The Forbes Story 2023: An ex-employee’s Revelations Is there anything else you would like to know in 2023? Forbes Uncovered A Former Employee Tells All here for you. Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock, you’ve probably noticed Forbes.com creeping up in most commercial queries in the last few years.
When I put their domain inside Ahrefs, I noticed that they went from around 24 million estimated visitors in October 2020 to almost 80 million estimated today. We all know that’s Ahrefs, so you can probably multiply that number by two or three to get the real number.
That is a real hold-up on SEO traffic here. They have almost 4x their traffic in the last three years. It’s not like Forbes was not an established brand in 2020. They’ve done something that’s definitely right when it comes to SEO and I was curious about it. I know I always make cynical jokes about Forbes because it’s kind of funny to see them pop into every query at this point and a little bit ridiculous at the same time.
But the best way to improve SEO is to look at the winners of the current era and emulate what they do. And that’s what I wanted to help you do today. I’ve been quite lucky because I’ve been interacting with Shawn Hill, the guest of today for a while on Twitter. I recommend you guys go and follow him. He’s a really nice guy. He also runs a niche/authority website similar to the kind of sites that you and I are building and growing. It’s called thegrillingdad.com.
Forbes Uncovered: Who is Shawn Hill?
What interested me in today’s episode is the fact that Shawn worked for Forbes for about one year inside the SEO department.
So he saw exactly what was happening. He was working in the insurance category team, and he can tell us how things are working from the inside. A lot of this episode is going to be about breaking down exactly how Forbes organizes content creation, how they optimize content, what tools they use, how they pick topics, how they update content, etc.
For me, it was very interesting. And because Shawn also runs a small website, I was able to ask him what he took away from Forbes to his website and what you can take away from Forbes to improve your website.
The first thing is Shawn does not own Forbes.com He just took an SEO job, like hundreds of thousands of people have SEO jobs and he just got paid a salary and he got the opportunity to work for a big company which basically improved his CV and a lot of people would jump on this opportunity.
The second thing is even if I had the CEO of Forbes on the podcast, which I’d love to, and you realized that Google was ranking your website for every single commercial query without you having to try very hard, how many of you would not jump on that opportunity?
Because I know I would if I was in his position. So while I am personally frustrated to see Forbes rank for pretty much every commercial query at this point, I think the fingers need to be pointed at Google for rigging the game towards larger authority sites rather than at Forbes for taking advantage of what’s given to them by Google. And that topic is also one that we talk about with Shawn in the interview.
How do you feel about Google rewarding Forbes so much now that you run a smaller site and you’re not really working at Forbes anymore? And that was an interesting answer for me. So I’m going to stop teasing you and I’m going to be letting you read to the interview.
All right, enough talking. Let’s jump into the interview. In today’s episode, we are going to be talking to someone who’s very interesting. Who is Shawn Hill? Whose name is Shawn Hill. The reason he’s interesting is because he worked for Forbes, helped them with their SEO, and runs an authority site/niche site like most people who read to his podcast. He saw both sides of the coin, basically.
I think we’re going to have a pretty interesting discussion. This interview is going to be focused on how Forbes does SEO, how things work for these big sites, and maybe what can we learn as smaller sites so that we can compete a little bit better with them. So, Shawn, thank you for joining the show and welcome. Yeah, thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it. Yeah, I’m quite excited actually because I always make jokes about Forbes, et cetera.
Me: It’s like, as I was telling you before we started, I was like, I make jokes about Forbes, but if I was Forbes, I would do exactly what they’re doing with their SEO. Fair enough. But still, it’s an interesting thing. Can you tell us what your role was when you were working there?
Shawn Hill: Yeah. I was an SEO strategist. That was the title. A lot of the overarching strategy as well as some of the implementation and just planning things out and making sure it gets done. I focused mainly on a few different insurance verticals.
Me: How long have you been doing this?
Shawn Hill: Well, I was at Forbes for about a year, but overall SEO, a little over two years. So I’m still pretty new.
Me: Yeah, but you already had an interesting experience and the grilling dad’s doing quite well as a website. So I think you’ve proven that you are definitely worthy in the industry even in just two years.
Shawn Hill: Thank you. I mean, I dove headfirst and immersed myself and watched every podcast, and every YouTube interview. Everything I could learn, I just jumped in and got to work with some other really big sites before Forbes, like MarketWatch and Architectural Digest, a few others like that. I just went head first and learned as much as I could as fast as possible.
Forbes Uncovered: Keyword & Topic Research
Me: So far so good, man. Congratulations on that. I want to jump more into the Forbes experience and how things are done there and see if we can learn anything. I guess you were there for a year, so you were not here at the beginning of the transition from the moment when Forbes started, which went from basically being a business magazine to being the site that writes about the best shoes for plantar fasciitis, for best whole house water filter, for best car seat covers, for best tech service, and all these other categories that they’re rank for.
You arrived in the middle of that, right?
Shawn Hill: Yeah, all of that was already happening.
Me: And how do they present that to people who joined the team? How do they present their objectives?
Shawn Hill: I think taking a step back, and I mentioned earlier, I had very set categories that I was covering. I talked to other people on other teams and whatnot, but my goal was very clear and very defined on what I was working on. It’s almost to the point where all the other stuff doesn’t matter because all that matters is, hey, we need to rank as high as possible for these insurance terms.
That was what my focus was on. I think having that clarity makes it a lot easier because if you have somebody come in like, hey, your goal is to go rank for all of these terms, like best whole house, water filter, best car seat covers, it’s really hard to understand the Serps for all of those. But when you’re really focused, it makes it a lot easier.
Me: It’s quite interesting actually because if you look at a company like Dotdash, for example, they had About.com and they basically broke it down to many mini sites that were more specific. It seems like Forbes is basically internally doing the same, running multiple teams across multiple verticals, but all under the same domain. Would you say that’s how it works?
Shawn Hill: Yeah, for sure. I think it’s structured very similarly to that.
