Killing Giants: How to Beat Big Brands in Google Search
30 minute read
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Ross Tavendale
Killing the Giants

In this post, we look at how startups and small businesses can beat giant corporate websites in the SERPs. We recently helped a villa rental business beat TripAdvisor, Airbnb and Holiday Lettings for head commercial terms by using the tactics and methodologies illustrated below. As a result, the business has grown three-fold and (most importantly) the owner invites us round to stay in one of the beautiful villas. Real results.

At Ideas Made, we’re 100% action driven. Our first ever tweet summarises our mindset beautifully: “Ideas are not worthless but execution is everything”

With that said, this post deals with the raw output from our campaigns as well as our theory and mindset. The reason we cover ‘mindset’ is because - brace yourself - you are going to be doing a lot of upfront work and seeing NO results for at least 6 months. Such is the nature of organic search.

The Results

This SEMrush graph shows traffic tripling over a 2 year period

TL;DR

Tactics

The below outlines our campaign executions.

On Page & Tech SEO

The website had immaculate on-page and technical SEO, covering 200 points in a forensic level technical audit. If you want the exact template we use to conduct client technical audits, you can request access here.

Epic Creative & Technical Link Building

  • We found the main syndication source for travel sections like Huffington Post & Yahoo travel (i.e. where they pull content from) and then got published on the source sites so one link turned in 10 links

  • We created a side travel blog with no affiliation to the brand in order to get accepted into private Facebook groups of other travel bloggers to pitch stories and offers for links

  • We filled properties up with journalists in the off-season to get press and links

  • We carried out lots of reactive outreach using social channels to get media alerts

  • We reached out to all local businesses in the area with websites and offered them a review swap - they review our villas, we review their restaurant/bar

  • We created fake listings like the “Iron Man Mansion” in line with movie releases and pitched the story to journalists in the travel and entertainment industry

  • We wrote high quality guest posts

  • We cold emailed resource and content hub sites asking for inclusion

Optimisation

  • We used Micro workers (a UK version of Mechanical Turk) to test different meta data titles for best click through rate (Hint: if you put “as seen on Tripadvisor” you will get more clicks)
  • We wrote massive in depth neighbourhood guides for each major term we wanted to rank for - the homepage has a 3,000 word article contained in a CSS scrolling box (don’t believe the hype about visible/non visible content being discounted)
  • We used the COPE (create once, publish everywhere) strategy to get all content syndicated, shared and linking back from multiple locations

  • We redesigned the site with modern branding and a fresh user experience

  • CRO tests were carried out on contact forms and landing pages in order to increase leads

Naughty Tactics

  • We 301 redirect all old content with no traffic (that had links) to major landing pages

  • We 301 redirected all other websites the client owned into relevant pages

  • We asked local business owners previously linking to competitors to remove the links and add our links instead

Mindset

Not many SEO-related posts talk about mindset. The truth of the matter is when you are charging someone a retainer every month and they’re not seeing any real results for 3-6 months, you need to be in a growth mindset and accept that there are major facets of corporate websites you can exploit in order to beat them organically.

  • You’re fast, they are slow

  • They have an apathy epidemic, you care deeply

  • They dilute creative to reach as many people as humanly possible, you can be edgy (this keynote by GaryVee says it all)

  • They are regulated, you can get away with murder

  • You can concentrate all your efforts in a single place, they have multiple channel managers to answer to

Killing the Giants | The In-depth version

Technical SEO

If you have absolutely perfect on-page and technical SEO, you’re already ahead of the game. When working with corporate clients a large part of our SEO resource is spent auditing the website and constantly crawling URLs to make sure nothing is broken.

For this client we carried out our signature 200 point forensic level technical audit. You can download the document containing the step-by-step guide.

