Football player dribbling the soccer on the football ground

SEO and Sport: Why Unknown Stars Offer Huge Search Opportunities

Fear not the unknown. It is a sea of possibilities

Tom Althouse

In this post I will help you to spot potential topics that will lead to huge, short-term spikes in search and how to capitalise on this search interest. I will then give thought to how you can optimise content to make use of this new traffic -where do you want users to go, how can you get more than just a short-lived boost to page impressions?

Right – best get on with it.

To get us started a memory test – it’s meant to be tough, so don’t stress if you score zero.

Do you remember Billy Gilmour winning Man of the Match when Chelsea played Liverpool in the FA Cup in March?

OK. How about Dustin Brown beating Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon

No? Well, if you don’t remember either of those I really don’t hold out great hope that you recall James Cahill beating Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round of the snooker World Championship (to be fair, I had to look his name up, I could only recall that Ronnie suffered a shock loss to someone).

All of these events are pretty much completely forgotten now and were largely forgotten within a week or two of their occurrence.

If we look at search graphs for Billy, Dustin and James we see that either side of their notable performance they attract no interest.

Graph 1: Billy Gilmour – his graph shows a huge spike in March 2020 – note that it does not fall quite as quickly as the subsequent examples, this because Gilmour was also influential in a league game a few days later.

graph showing searches for Chelsea footballer Billy Gilmour, with a spike in march 2020

Graph 2: Dustin Brown has played at Wimbledon seven times but he has only attracted significant search traffic in the UK twice in his career. In 2017, he lost to Andy Murray and, more notably, in 2015 he shocked Rafa Nadal.

Graph showing Google searches for tennis player Dustin Brown, with a spike in 2017 when he beat Rafa Nadal

Graph 3: James Cahill turned pro in 2013 but his career has garnered little attention bar that one match…

Graph showing Google searches for James Cahill, a snooker player who beat Ronnie O'Sullivan

Why This Matters

So far, so obvious.

That there was interest in huge underdogs who knocked out an established star, or the unknown youngster excelling in a game live on TV comes as little surprise.

However, what may be a surprise is both the level of search interest and also just how quickly it fades again.

The search traffic presents opportunities but only if you are incredibly fast. Fast doesn’t mean preparing content for the next morning, it doesn’t mean this evening. It doesn’t even mean sometime in the next hour or two, or, when other tasks have been completed – the match report, the post match quotes…

Fast means right now – in these situations you have minutes, at most.

The lightbulb moment for me came during the Third Test between England and South Africa at the Oval – day 2, July 28 2017. You’re forgiven for being unable to immediately recall the day’s play.

Toby Roland-Jones, on his England debut, came on to bowl first change – South Africa about 20-0 and not much happening. Half an hour later, Roland-Jones had taken four wickets in just 33 balls, South Africa were reeling and searches for Toby Roland-Jones, Who is Toby Roland-Jones, and who is Roland Toby-Jones were soaring.

And then, an hour later, it had died down. There were still significant searches for TRJ, but down by about 70% already from the peak, by the close of play the search volume was around 20% what it had been during that glorious, short-lived passage of play.

Graph 4: Toby Roland-Jones has been a fine County bowler for years but that one spell dominates his search graph. The much smaller spike slightly earlier is for when he got called into the Test side.

Graph showing Google searches for England cricketer Toby Roland-Jones

Established stars played in the Test – Ben Stokes hit a brilliant century and was named man of the match – but search interest for any player never came close to matching the brief spike for TRJ – the graph below compares Stokes v TRJ for the Test.

Graph 5: Ben Stokes has been far more heavily searched for than Roland-Jones across his career but even hitting a century and winning MOTM in this Test couldn’t see him attract as much interest as the debutant.

Graph comparing Google searches for Toby Roland-Jones and Ben Stokes in July 2017

It is worth noting that the spikes for the searches mentioned above and others of this ilk will not match the really big news. Searches for TRJ during his debut pale into insignificance when compared to searches for Stokes during THAT century in the Ashes or his World Cup final heroics. Billy Gilmour’s masterclass led to a wave of searches, but nothing compared to global searches for Lionel Messi in a typical week.

