Issue #8. Here’s How Nigel Stevens Dominates SERPs with Zero-Sum SEO

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Nigel runs Organic Growth Marketing, delivering SEO and content marketing for primarily B2B SaaS companies. They specialize in building SEO programs from the ground up, and working with established companies that already do content well and are wanting to level up their SEO.

In this interview Nigel delves into the ways SEO is changing, and yet still relies on the age old principles from years ago.

He shares the concept of Zero-Sum SEO and why aiming for Feature Snippets is the ultimate strategy for growing traffic. Nigel also explains the value of correct site structure and why simply feeding google the information it needs is a win-win.

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How Nigel Got Started in SEO

Most marketers get into marketing by luck or happenstance. Most SEO people didn’t go and first get an SEO degree. Nigel’s start in SEO was also basically a random chance.

“My start was probably more towards the shady side,” Nigel claims. “I worked at this startup mattress company. It was one of my first jobs out of school, and got thrown into doing copywriting. The startup hired some German SEO company who basically told me what not to do more than what to do.”

Next, Nigel moved to a SaaS company, where he really learned the fundamentals; how you build a website for SEO, how long tail search that can really drive traffic, etc.

Nigel started working with BigCommerce doing SEO and content marketing, collaborating with the blog team, doing a lot of outreach and everything involved in gaining organic traffic.

With those core SEO skills in place, Nigel has stuck with the fundamentals through the years and constant changes that are part of the SEO world.

And even though every day there is a new article claiming that “SEO is Dead!”, the fundamentals still matter the most.

“Figure out what people are looking for, satisfy that intent and design your site in a way that makes that content easy to surface. People who say that ‘SEO is dead’, or whatever, a lot of those sites aren’t doing that well because they’re not doing the very basics of making sure they’re targeting the right keywords and designing their site well.”

How Zero-Sum SEO is Changing The Game

‘Zero Sum SEO’ is becoming the new way that Google keeps the attention for themselves.

The traditional search trajectory was you publish content, it gets indexed, and then you go grey waiting for decent results. You see your content on page three. A few months later it hits page two. If you’re lucky it makes its way to page one.

That’s the traditional trajectory. But times have changed.

“What I’m seeing more and more now is it’s more winner take all. It’s both what I’m seeing now, and what clearly Google is moving towards. Google isn’t trying to give you a bunch of results and saying, ‘Hey, pick the one that you think is best.’ They’re trying to say, ‘This is the result you’re looking for.’

When you search today Google serves up a knowledge graph and featured snippets right at the top. This is great as a user, but as a content creator, Google is essentially stealing your content for their own benefit.  Rather than send people to websites, Google’s aim is to keep people on their own search results pages until they click an ad.

“And that’s why a lot of people are kind of scared about this, it doesn’t mean that organic traffic is going down. It seems like organic traffic is still growing, but you basically need to be targeting those snippets or you’re not going to get that much search traffic.”

Companies that get featured snippets can steal traffic from the top ranking results. According to click distribution rules, the top ranking post will get 30% of clicks, the second will get 15% and so on. A featured snippet, however, can earn as much as 8.6% of the total clicks simply because it’s at the top.

“If you can’t be result one or two on a SERP, then why bother? This is why snippets are valuable. Today, bigger pieces of content might rank lower on page one, but then the specific question getting answered is higher up the SERP. That makes for a better user experience and Google is picking up on that.”

Keyword Research Still Matters in the Age of Snippets

So in today’s SEO world where everyone wants to just know the short answer to their questions, how does keyword research influence success? Nigel has a strategy that helps both the user and the content creator to get what they need through SERP results.

“My process is looking at topics, then search intent, and then keyword groups. SEO is different now. You don’t have to create all these one-off pages, you just create one on this overall topic. So now I spend time looking at the search results for different search queries and figuring out which ones can round up into bigger ones.”

“You want to create the fewest amount of pages and target those, but if it’s a topic that’s super important to the business, then we need to be thinking about how do we rank number one for all of these.”

This approach can also impact the way you should think about organizing the sites architecture. First think through the topics overall, then how they’re displayed with category pages. In this way, the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Today, people call these ‘topic clusters’ but a decade ago it was ‘hub and spoke’ or ‘silo’ pages. While it’s easy to get hung up on marketing buzzwords, but the fundamentals are much the same. All this stuff has been around for 20 years, and it’s going to be around for another 20 years.

