Everyone wants to write content that ranks and appears on the first page of Google results. I mean, you’d be crazy not to, right? After all, rivers of organic traffic flowing your way means increased conversions and greater revenue when you’re running your business online.
But actually ranking at the top of Google search? It’s an elusive quest; a journey paved with hours of SEO optimization, keyword research, and website performance optimization. And even after all that hard work, it doesn’t mean you’ll come out on top. The struggle is real.
Fortunately for you, I’ve discovered the formula for creating content that ranks every time.
In this step-by-step guide, I’m going to show you how I put together quality content that ranks.
This process works for me. I use it time and time again to get my clients’ content ranking in search, even when there’s stiff competition for a particular keyword topic.
I’ll admit, sometimes it doesn’t work, but only when I’m unable to fully follow this process for one reason or another, usually when a client sets a word limit (you’ll understand once you reach the section below about word count).
Also, I should point out that results will vary. What works for me might not necessarily work for you. But heck, it’s worth a try and as you read through this article, you’ll no doubt get a better understanding of why your content isn’t ranking as well as you’d like it to be.
With all that in mind, here’s my process for writing quality content that people love to read and Google loves to rank.
Google wants your (quality) content
It’s no secret that Google has been tweaking its search algorithms to provide better quality results for users. While the search giant keeps its algorithmic changes a highly-guarded secret, its Panda, Hummingbird, and other animal-related updates have all focused on eliminating low-quality sites from search results and rewarding those that have fresh and original quality content.
But don’t take my word for it: Google’s own Quality guidelines clearly spell out what you need to do to help Google find, index, and rank your site. Specifically:
- Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
- Don’t deceive your users.
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
- Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.
Pretty basic, right? But the fact is, so many people try to game the system, using sneaky tactics to get their content to rank when really…
Google just wants you to publish quality content!
Why should you case what Google wants? Because it’s the world’s biggest search engine with a whopping 90% market share. And because it’s so dominant and pretty much everyone you know and their grandma uses it, it’s the search engine responsible for sending organic traffic to websites.
What about keywords?
When you’re writing a piece of content, no matter what it is, your aim should be to make it enjoyable for a real, live person to read. And if the content you’re writing is actually relevant to a search term, it should naturally contain keywords relating to the subject matter.
So do keywords actually matter?
I found this graph at Econsultancy.com eye-opening. Basically, sites that rank well contain far fewer keywords in the body text than sites stuffed with more keywords.
“Say what? But keywords are absolutely critical for SEO, aren’t they?” you might be thinking.
Well, to a point.
Traditionally, keywords have been essential to SEO optimization. But with every algorithm update, Google is scouring the web, searching for better quality content to satisfy users hungry for answers to their questions.
So I tend to think…. Por que no los dos?
I don’t see any harm in writing incredible content that follows the process in this post that also drops in the keyword or keyword phrase that you want to target in search. And in my experience, it works out just fine content still ranks well.
Alright, onto my process…
1. Only write what you’re excited about
During my research for this post, I came across this great piece of advice from Tim Urban, co-founder of Wait But Why:
“If you’re writing something approaching 2,000 words, you better damn well be excited about the topic or else it will show–and your readers won’t be gripped enough to make it to the last sentence.”
If you haven’t come across Wait But Why yet, click through and try not to read one of their incredible long-form essays from start to finish. Their explainer site has attracted influential fans like Elon Musk, who gave them kudos on Twitter for their primer on artificial intelligence and the road to superintelligence.
Urban goes on to say:
“If you can blow someone’s mind–really, genuinely blow it, again, in a really well-written way–then that’s something they want to share.”
And it’s true. When someone types a search term in Google, they want the result to comprehensively answer their question in the most useful and helpful way possible. And if your content is not just thorough but engaging to read, and it’s obvious that you’re passionate about the topic, the reader is going to sense your passion and enjoy reading your content all the whole.
2. Do your prep
Writing incredible quality content requires some prep. So before you start bashing away at your keyword, there are three things you need to think about:
1. What do you want to write about?
Now’s the time to choose your topic. Be specific, but detailed. You should have a clear vision for what you want to write. If your idea is vague, it will not only be difficult to write, but your readers will find it confusing.
2. What keywords do you want to target?
What specific keyword or phrase do you want to rank for in Google? Knowing your keywords will help you stay on topic while writing your content, but will also help you figure out…
3. What is the “best” article currently available on the topic?
By “best”, I’m talking about the top search result in Google, aka numero uno when you enter your keywords in search.
