How GoCardless Grew Traffic 5x Through Content

When I joined GoCardless in June 2019 to head up SEO, organic traffic was steady at about ~80,000 sessions per month. As of May 2021 it’s at 350,000+ sessions per month – growth of around 400%.

I get a lot of questions both in and out of GoCardless about how we achieved this growth. Particularly after bagging ourselves an award at the European Content Awards. So in this post I’m going to lay out exactly what we did, covering:

  • The state of organic when I entered the business
  • The goals of the business
  • The problems holding us back
  • The strategy we implemented
  • The results we saw
  • And a little about what’s next

Challenge: Prove SEO can be a growth lever

Prior to me joining GoCardless, they – as is the case with many scaleup tech businesses – saw the potential SEO could play in helping achieve ambitious growth targets.

I came on board to head that up, quickly realising we’d need to 5x our organic traffic to help meet the business’s strategic goals.

The problems in the way

While the business and its content marketing function had been around for a number of years, organic traffic growth had been relatively flat for the two years prior to me joining. There was a promising foundation in place, but no promising trajectory at all.

The main problems were obvious:

  • Restrictive CMS – Content teams were not able to upload and publish independently, long upload times & approval processes
  • Unlocalised content – We had one global site, with a huge UK market skew, despite serving customers in many countries around the world.
  • Inconsistent publishing schedule – Our content team was small and needed to juggle more than just organic blog content.
  • No structure in place to ramp up – Even if we wanted to direct significant attention to blog publishing volumes and speed, we didn’t have the capability to.

In addition to this, we were exposed to fairly significant (but admittedly common) risk – our website traffic was following the Pareto principle. 80% of our traffic was being driven by 20% of our content. If that. Which means we were heavily reliant on a small pool of content to keep bringing us new traffic.

Since we can’t control competitor activity, there’s nothing we can do if a site with much higher authority creates content addressing our core keywords and outranks us. Nor can we control changes in search engine algorithms. What if a technical issue causes that highly valuable 20% of our content to drop in the search results, even for a short period of time? We would lose a huge percentage share of our traffic.

The options we had to move forward

So I had two primary goals – 5x our traffic, and reduce our risk by generating a higher proportion of our traffic from a higher volume of content.

To achieve our goal of 5x traffic, there were basically two levers we could pull – improve the rankings of our existing content, or produce more content to rank in Google.

Improving the rankings of existing content is always possible (but you’ll never be number 1 for every keyword your site appears for), however if:

  1. You’re looking for exponential traffic growth, and
  2. You’re tight on resources

There’s a comparison to make. What’s bigger – the opportunity presenting by optimising existing content, or the opportunity posed by the gaps in your content? (Of course, if you’re not tight on resources, you should definitely do both.)

In GoCardless’s case, we’d historically done a good job of ranking for our ultra-relevant keywords (i.e. those that relate to our product and its function/value, e.g. “collect direct debit payments”). We could focus on squeezing out ranking improvements from variants of those keywords, but I didn’t feel the opportunity there was the larger of the two.

So I chose to focus on producing new content that targets other topics our target audience was searching for.

How we achieved our organic growth

Before getting into new content production, there was some housekeeping to do to ensure we got the best return on our investment:

  • CMS Appraisal/Migration – We needed to define our requirements from a CMS. After deciding we were not best served we reviewed the CMS offering, picked a new provider and migrated. This was one of the most important/influential decisions we have made over the last 2 years (I plan to publish a blog on the entire process later).
  • New blog – We needed to level up in several areas including; user experience, site speed, site architecture & design.
  • Launch of localised sites – All of our English language content was under our UK subfolder, yet we had US & AU versions of the site. We needed to create separate blogs to ensure these markets had the best content experience.
  • Onboarding an agency – We knew we couldn’t achieve our goals and reach the scale we were aiming for on our own. Blue Array have been a vital partner throughout the process. (Again, I plan to blog about how I choose and approach working with agencies later)

With all that in place, this is the approach we took to grow to 350,000+ sessions per month:

1) Identify who the audience is

We found that the segment of our customer base that was super active in Google was typically small business owners, searching for advice on a range of problems related to running a business.

If we could produce content based on our knowledge of small businesses, and help these people with their problems, we could use that touchpoint to introduce them to our brand. If our product could help with their problem, then win-win. 

Taking this approach massively opened up the addressable searches we were targeting. By historically focusing on keywords directly related to our product’s value proposition, we had been vastly self-limiting our organic traffic growth.

2) Build an understanding of their content needs

Once we were confident in who our audience was, we identified their common search use cases and the competitive context for those use cases. 

Our audience – small business owners – would often come across financial jargon, require a formula, or need a template, which would lead them to do a Google search. Therefore, we needed to build content that suited those needs.

To identify the biggest opportunities, we had to go broad on the topics and formats of content to produce. This gave us the best chance to learn about what works and what doesn’t.

3) Test and learn, and test again

Finding the right mix of topic relevance, audience fit, content format, and search intent is incredibly difficult to predict.

There will be topics your instincts tell you will be huge, only to have 3 page views after 6 months (you, your manager, and your mum). On the flip-side, there will be topics that you considered scrapping that end up becoming core pages you build out into a series. Testing lots of stuff is vital.

Before investing significant resources or money in any marketing activity, we always test on a smaller scale first to validate it works. Topics for organic content were no different. We started small, trying a bunch of different topics.

So how do we know if something works? Our checklist is three items long:

  1. Is it repeatable? 

Achieved when you’ve proven that your activity is easily reproducible 

  1. Is it scalable?

Achieved when you’ve proven your activity benefits from economies of scale

  1. Is it predictable?

Achieved when you can easily predict the outcome from your investment (£1000 investment = X sessions, X sign ups, X email capture on average)

Once a topic met those criteria, we’d double down and make the most of the opportunity.

3 months into this whole project, I noticed certain topics were ranking highly quickly and others were barely cracking page 3 of the results. We decided to stop the poor performers and move our budget into the promising areas.

Many view SEO as a long term play, and might say those topics that didn’t rank as quickly needed more time. This is, of course, possible. However, I always prioritise pushing the budget into promising areas to double down. Especially considering we needed to prove the potential of SEO in a short timeframe.

What was essential in enabling this approach was segmentation of our content while we were producing it. I recorded every new piece of content published alongside:

  • Category 
  • Stage of the funnel 
  • Format 
  • Month published 

If you don’t do this early on (ideally from the very start), it becomes a mammoth task later to catch up on. But when you do do it, you’ll discover great insights like:

  1. “Category A in Format B is a winning combo. On average, this type of content generates X sessions per month. If we create 10% more of these articles, we can expect to generate Y more sessions.”
  2. “Category C in Format D does not work. We should pause investment in this area and divert to Category A in Format B.”

And with those insights, you can turn your organic growth efforts from a long term guessing game to a short term performance game. Which is exactly what we’ve seen over the past 13 months, ramping our monthly sessions up from >80,000 to 350,000+ (and counting).

Remember to bring it all back to revenue

Traffic growth is just the first stage of any organic growth strategy. It’s not the only stage.

Losing sight of what’s important can be easy when you’re chasing exponential growth. Because ultimately, the reason you want the traffic at all is to effectively convert it into paying customers.

I’ll admit that seeing the traffic graphs go up and to the right is intoxicating. It’s natural to get excited about that and want to share those charts far and wide – colleagues, friends, that one old lady that always stares at you for way too long on the train.

But until you tie those metrics back to pounds and pence, you are a cost centre. And you really, really need to be a revenue centre. But if you follow the above approach, you can be.

Thanks to Brad Ewin for editing this post.