Me: I don’t know which one is more successful. Dotdash has done pretty well specializing in this. Compared to what About.com was getting towards the end, it’s done a lot better. But obviously, Forbes is killing it now, going from 25 million visitors at the end of 2020 to over 80 million today, according to Ahrefs so you can pretty much triple that number, probably.
And that will give you more or less an idea of what they’re doing. And yeah, it’s the same brand. It’s like Forbes was already big in 2020. It’s not like anything changed back then. So does that make you want to run your thegrillingdad or something, more on a category level and almost break it down? Does it change your perception of running a site that gets larger as a small publisher?
Shawn Hill: For sure, 100%. I haven’t implemented that yet because that’s mainly been me and working with one writer. I didn’t change that much, but I’ve recently started another site that’s completely different. And that’s exactly how I started like, Hey, this one person, you’re responsible just for this one category.
That’s all you work on. And it makes internal linking a lot easier. It makes building backlinks and building authority a lot easier as well as just something for Google. It’s just better in my opinion. So yeah, I’ve definitely learned that from them.
Me: It’s actually something we did as well when we ran one of our sites. It’s like we literally run like we had like a pretty broad site in the software category, but each category runs on its own with a completely different team. And I feel like, yeah, it’s almost like running a niche site is easier because you can really focus on that. And then eventually you just like, if you enlarge, you lose track of what’s happening and you’re unable to compete.
Forbes’ SEO Process
So I guess that’s what’s happening. Okay, let’s talk about the SEO process that happened.
Let’s say you were working in the insurance sub-niche, right? That’s what you were doing at Forbes. Did you guys plan the content in hubs? How did content planning go as far as keyword research, topic research, etc? Did you work page by page? Did you plan the whole hub? How far ahead did you plan? What happened?
Shawn Hill: Most of the planning is quarterly is what we were doing in trying to plan it out that way. But there’s always going to be some hiccups to get in the way. So you’ve got to be somewhat flexible with that. But yeah, we definitely did it by hub and by page. It just depends on the type of content that it was. It’s so funny that you say that new content creation was such a small piece of the day-to-day that we worked on.
Almost all of our time was spent working on existing content because like you said, it did go from more like magazine editorial quality to now trying to rank for SEO terms and make money from that. Things just had to change a little bit.
A lot of maintenance and fixing things or optimizing, I guess, and cleaning up just old stuff and making sure internal links were on point. All the maintenance side that comes with SEO was how most of the time was spent.
But as far as planning new content, yeah, we would go category by category like, Hey, content gaps are there. What new things do we want to cover that no one else is covering? The same type of thing.
Me: Okay, so you’re still looking at the competition, you’re Forbes and you’re still like, oh, these guys are a bit too hard to beat, basically.
Shawn Hill: No, I mean, if NerdWallet and Investopedia, if they’ve got a piece that’s getting traffic, then yeah, we definitely want to go get that and compete with them, for sure.
Me: So you would never back off being like, no, we can’t rank for this. It’s like, you don’t have that problem when you’re Forbes, right?
Shawn Hill: No, not at all. If a competitor is ranking for something, we’re going to go publish the content on it.
Me: Yeah, you just go for it. How do you pick the competitors you’re going after? Do you just look at the big sites or do you go for the smaller sites as well? It’s like how small do you go when you’re Forbes when you do your key research? Because it’s quite interesting for people who are afraid of the upcoming competition.
Shawn Hill: Well, I can’t speak too much on it. I know I sent you a message before about one of your sites to watch out for because there was some competition coming. Most of the time it’s focused. They don’t want to go after low search volume keywords because the ROI is not there.
At the same time, they started hiring other people to start going after some of those longer tail keywords, more for topical authority and just building out the whole category. Believe it or not, there are big gaps even with Forbes. There’s just content that’s not covered. Instead of site by site, as far as competitors, it’s more like keyword by keyword.
If a small site is ranking for a big keyword, we’re going to find it. But even some more niche ones, like long-tail niche keywords that aren’t getting a ton of search volume, maybe it’s only 400-500 a month, eventually, those are going to get covered as well.
Me: I was going to ask, what’s the smallest keyword you would consider, basically?
Shawn Hill: Yeah. I don’t know that they had an exact number, especially if you could make a business case for it. If there’s intent there that’s high enough, then I don’t think there’s a minimum. But yeah, most of the time I think it was around 300 to 500.
What Tools Does Forbes Use?
Me: What tools did you use actually when you worked there? Were you just doing Ahrefs or is there some super Forbes SEO tool that we don’t know about powered by AI?
Shawn Hill: Yeah. There’s a red phone that everyone gets and you can actually just call Google and say, Hey, what keywords do we need? We’re not number one. What’s going on? They tell you all the secrets.
No, Ahrefs was definitely the biggest tool. Used it every day there. Still a big fan of it. Still use it every day for my site. There are a few others, but that’s the main one. We had access to Semrush SEOmonitor and Serpstat and all these other tools, but Ahrefs was the one that was used most often.
Me: Yeah, fine. Okay. I’m just like, on the enterprise level, some people might imagine that you’re not using the same tools or there’s something different or some kind of magic. You can confirm there’s probably no other magic than paying the inflated rates on Ahrefs now, basically.
Shawn Hill: Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. They definitely find out if you try to… If two people are logged into the same email, it was somebody’s first day on the job and they didn’t have their login yet, and I’m like, yeah, just use mine. They’re like, no, you absolutely cannot do that. And that’s not an Ahrefs thing. I mean, that’s a good policy to have for Ahrefs.
Me: So how do you start? So let’s say you prepared your content hub, and you’re working on your content. Do you go for the whole category in one go or do you just have a testing phase?
Usually, when we build hubs, we build the first version of it with 10 to 20 pages. And then if it does well, we expand it to pretty much every keyword with intent. Was it the same or just Forbes like, no, we’re going to rank for it. We’re just doing all the keywords right away.
Shawn Hill: That’s tough to answer because I didn’t launch any new verticals there, but there was never a time where there was a discussion like, can we rank for this?
Yeah. Okay. So you just go for it. When something is launched, do they publish all the content at once or is it like, dripped?