So, why do they matter? Why not focus on the huge events and names instead?

They matter because these spikes happen regularly unlike, for example a Cricket World Cup final. I’m writing this in unusual times when the impact of Covid-19 has left us with virtually no live sport, but even in these strange times there are still debuts in the Premier League, there is Test cricket to come, they somehow managed to host Wrestlemania (is that a sport?).

In the past week, Neal Maupay scored the winner for Brighton against Arsenal (and was also involved in an incident that injured the Arsenal keeper). Searches in Maupay, normally virtually nonexistent, suddenly surged. Graph 6 below.

Graph showing Google searches in 2020 for Brighton footballer Neal Maupay

In the weeks to come, we’ll have US Open tennis and golf majors, at the former a relative unknown will knock out a huge name, in the latter a lowly ranked player will probably be in surprise contention going into the final round – probably an American with an incongruous first name. Kubrick Holmes the Third.

They also matter because they are genuine opportunities to be exploited, planning for them and an ability to act quickly can help a site overcome other weightier ranking factors.

By this I mean a sport site with a smaller audience and less overall site authority than BBC or The Guardian could outrank them for a topic such as Who is Toby Roland-Jones, not least because there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have a page on that topic, or at least not until it was too late to matter.

You Can Beast The Big Boys (Find Your Inner James Cahill or Dustin Brown)

Another way to think of it is like this.

Liverpool secured the Premier League title a few days ago as Man City lost at Chelsea, thereby ending their chances of retaining the title. Ranking for Liverpool right on full-time would be wonderful, there was enormous traffic, but it was also a closed shop.

Every major news and sport site would have carried the news and had a story up within moments of full-time. A relatively small site would not outrank the BBCs Guardians, PremierLeague.coms of this world. Yes, there would be a huge pot of search traffic, but most sites would get none of it. That’s not to say there was no value in other sites running match reports and follow-up articles, just that they would bring in limited, if any, traffic via search.

But, Billy Gilmour, an unknown, playing like a young Glenn Hoddle in a live FA Cup game v the Champions-in-waiting. For 30 minutes there was a sizeable search audience and this was an audience that any site would have had a far greater hope of accessing by ranking prominently for related search queries.

Getting an article up quickly – something that answers the key searched questions, acting as a biography can have major site benefits, bringing in thousands of new users. However, I suspect that even if convinced there is potential in these micro-moments, you are now wondering how to target them. How can you predict the unpredictable?

How Can You Spot These Moments?

You can’t predict the exact thing that will happen, but you can know the types of events that happen and will lead to a spike in search traffic.

Social media planning provides some useful insights.

Every season, someone will score the first goal of the season, there will be a first red card, there will be a first VAR controversy. You don’t know exactly when these things will happen, or the players or teams involved but they will happen and they have the potential to lead to spikes in social interaction.

Specsavers, for example, could easily have something planned for the first VAR controversy and just adjust it as required.

The same can be true for these search moments, consider the following

  • In a major tennis tournament, there is a good chance of there being a shock with a Federer / Nadal / WIlliams level player losing to an unknown.
  • In any England Test series, there is likely to be a brilliant performance from someone who usually doesn’t ever appear in trending lists. Think of Jack Leach’s heroics against Australia in the Ashes.
  • A young footballer, previously only known to Fantasy Football obsessives, will play superbly on debut in a key game.
  • A major team will make a transfer deadline day signing that comes out of left field – Odion Ighalo to Manchester United for instance or Kim Kallstrom to Arsenal.
  • There will be a surprise name included in a squad, this could be a team’s Champions League or Premier League squad, or for an international tournament.
  • Someone you haven’t heard of will do something outstanding, or noteworthy in a major tournament. Showing my age, think of Oleg Salenko scoring five in a World Cup match or Mexico’s Cuauhtemoc Blanco beating two German defenders by trapping the ball between his feet and jumping with it.
    More recently, you could have Japan’s Kenki Fukuoka coming off the replacements bench to score the key try as they shocked Ireland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Many of these also work at a local level, for instance a news source in East Anglia could use the deadline day example for players relevant to the region, and also plan for when a Norwich player makes an impact on debut.