If you are not an SEO nutter like myself, then I suggest that you cover the basics:

  • No 404 pages

  • Sitemaps up to date and submitted to search console

  • HREF LANG implementations sorted

  • No broken internal links

  • Each URL resolves to one place

  • Proper titles and descriptions on every page

Anecdote

When working as the digital search manager with a large high street store, I was tasked with getting them to rank for terms such as “Christmas gifts” and “Stocking fillers for men”, which is slightly bonkers as they were primarily selling soap. Nonetheless, I decided to throw caution to the wind and attempt to get them ranking. After 4 months we hit number 5 for Christmas gifts as well as low page 1 for other gift related terms. As well as the hero terms, our other site-wide optimisations started to take effect and the traffic was flowing.

In fact, we drove the equivalent of the population of the democratic republic of Tonga to the site. I know this because my client contact (now a close friend) called me up and repeatedly shouted “Tonga, fucking Tonga” at me on the phone.

Organic search in Q4 produced ~£1.4million in incremental revenue from organic search (brand and non-brand). An amazing result all round....until all of the pages were deleted by a channel manager when the campaign finished.  

Link Building for SMEs and Startups

Finding the PR syndication source

Tapping into the news cycle is an incredibly powerful way of generating large numbers of high quality links but finding the source can be challenging.

How do you find the source?

We tend to use two main UK sources and a handful of others in different European countries.

  • Associated Press

  • Reuters

Do a site command on your competitor name or keyword. For example:

Site: https://www.apnews.com/ "tripadvisor"

The search result is a list of the main headlines in your industry. From here, we used Scrapebox (our favourite Swiss army knife SEO tool) and scraped the headlines into a text file. We then wrapped all the headlines in quotation marks and pulled the number of search results per headline. The headlines that show more than 3 results in Google are syndicated. We then went to the articles to find the journalists who wrote the articles and pitch them our stories.

Sidenote: If you commission them to write a story and pay for the editorial, you are much more likely to get things moving.

Before the article goes live, make sure you set up a Google Alert (or use Mention like we do) to capture all of the places the headline and brand name are going to show up. You will now be alerted when the article is syndicated so you can get in touch with the title and request a link is added in case their CMS strips it out.

If you are conducting this type of link building on a local level, once in a while you’ll hit the jackpot as Tosin, our search manager recently did. She reached out to a local english newspaper that was part of the Newsquest network of local and national newspapers. When one link was updated, all 142 of their websites that also syndicated the article updated with the same link. Jackpot!

Private groups

Blogger outreach is a tough gig. It’s a crowded space with agencies and SEO clambering to offer free trips and products in exchange to exposure to their audience. Point to point out reach is time consuming and involves  lot of back and forward to set up deals and negotiate content.

Stu, our resident travel blogger, decided it would be better to target a large group of bloggers and offer them a press day in one of the villas. So we used his influence in the industry in order to get accepted into some private blogger Facebook groups.

Once we were in, we created a Google sign-up form for people to register their interest and share a link.

Before we knew it, we had 72 bloggers ready to go and review the client’s website. We didn’t ask for any links or social posts. We made them feel special and took care of them - and the links came naturally.

The timing here was important. We executed the campaign in the low season when bloggers are typically winding down and struggling to present their readers with  quality content. We were more than happy to be of assistance and offer them an experience weekend with lots of opportunities to create content.

Free stuff works

For the lower end websites we reached out to in order to achieve a volume, we ran ego bait pieces. This involved contacting 10-20 bloggers and asking for their top summer fashion picks of the year. We then created a blog post quoting all of them and bought the items they recommended and sent them to them as a thank you. We were expecting them to share the post on social but we actually found about ⅓ of them reviewed the item we sent them and linked back to the client's site.

Reactive

Reactive outreach is a very time consuming process but if you are quick off the mark and direct with your pitch then you can make it work well for you. For example: we recently got featured in The Guardian as we reacted to a media request that was sent out by their technology editor on Twitter.

I recommend setting up alerts for the following:

Or if you have a bit of cash, the service journorequests.com is really good. You’ll notice we have a linked review on the homepage. 

Fake product listings

Fake product listings are a firm favourite link generation tactic at our agency. The premise of the fake product involves creating a fake listing on your site and pretending that it’s real. Some companies that employ this tactic keep up the act until the end of the press cycle but most concede that it was just a practical joke in order to generate some PR buzz.