Is it just whenever it’s edited?
Shawn Hill: Yeah, it’s just whenever it’s edited.
Me: Yeah. I think it’s the content pipeline that becomes the bottleneck, right?
Me: How does the planning process differ at Forbes and on your own website?
Shawn Hill: There are a lot more steps to take. From my side, it’s like, oh, my competitor wrote this? That’s a good keyword. I haven’t seen that before. Ship it over in Trello, like, hey, let’s write this. Or I’ll just hop on and start writing. There, are steps that it has to go through and get approved.
There’s doing the after it’s approved, doing the content brief, and getting it set up on when it’s expected to come out as far as which quarter, which month, and who it’s going to be assigned to. The red tape, there’s just a lot of steps to go through.
Me: It’s interesting because I guess that prevents the site from being reactive. Let’s say, for example, I’m thinking of the golf industry. We had a golf site and it’s like in January, they released all the golf clubs and it’s like there are lots of breaking terms. It’s like terms for reviews, etc. that are interesting.
But you’d imagine that because there’s so much red tape with big sites, it takes them longer to actually get out. So there’s an opportunity for smaller sites to just jump in early, potentially capture a high click-through rate or whatever good user metrics they can have and a few links early. And then maybe links from the manufacturers, for example, early and potentially make it more difficult for big sites to take their rankings, would you say?
Shawn Hill: Yeah, I think there’s definitely an opportunity there. That’s really for any of the sites I’ve worked on, not just Forbes. There’s not a lot of room to
stay on top of things really quickly because of that red tape that exists. But I will say, I know some of them have designated teams that that is their job. Hey, let’s pump out content that’s probably not a super high priority, but we want to rank for it. Those teams exist too.
Me: Okay. I mean, you’ve seen the super fast rise of the site in terms of SEO, et cetera. How do you feel personally about the way Google has rewarded the site? Not about the job you’ve done, but rather how Google has reacted. How does it make you feel both as the person who worked on it and the person who runs other sites?
Shawn Hill: And compete against them. Exactly. It’s conflicting for you. It is. It really is. Especially when they started going after some grill-related terms. It was not fun to see them in those SERPs. The thing that I think the general public doesn’t know about Forbes is when they’re doing these reviews, and this is again just speaking to the insurance side of things, they’re not ordered in the process of monetization.
They’re not swayed by money. The editors that are there take their job so seriously, we can’t even have meetings that talk about money with the editors at all, or who even is a partner versus who’s not a partner, to where all the research that they do, which is above anything I thought it would be, it is so impeccable that they’re truly rating these providers based on who they feel is actually best and not just who can bring in the most money for Forbes.
And so that understanding that, and then I think it just comes through in the content. I think readers understand it, maybe subconsciously like, hey, they’re not pushing this product because they make more money from it. This is actually the best for these reasons.
I think that’s one of the reasons why it does well as people learn to trust the content and then next time they need something and they do a search and they see Forbes, even if they’re not ranking number one, they’re prone to click on it again.
Me: That gives the signal to Google. I was going to ask, how do you think Google technically gauges that? But I guess that’s through the click-through, probably, like the brand recognition, the trust, etc. Time on page, maybe less dwell time, and so on, I guess.
Yeah, that makes sense. And it’s interesting when you describe that because it reminds me of how Google works. Google separates both the ads team from the search team. It’s like they can’t actually talk to each other. They’re running like two independent companies so that the search team is not swayed by the ads team based on who buys more ads or something like that.
And so it’s very similar in a way. They write whatever they write and then they put the affiliate link, whatever it fits in the ranking or whatever. They’re not really swaying that, etc. I think that’s fair, honestly. I can see how you’re Google and you’re like, well, there’s all these small affiliate sites that are putting essentially the thing that pays the most on top.
They’re essentially swayed by the economic interest. Not for everyone. To be honest, in most sites we’ve run, we haven’t done that. But it’s like many affiliates do that, let’s be honest. It’s the safe option for Google, I guess.
Shawn Hill: Yeah. And then to that, one of the things I mentioned earlier, too, is how, and you mentioned the transition from being magazine to SEO-focused. And the things that they’re able to do and why Google is rewarding it is they are covering everything and taking the same approach that we do with niche sites and that you guys teach in the Authority Site System, like having a content hub, like what’s your main piece?
And then all the supporting pieces, like Forbes do that. People always talk about how they rank number one for their best content, but go look at their informational content, too. It’s really well written and really well researched. All the internal links are there. I think they’re just doing a great job all around from an SEO perspective.
Me: I can say, basically they’re taking the cutting-edge information in the SEO niche that used to be more exploited by smaller sites to make up for the low advantage, like inferiority and authority. And then they’re putting that on one of the highest authority sites on the internet, and that makes it a powerhouse. Is that what you would say is happening?
Shawn Hill: For sure. Yeah. And there’s a lot of people even higher up at Forbes running this stuff, they run their own sites as well. They know this because they do it on their own or have done it in the past.
Forbes Uncovered: Content Creation & EEAT
Me: You were talking about content creation. I want to jump onto that. As an SEO person, what do you give to the editorial team when you’ve identified a piece that you want written, basically? What is prepared by the SEO team? Because that’s going to be quite important, I think, for you who listen, to learn how to work with writers.
Shawn Hill: For sure. That was another big change is that it’s no longer just editorial driven as far as what gets written onto the page, as far as the topics that are covered. The SEO team started, at least again, just for insurance, started doing the content briefs.
Okay, here are all the topics we want covered, the H2s. And it’s more than just an outline. It almost looks like a full page, just with bullet points instead of words. I mean, if we spent another hour on it, it would have been a whole piece of content. But it was very, very specific on exactly what we wanted. As far as the URL we wanted, the title, the H1, every H2, every H3, what we wanted in there, if we wanted a table, if we wanted a bullet list, where we wanted internal links, everything was laid out to where they just had to fill in the blanks.
Me: I have two questions to that. The first one is, if you give this much detailed information, doesn’t it contrast a little bit with what you said about the editorial where they just write about what they want? It’s like, don’t you feel like you give a bit too much direction on the SEO side or was it just different?