“Figure out what people are doing, create authority on it, create content that satisfies user intent and try not to suck. That’s, like, SEO in a nutshell. You can repackage it with metaphors and stuff. But all these things are just saying, ‘Oh, here’s how you create good stuff that people are looking for.’ It all comes down to that.”

Getting Snippets Just Requires Tweaking Your Content

Today it seems everyone is trying to find hacks to get featured snippets. But Nigel doesn’t see that you necessarily need new pages or content to get the snippets. Sometimes the existing content on the site is a better bet.

“If we’re talking about the lowest hanging fruit, that’s not new content. It’s looking at what people already have. I can spend 10 minutes on a few pages and double the traffic sometimes. I just throw some of the top pages into Search Console, sort by impressions, and see which ones that are hovering around the 7 to 15 average position.

What I find is that a lot of pages are on the cusp of getting tons of traffic for queries that they’re not really optimized for.

For example, let’s assume you want your homepage to be the internet authority on Bowler Hats. The trick to getting into the feature snippet is to start by adding ‘The Home of Bowler Hats’ in the title tag and then ‘Bowler Hat FAQs’ in the H2 Subheader down below.

These simple structure pieces -Title Tags, H2s, H3s – make it much easier for Google to understand.

“That’s the other thing to do SEO well today, it’s still just spoon feed Google exactly what it wants. If you can see they want a definition, give them a definition.”

While not all search queries get featured snippets, it’s easy to figure out which ones you could potentially get. Both Ahrefs and SEMrush show which queries get featured snippets. 

“If Google thinks you’re relevant for that query, and they have a snippet, then it means you’re prime to steal it. Look at what the current snippet is doing and copy it, but better. So if it’s a definition, write what you think is a better definition and structure your page better. If it’s a list, like, write lead-in text that’s a little more concise. And of course, the oldest trick in the book, make it a longer list.”

Forget Being Clever. Just Give Google What It Wants

Creating clear definitions for search terms help to capture more featured snippets.

Another great strategy is lists. But when aiming for lists, the page structure is important. All lists need to be built in a well-structured way, (i.e. an actual HTML list) with H2s, H3s so Google knows it’s a list.

The way you get people moving through the different stages of the funnel is by satisfying user intent. And from there you get to frame your own narrative.

Your subheads should read like a table of contents of your content. If your subhead makes a promise, the content just below must back it up. Any meandering will lose the reader and make Google think you’re not worth sharing.

When it comes to lists, make sure to bullet point list correctly: use a H3 for item one, a H3 for  two, and so on.

These best practices gives Google the information it wants. Following this simple approach has hidden benefits. Sometimes you can even get featured snippets for topics when you’re not trying.

Spoon Feeding Google to Increase Your Snippet Potential

For sub-topics and questions related to the topics, look at your competitors in the SERP. From there you put together a list of all the things that need to be answered from the other sites, and then structure the page correctly. to just spoon feed it all to Google.

Title tags should reflect as many related questions and tangential areas as possible. See what snippets are already out there on the topic. Then do something to mimic the format.

For example, if your website is about promoting farmers markets to hipsters in large cities, then look at what is already showing up in the SERPs: farmers market event listings, different famr reviews, explanations of farm-to-table services. Then add all those aspects into your title tags and make sure you hit on those topics in your subheadings.

Of course, all this focus on structure and keywords begs the question: how do you balance all this technical stuff with storytelling and making it something that people want to read it?

“If you get the feature snippet, but your exit rate is 90%, then you still failed. Unfortunately, people who do SEO are notorious for latching onto a formula that works, but ignoring whether it actually helps the business.”

“The answer here is to figure out a clever way to satisfy needs in a creative way. So no matter what the content topic is, you must be writing about it because you have a point of view. The reader needs to know why that is important.”

This point of view helps to frame the rest of the article. Start with explaining why a topic is important, then a definition, lists of examples, and anything else that reinforces your worldview. This satisfies the intent of answering that question but avoids the same regurgitated answers that everyone else is churning out.


Weak Sites Can Still Rank If They Are Engaging

The overall SEO strategy is to make your site authoritative on a subject and actually educate people. Only once you’ve done this can you show them the value of your product.

“I’ve seen content from a weak site that ranks well and the only thing that makes sense is that they have really positive engagement data.”

People already have zero attention span today. That’s why you really need to hook them with something that’s just more than Q&A content.”

When you can frame a customer narrative around a story you’re helping to engage them on a human level.

