Anyone who has listened to the podcast of Dennis Akkerman & Martijn Hoving has heard me talk about horizontal SEO. My two e-books also have this term in the title. But what exactly is horizontal SEO? And why should you approach it differently? I’ve listed 10 questions about horizontal SEO that I’m sure you have!
1. What is horizontal SEO?
I coined the term horizontal SEO to indicate that in my view it is not about ranking as high as possible on a number of terms, but as widely as possible. By this I mean that you want to rank on as many search queries as possible throughout the entire customer journey. This SEO strategy does not focus on keywords, but on your customer. You know what he or she is looking for, what problems he or she is facing or what challenges your customer is having. You know why your customer needs your product and can get in touch with him before he even feels the need to look for a solution.
When customers are looking for a solution, you often end up with search queries such as “HR software”, or “accounting system”. In the consumer market, you can think of search terms such as “buy laptop”, “car insurance” or “black boots”. This part of the customer journey, where the customer has already decided what he or she wants to buy, is the do phase. The advantage here is that customers convert fairly quickly, but the competition is also very high. Within the search engine, you are not only competing with other SEO results, you also have to fight against the ads that are always above you. Yet this is how most people and companies do SEO; as high as possible on those few desired search terms.
With horizontal SEO you want to rank as high as possible on all relevant search terms that your customer has. The advantage is that the SERP for many other search terms is still almost a blank page. So if you look beyond your top terms, you still see many opportunities in SEO.
2. Why should I change my SEO strategy, everyone is doing it anyway?
Yes, everyone is doing it and that is the problem. You have to belong to the first 3-5 parties to get some SEO traffic on the most desired search terms. Remember that on those terms SEO is already far out of the picture and the Google user has to scroll a lot for the first result. Those 3-5 spots where you still grab some traffic are often claimed by the big players in each market: the SEO elite. It actually surprises me that everyone thinks the traditional way of SEO is the only way of SEO. The result is that we all start (over)optimising, keeping rankings up to date and fully committed to getting good links, in whatever way we can.
But if everyone plays that game and for each popular search term there are actually only 3-5 good spots, it means that a lot of parties cannot play this game. Compare it to a musical chairs game, where there are 5 chairs and 20 people participate; 15 of them will never get a chair. The result is that people become frustrated, and I often hear this when I talk to people about SEO: “I can’t get any higher than position 6”, “I’ve tried everything and I can’t get to position 1”.
I think that for anyone who is not part of the SEO elite, it is better to look further for other opportunities. Of course, you can push and pull in that seat race, but it will be a tough battle. Especially if the people you want to knock off their chairs are also very strong people. And what will you do if Google removes another chair because they have invented something new and there are only four chairs left?
Why would you still play that game? Maybe because there has never been talk of another game that you can play, and if you don’t know that there is another way, then you keep playing what you do know. But there are plenty of other opportunities to attract a lot of SEO traffic. You will have to let go of the idea that SEO means ranking as high as possible. You will have to let go of the fact that you will not be number one for that top term.
3. Why don’t you do keyword research in horizontal SEO?
I have a number of reasons for this. The first reason is that horizontal SEO is no longer about keywords, but about your customer. Many tools that work with the Dutch language only give you insights into keywords, not into the actual search query. This is also not possible as even the Google Keyword Planner does not provide insight into the actual search queries that people have. I will come back to this in a moment.
A second reason is that all tools are public. The information you have is also available to Jane and John. And Johnny from the SEA department also works with it. This means that a huge number of people want to take part in the musical chairs and the chance of you getting one of those five chairs is very small.
A third reason is that a keyword says nothing about what your customer is really looking for. Take the search term “boots”, does anyone want black boots, brown boots, with a heel, without a heel, with a wide shaft, with a narrow shaft, with a block heel, a stiletto heel and how high should the heel be? If you are working really hard to be number one but you don’t have a huge range, what are you doing it for? How big is the chance that the customer does not find what he is looking for?
With horizontal SEO, you want to be found on all the searches that match your company or business. And that goes far beyond just the top terms. Take a look at the following list:
- Cat feedingbowl with chip (with this search the customer knows what he is looking for, this product solves his problem)
- Multiple cats feeding Bowl
- Feeding several cats at the same time
- How to feed multiple cats different food
- Different food for several cats
- Different food for each cat
- Cat eats food from other cat
- Feed each cat its own bowl
- Feed cats separately
- Let your cats eat separately
- Feeding cats separately
- Let your cats eat together or separately
- etc. etc.
If you enter the Dutch words into the Google Keyword Planner, Google says there is no search volume: 0. The question is whether this is really the case. You only find out when you have created a page and start monitoring how much traffic is coming in and on which terms (Google Search Console also does not give access to all search terms).
This is actually quite different from the Keyword Planner in English, where Google actually does come with long tail queries:
For what I can say about the Dutch market is that it is open for most of the above searches, even though Google says there is no search volume in Dutch. You’ll mainly see cat forums ranking and sometimes some Google Shopping Ads. But that battle is certainly easier than coming first on the search term ‘cat feeding bowl with chip’ where you see the large websites ranking from the pet food sector. So will you, as a small party, enter the seat dance for that keyword, or will you look for your success somewhere else? Remember that every search term in that list ultimately has to do with a problem that a cat owner encounters, so the chance that this person will still want to buy a feeding bowl with chip is very high.