Shawn Hill: Yeah, I’d say it’s different because we’re not telling them who to talk about. It’s more like, hey, we want the list of the best, whatever it may be. Here, we want a comparison table here with the header, to compare the best blank. We’re not telling them where to put people or how to rank them. More so the structure of the page and the details that we want of each company.
ME: That’s one thing that actually is interesting to me because I would say our editorial process is pretty good, but we sometimes are not the best at describing what the final page is going to look like. And sometimes you work on a Google Doc and you put on the page, you’re like, I wish it was a bit different.
How do you brief that? How does that work? Because actually, that’s something I’m interested in.
Shawn Hill: Yeah. So when you say like, hey, I want a table or I want this here, it’s pretty specific, like internal terms. This isn’t one, but let’s say it’s table version two here. Everything is labeled on what type of table or photo or infographic, whatever may be there. It’s labeled.
Me: You basically have an index of formatting elements and you reference the idea of it as you do your brief, basically. Cool. Makes sense. Makes a lot of sense. One thing that I’ve done is I spent quite a bit of time reading Forbes before this interview, so I could actually talk a little bit more specifically. It’s funny because I came in being quite cynical.
I had been like, I’m going to prove that Google EEAT is bullshit and it’s all about having this high authority, etc. Then I went through pages and I realized it’s actually pretty good on Forbes. I was like, actually, no, I can’t say that because it’s just not true.
From what I remember, checking maybe a year ago, a year and a half ago, it felt a lot better now, the way it’s presented, particularly the authors. So it’s interesting because I felt expertise was well represented, but experience was not necessarily well represented in the writing style. In the sense that expertise, you can take most writers, Google their name and you’ll find stuff online about them that is related to the category they wrote about.
If you take an interior design piece, they will have a freelance writer page where you can hire them, where they say they specialize in this, they will have a realtor license or something like this, something that’s semi-related at least. Not always one-to-one, but it’s pretty close. What or whereas maybe the experience when you write reviews on Forbes, et cetera, it feels like they’ve done well good research, but it doesn’t necessarily feel they’ve actually taken the product and used it.
Is that how it works? Is that the editorial structure of the site?
Shawn Hill: I don’t know too much about the product side of things and actually testing those on the other side. There are people who have worked in the insurance industry or have been writing about insurance and learning about it for a really long time. Some of them hold licenses, some of them don’t, but they’ve written for other major publications.
I think that they do, and it’s probably been more intentional recently of trying to display the EEAT versus just having it be assumed because it’s Forbes.
Me: Yeah. It’s like they put the author’s name, you can check the author page, and they put the reviewer’s page as well. Usually, they’re both related to the industry. I was like, yeah, it’s pretty good. Were you ever involved in finding content creators or they just had it and you just passed it on and they just figured it out?
Shawn Hill: Yeah. I didn’t do anything to find content creators.
Me: So you don’t really know how they find these content creators, right?
Shawn Hill: No idea.
Me: Just asking. In terms of on-page as well, did you guys do the Surfer-type optimization stuff in the content, try to put the keywords in there, etc.? Or you don’t really bother when you’re Forbes? You just publish something related to the topic and you rank?
Shawn Hill: Even with really VIP pages that have the potential to make a ton of money, even if they’re position 2 or 3 and you just need something to bump up to position 1, Surfer was never used. Those types of tools were not used at all. I think there’s usually enough that you can do or find on a page to improve it that doesn’t need those tools.
Me: Do you use them on your site?
Shawn Hill: I have in the past and then recently just tested Surfer’s AI writer, but other than that, no.
Forbes Uncovered: The Editing Process
Me: How does the editing process work? Let’s say you get a piece back. Do you even get a say as the SEO person on the content that was edited? Let’s say the editor is done, do you get to re-verify it and check on it? Usually, or they just publish it and then whatever.
Shawn Hill: It’s just published. At that point, there’s no extra QA step, which can be frustrating, especially if certain things like, oh, we didn’t find the data for this, and so we just didn’t include it. It’s like, no, just hold the piece until you get the data. That happened but yeah, there was no final QA.
Me: One thing that’s impressive is that I agree, the editorial standards are pretty high on most pieces and it’s very impressive given the volume of content that’s created. How do they do that in terms of scaling it up?
Obviously, it seems to be running multiple teams across multiple niches, but still having that integrity that it feels very similar and feels from the same brand. How do they organize the editorial to achieve that?
Shawn Hill: Each category, had multiple editors, and then each of those editors was editing from multiple writers. And that’s each category. So in a given month, just looking at some of the stuff that’s actually published publicly, you’re looking at, I don’t know, 20 to 50 pieces, depending on the category each month.
But then they’re also like, anything that… Again, not trying to allude to it more, but anything that’s also like optimized, also has to go through an editorial process. So they are incredibly busy all the time. So I think that’s how they’re just always working on stuff.
Me: I guess the internal guidelines are super tight as well. They have full checklists against content, et cetera. Is this this? Is the tone like this?
Are these words used, et cetera, right?
Shawn Hill: All of that’s there. But to that point, too, as far as the structure as well, there are so many different people. There’s a formatting team, which blows me away. Yeah. So there’s just so many different things. Which template do we use? Which tables do we use? Making them look good and making sure that they’re all in the proper place. There’s a role for each step of the process.
Me: Specialization. It’s like basically you have one person that just does this all day, so they make sure it’s always the same because it’s the same small team doing that microtask basically. It’s like a chain, right? It’s like a factory for content, basically.
Shawn Hill: To that point when you said that, they work with people from all around the world. When I’m sleeping, someone else is still working on the content. When they’re sleeping, I work on it.
Me: Do they optimize for that?
Shawn Hill: I don’t know for sure if it was intentional, but it wouldn’t surprise me. They’re really smart.
Me: Makes sense, right? Try to use the time zones so that the content goes faster through the pipeline.
Shawn Hill: Because of how our days ended, the end of our teammates in India was at the beginning of our day, and our lunchtime was the UK’s end of their day.
