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Keyword Research Case Studies: Glossaries

My quest to document content campaigns and their keyword research tactics lurches on today.  For this particular installment, I’m going to document one we (Hit Subscribe) have been doing a lot lately: the glossary.

In case you haven’t been following my rather halting process, this is another addendum post to the SEO for Non-Scumbags series.

Glossary Campaigns: A Quick Definition

As with tool user campaigns, glossary campaigns lend themselves pretty well to an elevator pitch.  Create a glossary of terms relevant to your brand and publish a “post” for each term.

I put post in quotes because I tend to think of these as glossary entries, rather than blog posts, even if the mechanism through which you publish them is a blog CMS.  It’s like you’re building a specific, niche wiki on your site.

The glossary should, ideally, have a jump page with quick definitions and links, and then URLs for each individual entry, ideally with “glossary” baked into the URL.  InfluxData does this perfectly, with a glossary jump page and then pages like this one, about columnar databases.  Notice the URL scheme with “glossary” (influxdata.com/glossary/) for the main page and then satellite pages that extend that page (influxdata.com/glossary/columnardb).

Glossary campaigns limit themselves to nouns (what is it searches) by their nature.  As a result, segmentation is quite loose — it’s just anyone curious what the term means.

The Broader Goal of Glossary Campaigns

A glossary campaign is so generally good for the site’s holistic SEO that I’d say the goal is, well, SEO.  You would create a glossary if you had substantial budget (or lots and lots of time) and were committed to search engine traffic as a lead acquisition channel for the long-haul.  If those things are true, it’s a no-brainer.

With that in mind, let’s go through a list of tactical benefits that support my thesis here.

  1. Glossary campaigns are a natural, heavily overlapping, complement to term ownership campaigns.  If you want to own a noun keyword, a glossary is an excellent raison d’etre for that content, compared to writing a post on your blog called “what is DevOps?”
  2. As such, glossary campaigns are solid gold for building topical authority in your niche.
  3. Canonical definitions are incredibly natural for linking purposes, so your glossary will tend to attract natural backlinks.
  4. Speaking of links, they’re great for beefing up your internal linking game.  Just do a text search of your site for the term in question and add a link everywhere you find it.
  5. You can drive prodigious brand awareness by showing up in every definition SERP related to your domain.  Everywhere searchers look, there you are.
  6. The glossary itself will start to attract direct visits, thus opening up another acquisition channel.  In other words, if a searcher lands on your site often enough when looking things up, they may simply start navigating directly to your site for their research and searching from there.

This is a little broad-brushy, but I’d venture to say if you aim to have 6+ figures of monthly traffic to your site, you should probably have a glossary.

How To Do the Keyword Research

There is going to be a good bit of overlap here with term ownership campaigns.  However, glossary campaigns are more specific in one important way: you’re limited to people asking the question “what is it” about a term, which means you’re largely going to be targeting nouns.

Contrast this with ownership campaigns, where it’s entirely appropriate to create content addressing other sorts of questions to build topical authority (guides, tutorials, comparisons, etc).

Anyway, let’s go through it.

1. Brainstorm Seed Terms

I’d start out with some simple brainstorming of relevant terms.  Perhaps start with a thought exercise:

If you were to put “company” after them, which nouns would describe your brand or site?

In other words, take Hit Subscribe, and let’s revisit some of the old terms from the Airtable base I created for this post series.

Would it be accurate to call Hit Subscribe a developer marketing company?  Sure.  What about a digital marketing company, a content marketing company, a content marketing strategy company?  Again, sure.

That’s the exercise for coming up with seed terms.

Don’t worry about volume, difficulty, or any other kind of vetting at this point.  Just capture the terms.  And make sure they’re all nouns (or nouns with modifiers) with a “what is it” searcher question.

2. Grow the List

Just sitting there asking yourself what you are isn’t going to create a comprehensive glossary.  You’ll need to expand.

The first thing I’d do is scan and scrape the copy on your own site.  If you’re an indie, maybe look in your resume.  The idea is that you want to search for terms of art related to your niche.

