Here’s How to Handle a Wildly Successful Article That Makes the Rest of Your Content Look Bad

SaaS blogs that derive significant traffic from a single post are at high risk for several frustrating problems. We call these outlier posts “whales.” A whale is a single post that is performing far better than anything else on your site.

Here’s a realistic scenario that we’ve come across more than a few times. A content creator writes a piece optimized for a short-tail, top of funnel keyword—and it takes off! The article gains traction in search and pretty soon it’s lifting the entire site. It accounts for 20% of all blog traffic, then 30%, then 50%.

This seems like a good thing at first, but it’s the investing equivalent of an unbalanced portfolio. That growth begins to create risk: it can lead to misguided changes in content strategy and distracts from whatever business objective your content is designed to support.

What’s the Problem with a Whale?

Outlier posts usually share a few common characteristics. These characteristics create perception and reporting issues rather than actual traffic issues. Once you identify them, you can adjust your reporting and messaging. Here are just a few things you are probably experiencing.

Whales Are Usually Top of Funnel—and Therefore Don’t Convert Well (If at All).

In order for a post to become an outlier in the first place, it needs to target (and win for) a keyword with a lot of search volume. And what do nearly all high-volume keywords have in common? They are low-intent, top of funnel keywords that folks perform for cursory information. “What is the best time to send an email?” “What is net revenue churn?” “What are the best customer support tools?”

When a single post drives a lot of traffic but doesn’t convert, it actually skews your conversion rates. Absolute conversions could increase steadily, but relative conversion rates decline. Anytime traffic increases faster than conversions—and this is very common—people start to freak out. Your boss is going to start questioning the content team if they notice this trend. This can be frustrating because it happens after you created a great piece that performed really well.

When an Outlier Decays, It Gives the Impression That the Entire Site Is Suffering.

A single high-performing post can lift an entire site, but it can also have the opposite effect. Whales are more susceptible to content decay since they so often target fickle, top of funnel, short-tail keywords. This means that losing traffic to a whale gives the impression that sitewide traffic is trending down.

A quick look in Google Analytics can usually identify this, but the damage is already done. (Pro tip: Use Revive to look for content decay at least once each quarter.) Now you have to offer your stakeholders a nuanced explanation of the downward trend that goes something like, “We aren’t doing nearly as bad as it looks!”

Success Is Nearly Impossible to Replicate.

Success is always hard to replicate, especially when there is pressure to hit traffic or conversion goals in a specified period of time.

The truth is that it’s very difficult to understand exactly why some articles take off and others don’t. Outlier posts amplify this problem. I’ve heard some people say they wish a particular post had never taken off at all because of all the headaches it caused later.

Content marketing focused on evergreen content distributed via organic search is successful in aggregate. A few whales give the impression that you could be growing faster or that your middle of funnel posts aren’t getting nearly enough traffic. Maybe that’s true—but it’s far more likely that your outlier is truly an outlier. You simply can’t expect to replicate that kind of result.

I’ve Got a Whale on My Hands—How Do I Handle It?

The issues outlined above create headaches but you still have a great piece of content on your hands. You wrote and optimized something that has been widely distributed and you/your team should feel good about it.

The biggest challenge is messaging the issues to your boss and the rest of the marketing org. Don’t make excuses and don’t promise more posts just like it. Reinforce content marketing fundamentals. It’s a slow burn.

Filter Outliers From Google Analytics to Unskew the Data.

If you aren’t sure how a whale affects your data, simply filter it out. Take a look at your month-over-month traffic growth, bounce rates, time on page, conversation rates, etc. without that post. What do you see?

If your site looks healthy without your whale, you have a story to tell. In your monthly reports, you should address this directly by showing numbers with and without outliers. Explain why this top of funnel surge is still helpful and explain how you plan to proceed with the exact content strategy you have been using.

If, on the other hand, filtering out your whale makes the site look worse, you have your work cut out for you. It’s time to reconsider your content strategy, your content creators and/or your SEO strategy.

Tag Content by Funnel Depth for More Accurate Conversion Data.

There is a misconception among some marketing execs that content should convert readers, regardless of the type of content, the topic or the timing. The reality is that top of funnel content should draw in readers while middle and bottom of funnel content should do the hard work of converting them.

We recommend tagging every piece of content you create as top, middle or bottom of the funnel so that you understand your funnel distribution. Most sites have far more top of funnel content—and this fine, as long as the middle and bottom of funnel content is doing its job.

Here’s a quick guide for tagging content:

Top of FunnelMiddle of FunnelBottom of Funnel
Tangentially related to the productClosely related to the productDirectly related to product usage
Introductory-level topicsIn-depth content on an advanced topicProduct updates
Lightweight articleNatural segue to the productCase studies

Once you tag everything, export traffic and conversion data for the last 12 months. Your top of funnel content may drive more total conversions (because there is so much of it) but your middle and bottom of funnel content should have much higher conversion rates. (This obviously depends on your attribution model, but in general, most multi-touch and last-click attribution models will spit out similar numbers for this purpose.)

Own the Messaging.

At their core, outliers are a messaging problem. You have to understand the nuances of the situation, then be able to clearly explain what’s going on to your stakeholders. Here are a few tips:

  • Reporting is your secret weapon. Never share numbers without context. Frame each data point with a narrative. This doesn’t mean you should lie or cover up real problems—it simply means that you have the opportunity to tell a story about your work and you should definitely take advantage of it.
  • Highlight the wins. Remember, you created an article that is proving to be very useful to a lot of people. Don’t let anything prevent you from celebrating that.
  • Shift the focus. If negative sentiment about an outlier is building, shift the focus to something positive that is having a clear impact on the business.

As Warren Buffet says, "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked." Your whale will inevitably decline. When it does, make sure it reveals a strong foundation of really high-quality content focused narrowly on achieving your specific business goals.