A business idea gaining a lot of momentum is Vertical SaaS, software as a service companies who focus on serving a very specific niche and just growing within that industry rather than trying to expand out to everyone. An example of this strategy would be a company like Agave that focuses specifically on contractors and construction companies; a counterexample would be someone like Dropbox who wants to serve everyone.
While vertical SaaS is focused around entire business models, the same lessons can be applied to the execution of your digital marketing and content strategy.
For the first generations of websites, digital marketing, and content strategy, there seemed to be an endless appetite and desire to sprawl across different verticals with a website’s content and marketing efforts. Get traction in one and move onto the next, tangentially related vertical, until you rotate so far away from the original topic that it’s hard to imagine what focus or topic a site may have started with.
When there’s almost no friction to create content and put it out there to see who it engages, there was seemingly little downside to growing out horizontally and putting your tentacles into different verticals to see if you could have some success either through attracting new audiences or selling new products.
However, over the years it has become apparent there was real risk in this strategy and many brands suffered, or even perished, as a result.
This article looks at some of the reasons why the digital strategy of going deep and specific in a vertical can yield benefits in your digital marketing and content efforts, and shows how going too wide and horizontal can have a negative impact through the specific example of About.com’s downfall as a web property. I also work to outline some of the reasons that going more horizontal may not work and pitfalls to avoid. That’s not to say there aren’t ways to smartly go a bit wider, and we’ll look at some of those, too!
The hope with this article is to give you a framework and gameplan for thinking about your overall digital marketing, figuring out where to focus, crafting a website redesign RFP for a new project, and more. Read on to learn about how vertical content can create digital winners and how to best structure broader sites if that ends up being the most authentic representation of your organization.
Benefits of Content Specialization and Vertical-Specific Content
Going vertical can offer a number of benefits to your content strategy and help better attract, engage, and convert traffic on your site. Below are a few of the top reasons.
- Improves Search Engine Optimization Efforts: Search engines care about expertise, keyword density, and focus, and there’s little better way to demonstrate that than by staying focused on specific topics and going deep with related content. By creating a lot of content clustered around the same topic or vertical, search engines are much more likely to consider you an expert on the topic and rank you highly for searches on your direct keywords and also tangential ones within the same universe. Additionally, for subsections of expertise, you can even arrange them in specific sections, like we do with nonprofit website design resources, where we store relevant work, posts, and more under the same directory. Google knows to associate our primary domain with website knowledge and expertise, and then we can cleave off specific areas within that topic, too.
- Enhanced User Experience: Vertical-specific content provides a personalized journey, making it easier for users to find the information they want and giving them easy opportunity to go deeper. You want to make it as easy as possible for visitors to find what they’re looking for and hopefully help turn 1 pageview into 5 by providing relevant and connected content for them to continue exploring. The bulk of traffic on a content focused site is going to land via an organic search and by clearly connoting expertise and giving focused paths to dive into additional content or related resources, you’ll guide visitors to go deeper.
- True Fans Care About Depth: Separate from the organic traffic journey, when trying to build an engaged and loyal audience, true fans care about expertise and depth and will default to using sites that demonstrate those attributes. Niche communities foster stronger connections, encouraging users to return and actively participate in discussions, ultimately building a loyal user base. An example is the rise of specialty used car sale sites like Bring a Trailer replacing old standards like eBay Cars; Bring a Trailer has been able to create a community and project expertise and passion that could only come through in a vertical specific site. Hodinkee’s focus on watches and building that community would be another great example.
Those are some of the primary benefits of going deep on specific content. Reading that list, you may find it very tempting to think “well, what if a site really puts effort into unrelated, different individual verticals and thinks through them as it expands, it should surely reap the above benefits on a broader scale, right?” Well, luckily for us, there’s a handy example that can show how the temptation to go too broad with your content can backfire.
When You’re About Everything, Are You Really About Anything?
As I’m reminded by company lunches where I cite R.E.M. as a hip band, I continue to get older and my references aren’t always the most current. So, not of all of you may recall, but there was previously a site called About.com that aimed to be a capitalistic version of Wikipedia. If you had a question, About.com claimed to have an answer.
In the earlier days of the web, About.com was a sprawling property with articles and resources on just about any question you could imagine. This worked very well for a long time, as it was a generally accepted strategy and search engines were still a bit more primitive in the quality of information they would surface.
The company launched in 1997, scaled with its “mediocre content for everyone” model and was bought by the New York Times for $400 million in 2005 and then flipped again in 2012 to IAC for $300 million. Both these buyers thought they could take advantage of the wide, horizontal reach of About.com to grab a diverse and large quantity of readers.