Different Levels of Predictability and How To Prepare

The examples above may seem to vary greatly in terms of how predictable or otherwise they are.

A shock loss for Federer, while not predictable, is an event you can plan for as you will know who is playing and when. If he loses, or is in deep trouble mid match, the plan can be actioned.

However, Jack Leach playing heroically, batting at number 11 to win an Ashes Test, or Billy Gilmour starring in the Cup – when you could never have imagined him even being selected – could not realistically be predicted. If you were going to plan for those events you’d also have to plan for 10,000 other things that then didn’t happen.

How then do you plan for anything that might become a short-term topic of search interest?

I think you do two things.

Firstly, you start just by focussing on the events that are that bit more predictable and use this to get used to the process and also to see whether this approach begins to draw in extra traffic.

Then, gradually, you allow this approach to change attitudes so that responding to relatively minor, but noteworthy events incredibly quickly as they happen becomes the norm. I say relatively minor because it is obvious that a news environment would react to a manager sacking or Harry Kane signing for Real Madrid – here we are talking about events, or passages of play that don’t require a news story and yet producing one could be hugely beneficial.

Taking The Biscuit

The dream is to be able to quickly react to any situation and spot the potential. I am reminded of Oreo’s SuperBowl tweet.

The creative team running the Oreo account knew that the SuperBowl was an opportunity to reach a huge audience, but equally a hugely competitive period on social media – it’s easy to get lost in the noise. They had ideas planned based on an Oreo looking a bit like a stadium but then something wholly unexpected happened. There was a power cut.

Any editorial team worth their salt could come up with some great ideas for what to tweet in this circumstance, but it might require time and meetings. The Oreo team knew they only had a couple of minutes else the moment was lost.

They came up with the famous Power Out? You can still dunk in the dark.

While the Oreo example won awards and plaudits, the impact it had on cookie sales is debatable. If, however, you can react to a shock loss in the tennis you may not win awards but you could bring in new users. This is of more value, even if less impressive on the CV.

With practice, you too should be able to react to any event, however unpredictable and see the potential.

Start, though, by simply factoring this approach into events you will already be covering and so will have an ability to spot these moments of interest. If it’s a knockout sport, which big names face amateurs, thus creating the potential for that huge upset? If it’s a live match, who is on the teamsheet or even subs bench that is an unknown?

And, whatever the event, however you plan it, I think it boils down to this one question…

One Simple Question

If you are watching something and find yourself asking ‘who is this person’ then that, right there, is the potential.

It’s that simple – the person you know nothing about but who is making an impact or doing something wholly unexpected. If you, and others around you are asking this question then others will be too.

At this stage, you can check further by looking on social media or you can go with your gut – I’d recommend the latter as time is of the essence. If you are able to act, then act – in producing the content the worst that can happen is a piece that gets limited eyeballs, while the potential is something that brings in significant views via search.

There’s no great mystery to what trends in search stats, especially with regards to sport and news – it will be that person or team who are doing something noteworthy right now.

What Should This Content Include?

In creating this content you will usually be answering a very basic, but also open-ended question – who is this person?

Having some expertise is clearly a good head start and this also extends to the expertise of knowing where to find the information. Sources such as Wikipedia are obvious, but beyond that there are stats resources, details of prize money, the person’s social media and other biographical resources.

To use examples from earlier in this piece.