“And as a company, the whole point of creating the content is to show people that your product can do stuff. That’s why most SEO and content out there is garbage because it’ll just be articles. But then when you show me and if it’s something cool, then I’m impressed and I think that you know what you’re talking about.”

Nigel suggests it’s a good idea to take the pulse of what other people are saying on a subject. Because sometimes you don’t even necessarily need to tell the story yourself. You can take what’s out there and retell it and cite that. People will still engage in it as a story. So however you can do that and then wrapping it around these subtopics in a way that isn’t robotic. That’s the ultimate strategy.

When In Doubt Go for Specifics

All good content is specific. Whatever the story is, specific points help to set the stage for the problem your page is going to talk about.

“I always look for concrete examples. If something is big, small, fast, slow, you must quantify all of those things. Don’t tell me it’s big, tell me it’s, five tons. Don’t tell me it’s fast, tell me it was 3.2 seconds which is 1.5% faster than a cheetah. Be super vivid in your language and that immediately boosts generic stuff into something that’s interesting.”

Specifics improve your credibility, because you’re implying that it’s something that you’ve done or that you have a specific example.

Don’t Kid Yourself. SEO Still Takes Manual Labor

“I think a lot of the time people sort of want the silver bullet. They want to change a footer link and get 4X increase in organic traffic. No, you’ve got to do this across all these pages.

Ideally a business can build a scalable process to do this work. But there’s no avoiding the fact that you got to go in here and make some manual changes.

“I think SEO consultants have done such a good job of saying SEO is a long game, that a lot of people’s expectations are so low. They basically think that you change the title tag and in 2022, maybe you’ll start to see some impact.

But I’ve found that you can often go in and within a week, like, between featured snippets and organic rankings I’ve significantly grown traffic to pages in a week just by shoring up the structure of a page and making sure the title tag is good.”

I most cases, Google is crawling your site and they’re already giving you an okay position. If you site is already appearing in the SERPs it’s like Google is nudging you and saying, ‘Look, we want to rank you for this but you’re just not helping us out.’

Help Google out. When you give them what they want, then you can get rewarded.

And at the end of it all, the ultimate goal of SEO is to develop a stronger brand and become an authority in your field.

“Your goal of content is always to reinforce the brand story. That’s always the reason behind why you’re doing that content. It might be different based on where you are in the funnel, but it’s always saying ‘our product is good at this’.”

“In SEO, even if your KPIs drive traffic, you still need to be thinking about building the brand. Because otherwise, what’s the point?”

Most marketers get into marketing by luck or happenstance. Most SEO people didn’t go and first get an SEO degree. Nigel’s start in SEO was also basically a random chance.

“My started was probably more towards the shady side,” Nigel claims. “I worked at this startup mattress company. It was one of my first jobs out of school, and got thrown into doing copywriting. The startup hired some German SEO company who basically told me what not to do more than what to do.”

Next, Nigel moved to a SaaS career company, where he really learned the fundamentals. How you build a website for SEO, how long tail search that can really drive traffic, etc.

“Then from doing that, I’m in San Francisco, I’m meeting all these people who are doing cool things with, like, B2B SaaS companies, like, ‘Oh, I kind of want to take all this stuff I applied here, or I learned here and apply it there.’

Nigel started working with BigCommerce doing SEO and content marketing, working with the blog team, doing a lot of outreach and everything involved in gaining organic traffic.

With those basic skills in place, Nigel has basically stuck them through the years and constant changes that are part of the SEO world.

And even though every day there is a new article claiming that SEO is Dead, the fundamentals still matter the most.

“Figure out what people are looking for, satisfy that intent and design your site in a way that makes that content easy to surface. People who say that ‘SEO is dead’, or whatever, a lot of those sites aren’t doing that well because they’re not doing the very basics of making sure they’re targeting the right keywords and designing their site well.”

Zero Sum SEO

One of the big things Nigel talks about yis what he calls ‘Zero Sum SEO’.

Basically the traditional search trajectory was you publish content, gets indexed, and that just takes a while. You see your content on page three, and then page two, and then it slowly makes its way onto page one. You see a pop when it gets on a page one, and then over a couple months it slowly makes its way up.

That’s a traditional trajectory. But times have changed.

“What I’m seeing more and more now is it’s more winner take all. It’s both what I’m seeing now, and what clearly Google is moving towards. Google isn’t trying to give you a bunch of results and saying, ‘Hey, pick the one that you think is best.’ They’re trying to say, ‘This is the result you’re looking for.’

