We know that links are a critical part of improving a website’s ranking in a search engine.
Google was essentially built on links as part of ‘project backrub’.
Links work like endorsements – quantity is important but quality matters even more.
And the way to get lots of these high quality links to point to your website varies considerably for each niche.
But the fundamental principle remains the same: provide an irresistible reason to link to your website.
When I worked with with Propertyfinder on the SEO strategy for their 7 websites across the MENA region, I had to find unique ways to improve the backlink profile for each real estate portal.
Each site works like a typical classifieds website with the obvious focus on property.
The nature of the content on classifieds sites means that each listing has a finite lifespan which also means content on each page varies day to day. Some days you’ll have a lot more inventory than others – and this actually has an impact on rankings.
Take Al Ain for example. When we had plenty of property listings in Al Ain, rankings for Al Ain related queries were great – ie. page 1 mostly. But the moment the listings decreased or there were none, rankings dropped dramatically.
Now as much as the sales team at Propertyfinder is very good at what they do, I couldn’t rely on them or the market to deliver listings for Al Ain constantly.
I needed a way to make the page relevant for target keywords at all times, irrespective of the number of listings on the page.
This is where content took over.
Firstly, fixing up the ’empty state’ pages. When there were no listings on legitimate pages, it had a very basic message that was being treated as a soft 404 by Google. The solution was to improve the page content so that it didn’t look like a mistake.
We did this by expanding the ‘no listings’ message to reflect the search query and location (eg. ‘no apartments for rent in your area’) and added more hints below the message (try other nearby areas, try adjusting your filters or go back to the homepage and start over). This was an easy fix to make and also sorted out those pesky ‘soft 404’ errors which are the bane of every classifieds website. It’s legit but no one likes to see them in Google Search Console!
The second plan was to tackle the search results pages as a whole to come up with a way to get them to rank well no matter the state of our inventory.
We came up with the plan to add static content to the footer area of each result page. This would mean that there’d always be content on the page that accurately described the nature of the page using the best keywords – always.
Here’s what we laid out as requirements for footer content:
- minimum of 500 words (had to be substantial)
- text to be broken up into 2 sections for ‘variety’
- 1 image per section (as relevant to page content as possible).
- 3-5 internal links to relevant pages
- highly targeted content using synonyms and only the most relevant keywords – if a page is about apartment rentals, it should not mention other property types or buying/selling or refer to other neighbourhoods
- content should be useful for the humans that would be brave enough to scroll down!
This was admittedly a bold step because it would radically change the design of the SERPs on each Propertyfinder portal, despite being in the footer and out of sight for most users.
There was a suggestion to use tabs or a ‘read more’ button along with various design options but in the end, we opted to simply keep all content visible, at all times.
This was safest and ensured there would not be any complications surrounding hidden content or cloaking. It’s November 2018 and there’s still a lot of debate and discussion around these sorts of implementations but my SEO work is always cautious even if it means progress can be a bit slow. I’d rather move forward slowly and safely than to blast off and risk catastrophe.
As for the content, all I can say is that it was brutal. The writing of it, that is.
There’s just so many pages on the site but we obviously chose to focus on the pages that mattered the most to the business – the ones we had to maintain top rankings for no matter what.
I can’t recall the time it took but I was pushing out 4-5 pieces of content per day on average and a lot of the time was spent trying to find images for each area because there simply wasn’t enough royalty free imagery around.
I had written up some evergreen content on the blog so that made it easy to find linkable assets to mention in footer content.
tough part was making sure content was unique. If you’re writing about villas for sale in one area, it’s hard to then write about villas for rent in the same area AND keep it original. You’re bound to be repeating yourself at some point. It’s even harder to write about some areas in the UAE because there’s just not enough information about them online. But still, I persevered.
A lot has changed since this was implemented with many content pieces adjusted and edited to be more up to date. Some pages still don’t have content as was initially planned. But suffice to say, the strategy paid off. It paid off when we began implementing it and it’s still paying off handsomely for the business.
As a side note, this also had to be done in Arabic and French. Each country manager was briefed and content writers in each country worked hard to match what we were doing with the UAE site as the primary market. People search for and understand things differently in the Arabic speaking world so it was interesting to read translations and see how the content writers made the footer content strategy vision come to life in Arabic.
I knew that this content would still not be the link magnet we wish it would be, even if I wrote the best damn content I could. But that’s why going back to basics paid off. Writing excellent quality content that was insightful, valuable and ticked all the boxes when it came to keyword density and internal linking was what made all the difference for websites that would otherwise struggle to get ranked due to a lack of links.
I’m proud to have been part of this because SEO for classifieds is complex and requires a different level of thinking. I learnt a truck load working on the Propertyfinder Group’s set of websites and I was able to apply basic SEO principles to a niche I had never worked on before.
That’s the beauty of SEO.
The industry or niche may change but the fundamentals remain the same: optimise content for discovery and conversions!
Also published on Medium.