Forbes’ Use of AI
Me: I guess it makes sense to structure your team that way so that content goes through faster. It’s very interesting.
Were you aware of any use of AI yet or talk about using AI in editorial yet?
From the editorial team, one of the last meetings I attended before leaving, it was brought up like, hey, are we going to use this? Are we going to get rid of our writers? At that time, they said they were not going to use AI for any editorial. Are freelancers using it? Are the editors using it? I have no idea. My guess is the editors aren’t. Freelance writers, I think you’d be crazy not to be using AI right now.
From the SEO side, whether it’s trying to come up with a unique angle after the main keyword to get people to click on it, for title tags, coming up with better meta descriptions, or things like that. I definitely used it quite a bit for those ideas, but from the actual content, they weren’t using it.
Me: Basically, because they’re using lots of freelancers and contributors, it’s quite hard to have a tight grip on what’s happening But I guess because
the editorial process is so good, it’s like even if AI is used, it’s not like low quality AI content is going to be published. It’s going to feel invisible, I guess, if it’s published. It’s like because it has been so polished.
Okay, that makes sense. I think it’s smart for the organization to say we don’t use AI, but we don’t know what our contributors are doing. It’s plausible deniability on scaling content, basically. So if I were on the PR team at Forbes, I would definitely do that. So pretty smart on that. We talked about the editorial and the content process.
What did you take from this to your own editorial process, to your own sites, and what did you stay away from that you used to do at Forbes?
Shawn Hill: Because most of my time was spent updating older content, I’ve definitely scaled back the amount of new content that I was pumping out and trying to update the pages that are actually making me the most money, which is always super obvious, especially if people are just using Ahrefs.
My top probably three producing pages, nobody would guess based on Ahrefs. Once you understand that and you have the data and you follow that rabbit hole of which pages are making me the most money, that dictates where you’re spending your time. It makes it a data-driven decision versus a gut decision.
That’s definitely helped.
I wish my content quality and standards were as high as theirs, so I beat myself up over that because my standards are much lower.
Me: When you’re a smaller team, it’s more difficult. You have to make compromises. I think it’s just learning how to make the right compromises, maybe.
It’s like, fine, how it is, but you can’t with the resources you have as a small publisher, I guess.
Shawn Hill: I think that’s another thing, too, is what you said about them being polished and everyone who specializes in things is taking a step back and realizing I don’t have to be an expert at everything. I think that’s helped me a lot. I’ve hired out help where before I was trying to do everything on my own and being able to justify paying for an expert because they’re better at it and they’re going to be quicker at it than somebody who’s brand new just learning.
Me: What did you hire for, for example? Do you have an example for a role that you did that for?
Shawn Hill: Yes, I did a whole redesign of the site, moving it off of Elementor. That is something I feel like I could have done. It just would have taken me a long time. I would have broken way more things, which I did break stuff early on. I was like, alright, I’m going to stop and hire this out.
Same thing with some social media stuff. I’m pretty good at building communities with social media. I’m not so good at turning those communities into monetization or forms of traffic. I think that’s a whole new skill set. I’ve started to learn there, but I’ve partnered up with some people who are helping with that.
Me: You mentioned earlier that Forbes started going after some of the keywords they’re going after for… getting into the niche that you are in with your own site, how can you compete as a small site owner against a huge website coming into your space with all their authority and all their resources? How hopeful are you to keep getting a good amount of traffic? And how do you practically compete?
Shawn Hill: I think that’s a great question. I think you’ve got to do more, and we alluded to it earlier, do more with the topical authority. I have to cover even more stuff than they cover the topics that they will never write about. But you can’t just write better content to compete against authority sites.
You have to build authority. You have to build links. They’re beating you because they have better links, so go get good links. I think that’s one of the things that I focused on. I’ve gotten some really good links, including one from Forbes that I earned after leaving. The other really big sites, like I’ll be in a magazine this month for AARP, like a print magazine.
The last time that happened, I was in Parade magazine, I saw this huge spike the next day. I think doing all of those little things getting your name out there
and building a brand is how you compete against brands. They’re winning, so you have to do what’s working.
Me: I also think what you can do is you can be a niche specialist on other platforms. You can generate… It’s like for example, for me, one indicator of how well branded the site is is how many brand searches for the name of the site there is per month. It’s just like it’s very simple. Or checking the search console, something like this.
You get that not by writing SEO articles. It’s quite rare that people find a random list post that you made purely for SEO. They’re like oh, my God. This list post was awesome. Let me google that site. Quite rare, right?
Usually, you’re quite limited to it as a piece of content. It’s more like you engage with people on social media. They found a cool reel of you on Instagram. They’ve engaged with a YouTube video, etc. And then they go and check it out. And so that builds these brand signals, which I think people are not going to search for Forbes for barbecue keywords, for example. They will bump into it on search.
Shawn Hill: To that point, the only type of videos that I’ve done on social media are around recipes, but I don’t write about recipes on the site very often. One, because I take a ton of time. I’m not good at photos. I just don’t really like doing them. But making quick shorts with those, it’s really easy to set up a tripod, just press record, and then chop it up later.
I get a couple of hundred people a month in GSE impressions and clicks from people typing in The Grilling Dad recipes, which it just blows my mind because I just don’t have that many on my side.
Me: Exactly. But it shows that what I was talking about, people find you on Instagram reels or on Shorts or something like this, and they just go…
It’s like that’s why it’s like it’s one thing I tweeted last week, I think, which is that sometimes the best way to grow your SEO is to not focus on SEO. I really feel like it’s the way you can become that niche specialist.
I mean, like Kevin for gardening, right? Kevin for Epic Gardening. You become that niche specialist and then you have a chance, I would say, I guess the big site. It doesn’t mean they won’t take some keywords from you, et cetera, but I think you stand a chance.
Forbes Uncovered: On-page SEO & Updating Content
I want to talk about your content update process now because you kept bragging about it and I really want to know how this works now. You said it was most of your work at Forbes. Did you have a checklist? How did you identify the pieces that need rework? Give me a high-level overview of the process.
