Top 10 lists are like new year’s resolutions. They seem great at first, but they quickly make you feel bored, hopeless, and like you’ve wasted your time.

And that’s usually because they are filled with things you know you should do but can’t commit to doing. They’re too aspirational. Too shoot-for-the-moon-y.

Which is why I’ve kept this one bare-bones, tactical, and hopefully useful for you beyond the 4 days it typically takes us to crash and burn through our empty new year promises.

1. Check which pages on your site earned the most inbound links

Any search engine optimizer who knows her SEO clichés will tell you that inbound links count as votes in the eyes of search engines, and having links point to your content will help you rank better in search. It’s a feel-good moment that brings value to your domain. It’s a win-win.

Take a look at which of your posts attracted the most inbound links and see what they have in common. Were the headlines provocative? Were they exhaustive posts on a singular subject? Were they curated round-ups of the industry’s top events?

Figure out what type of content is earning you links (votes) and produce more of it in 2012. Also, look up to see who the human is behind a link. If this person made an editorial decision to link to your stuff they are paying attention to you and think your content is worth sharing. They’re someone you probably want to network with on Twitter if you haven’t started already.

2. Look at search terms that drove visits to your site

It may seem obvious: monitor keywords that lead traffic to your site and celebrate your SEO dominance. While it’s ok to pause and celebrate your search victory, the real opportunity is to find mediocre-performing keywords and exploit them for your purposes.

(It is way less sinister than it sounds.)

Basically, search through your top few thousand keywords and find keywords that your site ranks for somewhere on page one of the SERPs (search engine results pages) but not at the top of the page.

Identify the articles which are ranking for these terms and tweak them to more strongly target the keyphrase. Then, find opportunities in your own relevant content to link to these articles and consider sharing them in social media (if they are still relevant, of course). The idea is to find keywords you are already competitive on and try to turn a #7 ranking into a #3 ranking and earn more share of the clicks for that given search term.

3. Test your page load speed

When is the last time you’ve checked how quickly your website loads? If you’re one of the people taking advantage of Google’s Analytics pageload feature (or Google Page Speed Online, or Pingdom’s website load speed calculator), then you’re probably on top of it. If you’re not, it’s a good thing to start looking at.

Load speed is a huge factor for search engines when they are choosing what content should rank for a given phrase. Knowing what pages or elements on your site that are holding things up is the first step in addressing and fixing any issues.

Give your site a website speed audit  and prioritize fixes based on severity (the tools will tell you what is high, medium, and low importance).

4. Check for page leaks

Make a list of the pages on your site that have the highest bounce rate (i.e. pages with the highest percentage of visitors who leave your site almost immediately after arriving, without clicking through to more content).

Start with the pages that get the highest volume of traffic (and are therefore leaking the most of it away). Examine the page for possible causes:

  • Is there a relevant call to action?
  • Are there links to related content that users may enjoy?
  • Is page load speed extra slow on this page?
  • Is there an obvious issue with the layout of this page?

If the answer isn’t immediately obvious, consider setting up an experiment on fivesecondtest.com or a similar service to see how viewers are experiencing the page and try to get insight on how to improve the page’s performance.

5. Look for dead-ends

Similar to page leaks, dead-ends are places on your site where users run into a hurdle (and we all know that most people would rather avoid the hurdle on the web rather than get over it themselves).

Take note of any 404 errors you may have on your site and consider creating a more user-friendly 404 error page. Run Xenu’s Link Sleuth and see if there are broken links from your content that are frustrating users and search engines.

Fixing dead-ends will help you maximize the experience for the traffic you already have.

6. Follow top blogger actions, not advice

Top bloggers don’t always practice what they preach. And conventional wisdom isn’t always the path to success in the world of digital marketing. Best practices may prescribe a course of action that lead you in the wrong direction.

For instance, I once looked at what the top 10 blogs in content marketing were doing (as opposed to saying) and found some interesting results, like, the average blog in AdAge’s Top 10 in the Power 150 write 2.4 posts per day with an average word count of 1,278 every day and have been doing so for nearly 7 years. (Doing this is probably not the answer you’d get from them if you asked them how to be successful online. See what I mean?)

A lot of sites publish a list of “best of” content at the end of the year. Take the top posts and see what they have in common. Check word count, style of post, layout, use of images, etc., and uncover patterns.

Sometimes it’s not what people say, it’s what they do.

7. Get in tune with the right social media channel

Take an honest look at the volume and quality of traffic from popular social media. Where are you getting solid traction? Are you spending time building a presence in the right social media channels?

Ten thousand visits from StumbleUpon could be a mixed blessing if visitors only stay for a quick few seconds. Likewise, if you’re spending an inordinate amount of time hustling your content on Twitter but not seeing a return, it may be time to reevaluate your priorities and focus your efforts on other social media outposts.

Some sites I’ve been working with have had low traffic volume with high engagement from LinkedIn, and vice versa with Twitter. We now know that spending more time earning the good traffic from LinkedIn is well worth our while.

8. Conduct an old-fashioned customer survey

Magazines have been doing reader surveys with great success for years, gleaning valuable data directly from their audience. This simple but often overlooked tactic can provide mountains of business intelligence and hard to get insight, but can also help tell a more compelling story to your advertiser base. The more clearly you can define your audience, the better off you’ll be.

Nothing beats conducting customer surveys and many web services offer the ability to do this at a fraction of what the cost used to be.

9. Consult your real-life network

This is the time of year to shake the holiday lethargy and get socially active in real life. Talk to people you know that operate web sites (regardless of the niche) and attend events in your area where you can meet people also in the content marketing game.

Look through your LinkedIn connections list and find a few people to schedule coffee with in the first month of this new year. Talk to them candidly about what you’re trying to do with your site in 2012 and ask for their honest feedback.

And make sure you offer to pay for the coffee.

10. Read boring industry research

We’re in an environment of quick tips, sound bites, and real-time reactions. And who can blame us? It’s easy to feel productive if we stay on top of industry-leading blogs and skim the points they make. But how much more value could we get if the next 500 pages we read online were part of a research report or a book?

Research reports pack a lot more effort, analysis, and peer-review into what they publish and can be worth their weight in gold (or bytes, at least).

These aren’t the only places to look, but sometimes the less glamorous places have the biggest payoffs when it comes to creating a content marketing strategy for the new year.

Read your fair share of top 10 posts – they do have value – but don’t forget to look in the nooks and crannies of your own operation, too.

Where do you find your business intelligence and inspiration?

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About Andrew Hanelly

Andrew Hanelly

Andrew is SVP, Strategy for McMurry/TMG and for one semester in college, was a sociology major. He writes at Brain on Digital, as @hanelly on Twitter and here on Google+.

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