In the content marketing world, your competition isn’t just your business rivals. It’s anyone publishing content in your area of expertise. That means you’re up against professional writers who’ve made careers telling compelling stories that rank well in search and drive traffic to their publications.
So how can you hope to beat them? The answer is this: Learn how they think and how to write articles the way they do.
As a journalist-turned-content marketer, I have experience and insights into both trades. I understand the goals and tactics of both journalism and content marketing. And I believe content marketers can learn a lot from journalists. This piece will give you an inside look into the art and science of creating high-quality online content. I’ll walk you through how to identify the best type of content to write, and how to give it every chance to rank high on Google and find an organic audience.
Inside the mind of a journalist
Ask yourself: What does a journalist want to achieve?
Broadly speaking, it’s to write content that people want to read. Journalism provides a service and helps readers by giving them crucial information.
That’s a journalist’s primary concern. Journalists are also focused on getting that content in front of an audience (i.e. ranking high in search results), as well as beating their competition.
This is the mindset you need in content marketing. But It’s only half the equation.
Inside the mind of Google
Way back in 1998, when Google was just another search engine, its mission statement was simply to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
That’s still Google’s mission today, though there’s an important caveat: Google’s algorithm prioritizes quality content. In fact, it even advises people to “make pages primarily for users, not for search engines…Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.”
If you can align your content with that ideal, you’ll be well on your way to ranking high on search engine result pages (SERP). That, in essence, is what SEO is all about: helping Google put relevant, high-quality content in front of users, fast.
What is high-quality content?
Journalists, content marketers, and writers cover virtually every topic imaginable. But high-quality content, regardless of the subject, meets most of the following standards:
- Provides value to readers by offering information about a topic they care about or are looking for
- Has purpose; it informs, educates, entertains, inspires
- Is original and brings new ideas and perspectives to the conversation
- Has credibility and offers insight
- Triggers an emotional response
- Is well-written and grammatically correct
That’s not to say you have to hit all these points for your content to be stellar. Be sure to set your standards high, though. If you don’t, your competitors surely will.
So how to start creating high-quality content? Brainstorm ideas.
Topical content is a good place to start. This will usually address the first item on the quality list: content that your readers seek. Think about the questions your customers often ask and consider what you could provide to inform and inspire them.
You can anticipate topicality as well: Use historical search volume data from Google AdWords to judge when it’s the optimal time to write about a specific subject. Or, think about events in the coming year to time your content to when people are likely to be searching for related topics. (You can find relative search volume data on Google Trends.) This may seem obvious, but planning ahead ensures that your content will be ready when your audience wants to read it.
Topical content works well at the top of the funnel. It’s effective in attracting first-time organic visitors, so tempt these people to stick around longer by in-linking to related articles. If you also have “related articles” and “most popular” widgets on your website, then even better.
The other option is cornerstone or evergreen content. This is in-depth content designed to have a long shelf life. It’s unlikely to have that initial explosion of interest that topical content has, but it’ll sit on your site and slowly accumulate visitors over time, especially if it has a high search ranking.
Typically, cornerstone content will result in higher engagement because it’s usually a little further down the funnel and will attract readers who are looking for detailed information. These are the readers who are more likely to stick around and read related content.
For a visual brainstorm, write down your ideas and post them on a wall. See which ones stand out and which you can group together.
Refine your idea
Once you have a good idea, test it.
The first test is on yourself, as a consumer of content. Ask: Do you find this idea interesting? Would you search for it? Would you click on it in the search results? If the answer is “no,” then it’s likely that no one else will either. Time to start over.
If you answer “yes” to those questions, then measure it against the quality checklist above and keep testing it to ensure it’s a sound idea.
Does it teach people something they didn’t already know? Think about your idea in relation to content from other publishers – and check to see if they’ve written something similar. Is your idea original or does it put a new spin on an established topic? Will your content have credibility and offer insight? (Journalism tip: A good way to make content credible is by involving an expert; either interview one or source one to guest author a post.)
Finally, what emotional response will your idea trigger? It might make someone smile or become excited or reassured. If there’s an emotion involved, then the reader is more likely to remember and return for more.
If you can answer positively to these criteria, then you’ve probably got a good idea on your hands.
Write your story
Now that you have a solid idea, you can start the writing process. Many writers create an outline that contains the main idea, supporting points, and research, anecdotes, and statistics that bolster those points. Outlines serve as roadmaps for writers. By following their outlines, writers ensure that their narratives are tight and don’t stray from the main idea. Outlines also allow writers to see whether they have enough credible evidence to support their points.
While writing, ensure that your copy aligns with your brand’s voice and tone. Think of voice as the personality of your brand. Is it, for example, frivolous, eclectic, or authoritative? Tone is the mood or attitude; is yours, for example, upbeat or sarcastic? It’s vital that you write in a voice and use a tone that suits your brand, and that your audience identifies with it. It’s no good being all jokey if your business is selling funeral caskets.
Optimize content for readers and search engines (SEO)
While some believe that SEO and keyword-based search will eventually become a thing of the past (to be replaced by natural language from voice search), at least for the time being it’s the best way to get your content to rank.
The good news is that many SEO best practices are good for readers, too. Here’s a look at some of the most important:
Keywords are vital. Vital for Google to understand what’s in your article to rank it, and vital for readers, too. Years of Google dominance have trained people to search with keywords, so they work for humans and bots alike.
For each piece of content, determine your target keywords. Measure keyword search volume through tools like Google Adwords, and see how search volumes of related keywords change over time in Google Trends. Incorporate your target keywords throughout the piece, but avoid keyword stuffing. If your content is so packed with keywords, Google will see through your strategy and not rank it well.