Of course it is still possible that the visitor with the new knowledge and information will search on “feeding bowl with chip” to compare prices, shipping costs and conditions. But that’s also the risk if you are one of the parties that ranks on “manger with chip”. Then you have fought very hard to be in the picture and someone still buys somewhere else because the shipping costs are lower there. The advantage is: it is a lot cheaper and easier to rank on these other search terms than ‘manger with chip’.
4. How do you get your input and topics?
That is a question of knowing your customer, your product and your market very well. And being extremely creative. You must constantly be able to make the connection between what you sell or offer and what someone is looking for. If you can make that connection, you can easily map out an enormous number of search queries. In my e-book Handbook Horizontal SEO I help you on your way, but you will have to do it yourself. Ultimately, you have to figure out which search queries could be useful for you.
You may be wondering what to start with if there is no search volume insight. You already don’t know what it will bring and you don’t know how to prioritise. That’s right, and that’s what makes horizontal SEO so much fun. I know for sure that if you just start somewhere, you will be visible faster than on such a top term and you will achieve success faster. So don’t hesitate too long and just start. If you see results after a few weeks/months, then you know you are doing well.
(I stick to a number of weeks to months because sometimes it takes longer for you to see results in SEO, especially if you start creating new pages it can take a while before you get traffic on them).
5. Why don’t you keep track of rankings?
You don’t anymore because it’s simply not doable. If you think in terms of top terms, it is still fairly easy to make a representative list of keywords and monitor your visibility on them. But as you can see above; a blog page about a feeding bowl with chip could rank for 10 different terms. If you have to keep track of 10 terms for each page, it will quickly become cluttered. And besides: you don’t know if those 10 are the ones. If you write a good page about the feeding trough, then it is possible that you will also be shown on searches that you had not thought of beforehand, but now you are included because you have written a natural text.
I already find it difficult to keep track of 100 rankings, let alone when it becomes 10,000. And then I think: what’s in it for me to know? There are other KPIs that are better for judging this strategy, see below.
6. How do you measure success?
I think the most important KPIs are whether the traffic on that page continues to grow and whether it generates sales. If you create a good page today, keep track of how much traffic it has received in the past few months and how that will grow in the coming months and what happens to sales. It is a bit of manual work, but after a few months you will probably have a very good case with which you can convince the board and management of this new SEO strategy. Sometimes it can also be interesting to keep track of how many search terms a page is shown for, but Search Console often shows no more than 1,000 search terms.
Sometimes it can also happen that you target search terms that are not yet in the do phase. This is also a great opportunity within the horizontal SEO strategy: the think phase. At that moment, a page will generate traffic but not sales. It is very good to know for each page whether it is for the do phase or the think phase. It determines what kind of page it will be, what you are going to show on it and what you are going to charge it for. In many cases (not all, but many), a blog will attract traffic that wants to think for a while, so the conversion rate will be lower than for other pages. It does not mean that a blog contributes nothing, it just means that a blog has a supporting role in the conversion. Sometimes someone returns to your site via another channel. This can be mapped using Google Analytics. More about the supporting role of SEO read the e-book The end of SEO as we always did.
7. What do I say to my board, management or customer?
This is -I think- the most crucial question. My experience shows that directors and management often want to be on top. Yet I have always succeeded in starting a conversation about this over the years. Do you want to be number one or do you want to get traffic, turnover and profit from SEO? And why do you want to be number one, what do you expect from that? And did you know that the CTR on the number 1 position has been dropping for years? And do you have the budget to be number one? And why do you think you are competing with the SEO elite in your market? And what do you have to offer the user? Do you really have a cool website? Can you really find useful information on it? Does your website really help a customer? Often boards and management think so, but there is still a lot to be desired. Consider that Artificial Intelligence will enable Google to better determine which party is best able to help the customer. You can optimise until you’re blue in the face, but you’ll have to have a really good site to continue playing the Champions League of top terms.
If a company really wants to be number 1 and you can’t dissuade them from that, until now I could always say that I could not help this party. There are plenty of other SEO specialists who can play the traditional SEO game very well and help this party out much better. So far, I have experienced that once. If that is your game, then of course you can continue to do that for such parties, but be clear about the pros and cons.
8. Back to the content, do you want to stop having good backlinks?
Yes, I want to have good links. Because I don’t mind being in the picture in the width of search terms. But because the market is so open now, you can often achieve very good results without having a strong link profile. This is going to change of course, because the more companies are going to focus on this horizontal strategy, the more competition you are going to experience there.
So I really want good links, but I don’t have a focus on them right now. I also don’t need links with a certain anchor text because it’s not about keywords anymore. And that gives you the space to think about a strategy where you can earn links in a different way, for example through a good PR strategy.
9. Are you sure you’re not crazy saying don’t try to rank as high as possible?
Good question, try it out yourself and see what happens. For me, this strategy works very well, so well that in the 11 years I’ve been in the SEO industry, I’ve never engaged in vertical SEO.
10. Is this SEO strategy suitable for everyone?
That depends very much on your market. If you are in a market where there are no horizontal searches, then it can be really difficult. Think of the market in which telecommunications companies are active. Is there anything besides search terms such as ‘all in one’, ‘sim only’ ‘TV and internet’ etc.? If you are in such a market then SEO can be very different. You then have to belong to the top 5 that can win the musical chairs and then constantly stay in that battle to rank higher. The question is whether at a certain point your brand name will not become much more important: if people think Vodafone is a cool brand, do they need to rank you first or will people click through to you anyway even if you’re not in the top 5?