Examples

eBuyer particle accelerator

eBuyer put a Higgs Boson particle accelerator for sale - obviously a joke but a fun piece for journalists to write about. Sadly they have taken it down now but if you run the original URL through a backlink checker,  you can see that it generated around 80 links from premium websites: http://www.ebuyer.com/390394-h...

ebuyer-higgs-boson-content.png#asset:906


Tesco "accidentally" make iPads £49.99

Tesco “accidentally” published the price of the new iPad as £49 instead of £499 on the day that it was released, causing mass hysteria and press attention. To this day they say that it was an accident but the way in which their backlink profile grew indicates an invisible hand at play talking to the journalists. They now rank on page 1 for ‘buy iPad’- nice!

 

tesco-ipad-prices-wrong.png#asset:912


Boots Elf Bite Lotion and Santa's Chimney Lube

Boots sold Santa’s Chimney lube  and Elf Bite Cream at Christmas time (now taken down). This campaign was ran by yours truly and was only able to happen due to some very forward-thinking clients.

boots-fake-products.png#asset:911


Stay in the Iron Man Mansion

We carried out a similar piece of content marketing for a client. In this instance we tested 5 different fake villa listings around movie releases that were happening at the time. The variant that started to get the most pickup was the Iron Man Mansion which is still live here.

iron man mansion from ibiza summer villas

At the time we counted around 30 links generated off this one piece of content. As it was a few years ago, the links have decayed but most link tools still show a solid 16-20 links.

Local reviews

One of the major advantages our client had over the giants was that we had lots of local connections with other business people.

Therefore, we created a list of every restaurant, club, bar, market and sports club that was operating in our local market and reached out to them to review their business and   get them to review the client's business and ultimately link to the site.

When conducting this activity, we noticed that local business people had our competitor links on their sites in resources pages and blogrolls. As we were feeling particularly naughty, we asked them if they would mind removing or adding a no-follow attribute to them - diluting their link profile and strengthening ours. Most people said no to this request but we did get a handful of people to agree to it. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Classic guest posts

The major problem with running a very content-led PR-based link building campaign is the inability to specify anchor text. As most of the client's anchor text was branded, we wanted to push some commercial anchors in order to send more direct signals to the engines.

So we started to scope out some high-end guest post websites, put together some content ideas and started pitching to site owners. This was by far  one of the hardest activities we carried out. I’m not a massive fan of single point to point outreach simply because it’s difficult to scale without lots of hours spent talking to people.

Campaign led link generation campaigns are a bit easier in that you tend to get multiple links for a single piece of content (if executed correctly). That being said, there is always a risk that you get absolutely zero links from your content. That’s why we take the “test, learn and iterate” approach.

Freebies

There are lots of content hungry websites out there that will happily accept an original content submission in exchange for a link. They are not always  the most relevant of websites, but it certainly helps you make up the numbers and brings you closer to your goals. A couple of favourites are:

Humans.txt: Upload a humans.txt file to your site and submit for a juicy links

Office Snapshots take some cool snaps of your funky office and send them for review

​How the Giant’s Make Content

In my experience this is one of the areas that the giants do excel at: making content. As content production is the core of most marketing activity (not just SEO and PR) it tends to be a high priority with some good budget around it.

However, from my experiences there are still some weaknesses that smaller businesses can exploit. In order to  do so, we must first understand how they produce content.

Content calendar

A content calendar is an excellent way to structure your content production and stick to deadlines. Every business should have  a content calendar to work from.

The downside of the content calendars for  larger websites is that they are channel specific calendars that don’t present holistic approach. For example, the social team will have their own calendar, the PR team have their own calendar, so do the SEO team, and branded communications, etc.  

Whilst this is a perfectly fine way to go about it, ultimately we are left with a slightly disjointed effort. Instead of all pistons firing at the same time to power the engine, they are working in isolation making the overall effort less powerful.