Shawn Hill: I think that the part of the magic is knowing which pages to work on and which ones need it. And that comes down to being able to analyze data, looking at trends and looking at GSE, are you losing impressions for certain keywords on a page? Is it justified? Should you be losing those? Are you dropping rank for certain ones? Do they matter to the bottom line?
And if not, that’s a lower priority. And if it does, well, that’s a high priority. So you start to identify those really quickly and you have…
They didn’t call them VIP pages at Forbes. It’s just what I call them. But you identify your VIP pages and those are the ones that are going to make you the most money. The 80-20 rule exists. The previous job, was even more extreme. It was like 2% of the pages made 93% of the money, which was just insane. But the 80-20 rule is legit.
What 20% of content is generating 80% of revenue, and what can we do to focus on those? So you’re constantly looking at those. And I think I’ve had conversations with other people and it surprised them. There are some pieces of content that get touched every single day. Some are a few times a week, some are just once a week, once a month, once a quarter.
There are no VIP pages that aren’t getting touched at least quarterly. But there are some where you’re like fighting and it’s just those little micro signals, if you will. All the big things are checked off. Everyone’s equal.
Now it’s down to micro signals and who can do the best job of having the most of those to switch from position 2 to position 1.
Me: Let’s go back a little bit. You identify this by basically looking at revenue per page. You have some tracking. So on an affiliate site, maybe you have a tracking ID that allows you to track back to that page.
On Forbes, I’m sure they have a little bit more advanced analytics than that. And you can probably identify on the link level where you are. And I guess when you have VIP pages, even on a small affiliate site, we’ve always said that. It’s like, starting with one affiliate ID per page, then on your top 15 pages, have one affiliate ID per link.
So you get to know which link on the page actually generates the most. Is that how you identify your top earning pages, basically?
Shawn Hill: On my site, using Lasso does that. In analytics, it tells you which buttons get clicked on the most, so it makes it super easy. It was similar. I think you would be most people in SEO would be really surprised at the lack of granularity that Forbes had. It was almost, to be honest, it was frustrating.
It’s like, you’re telling me to increase the revenue, but you won’t tell me. But you don’t even know what makes money. But we don’t have the tracking set up on this. That part was frustrating. But I mean, there are ways you can back into it and it just takes more work.
Me: Do you think Forbes has not yet switched to GA4? They’re also waiting till the last day?
Shawn Hill: Yeah. When I was there, we were still not on GA4. I think it’s everyone. Nobody wants it. Hopefully, they pick up that red phone and call Google and say, hey, cancel that GA4.
Me: So if Forbes calls them, do they cancel GA4?
Shawn Hill: I hope so. My gosh. But yeah, to that, once you’re looking at it, once you’ve identified your VIP pages, then you just start to understand those more, like where rank is. You understand the SERP more as well. There are certain tools that are out there as well and you can just manually do it, which was also a process.
Me: I’m sorry, certain tools? What tools? Tell me.
Shawn Hill: This is one I promise I will tell you, but I cannot tell you on a recorded call because it’s not the purpose of the tool. And I don’t want them to charge more money because it can be used for SEO. But other people can build it. Listen, I’ll tell somebody right now. Okay, fine. I’ll just say it so everyone can have it. It’s called Versionista.
The main purpose of the tool is to monitor security on your own site. Did somebody change something? Somebody added a link, you can change it. You can put in your competitor sites there and it crawls them and it alerts you if anything has changed. So if I’m competing against Readmorr and you guys made an update to your best affiliate networks page, I get an alert, I can see side by side, the old version, the new version, I see exactly what you change.
One, I get to learn from an SEO perspective, How did that actually impact the SERP? But also you’re not going to have information gain anymore because I’m going to go cover what you just added. So you lose your information gain. So there’s a lot of those little things that are there.
Me: You’re sticking to them. They can’t get a competitive advantage and you can work on your own competitive advantage and they might not monitor as well as you. And over time you win, right? Would that be the approach?
Someone needs to build something like that but coupled with a rank tracker because I want to see my competitors’ changes, and I want to see what they did to their rankings in one interface. That’s what I want to see. So it’s like if you want to make a bunch of money, build that tool, please.
Shawn Hill: Yeah, I’ll buy it. Exactly.
Me: That’s a good one. Is that all you do? You just basically compare yourself to other pages and you just duplicate everything they have. How much originality do you put in your pages?
Shawn Hill: I think that to that point, you don’t want your competitors to have information gain. So if it’s actually valuable, you want to cover it, but you want to have it, so you have to have that extra creativity and niche knowledge to know what to cover and what’s important. I think that’s where the expertise comes in as well and knowing what to cover.
You have to match, but you also want to exceed what’s already there.
Me: How do you go through the page? You just take notes. You just have the two pages side by side and you just take notes on everything they have that you might not have. Is that a good old note-taking process or is there something a little bit more elaborate here?
Shawn Hill: Yeah. I mean, if I’m comparing a single page, I’m going to go look at probably the top 3 to 5 ranking pages and what are they covering, what am I not covering, and where’s the content gap on a page-to-page basis. But also the keyword gap tool that Ahrefs has compares two pages that are trying to rank for the same main term. There are a lot of secondary keywords you can go pick up pretty quickly.
Me: One thing I like to do for this, I don’t think it’s going to be as good as manual, but if you want to do a quick and easy version of this, I use Bing because Bing can crawl at least the index pages. They have access to the index of Bing and you have ChatGPT attached to it basically. You have ChatGPT 4.
So you can say, what are the topics on this page that are not covered on this page? And you put your page and it will at least give you an idea of where to dig and where to start to research that. So it’s like, you know AI is not perfect, right? It’s more of an 80-20 than that. So it’s like for very, very competitive SERPs, I don’t think it’s sufficient.
But if you wanted a fast version of that, it’s actually pretty decent. Much better than ChatGPT with browsing, which is absolute trash. So not recommended, but Bing is actually pretty good. So I would recommend people check that out.
