Utilizing Surfer For Progressive Optimization (Plus, Free Changelog Template)

Daniel Cuttridge
September 18, 2019

Inside this article:

Analysis has always been a key part of my work within SEO... 

In the past, it was even one of the secret edges I had on my competitors. Allowing me to outrank big competitors with appropriately large budgets. If I worked harder, I would usually pick up several positions over time until I hit the first result. 

Life was good, but it was hard hard work…


As time has gone on, it’s not really much of a secret anymore, but thanks to tools like Surfer. It’s also not nearly as hard. The entire process has become less time consuming, and having everything in one place is massively convenient.

What hasn’t changed for me though is that I still approach this the same as I always did, and that might be a little different to how some people are using these tools.

In this article, I want to show you how I utilize Surfer alongside the same processes I first started using years ago… I’ll show you how I use progressive optimization to guide my decision making, and focus on the 80/20 SEO factors to move the needle quickly.

If that sounds good to you, then read on =]

Progressive optimization

One of the key differences between the progressive optimization approach and other approaches is that you spend most of your time optimizing your site, and your site's content after you hit publish.

This means that you’ll spend a lot of your time coming back to your content over time, making small changes here and there before coming back to revisit it at a later point.

Depending on what kind of optimizations you’re doing, you will need different kinds of tools.

For a lot of the optimization work I do, I find myself using Surfer as one of my go-to tools for progressive optimization.

Where to start?

When it comes to doing progressive optimizations for your content, you’ll want to pick somewhere to start.

Progressive optimization isn’t something that works well with making lots of changes at once... That’s because we’re trying to isolate the data as much as we possibly can.

If you made 5 changes to a page, and your rankings improved by 6 positions. Which change made the biggest difference? 

What if 4 changes made a positive impact, and the 5th change didn’t? 

What if without the 5th change you would have improved by 8 positions?

That’s the way we think, and it’s why we want to narrow the focus of any given round of changes.

This is why it’s called progressive because we make the changes overtime to try and reach the best possible result sometime in the future.

The Power Factors

So when it comes to choosing the things to optimize first, what are you going to focus on?

Usually, it’s going to be the factors that have the most power over your rankings. 

In true Pareto Principle fashion, it often seems that these factors are the 20% that give you 80% of your results.

Let’s call them the Power Factors.

  • Page Title
  • URL
  • H1
  • H2, H3, H4, H5, H6
  • Term Frequency
  • “Important Terms”

Surfer gives you great data on most of these. These are the factors I’ll be focusing on during this article, as they are the ones that I actually use on a regular basis for any page that I’m optimizing.

Other Tools You Need

These aren’t so many tools as they are useful things that will make your job easier…

I already mentioned briefly that one of the things that has changed over the years is access to tools like Surfer that make my life much easier. But there are also some things that I haven’t changed over the years…

  • I still use a changelog to log what changes were made, when they were made, and on what pages.
  • I still use SERP Checkers and Spreadsheets to monitor & log results over time.
  • I still use comparison matrices for visualizing opportunities (more on this later).
  • I still use optimization calendars to plan what changes are being made to what pages and when. As well as what dates to go back and log the changes!

Because we’re allowing time to pass between making changes, it can be easy to forget what you have done and when. 

It’s also vital to know what you’ve done so you can revert the changes if the result doesn’t work. Using backups and revision control is vital, as the 3rd version of your page might rank better than version 1, but not better than version 2, etc.

How to use Surfer like a PROgressive optimizer (in 9 simple steps)

Step 1: Pick your target page

The first step is choosing your target page. 

If you have an informational site, like an affiliate site you might want to pick a page that’s ranking between positions 8 and 14 for your primary target keyword.

Step 2: Identify your 3 main keywords

After you’ve identified your target page, it’s time to identify your main target keywords.

Pick your three main target keywords. 

Ideally, these should be either permutations, variants or at the very least share the same intent and query-meaning.

Note: You can always use the Common Words, Phrases or Prominent Words and Phrases feature in Surfer to help identify some good keywords if you don’t already have a few target keywords.

I find getting the best overall result requires analysis of some of the other related keywords that you’re targeting on your page.

Because of how much data is available to you in Surfer, it’s even more important to 80/20 your usage of the tool to the “power factors” when analyzing multiple keywords per page.

Step 3: Identify your target device

A really important feature of Surfer is the ability to scrape and analyze either the Desktop or Mobile SERPs.

While most sites are now using mobile-first indexing, it doesn’t mean that Desktop doesn’t matter.

For one thing, Google employee, John Mueller confirmed that they are still rendering desktop even on mobile-first sites, at a 2:1 ratio.

Yes, we render pages with both desktop & mobile user-agents. Usually it's something like a 2-3:1 split, so when we shift to mobile first indexing for a domain, it's 2/3rd mobile, 1/3rd desktop (the numbers aren't fix, it's just what I commonly see)

— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) September 4, 2019

And more importantly. The mobile search results and desktop search results are different!