Creative ideas get diluted

Brand creative is created through subjective decisions made by individuals in positions of power. Then it’s put into the world. In our opinion, that’s the wrong way around.

Multiple ideas, angles and distribution ideas should be thought up based on customer data and market research. Then small executions of these ideas should be tested in front of a small controlled audience. The piece that drives the most traffic/gets most engagement/sells the most widgets/fulfills whatever KPI you care about, should then be built out and invested in.

You’ll then get the data back from that campaign and make upcoming decisions based on what the market likes. Zero subjective opinion.

All assets have an ‘owner'

When there is a gatekeeper that owns the access to different video and image assets, it gets really tough to start employing a COPE (create once, publish everywhere) strategy. Especially if you use the Ideas Made version of COPE which involves taking big top-level content assets like videos, e-books and articles and chopping them into different content mediums in order to create  native content for the right platforms.

Brand team have final sign off

As an SEO person, I’ve been going head to head with creatives my entire career. The industry is in love with  ‘big ideas’ or  ‘big campaigns’ that will change the face of the company forever. And while that does occasionally happen, these big ideas and campaigns are few and far between. I’m guessing it’s a hangover from the Mad Men era of advertising.

At Ideas Made, we went through a lot of early pains trying to make sure all of our departments (innovation, product, creative, production and marketing) were all on the same page - singing from the same hymn sheet. i Don’t believe that departments in digital agencies don’t typically get along? If you are in SEO, go ask someone who is in UX to produce a sitemap (hint: it’s not an XML file of all the pages on the site - it’s a flow diagram).

How to Create Content that Ranks at Scale

Audit all assets

The first thing we do on all client accounts is audit their business for assets we can use for social posts, articles and outreach. This can include:

  • PDFs

  • Brochures

  • Videos

  • Images

  • Data visualisations

  • IP

  • Databases

  • Icons

  • Fonts

In order to extract everything from the site we fire up screaming frog and get it to do a custom extraction.

80/20 on effort

When it comes to content creation, remember it’s not what you do when you’re making the content that is important, it’s what you do with it after.

In a previous role, I remember a content piece that was commissioned by a global brand for the cool sum of £50,000 ended up getting a total of 2  links and 400 pageviews. Why? Because 80% of the budget was spent on  creative execution and 20% on  promotion. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Setup a template/environment that makes it easy

Making quality content isn’t always easy but if you set up your surroundings to make it easier, you can get a lot more done. For example, we have a black backdrop and some lighting set up in one of our 40ft shipping container offices so we can  turn the camera on and go at a moment’s notice. The lighting and backdrop keeps everything stylistically consistent and gives the content a  polished feel.

When videos are being created for YouTube, we also livestream to the Facebook page simultaneously - two birds with one stone. Then when the time comes to edit, we have all the assets ready to chop everything up into a high quality video. For us, the next step is to pre-edit everything then go live and shoot everything as we would a real live show. For any aspiring live video makers out there, we are using OBS to produce the video. Our first ones looked like a hostage video but you get better over time. 

Double down on content that begets more pieces of content

It’s not a coincidence that Facebook, the biggest media platform in the world, is pushing live video at the moment. Video (and live video in particular) is a content format that allows you to cut up and create new pieces of content tailored to different audiences.

Here is an example of how we would usually cut up and distribute one of our weekly news videos.

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Give it all away

If you have original content living on your site, I recommend that you give it away for free under a modified creative commons license. Especially images, illustrations and videos. Not only that, I recommend that you distribute it to places that you know it is going to get actively stolen from. Why? Reclamation.

When someone lifts content from your site (such as an image, quote, piece of text, etc.), you are well within your rights to contact the person and ask them to update their site with an attribution link back to the source. This tactic works great for logos and infographics as well as quotes and data points. As citing sources is a very natural (almost academic) thing to do, you’ll find that most people are happy to oblige.

To keep an eye on where your image assets are being published we recommend TinEye. If that’s a bit too pricey, you can always do a reverse image search on Google for a couple of your key images to see if they have been reused.

How do you get people to use your images?