Shawn Hill: And just to that point, too, I wouldn’t go through that process of that in-depth type of optimization if it weren’t for a VIP page that’s going to make a lot of money.
Me: It needs to be worth your time, basically, because it takes a long time, I imagine. So most of your time… Do you have a checklist otherwise for your own page? Do you have… or do you just compare to other pages?
Shawn Hill: There is kind of a checklist. I don’t think it was formalized, though. It’s more of each individual had their own thing that they’re looking for.
Me: I have an interesting question for you. Let’s say you have a page that ranks number one, but you know it’s obviously outdated. Do you update it or not?
Shawn Hill: If it’s factually incorrect, yeah.
Me: Let’s say, for example, you’re covering last year’s model of a grill, there’s a new version that’s out that you probably view. It’s factually incorrect, but your product is still probably okay, for example.
If it’s just that, no, I’m not going to touch it.
Me: That’s the thing. Because that’s the thing with the information gain. Quite often you’re performing well on a page that is not that factually correct. The question is, do I gamble my rankings to be factually correct and have an information gain, or do I wait until that page goes down to start touching it? That’s pretty much what I’m trying to understand here.
Shawn Hill: I think that you could do some internal things, especially for products where, hey, there’s – adding a link – there’s a newer version of this model, read our review here, with an internal link, to where you get that and you got the new keyword seeded in there. And you’re leading readers to the right place, so you’re still doing your job.
Me: Okay. So basically, make tiny changes, as little as you can, so that you don’t disturb the ranking because you know how it works sometimes. I’m getting frustrated with Google these days because… it’s funny. I’ll tell you, on Readmorr, for a while, we try to create the absolute best guides possible, actual insights, et cetera. But quite often, your expertise clashes with the consensus.
So for example, keyword, how to start a blog, everyone’s going to recommend Bluehost. Am I going to recommend Bluehost? No fucking way. No, I will not do that. But the thing is, it’s search intent at this point. Literally, everyone says it because that’s what pays the most.
And it’s like I find my super in-depth guides at this point being outranked by pretty average SEO articles written by freelance writers. And then when I redirect my guide that got all the links because the industry liked it to the SEO-optimized page, I might take the number one ranking, for example.
And it’s like, I find this extremely frustrating. So it’s like, where do you see that limit of SEO optimization against true expertise?
And does that apply to Forbes and does that apply to your site? Because probably they’re different.
Shawn Hill: They are a little different. And that’s something working on previous sites that we actually looked at, like, hey, we’re covering five providers here. These other two that everyone mentions suck and they should not be talked about. But you have to include them. They were just included down at the bottom. I think there’s an SEO perspective, but then also the other way.
I think you can mention Bluehost and like, Hey, Bluehost is recommended by a lot of people. Here’s why we don’t like them. That way you get both in there, your opinion and expertise as well as covering the consensus. But I think that the consensus will have to almost go away. If Google wants to defeat just AI churned content because that’s all AI can do is just go with the consensus.
Me: Exactly. So Google has to kill search intent eventually. I mean, at least make it a lot less powerful, I believe. Because otherwise, it’s like, yeah, it’s like the AI is excellent at that. Just like re-spinning exactly what has been said before. And we end up with SERPs with 10 times the same article.
Does Forbes take this into consideration, like search intent, consensus, etc.. Or do they really truly write what they think is the best as editors? Is there some SEO considerations there?
Shawn Hill: As far as the company is mentioned, no, there aren’t. But there may, on some pages at the bottom, be other resources that may mention other service providers’ names just to have their names on there.
Me: So you’re basically, the editor who writes the fully ethical article that they truly believe in, and you’re the SEO team, and then you just come back and be like, oh, we’re missing this topic. Let’s just use a little comment at the end to mention these guys. Basically, that’s how it works, right? And then eventually, you get the best of both worlds. Yeah, interesting.
I think it’s quite interesting. And I agree, I think search intent is too powerful in the world of AI. And Google is going to have to change. And I think it’s going to change probably the way some of the big sites rank because now it’s like…
I feel like a lot of SEO has been, quote-unquote, figured out in its current iteration. And it’s like, you know what the page generally needs to look like. And it’s basically an authority game plus micro-optimization on the page. But everyone has more or less the same page. And if Google wants to bring some diversity back, they’re going to have to shape the game a little bit more than they have recently.
And it feels a lot like pre-Panda right now for me. Having done SEO for now, 10 years plus, it’s like that’s how it felt before Panda. You had a site called Ezine article that used to rank for absolutely everything with trash content. Much worse than what’s on Forbes today. I’m not making the comparison, but I’m just saying a few sites were taking those SERPs, and that’s usually before a big shake-up. We’ll see what happens.
Forbes’ Link Building
Me: Anyway, is there any link-building going on with Forbes that you’re aware of or do they just rely on the brand?
Shawn Hill: Yes, there is. But it’s not like traditional link building as I thought. They take a different approach. A gain, this is just speaking to what is publicly out there. Just want to make that clear. This isn’t like insider info, but if you go look in Ahrefs, the pages that have the most links are more like PR pieces, statistics pages that people talk about that you should do where they write those and they do a really good job.
They’re really well-researched. They actually go and do their own surveys as well as using statistics that are out there. Then they pitch those out and they make a really good story out of it. Then using those to internally link to the money pages is more.
Me: I was going to say, how is the internal linking working? Was it a big part of your job as well since you talked about re-optimization, were you trying to rebalance internal links and essentially try to sway the pages that you care about?
Shawn Hill: For sure. Big impact, yeah. I did a pretty big study on anchor text variations for other sites and how often they vary versus not. What I found was typically people who vary their keywords the least amount and it’s more keyword-focused for their internal links usually win.
Me: I agree. You can spam anchor text quite heavily in internal links. External links, not so much, but internal links, you can go crazy. I 100% agree with you. I always go at least a partial match for the keyword I want to rank for.