With those three points in mind, let’s take a look at an example.
Say I wanted to write an article about WordPress experts that targeted the keywords “WordPress expert”, which is actually an article I was working on this morning (stay tuned: it should pop up in search results soon!).
When I type those keywords into search, this is what comes up:
The first four results are ads, so I’ll ignore those. The fifth result, however, is a genuine article, i.e. the “best” article for the keywords “WordPress expert”. So what I’ll do is open up that article and pick it apart, noting down:
- The headline,
- The word count,
- It’s formatting, and
- Number of images.
I’ll also read thoroughly through the post and make notes about what it covers and how I could improve on it.
Why do I need all this information? Because this is my baseline; this is the information that has helped Google determine this particular post’s ranking and what I need to improve on to rank higher.
Before I move on, I’ll repeat the steps above for the second and third “best” articles. I’m determined to make my article rank, so I want it to be better than the top three search results.
Now that I’ve got my baseline…
3. Research, research, research
Before you start writing a piece of content, do your research. Don’t try to bullshit your way through it. There’s nothing worse than a poorly-researched post and wastes your readers’ time. They’ll only hate you for it and judge the rest of your content as probably being low-quality, too.
Your goal whenever you write a piece of content is to create an ultimate resource that’s better than anything else that comes up in search. This is what creating quality content is all about — you want your content to rank, so it has to be the best.
What you want to do is out-research the best article that you identified for your keywords. This means going deeper, providing more research and original sources for your topic, such as interviews, press releases, facts, figures, and links.
Whenever I start working on a new article, I always spend at least an hour, often longer, on research before I write a single word.
For example, for my article about WordPress experts, I started by typing my topic’s keywords incognito to see what came up in search. Then I opened every link that came up in the first two pages of Google read them all.
Sometimes when I’m researching, I’ll have 20 or 30 tabs open at once. I’ll save the links in my notes, and take more notes as I go, writing down any interesting information, facts, or ideas for further research.
When I’ve exhausted Google search, I then turn to Google News to collect any useful information, facts or quotes from related articles.
Whenever you’re researching a topic, it’s also important to get to the original source of your topic. It might be a press release published on a company blog or even an announcement during a podcast or at a WordCamp. In the case of my article about WordPress experts, I simply talked to my client who runs a WordPress maintenance service.
Another useful source of information is industry research and white papers. Data, analytics and consulting companies like Neilsen and McKinsey are often fantastic places to find these types of information. Likewise, census data is a great place to dig up really interesting stats. It’s easy to look up this kind of information by going to places like the United States Census Bureau website.
Whenever you do include figures, stats, quotes or information from other websites, always, always attribute it with a link. This is a bugbear of mine. Everything you write, you need to back it up. Don’t cite information without including a link to where you got it from.
Not only will outbound links tell your readers that you’ve done your research and your content is sound and of high quality, but it’s important to give credit where credit is due when you use information someone else has published.
With these research tips, you can start piecing together quality content that has substance.
4. Organise and structure your content
One of the most important things you should do when crafting a blog post is to give it a logical structure. Structure helps orientate the reader, makes your article easier to read, and eliminates confusion.
The key elements of a well-structured post include:
It’s important that the article you write is better organised and structured than the top three articles for your target keywords. This will ensure readers can easily navigate your content and will spend more time reading it, helping to lower your bounce rate and sending positive signals to Google.
5. Write a better headline
No matter how good your content is, if your headline sucks, no one’s going to read it.
Think about it. How many headlines do you read every day while searching online or checking social media? What makes you actually click on the article and read it? Usually, it’s the headline, right?
According to Copyblogger, 8 out of 10 people will read a headline. But only two out of 10 will read the rest of the article.
This is why it’s so important to spend time coming up with an amazing headline. I sometimes deliberate over headlines for up to an hour before settling on one that I think works. And I often go back and change them. This is what it takes to write a good headline — and be better than the top three articles for your target keywords.
Here are tips I’ve picked up over the years for writing strong headlines.
1. Use simple, powerful language
Firstly, headlines should be no longer than 65 characters, so you need to make each word count. It’s best to keep the language simple. Don’t use complicated words that make people reach for a dictionary. For example, don’t use the word “utilize” when you can simply say “use.”
Also, go for words that are powerful, like free, popular, revealing and successful. You don’t want to use words that are dull and uninspiring — you’ll just bore your readers.
The word “you” is another powerful word as it allows you to directly address the reader and speak to them.