We simply create keyword rich Pinterest boards and drop all of the image assets onto the boards so they get picked up when people search for ‘free pictures of XYZ”. This also helps a bit of trust flow back to the pages  the images are hosted on.

Find multiple places to syndicate different content types

I am a massive fan of ONTOLO - you tell it what content you have and what you want to do with it and it scrapes the web for relevant content hubs and syndication sites to add your content.

Sadly, the free tool that ONTOLO used to provide has been worked into their  powerful paid toolset so if you are short on cash, I’d recommend either building your own list of footprints and scraping the results with Scrapebox or using Citation Labs, which does the exact same thing for a recurring fee.

Tools to make your content creation easier

  • Notational Notational 

  • Canva: amazing for social content and blog post headers

  • OBS: for live video streaming

  • Sketch: a tool classically used for UX designers that can also work great for marketing purposes - use it to set up all your social media image templates (this one’s for the pros)

Make the content shareable

Do the following in order to make content shared from your site stand out and perform to the best of its ability:

Check if it’s working correctly with these tools:

Curate or create?

Curation is a legitimate way of driving traffic to your site and getting people to subscribe to your social feeds. Back in the day, I used to  visit the same blog religiously to read the top link building posts for that month. Become the expert in a small niche and curate the best stuff away from the noise. Just don’t do what the Daily Fail do. They will curate the shirt right off your back as this Gawker expose highlights.

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Get someone else to do it for you

One of my favourite ‘growth hacks” (must re-evaluate life after using the term growth hack) is to reach out to bloggers in your industry to get their take on a topic you are writing about. Once you have 10 or so opinions, simply turn it into a blog post and hit publish. Don’t forget to tell them when it goes live as you will likely get a Tweet or Facebook share from each of them.Great exposure to a relevant audience.

Automate your content

Now, when i say automate - I don’t mean you should load up the Best Spinner and Article Wizard and turn one perfectly good article into 100 rubbish ones. I am referring to the way in which Skyscanner and lots of other travel companies build their content through data.

By manipulating multiple data feeds, you can easily create lots of high quality relevant editorial content. A tool that will help you to do just that is called Quill. It takes a database or a table of information and turns it into conversational paragraphs.

​Mindset: What do they have that you don’t?

Having worked in the agency scene for some time now, I have been behind the curtain at big box agencies and websites and know exactly what they are good at and exactly what they are bad at. Here is a rundown of what they have that puts them at an advantage.

Brand equity

I have heard of them, I haven’t heard of you.

My measure for brand equity is simple: if my granny has heard of it, it has brand equity. If she hasn’t then they have no brand equity. Obviously this is an oversimplification, but asking a person in their twilight years for feedback is a highly valuable tool.

Millions of pounds of ad revenue

Budgets are likely to be higher but with bigger ability comes a bigger appetite, which I will show you how to exploit.

Enterprise level software

This is one of the major things I used to miss from working in a massive agency - having lots of enterprise tools like Hitwise and Gorkana and TGI to help scale your efforts. Now that our agency is able to afford these tools, I find I actually shy away from most of them apart from a few core essentials like Pitchbox for outreach.

An army of people to make things and create content

Sounds like a massive benefit. Who wouldn’t want an army of people to make your content and a have a bunch of expensive agencies to ideate over creative direction? On the surface, this sounds great. However, if you take an objective look at what is going on behind the scenes, you’ll see the following:

  1. Two humans (the creative director & strategy director) make a plan and come up with some ideas that they think are subjectively good.

  2. The ideas are then sent to a delivery team who map out the overall strategy and boil down the content ideas to the three best ones.

  3. They then go see the client and pitch those ideas. The client team which is typically made up of a marketing manager (whose primary role is taking care of the company's balance sheet), a procurement manager (in charge of actually buying the end “thing”) and the wider marketing team (who, more often than not, are T shaped project managers - deep knowledge on managing agencies and resources, broad knowledge on the marketing disciplines themselves). Ultimately, no ‘creatives’ make the final decision. It’s just a random person's subjective opinion.