However, that strategy would soon splinter and fail as niche sites devoted to going deep on specific topics started to rise. These sites offered bona fides in their selected topics, created clean and clear user pathways to dive deeper into related content, capitalized on domain density and expertise to win the SEO battle, and more to make it clear that the generalist About.com model was no longer worth being a going concern.
Sites with specific content focuses like Investopedia for finance advice, Houzz for home design, WebMD for health topics, and even PetMD for pet health topics rose up and displaced the About.com. Users didn’t want one site that had fine, broad knowledge; they sought out individual sites that had specific, exceptional knowledge on a topic and let them go deeper. Search engines rewarded the focus of these sites by buoying them in rankings for their niche terms and having them outrank the broader sites.
So, as they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. And that’s exactly what About.com did. Learning the lessons of vertical focus, the website splintered to go deep on specific topics and now has built several resonant brands under its new umbrella of Dotdash. Sites like The Spruce, which attracts nearly 400 million annual readers on the topic of home improvement, Lifewire and its 200 million tech readers, and Verywell and its 300 million health-focused browsers are just a few of the examples of what About.com has split into in its effort to become individual, verticalized wesbites rather than a sprawling horizontal one.
"We want to turn Yahoo into Condé Nast" is how their leadership termed the transition at the time, according to this Wired profile, as they went from monolithic mega content brand to trying to be a house of boutique brands.
When horizontal content creep can’t work for one of the most linked to and previously trafficked sites on the web, it’s a good cautionary tale for you as you think about how to create and focus content for your own site and business.
That being said, there are businesses where it’s a necessity to go wide with content on a primary site – the organization does a lot of work in different industries under the same brand. So, when necessity dictates a wider content strategy, there are some models to follow.
How to Do Broader, Horizontal Website Content Correctly?
The general way I think about wider sites is having multiple “Hubs.” These can be their own sections in the website and should be laser focused on the topic, yet they can tap other content from across the site.
The Hubs generally take more planning than just having a section and dropping in links to other content strewn across your site. Typically, it is best to power them through category systems so that content created in one area of the site can seamlessly flow to a landing page for that topic. These hubs can start to really accrue search engine credit due to the specificity and focus of the content and the dynamism of it being updated frequently through the feeds.
Holding up one of our own projects as an example, RTI International is a sprawling multi-billion dollar organization with a global presence that does a lot of different things around the world. RTI leverages this Hub model to have top level landing pages for important areas of work, like Education and Workforce Development, and keys them up with descriptive content before pulling in content from across their site.
In addition to visually tying the content together, it can be incredibly beneficial to link it through the site’s information architecture and URL structure as well. Allowing the topic area to serve as a true “parent” for its other areas of content helps demonstrate to Google that there is a deep well of knowledge around the content and also gets that topic area in the URL repeatedly.
Global consulting firm, McKinsey, works to do this by structuring its capabilities as not just landing pages, but true hierarchical parents from a site architecture and URL perspective. Looking at their Growth Marketing & Sales vertical, you can see that they have Articles related to that topic, they’re all stored within that specific /growth-marketing-and-sales/ directory: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/growth-marketing-and-sales/our-insights. The same URL structure is done with their People within a capability (https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/growth-marketing-and-sales/our-people) and all other content.
This tactic creates a hard connection for Google that these insights and people are specific to the Growth Marketing & Sales vertical, which McKinsey is an expert in! We’re big believers in this strategy and have seen these structures pay dividends for clients building search ranking around specific topics, and we even use it for ourselves around efforts like our law firm website design services and the content we create for that.
While it’s easy to talk about Hubs and structure, these strategies actually take significant planning upfront, but it’s worth it to get the approach baked in from the start. It requires you to be thinking about things like how content is connected, tagging systems, and URL structures at the beginning so those get baked into your website to allow for future scaling within those systems. This is not meant to be daunting! It is totally doable, but requires an extra layer of thinking beyond just the content that is going on the site and down to the level of how it’s being implemented and structured.
Additionally, even things like the best practices around design for content heavy and editorial websites is something to consider early – if you’re going to want to have all this connected and structured content, you’ll want to think about it early in the creative brief or discovery process to make sure you’re putting the right foundation in place for it to look good.
The upfront planning to do horizontal content right can yield benefits around user experience, search engine rankings, conversion efforts, and more. However, users and google are savvy! So, if you’re going to create a site with horizontal content that spreads out, make sure you’re doing it for a real reason and in support of your needs and organization rather than just trying to chase down different topics like the case of About.com.
Web content could be said to follow the old adage of “stick to what you know best.” If you’re truly an expert and serve a variety of different sectors, then definitely create content for them and just be thoughtful around how that is structured and scaled. If you’re not and just trying to feign broadness to look big, game search engines, or are just scrambling around, then take a step back to evaluate the plan and look for those special niches unique to you where there’s an opportunity go vertical, deep and authentic.