For Toby Roland-Jones, there is of course Cricinfo, the cricket database that will have details of his First Class record, when he made his debut, his best bowling figures in County cricket and more. In writing ‘Who is Toby Roland-Jones’ you would have wanted to include at least some of the following; though this is far from definitive:

  • His age and other general biographical information – where he’s from, is he from a cricketing family?
  • His bowling style and the pace he bowls at
  • His record this season in domestic cricket
  • His overall record in county cricket
  • What his current/former coaches have said of him
  • How do his figures compare to the best England debuts?
  • A few pieces of reaction – potentially from Sky or BBC commentary or social media
  • A description of what he’s done in the game that’s notable – i.e. when he came on to bowl, the score at the time and what then happened.
  • Images and video. Image usage will depend on rights, video may be available by embedding Tweets from elsewhere, for instance from Sky, the ECB or elsewhere. Sometimes the official body is the best source – the US Open Twitter account for instance tweets highlights of the golf within minutes of the action happening.

This being online copy, the first version doesn’t have to be the final version. The first version might have just some of the above, a basic version that is serviceable to be added to so that the engines can start ranking it. Reaction from pundits is far from essential for a V1, the same perhaps true for some of the detail of his County career.

With a version live, there is then a bit of breathing space to work out what else should go in to make it truly definitive. Do you have the ability to embed a poll or vote? Can you enable comments and use the best of the BTL writing to bolster the article, or start a debate on social media?

The final product has to be of genuine quality, it has to serve the purpose it was created for – to answer that question by giving as much detail as possible and displaying this in interesting ways.

Other examples would pull from different sources but have a similar set-up. For a tennis player, you can get their career and year-to-date statistics from the tours’ official sites – tournament results and prize money; you can also easily find their head-to-head record against any player. You can find their career ranking against time, there may even be the option to embed this straight on to your site in graph form.

For football there are sites such as soccerbase, tranfermarkt and also Opta on Twitter who send out interesting stats. 

You need to know of these sites and also be sure-footed in navigating them. If you have a few minutes in which to get something live, that is going to be far easier if you know which sites to head too and, once there, where the key information can be found. 

The workload can also be shared, two or three people each finding elements of the information – one could work on stats, one finding images or video and third reaction from pundits/experts and the public.

With experience, you will quickly learn what information you can find quickly and where bottlenecks appear in the process. The first time you attempt this, you may not have anything ready inside 20 minutes, you may even end up not publishing the article. Worry not, there will be another event, another opportunity soon.

Why The Focus On Sport

In every field, there are incidents of people suddenly making a name for themselves – it could be the surprise nominee for an acting award or the Minister surprisingly promoted in a reshuffle.

Why, then focus on sport?

The obvious answer is because its what I know best having spent years working on sport sites and developing their editorial offering.

However, I think there are more compelling reasons.

The first is that interest in sport is so great. You would imagine that at the start of March 2020, with Coronavirus dominating the news and facing a backlash over allegations of bullying, Priti Patel would have been a heavily-searched for name.

Incredibly, though, on March 3rd, Billy Gilmour was a far more popular search term when averaged across the day – however searches for him mostly came in a very short window of around an hour.

Ranking for Priti Patel would be both more difficult and also potentially of less benefit in terms of delivering traffic from search – there were fewer people searching. There are already numerous profiles answering the question ‘Who is Priti Patel’ there would have been far fewer for Gilmour and very few, if any, of these would have had real in-depth, up-to-date information.

Sport is also easier to plan for – sport is dominated by the sporting calendar and, while there are of course news events such as elections and The Budget, what dominates at other times is impossible to predict.

We could look at the sporting calendar for a typical year and say that on Date X this event is likely to dominate, so let’s plan for potential search surges from that event. If it’s a football tournament, which teams will be playing that day, who is a relative unknown, who might make a name for themselves?

But, what will the news be six months from today? Who knows… (hopefully it’s not still Covid-19 related).

It is only with sport that there is the perfect triangle whereby there are regular occurrences of people who are relative unknowns trending, the calendar is fixed, and a lot of the planning can be done in advance.

image showing why sport lends itself to spikes in search traffic - factors being that it's common for little known players to trend, the sport calendar is fixed and the same types of stories happen repeatedly

However, I think the principles apply and I will be the first to admit that I don’t know enough about ents, for example, to know quite how effective it would be in that area. One fertile area would be known TV events – if you have the spoilers for a popular series for example – a character in Corrie making their first appearance, although many other sites will also have planned for this event knowing it’s coming.