It’s important to understand what device your audience is performing the majority of their searches from, as you will likely want to optimize for the device where you’ll get the most traffic from.

Step 4: Search & filter non-relevant results

Now you’ve identified your keywords it’s time to perform your searches.

Once the report is ready, you can head in to your results.

And now thanks to a really nice filtering tool, you can use the visibility icon (pictured below) to remove non-relevant results from your analysis.

Do this with care, they’re in the results because Google believes it’s relevant. But equally sometimes there are some real clangers in the SERPs that aren’t comparable to your own site.

Optional extra filtering option: Turn off Averages.

You can actually turn off averages if you want to isolate the exact numbers for specific results.

This can be useful if you’ve already optimized within averages, and are now trying to improve results by optimizing “up or down”.

I’d recommend doing this after having already optimized your article for the ‘averages’.

Step 5: Log the results for your focus factor

Because it might be a few weeks before you return to a SERP to optimize one of the other factors, it’s better to log the result for your focus factor.

This way when you come back to optimize another factor at a later point, you can refresh your results and log the most up to date data.

You should log these factors in a comparison matrix for easy visualization:

This makes it easy to go back later on, and means you don’t need to switch between views in Surfer constantly. It’s not something you have to do, but it helps me 👌

Here are some quick shortcuts for some of the “power factors” I’ve recommended analyzing and optimizing with:

  • Body > Exact Keywords
  • Title > Exact Keywords
  • Headings > H1 > Exact Keywords
  • Headings > H2 > Exact Keywords
  • Paragraphs > Exact Keywords

If you use Surfer regularly you probably know where to find most of these, but I’ll admit I had an ulterior motive here.

I wanted you to notice a pattern…

If you’ve noticed it, you’ll probably be wondering why I’m so focused on “Exact Keywords”. And it’s a fair thing to wonder, and I wanted to tell you why I do this.

Methods like TF-IDF, Density and True Density all use Term Frequency or “Keyword Frequency” as core parts of their calculations. 

I personally find it easier to use this baseline level data for optimizing my sites. 

I know that no matter what methods come and go, the basic question of how many times was this word used will always be important in some way.

You can use whatever you like, but this is what I recommend using if you want to follow my tutorial step-by-step.

Step 6: Set up your campaign tracker

You don’t need anything fancy for this step…

A simple spreadsheet with dates, keyword and position will do.

You don’t need to do anything crazy here, you can log changes daily, weekly, every 10 days… 

Whatever works for you and your goals is fine. Logging data at “some” interval is better than not logging it at all.

Step 7: Set up Your optimization calendar

Source: https://www.hydratight.com/pt-br/resources/blogs/2016/12/dont-fail-prepare

In our industry we use calendars for meetings, content, social media and more.

Doesn’t it make sense to have one for your optimization work too?

Having an optimization calendar is essential for progressive optimization. 

It makes you more efficient and effective. 

Allowing you to log changes in your campaign tracker, make new changes on your page and do fresh analysis on Surfer -- all in a timely manner. It can be a lot to keep on top of if you’re doing this for multiple pages and sites.

Step 8: Set up your changelog

One thing you absolutely need in place is your changelog.

A changelog is vital for keeping track of what you’re actually doing. For many of the same reasons as why keeping an optimization calendar, campaign tracker and so on is important.

Best results with progressive optimization, regardless of the tools you are using requires a degree of organization with your workflow and processes.

You can find ways around using the other files. What you can’t do is find a way around using a changelog.

To make this easier I decided to share a very basic changelog template for those of you who want to use it. 

[FREE] Google Sheets Changelog Template: Click to make a copy.

Step 9: Start optimizing

There’s not much more to say at this stage other than go out there and get optimizing!

You have everything you need to get started =]

Worthy mentions

There are a number of other features that I find really useful when using Surfer for optimization purposes.

You can use these as part of the processes described above, or separately. Regardless of what you choose, if you’re new to the tool then you should definitely know about these things.

Important terms

We talked about these as one of the “power factors”. While some find this controversial, I as well as many others, and the folks at Surfer have all had good results including terms that are expected to be seen in pieces of content.

Surfer helps you find these easily by giving you access to common words and common phrases...

Common Words

Common Phrases (Bigrams, Trigrams etc)

Quick audit

One of my favorite features has always been the “Surfer Audit”.

Isolating your URL in the results, or by adding it manually you can then perform an audit to see how you stack up.

This can be really useful for initially gathering data, for doing a quick check, or for seeing how your site has shaped up after doing a progressive optimization campaign.

It gives you some insanely actionable term frequency recommendations:

As well as pointing out any obvious issues where they arise (usually when well outside of the average).


There is no one way to use a tool such as Surfer. While many are opting to use it for optimizing content prior to publishing, or even changing many things at once post-publish… I hope I’ve shown that you can use pretty much whatever approach you want as long as the system is well thought out.

I hope you found this article useful. If so, be kind and give it a share!

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