site you’re optimizing. Phrase the title tag as a question.
  4. If possible, use Google Suggest to find versions of the question that are frequently searched but don’t have well-optimized answers.
  5. Post your  standard answers.

Most Q&A sites have nofollow links, but that’s not the point. The point is to gather information on ultra long-tail terms. These are terms that generate a tiny amount of search volume—not enough to show up in most keyword research tools. But thanks to Google Suggest, many people will search for a keyword that precisely matches that title tag.

Meanwhile, answering lots of questions has some great “second-order” SEO side effects. Even if your site can’t rank for every long-tail variant that finds its way into a question, the Q&A sites can. The result? One site using this strategy can actually get as much referral traffic from Yahoo! Answers as it does from Google’s organic search. (Q&A results provide instant authority, which can’t hurt conversion rates.)

The Q&A-Content Strategy In Action

A client I worked  for handled quick, painless tax filing for individuals. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, we launched a combined SEO and social media  campaign, the strategy for which included frequent Q&A site activity, especially on Yahoo! Answers. (At the time, Yahoo! Answers tended to get at least 100 tax-related questions every day; it was easy to write up ten relevant answers in an hour.)

We noticed after a while that the same questions came up over and over again. We began testing the strategy on a link-building blog we designed to parallel the client site (the blog was meant to be a bit more incendiary than the client’s branding allowed, in order to attract links that could be passed on to the main sites).

We started with an article on the top high-traffic, near-zero conversion topic in online tax discussions: whether or not it’s constitutional to pay income taxes. The article was quick, informative, and light, and mostly argued that, regardless of any constitutionality or conspiracies, it was probably a prudent personal financial decision to go ahead and pay those taxes, and perhaps complain about it later.

The story caught on. After a few days, other Yahoo! Answers participants were citing it.

So, we moved on to something a bit more useful to the business: filing taxes without a W-2. In a recession, this turns into a serious issue: some employers go bankrupt, and former employees move; consequently, people can find themselves missing crucial  tax documents with only days to file.

Any major tax preparation company can handle this issue; that’s what they’re there for. But most don’t know to talk it up. Thanks to the “Mini Demand Media” strategy, this client did, and their “filing without a W-2” page became one of the top landing pages on the site.

Years later, the competitive landscape has changed. Unemployment is more stable, and Demand Media has cranked out a few articles on the subject.

But the general technique is still applicable. This exploits a gap in most traditional keyword search tools: those tools can’t identify the dozens of 5+-term searches that are all looking for the same information, but on a Q&A site, you can. And it exploits a gap in Demand Media’s algorithm, too: they can’t make the intuitive, industry-specific judgments and generalizations that an expert can.

This strategy offers steady returns from SEO, but the real payoff might actually be the research. If you spend hours a day reading what people have to say about your industry, and finding out what questions they all seem to ask—you might just stumble on some useful new ideas.

A Note About Disclosure

Don’t hesitate to disclose what you’re doing when you use a strategy like this. Answering briefly, followed by a note like “I maintain a site about X, and I’ve written more extensive information at the link below: …” is often highly effective.

It’s much easier to maintain trust by making your interests clear. And in the long run, “Industry Expert” has more credibility than “Random Site User,” so disclosure is a net win.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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