- The right types and lengths of vacations to keep you refreshed — Headspace
- Look, This Is a List of Fart Words — Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- Netflix has 700, yes 700, originals coming out in 2018. What? — Mashable
2. Use numbers to give solid takeaways
There’s a reason why so many copywriters use numbers in their headlines. It works.
People are inherently attracted to numbers and lists. If you’ve ever picked up a trashy women’s magazine, there’s usually a couple of front page headlines with numbers.
There aren’t really any rules as far as I know regarding what numbers work best, but people typically only remember three to five points. That said, sometimes a really obscure number like 11 or 27 can catch people’s attention.
It’s best not to overuse numbers, or always use them for your posts, or use them arbitrarily. If your article clearly has some key takeaways, adding a number to the headline can help make those takeaways more digestible and memorable. But if the article doesn’t, don’t force it.
- 10 More Phrases to Never, Ever Use at Work — Grammarly
- 6 Things Job-Hunting Creatives Should Avoid — InVision
- 7 Social Media Trends to Watch and Capitalize On in 2018 — Kissmetrics
3. Make a bold promise or statement
Promise your reader something valuable. It might be as simple as the answer to their problem. Or it could be a shocking statement of fact.
The idea here is to dare your reader to read your article. Without over-promising anything, be bold, even a little dangerous. And then deliver what you promised. Always deliver, because if you don’t you’re venturing into clickbait territory and no one (including Google or Facebook) likes that.
- This Is The Only Running Playlist You Need This Week — Refinery29
- I Used Three Smart Speakers at the Same Time. Here’s What Happened. — Hubspot
- This VR Tool Could Make Kids A Lot Less Scared Of Medical Procedures — Fast Company
4. Use emotional adjectives
Never underestimate the power of an emotional headline. Certain words, often adjectives, can create a connection with the reader and elicit an emotion, whether it be positive or even negative. Words like:
There’s a great free tool called the Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer. When you scan a headline, it gives you an Emotional Marketing value score. The only drawback is that it doesn’t give you any instructions on how to improve your headlines, so you have to figure that out yourself.
- This Design Generation Has Failed — FastCoDesign blog.
- Twitter is (finally) cracking down on bots — TechCrunch
- Instagram is Killing the Way We Experience Art — Quartzy
5. Create a sense of urgency
FOMO, or fear of missing out, is a real thing, and it works wonderfully well when writing headlines. By instilling a sense of urgency by giving a date when a special offer expires, or using language like the word “now,” you can stir readers click your headline and read your content.
- Last chance
- Here’s What People Are Buying On Amazon Right Now — Buzzfeed
- Last chance, Theresa — spell out Brexit like you mean it — The Telegraph
- Last chance to see North Korea for US tourists — The Daily Mail
I mentioned the Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer just before, but another tool that I like to use is CoSchedule’s free headline analyzer, which scores the quality of your headline and rates it on its ability to get social shares, increased traffic, and SEO value.
This tool is one of the most fully-featured headline analyzers I’ve seen. It tells you your headline type, analyzes individual words and overall structure, grammar, and readability, and even gives you a preview of what your headline will look like in Google search and as an email subject line.
When it comes to headlines, always take your time. If possible, come up with a few alternatives and pick the one you like best. Don’t rush it. Headlines are the first thing people read, and help them decide whether they want to read your article or not.
So make your headline count.
6. Write a better introduction
A good introduction should prepare the reader for the information they’re about to gain from your article. Your aim should be to hook the reader into reading the next paragraph and convince them to want to read the entire article.
Your aim here should be to write a more compelling introduction than the top three articles for your target keywords.
So let’s take a look at five different ways you can write an introduction:
1. Use an anecdote
Who doesn’t love a good story? Whether you’re at the pub listening to a friend recall something funny that happened to them to them during the week, or watching a drama on Netflix, humans are hard-wired for storytelling.
An anecdote is basically a short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person that can put a larger idea or article into context.
Atlas Obscura uses this introduction method for its article The Dirty Secret of ‘Secret Family Recipes’:
2. Ask a question
Asking a question poses a hypothetical scenario to the reader and invites them to think about it and imagine their answers, and relate their own lived experience as they read the rest of your article. Using this method, you’re engaging the reader to identify with the problem you are about to solve, and asking them to apply their own judgement or opinion to your content.
This technique can be powerful, but also does have its pitfalls. You have to be careful what kind of question you ask — you don’t want it to be too obvious or insulting to the reader’s intelligence. Also, questions as introductions have been exploited no end by clickbait articles as a lazy way to entice people to read a story. So many people are understandably fatigued and wary of questions.