Once you’ve exhausted that, see how others talk about you, if applicable.  Look through testimonials, links to your site, customer conversations, etc.  If they describe you using certain terms, it’s a safe bet that those should find their way into your glossary.

Finally, I’d go scanning other sources looking for terms of art.  Look at your competitors or businesses in a similar niche and see what terms are on their site.  Google the terms you already have, click on some of the results and scan that content for terms of art. 

For instance, if I read this article about vector databases, a term with which I am familiar, I encounter terms with which I am not: ANN search, ImageNet, shared nothing database architecture, etc.  I’ll greedily add all of those to the backlog, reasoning that I’d rather later cull a large list than try to bolster an anemic one.  

You’ll have to find something that works for you, but your general charter is “would this term make sense is a brand-specific wiki?”

3. Cull the List Based on Searcher Question and Intent

Once you’ve built up a sizeable list of candidate terms, you want to start to qualify them.  Now, before I tell you how, I suggest that when terms don’t qualify, you don’t delete them from your list.  Instead, just tag them as disqualified for such and such reason.

The rationale here is that the glossary will serve as a living corpus on your site.  You’ll add to it and modify it with time.  So having an alphabetized list of terms, qualified and disqualified, is a hedge against future pointless rework.

That said, here’s how to disqualify terms.

  1. Get rid of anything where the search intent isn’t “what is it”.  We don’t want comparisons, round-ups, etc.  There can be a fine line, in some cases, between a pure “what is it” and something a little guide-flavored.  For instance, a search for aws lambda results in a guide and a wiki definition, so an entry there could work.  But if you’ve got something that’s more obviously a guide, like this Appium guide, for instance, you’ll want to exclude it.  The heuristic I’d use is “would a wiki style article be appropriate?”
  2. Disqualify anything with navigational search intent that’s branded.  For instance, if people google mongodb, they’re looking for mongo’s site, not your glossary entry defining mongo.
  3. Disqualify synonyms.  For instance, with the Influx example above, “columnar database” and “column database” are search engine synonyms.  You only want to pick one to target, and then tag the other(s) as synonyms for your record.

You’ll notice something conspicuously absent here: disqualifying based on low volume or non-winnability.

4. Prioritize Based on Traffic Potential

With glossary campaigns, the quantitative metrics are a bit less cut and dry.  Because, remember, you’re building a corpus of content.  You can’t exactly omit something from that corpus because it would be too hard to rank or because an SEO tool tells you not enough people search it.

For this reason, I think less in terms of eliminating difficult or low volume terms, and more in terms of prioritizing them for later (when, incidentally, you might have more topical and domain authority anyway).

You’ll want to create your jump page as the very first step, and then seed it with quick definitions of all of your terms.  But from there, you’ll add to the content corpus gradually over time.

So prioritize the winnable, high volume terms first, and then work through them in descending order of traffic potential.

Of course, other concerns may factor in here.  You might choose to focus on terms very close to your value prop, or have some other reason not to go strictly by the numbers.

That’s fine.  Just go with a “when in doubt, prioritize by traffic potential” mantra holistically.

Recap and Summary

When you’ve executed the steps here, what you’ll have on your site is a sort of brand-relevant mini-wiki.  And that’s very powerful for SEO because it checks a lot of boxes: organic traffic, direct traffic, backlinks, topical authority.  But it’s also a pretty serious commitment, since noun-terms tend to attract the most competition.

Here’s a replay:

  • Brainstorm a list of terms relevant to your brand.
  • Expand it through further keyword research sessions.
  • Qualify the list based on qualitative/intent terms about the keywords.
  • Prioritize based on traffic potential.
  • Execute.

Glossary campaigns are very straightforward and very effective.  But they’re also a bit of an SEO howitzer, given term competitiveness and the fact that it’s a LOT of content.

If you’re going to execute one, it’s going to mean either a substantial financial commitment or a substantial labor commitment.  So, by all means go for it, but only if you’re seriously committed to SEO as a channel.

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