Google is increasingly taking back their own SERP. Through the Knowledge Graph answers and featured snippets, Google’s goal isn’t to give a whole bunch of sites traffic anymore. It’s to keep people on search results until they click an ad and get paid.

“And that’s why a lot of people are kind of scared about this, it doesn’t mean that organic traffic is going down. It seems like organic traffic is still growing, but you basically need to be targeting those snippets or you’re not going to get that much search traffic.”

Companies that get featured snippets, can quadruple traffic week over week. But then lose a snippet and traffic gets chopped significantly.

“So it really is becoming more skewed. If you can’t be result one or two on a SERP, then why bother? You need to do something else. You need to get into snippets. You need to do paid social to try and lift some rankings potentially. You can’t just think what do we need to do to rank for this? It’s what do we need to do to rank one or two?”

Today, bigger pieces of content will rank lower on page one, but then the specific question getting answered is higher up the SERP. That makes for a better user experience and Google is picking up on that.

So in today’s SEO world, how does keyword research influence success?

“I group keywords in what I call keyword groups. My process is looking at topics and then intent, and then keyword groups. SEO is different now. You don’t have to create all these one-off pages, but just create one on this overall topic. I’m really spending time to look at the search results for different search queries and figuring out which ones can round up into bigger ones?”

“I take the highest volume keyword in a group and I do volume times difficulty times one or two relevance metrics. So you sort of have those two qualitative metrics to balance out the other two.”

“You want to create the fewest amount of pages and target those, but if it’s a topic that’s super important to the business, then we need to be thinking about how do we rank number one for all of these.”

This approach can also impact the way you should think about clustering pages and organizing site architecture. It’s a way of thinking about the topics overall, how they’re displayed with category pages and then also looking at the full topic. In this way, the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

It’s easy to get hung up on marketing buzzwords, but the fundamentals are much the same.
All this stuff has been around for 20 years, and it’s going to be around for another 20 years.

“Figure out what people are doing, create authority on it, create content that satisfies user intent and try not to suck. That’s, like, SEO in a nutshell. You can repackage it with metaphors and stuff. But all these things are just saying, ‘Oh, here’s how you create good stuff that people are looking for.’ It all comes down to that.”

The Wild West of Featured Snippets

Right there are a lot of people trying to exploit featured snippets on all these new pages. But is it it keyword related? Should people be looking for keywords with the biggest opportunity to grab the snippet spot?

“If we’re talking about the lowest hanging fruit, I think that’s not new content, that’s looking at what people have. I can spend, like, 10 minutes on a few pages and double the traffic sometimes. I just throw some of the top pages into Search Console, sort by impressions, and just see the ones that are hovering around, like, 7 to 15 average position.

What I find is that pages are on the cusp of getting tons of traffic for queries that they’re not really optimized for. But the page in spirit is answering that question.

“That’s the other thing to do SEO well today, it’s still just spoon feed Google exactly what it wants. If you can see they want a definition, give them a definition.”

The lowest hanging fruit is looking which pages are almost satisfying the intent of the snippet, or even just whatever the query is. Add in the H2s, H3s and make it clear in the title tag, and you’re then making it much easier for Google to understand. SEMRush has a great tenplate to show

Using both Ahrefs and SEMrush, you can look if queries get snippets or not. Then pull up your own site on Ahrefs and filter the queries that contain snippets, and then filter to where you are in position. If the query gets a snippet but you’re 74, you’re not getting the snippet anytime soon.

But, if Google thinks you’re relevant for that query, and they have a snippet, then it means you’re prime to steal it. Look at what the current snippet is doing and copy it, but better. So if it’s a definition, write what you think is a better definition and structure your page better. If it’s a list, like, write lead-in text that’s a little more concise. And of course, the oldest trick in the book, make it a longer list.

Give Google What It Wants

Definitions are one great way to capture more featured snippets.

The other big one is lists. And this is where the page structure really is super important, and something a lot of companies don’t do well. Build all your lists in a well-structured way, (i.e. an actual HTML list) with H2, H3.

The way you get people in that critical stage of the funnel is you satisfy user intent. And from there you get to frame your own narrative.

Just be very rigorous with the H2 and H3 formatting.

Your subheads should read like a table of contents of your content. Look at the subheads and if you can’t figure out what it’s about, then something is wrong. Also, instead of just doing a bullet point list, H3 item one, H3 item two, H3 item three, and so on.

Following these best practices and providing the information Google wants and you have well-structured articles, you can get snippets for stuff where you’re not trying.