On the FiveThirtyEight, this story about Vitamin D, Why Aren’t My Vitamin D Supplements Raising My Vitamin D Levels?, uses this type of introduction:
3. Share an interesting fact
I don’t know about you, but I love trivia. Whenever I finish watching a movie, I’m straight on IMDb to read the trivia section.
Starting with a fact or statistic is commonly used in a lot of marketing posts online, and it’s easy to see why: it establishes the topic of the content in an informative way that offers the reader a quick takeaway that’s memorable.
Facts work because they push our emotional buttons. Our brains are wired to perceive strange or unusual things as potential threats on a caveman level, making them much more memorable as whatever strange thing we’re fixated on might kill us.
Here’s an introduction that shares an interesting fact, 15 Marketing Job Titles For the Skill Sets You Want at Your Company on the Hubspot blog:
4. Set the scene
Setting the scene in your intro can be a highly effective ways of drawing your reader into your content. This technique is similar to sharing an anecdote in that you’re setting the stage for not only what is happening at the outset of the piece, but also for what the reader can expect to follow.
This method can be incredibly powerful when dealing with emerging topics or subjects with strong newsworthy elements.
Why I like this technique, and tend to use it a lot, is because allows you to clearly define your position on the topic, support the points you want to make, and also manipulate the emotions of the readers by highlighting the positive or negative aspects of the topic.
For example, here’s a story that sets the scene right off the bat in its intro, GW’s The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit:
5. Just dive in
Lastly, there’s the straight-up, no-nonsense introduction. This type of intro dives straight into the topic and usually features a first sentence that explains what the article is about. This type of intro is normally used by news publications.
Coming from a newspaper background, I tend to use this type of introduction a lot. It’s incredibly easy to write, especially if you’re stuck coming up with the start to your story. Back when I was a cadet journalist working at a newspaper, an editor gave me this tip:
“Think about the story you’re about to write. Consider all the facts. Now, what is the most interesting element of the story that jumps out at you right away? That’s your introduction. Write that down.”
No matter which type of intro you use, it should:
- grab the reader’s attention,
- present the reason for the article’s existence, and
- explain how the post will help solve their problem.
It’s important that you tell the reader what value they are going to get out of reading your article. In a world where we’re bombarded with digital content, time is precious, and readers will make a decision about whether to keep reading your content after the first couple of sentences.
One last thing I want to point out is, never, ever repeat your headline in the introduction. It’s lazy and readers will get bored if they think your content is repetitive.
6. Write a longer article
Back in 1996, Bill Gates declared “content is king”. Well, I’d challenge that by saying “thoughtful, long-form content is king.”
You want your article to be better than the top three search results for your keywords, so write yours longer.
If the research is to be believed, the longer your content, the more traffic, social shares and backlinks you’re likely to get.
According to an SEO social media study conducted by Hubspot, articles with a word count between 2,250 and 2,500 each the most organic traffic.
Articles with a word count over 2,500 get shared the most on social media.
And articles with a word count over 2,500 earn the most links.
Traffic, social shares, and backlinks make the (internet) world go round. They’re the metrics marketers froth over, and what you should be aiming for when you publish a post. So when you write a post, size does matter.
Whatever you do, don’t waffle!
I’m not talking about delicious maple syrup-covered waffles here. I’m talking about long, boring articles that have a lot of words but don’t really say anything. No one likes waffle. Again, you’re wasting your readers’ time with empty words.
Every single word in your article should be there for a damn good reason. When you write a 3,000 word post, it should be difficult for someone to edit it and cut out paragraphs. Because if they can, you haven’t written it properly.
Any piece of writing should be clear and concise. Don’t take 1,000 to make your point when it should only take 100.
Short is okay sometimes
Not everyone has time to write epic 2,500+ word posts. Because, damn, it takes a lot of work!
If you only have time to write 500 words, that’s perfectly fine. As the great Shakespeare said:
“… Brevity is the soul of wit.”
So make sure every one of those 500 words counts and you’re delivering value to your readers.
Take Seth Godin, for example. His latest post is just 105, including the headline:
You might be thinking, “I doubt this post about sauerkraut ranks in Google.” But that’s not really the point. Because when you type “seth” in Google, Godin’s site is the second result after Wikipedia:
So to recap, go long with your articles where possible, but always go longer than the top three articles for your keywords.