  4. Together they make another subjective decision on what to do and the agency then executes against this.

The problem with this is it exposes the company to:

  1. High flop risk: the ideas may or may not work, there is no contingency if it's a flop

  2. Personal bias: ideas are often pitched with the client in mind, not the client’s customers

What they have that you don’t want

Layers of bureaucracy

When you operate at scale a lot of blue chip e-commerce sites have ‘channel managers’. These are people in charge of particular areas of the site. So if you want to implement an SEO change sitewide, you need sign off from all channel managers. Ouch.

Dolly Partons - working 9 till 5

Walk into your big competitor’s offices at 6pm any day of the week and it will look like the opening scene from Vanilla Sky - deserted. Why? Because there is no real incentive to work hard for the business and make a difference. I learned this the hard way when I up-sold new services to clients at my old job.

The company makes more money, I get an increased workload, and over time a renewed sense of apathy. Great deal, right?

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An army of people

For the overstretched CMO trying to take care of brand communications, PR, social, SEO and PPC whilst going to speaking events meet ups and  trying to fit in some time for a social life - a team of dedicated people to pick up some of this work seems like a dream come true. However, when we look at the makeup of that army of people, we can see that they are overwhelmingly junior resource.

Why? Because one of the undeniable facts about digital marketing (especially SEO) is that 50% of the activity is hard grinding work. Writing meta data, analysing screeds of crawl data, and manually reaching out to hundreds of people are all time consuming,  challenging activities. When it comes to creative for marketing purposes, ask yourself: are there any 40-year-old creatives out there doing backflips at the chance of creating another branded infographic or Facebook ad? My guess is no.

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My little anecdote is also backed by real data. Below is the search demand for marketing internships over the last 5 years.

intern job trends

Millions of pounds to spend on ads

Why is this a bad thing? The cash to spend is not a bad thing at all. But the way in which it is spent is the problem.

If you have a million to spend on your ads, you’re going to make a TV ad. You’re not going to spend that on smaller creative executions. Mostly because that’s been the tried and true method for the last 50 years. Sadly, it isn’t 1960 any more and TV as a marketing medium is taking a kicking from digital channels.

A cigar chomping CEO (who probably has an enlarged prostate and some early signs of male pattern baldness) who gets a kick out of seeing things on TV

The final decisions in major companies are usually made at the c-suite level, set for the quarter and then fed down through the subordinates. Unless you have a very modern and connected CEO, the disconnect from the front line of what's happening in your company can be very dangerous.

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What do you have?

Speed and agility

If you wanted to change the hero image on your homepage to a picture of a velociraptor wearing a fashionable hat, like the amazing Easter egg on the Vogue UK site, you could do it in 60 seconds. But more practically, if you see something trending on social or notice that the Google doodle is something related to your business you can produce content and ride the wave of traffic and conversation around that topic.

Sweat equity

By EU law there are a maximum number of hours that you are allowed to legally work in someone else’s business. However, you can work every hour in conditions that make a Foxconn factory worker shiver. And that right there gives you a competitive advantage.

Skin in the game

If you worked out your hourly rate based on the actual hours you work vs. your pay, Bob Geldof and Bono would probably try and hold a concert for you. Having personal cash or shares in a business  makes you highly motivated to work to get the most favourable outcome. And when every positive action you take has a direct  impact on your life, this is very motivating.

Creative freedom

The way we run creative campaigns at Ideas Made is the opposite of the way they’re run by traditional creative agencies. We do the research upfront and create multiple campaign executions. We then test them all at the same time. The one that works get more attention and testing. We then rinse and repeat this process until we have a highly optimised campaign that has zero flop risk.

As a small business owner, you can test multiple brand messages, creative executions and content pieces and make decisions based on how your customers react to it..

Good looks and a debonair attitude

If you were one of Peter Pan’s lost boys, you would be Nibs.

What do you have?

Drive. What are you waiting for? Go forth and beat the giants. Or, if that feels a little bit too much like hard work, feel free to email us hello@ideasmade.com and we will be happy to help.