Keyword Research for Snippets

For sub topics and questions related to the topic that come ups both in keyword research and looking at competitors. From there you put together a list of what are all the things that need to be answered and then structure the page to just spoon feed it all to Google.

Make sure the title tag reflects as many of those sort of related questions and tangential areas as possible. See what snippets are out there and make sure that you do something to mimic the format, then once you get on a page one, they will start pouring in.

Of course, all this focus on structure and keywords begs the question: how do you balance all this technical stuff with storytelling and making it something that people want to read it?

“Very good question. Because if you get the feature snippet, but your exit rate is 90%, then you failed. So how do you bridge that gap between the two kind of areas?

SEO is notorious for latching onto a formula that works, then people get used to it and then it’s going to be less effective.

“You figure out sort of a clever way to satisfy the format in a creative way. So no matter what the content topic is, you must be writing about it because you have a point of view. The reader needs to know why that is important.”

This point of view helps to frame the rest of the article. Starting with why this is important, then lists of examples, definitions, and anything else that reinforces your worldview. This satisfies the intent of answering that question but it’s not just the same regurgitated answers that everyone else copying each other is doing.


Why a Weak Site Can Still Rank

The overall goal is to make your site authoritative on a subject and actually educate people. From there you can show them the value of your product.

“I’ve seen content from a weak site that ranks well, holds top positions, and the only thing that makes sense is that they have really positive engagement data.”

The risk with featured snippets is, if someone is just looking for an answer to one question, that most people already have zero attention span today. But if a person is looking for one specific question and Google presents it as a snippet, they might click through if they’re looking to expand on that.

That’s why you really need to hook them with something that’s just more than Q&A content.

All good content is specific. Getting quotes, customer stories based on actual people. Whatever the story is, using these very specific points helps to set the stage for the problem your page is going to talk about.

When you can frame a customer narrative around a story you’re giving people what they want to get in search engines what they want, and you’re helping to engage them on a human level.

“And as a company, the whole point of creating the content is to show people that your product can do stuff. That’s why most SEO and content out there is garbage because it’ll just be articles. But then when you show me and if it’s something cool, then I’m impressed and I think that you know what you’re talking about.”

Neil suggests it’s a good idea to take the pulse of what other people are saying on a subject. Because sometimes you don’t even necessarily need to tell the story yourself. You can take what’s out there and retell it and cite that. People will still engage in it as a story. So however you can do that and then wrapping it around these subtopics in a way that isn’t robotic. That’s the ultimate strategy.

Always Go for Specifics

“I always look for concrete examples. If something is big, small, fast, slow, you must quantify all of those things. Don’t tell me it’s big, tell me it’s, five tons. Don’t tell me it’s fast, tell me it was 3.2 seconds which is 1.5% faster than a cheetah. Be super vivid in your language and that immediately boosts generic stuff into something that’s interesting.”

Specifics improve your credibility, because you’re implying that it’s something that you’ve done or that you have a specific example.

And then when you actually tie that into the example that you’re using on the page, you’re not just sort of doing blind SEO big number game, you’re saying, like, by the end of that article if you see, “Oh, like, this is how you did it.”

Bring it back to the Brand

Above and beyond all these killer insights about structure, intent and how to get ore snippets, Neil is quick to remind us that the goal is always about brand building.

“Your goal of content is always to reinforce the brand story. That’s always the reason behind why you’re doing that content. And whether it’s direct or implied based on where you are in the funnel, it’s saying ‘our product is good at this’.

Even being an SEO, if your KPIs drive traffic, you still need to be thinking about that. Because otherwise, what’s the point?”


SEO Still Takes Manual Labor

“I think a lot of the time people sort of want the silver bullet. They basically want to change a footer link and get 4X increase in organic traffic. No, you got to do this across all these pages.

Of course, you can build a scalable process to do that. But you’re not going to get out of the fact that you got to go in here and make some manual changes.

I think SEO consultants have done such a good job of saying SEO is a long game, that a lot of people’s expectations are so low. They basically think that you change the title tag and in 2022, maybe you’ll start to see some impact.

But I’ve found that you can often go in and within a week, like, between featured snippets and organic rankings I’ve significantly grown traffic to pages in a week just by shoring up the structure of a page and making sure the title tag is good.

Because if Google is crawling your site and they’re already giving you an okay position, they’re basically saying, ‘Look, we wanna rank you for this but you’re just not helping us out.’

Help Google out. When you give them what they want, then you can get rewarded.