8. Use clear, concise, short sentences
There’s a reason why newspaper and magazine paragraphs are only 1–2 sentences long — they’re easier to read and digest. Likewise, online you should stick with short sentences. Otherwise, your content will look chunky and readers will get tired and give up reading.
It’s best to use a friendly, conversational tone, but also with a clear purpose. In fact, Google’s developer guidelines recommend trying to sound like a “knowledgeable friend who understands what users want to do.”
Also craft clear, concise, short sentences with simple words that users will understand. Always keep your audience in mind and write for them.
9. Use better formatting
Take a look at the two article below. Which one is easier to read?
Or this one?
The first version, right?
Both articles comprise the same content, but the first one has formatting and a feature image, and the second version has had the formatting removed.
Our brains need two types of organisation in good writing:
- Cognitive organisation. This is the basic structure of your content that helps people mentally process and make sense of your information. We covered this earlier in this article.
- Visual organisation. This means breaking up your articles into headings, sub-headings, paragraphs, and using bullet points, numbered lists, and blockquotes to make your content more accessible to read and understand.
Formatting, or visual organisation, allows your readers to skim your content, make a quick judgment about whether it’s worth reading and how long it might take to read, and help them more easily read through your content. Formatting also helps keep readers on track, the goal being to get them to read the next sentence and reach the end of your content.
10. Use lots of images
People are hard wired for visual content and according to research, your brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. This is why including images in your content is so important.
Great images people retain your information and increases understanding. Images also ensure your content is more eye-catching so people are more likely to stick around and read your content.
Use images to support the words and not the other way around. They also help to break up the long-form piece into easily digestible chunks.
11. Help your reader with actionable advice
When you search for something online, you want the first result you open to answer your question, right? I mean, no one wants to have to go to the second page of Google for results…
People just want answers, so if you can give them answers, you win the internet!
So look back over those top three posts for your target keywords and make sure your article is well-researched, goes deep on your topic, and provides clear and actionable advice that your readers can follow to answer their question.
Neil Patel offers some great advice on the Crazy Egg blog on how to do this:
- Explain what your readers will walk away with
- Be image-centric
- Get your audience involved
- Use examples
- Throw in some stats
- Answer all pertinent questions
- Use clear CTAs
Don’t forget to use formatting to your advantage — step-by-step guides and how-to numbered lists can help guide readers through your content.
And yes, plenty of examples backed up by research and original sources — it’s one thing to tell people what to do, but showing them how is even better.
12. Make sure your article is authentic, i.e. just be you!
A lot of people I’ve worked with over the years avoid writing because they think they don’t know how to write.
As Seth Godin says:
“I write like I talk and nobody I know gets talker’s block.”
Because if you can talk, you can write. It’s that simple.
“Really, is it that simple?” you might be thinking.
Well, yeah. The trick is to not overthink your writing. You don’t need to try too hard or be overly clever to write a great piece of content. Leave the clever writing to those who’ve been feature writing for GQ and the New Yorker for 20 years. The important thing is that you get your point across and you do it well.
As long as you follow the process in this article, you should have no problems producing an amazing piece of content.
It’s important to inject your personality into your writing and write in first person like you’re talking to your reader directly.
Nobody likes to read dry, boring content. Some of the most successful articles are infused with character and wit. So add your own personal style to your content, whether it’s humour or just a conversational tone. Don’t be afraid to sound unprofessional — great writing gives readers a glimpse into the person behind the words.
Congrats on getting this far! Your reward? A high ranking post on Google. (written by you, of course! Or me — get in touch if you’d like to work together).
Let me summarise my content creation process here in 12 steps:
- Only write what you’re excited about. Readers will know when you hate a topic.
- Do you prep — work out what you want to write about, what keywords you want to target, and what are the top three best articles for your keywords.
- Research the crap out of your topic. Leave no stone unturned.
- Plan and structure your content so it’s easy to understand.
- Write a killer headline.
- Write a compelling introduction.
- Aim for 2,250–2,500 words.
- Use clear, concise, short sentences.
- Use formatting throughout your content.
- Use lots of images.
- Help your reader with actionable advice.
- Make sure your article is authentic, i.e. just be you!
There are a lot of steps, but no one said it was going to be easy! But the truth is, if you put together a better articles than the top three for your keywords, the result will be an even better article that your readers and Google will love.
Follow the steps above and your content will climb the rankings. You don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, you just have to be willing to put in the effort.
Oh, and don’t forget to run a spell-check on your content!
Originally published at wordsbybirds.com on June 7, 2018.