Where are the opportunities whereby you can do some planning, the trending isn’t completely out the blue? I am reminded of an actor drinking too much at a TV Awards show and threatening a cast member from another Soap, the drunken actor of course trending and there would have been huge searches for his name. Problem is, how can you see this sort of story happening?

I think for other fields you may rely on luck a bit – happening to have an editorial team working and spotting an event with potential as it happens. In that case, follow the same process – adding in as much detail and publishing quickly.

The Long-Term Aim of These Pages

The pages themselves may not have any real long-term value, search interest could fade to zero in the person or team, the page never needed again.

The aim, though, is still for them to have a long-term impact.

If the purpose is to bring in users via search, and most of these will be either new or infrequent users then the hope must be that they either stick around or come back to the site.

We can’t achieve the impossible. We can’t have 5,000 users visit who had never been to the site before, and then all of these become loyal users. Most visits will still be bounced visits, most of the people who come via the serendipitous route of search will only ever come again via that route.

That doesn’t mean we can’t try, it doesn’t mean we can’t do all we can to encourage multiple page views and repeat visits.

It goes without saying that the content on page should be compelling and so create a positive impression of the site, but the furniture matters too – the other stuff on the page.

All too often, when a page hurriedly goes live this furniture is largely forgotten, and then added in later. I saw this while working on huge sites – a massive story would break, one or two paragraphs would go live, but there would be nothing else on the page. No recommended links, or if there were just the default ones. Users were left with nowhere to go bar there back button or using the main site nav.

This, though, is when you have the spike in traffic and in this circumstance that means all those new users hitting the site. The page needs to have compelling links to other content or promote your other priorities.

A goal needs to be defined – what is the aim of this page, given you’re only creating it to tap into search traffic? If the goal is purely to boost wage impressions then include links to whatever is likely to get the most clicks. A better aim surely is to try to encourage that degree of loyalty.

I’d have a mix of links. This could include the best features, the best video, whatever you’re proud of and think showcases the site well.

If you have other priorities, ensure these are included. One governing body was keen to boost participation in their sport, therefore it would make sense to have this information on the page – if you’re getting lots of new users to the site, encourage them to then play the sport.

It is also worth noting that the promoted content you include on site does not have to be the most recently published articles. These are users who don;’t come regularly to your site and so they probably won’t have seen that great feature you had a month ago, or the hilarious video from six months ago.

There is also no need for a literal association between the article and the topics of promoted links – taking the snooker example form a few thousand words ago – James Cahill beating Ronnie O’Sullivan.

This happened in the world champs, there was a huge audience of general sport fans rather than snooker aficionados. The people searching for James Cahill and coming to your site are more likely to be interested in a superb video or feature in any sport than a very niche article that happens to be about snooker.

Rather than worrying about this every time you post an article of this nature, have something ready, this Best Of style content saved and ready to be added to the story. Depending on your CMS, this may be very easy – a visually appealing collection of links that gets added to any story. This could be useful for all content, not just that designed for a search audience.

A Necessary Evil?

In thinking of this form of content, certain phrases come to mind. I know its unlikely to be award-winning journalism.

I think these pages could be described as a necessary evil. An inner voice tells me that the pages ‘are what they are’.

I know that some people hate them, hate the idea of pandering to search engines and using editorial resource in this way.

Why do it?

Its done not solely for page impressions, or it shouldn’t be, its done to bring people into the site so that you can show them your great stuff, show them why they should stick around. That’s why I call them a necessary evil, their aim isn’t to be the greatest feature on the site, it is to bring people to the site.

However, the pages still have value – people are searching for these terms after all. People want to know who Dustin is, or James or Toby (even if they couldn’t care less 30 minutes later and were probably stuck in an infinite YouTube playlist session.

It’s really hard to get people to a site however great the content. We can’t rely on people just knowing we exist, we cannot rely on social, especially with its ever changing priorities and attitude towards news.

Search is one area where there is an ability to have that bit more control and to spot genuine opportunities to reach new people.

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