Shawn Hill: Just speaking to that, part of the internal link audit process that I went through was just looking at what anchors are pointing to these pages. You can start to see how Google could get confused if we’re using a certain keyword, like let’s just say the word keyboard, and that’s the anchor text and half of the time it’s going to my best keyboard’s page, and the other half it’s going to my what is a keyboard’s page.
Well, which keyword do I want Google to which page do I want to rank for the word keyword? Probably the one that’s going to make me money, so I should probably stop sending that anchor to my ‘what is’ page. So it’s just making sure that it is as clear as possible to Google, as well as the user, what to expect next with your anchors.
Me: Did you do a lot of redirects as well? Did you kill content pages and just make them redirect to commercial pages, for example?
Shawn Hill: Not necessarily just redirect to commercial pages, but try to redirect to the pages that make the most sense. If it was a statistics page that was outdated, it would just go to the new version of that page. Not always just add to commercials, but yeah, there was definitely a quarterly process of checking which pages should be killed, and which ones should be redirected.
Me: One thing that I’ve found quite often is that you can news bait on the topic. Let’s say, for example, imagine we find that a special type of charcoal can cause cancer if you grill above a certain temperature and it becomes a news story. And then you make a piece that’s more in-depth than what the news would do.
Probably would collect a bunch of links from when the news covers that story. So let’s say this piece gets 100 linkable domains. When the story is over it’s really not important to have this piece anymore. Nobody checks it, et cetera. You have that dead page with 100 linkable domains and you redirect it to your best charcoal for grilling page, for example.
It’s relevant still to have these links and they tend to boost your rankings quite well for commercial pages. I kind of like to see newsjacking as a way to invest in your future link-building in a way. Anything like that that you’ve done on your site or you’ve done at Forbes?
Shawn Hill: Definitely something to consider and sometimes it does make the most sense to send those to the commercial pages. So definitely something we’ve done. I just haven’t done too much link building in that sense on my site, where I’m doing any type of news pages to do it.
Takeaways from Forbes
Me: We talked about different parts, et cetera. Is that something you learned at Forbes that gave you a competitive advantage in terms of growing your site that you feel like most people are ignoring in the industry now?
Shawn Hill: The things I learned the most were more about scaling and specializing in a particular skill. I wouldn’t say too much from an SEO perspective that would give a competitive advantage compared to information that’s already out there publicly. Well, I guess maybe this is the thing – it’s executing. We all have…
There is, as much as people want to argue that there’s not, there’s a finite amount of SEO knowledge that you need to have to rank a page. Beyond that, you don’t need to know. The issue is people just don’t execute. That’s the thing they execute really well and things get pushed. You’re working with the team. Quick shout out to Emily, Jack and Kyle that I worked with, the team I work with the most at Forbes.
They were awesome to work with. You hold each other accountable and you just make sure that all those best practices actually get implemented across the pages. I think that’s a competitive advantage.
Me: I think you’re right. It’s like people like to theorize more about SEO than they like doing SEO sometimes. I guess we might be contributing to that with our content. Sorry about that.
But it’s true. I think the best way to know is to just get started. This tool you gave, this… What’s the name? Versionista is a really good tool, for example, to get started and just observe. I can see myself setting that up for very, very competitive niches. Let’s set that up for NerdWallet. Let’s set that up for The Points Guy, etc. And then get insights from that and learn.
I think Ahrefs still has it on their homepage. I gave them shit earlier. I’m going to say something great about them now, which is that you tend to learn more about SEO by going on, putting a bunch of sites in Ahrefs than you do by reading SEO blogs, actually. Similar thing, and I think you’re right. It’s just about getting started.
Shawn Hill: If anybody doesn’t want to pay for a tool, just Google best home warranty, I didn’t work on that at Forbes, but it’s incredibly competitive, a really high payout per lead. And those pages are getting touched every day. And it’s like several different media sites.
It almost changes the order daily on that SERP. You can go and start watching. Just grab a screencap of the entire page, go the next day, and do it again. You could do it yourself that way or use Bing, like you said.
Me: What do they touch up when they touch up this page? They touch up the actual product descriptions and features and stuff like that. They have a lot for when the product updates and they change something there.
Shawn Hill: Sometimes it’s like minor little tweaks like, hey, is this header higher user intent and we’re going to keep people on the page longer so we’re going to move it up higher? Should we word this slightly differently? Instead of being a question, should it be a statement to show authority versus making it seem like we’re asking the question, we’re going to prove that we know the answer.
There are so many small little details. Somebody might add an FAQ and then you see all the other nine pages on page one magically add the same FAQ the next day. It’s just really competitive.
Me: Cool. That’s super interesting. That’s usually how I find a lot of my case studies. I just Google very competitive keywords, look at what people are doing, dig into it, learn something, and find something that people didn’t talk about before. Really cool tip.
Anything that you wanted to talk about in this podcast that we haven’t talked about or that I missed, I should have talked about and I was a bad interviewer.
Shawn Hill: I don’t think so. I think we’ve covered quite a bit, but if there’s anything else on your mind, let me know. Even if it’s after this, if you have questions that pop up, just let me know. I try to be an open book. There’s only… other than saying future strategies or partners and content, at least I think I’m allowed to share just about anything else. I guess I’ll find out.
Me: If you’re not, let me know. We’ll take this down, okay? But thank you for sharing all that because I don’t think people see the site in the SERP but they don’t necessarily understand how it works behind the scenes. And in general, any success story…
And I think this is a true SEO success story. I really don’t think the brand Forbes got better between the moment when it was at 20 million visits to 80 million. So 4x SEO on a site of that size is like is definitely something special. And I think it’s very interesting to see how this works because it makes me think of how I can change these things I’m going to do on my site, even though I’m not going to copy exactly what Forbes does.
I don’t have the amount of resources they have, et cetera. It gives me ideas like this touching up every day on some pages, etc. This level of detail, the separation of the editorial team and the monetization team to keep this straight editorial line that is not biased by monetization, et cetera. The way they do their EEAT. It’s really interesting. Go find their authors on Forbes and Google them and you will see they all have something interesting online about them. I think that’s true EEAT. That’s something you can verify on other sites.