Strategically placing your target keywords in an article’s title, URL, and meta description can help its SEO ranking.
Conversely, you might be tempted to shorten a long-tail keyword – especially of a product – for ease of writing and reading. Don’t do this! There’s no harm in writing it out in full every time you mention it. Shortening or abbreviating long-tail keywords may damage an article’s SEO and result in a lower ranking.
It’s one thing to rank as the top result on a SERP. It’s another to convince someone to click. A good headline could mean the difference between a click to your article or to your competitors.
Use headlines to draw in prospective readers. Craft headlines that include your target keyword, ask provocative questions, or promise pleasure or pain (e.g. how something succeeds, why something fails). Numbers are seductive, alluding to content that’s easily digestible. Advertise the benefit of reading your content; tell users that you’ll educate them and show them “how to” with a guide.
There are many ways to engage readers with headlines, but don’t go too far. Don’t promise something that your article doesn’t deliver. Chances are, your visitor will leave disappointed and never return.
Also, consider the headline’s tone and voice. Ensure that it matches your brand’s tone and voice. A BuzzFeed-style headline might encourage lots of clicks, but may put off your target audience if they’re looking for serious and in-depth content – especially if you’re selling something serious, too.
People clicking on a BuzzFeed-style headline will be expecting a BuzzFeed-style article, too. So they’ll be super-disappointed if they find a 10,000-word research paper on the chemical processes in the interior of Jupiter on the other end of your clickbait. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Though they may get clicks, BuzzFeed-style headlines may actually be detrimental to your brand if they don’t align with your voice and tone.
Your introduction is where you draw in readers. In journalism, the introduction is sometimes referred to as the “standfirst,” which follows the headline and sums up the article. This helps readers know what the story is about and also helps Google. If formatted with a <h2> or <h1> tag, Google will use this to categorize the article.
When writing your intro, make sure to include your target keywords, but don’t stuff them. Google will know. Keep it brief and to the point – what works for a human will work for a search engine.
Article length is important, but not at the cost of quality. Articles should be an absolute minimum of 300 words, but you should aim to write 1,000 words or longer. In order for a search engine to deem an article worthy of ranking well, it has to be comprehensive enough to answer readers’ questions. How much good information can you honestly provide in less than 300 words? Not much.
But also bear in mind that if your article is too long, then you’ll likely lose readers before they get to the end, regardless of quality. Counter this by implementing good entry points and consider putting calls to action (related articles or email sign-ups) in the body copy at natural breaks in the narrative to give people a way to continue to engage.
Always format an article with the user experience in mind. Reading on a screen is more tiring on the eyes than print, so make it less-so by writing shorter paragraphs. Two or three 15-word sentences per paragraph will do the trick. This will also encourage the writer to stick to the point and not waffle – another good tip for online writing.
And don’t be afraid to use single-sentence paragraphs to make an important point.
Note to webmasters: The font is important! Help people to read on a screen with a legible typeface of 12pt (16px) or more.
Crossheads (also known as headers) are beneficial for a couple of reasons. One: They provide entry points for readers, enabling them to scan articles to see what information might be useful. Two: If you tag your headers with <h3> or <h2> in the HTML, then, when Google’s bots come calling, they’ll read these to help categorize the article. This can help SEO.
Just make sure your crossheads describe what’s in the following paragraphs. Otherwise, they won’t mean anything for the reader or a search engine. Puns are out, unless your article is about wordplay.
Pull quotes and bullet points are also beneficial to both Google and readers. They can break up the “text wall,” make your article look more pleasing to the eye and its information easier to digest.
In-line linking is the practice of hyperlinking to other articles within your article. It’s a great way to encourage a user journey by giving people contextual articles to read next. Plus, in-line linking has SEO benefits by offering Google additional indications about what your article is about.
Make sure you do it well, though. Treat your in-links as you would a headline to the articles you’re linking to, ensuring the text in the link describes the content of article it goes to. And link to credible sources. This is good for Google and even better for the reader.
Utilizing images and other multimedia assets
Image selection is important. Ideally, you want to use high-quality photography or illustrations that reinforce points made in the article, placing them near the relevant copy. Write a caption for each image: either describe what’s in the image or reinforce a point made in the main body copy. Photos also make for excellent entry points for readers. (SEO tip: Add alt tag text to your images; you can simply use your caption text, if it’s descriptive. This is how Google Image Search finds and indexes images.)
Also, make sure you optimize your images. Use JPGs for photos, PNGs or GIFs for graphics, where there are a limited number of colors. Resize the images too – there’s no need to upload a 2,000 px-wide image if your page template is 700 px. Basically, the smaller the file size, the quicker your page will load and the more Google will like you (but don’t sacrifice image quality).
High-quality images are appealing to readers, provide visual cues, and can help your SEO.
Video is both a great way to impart information and keep people on your pages longer. If you have a video that relates to your article’s overall topic, then embed it, either in the body copy or at the end of the article. You can also give it an SEO-friendly <h3>-tagged title or description.
There other options too: Embed social media posts (which, if they’re from your feed, advertises your account), animated gifs, links to downloads such as e-books, and quizzes. They’re powerful engagement tools.
Don’t forget good grammar and spelling
The last point on the quality list is something that seems obvious but is often overlooked, especially in the rush to publish before a rival. People won’t notice if your article has no spelling mistakes, but they sure will if it does. How can you be a credible source if you get a simple thing like spelling wrong?
Also, think about using the spelling that’s appropriate for your target audience’s dialect. U.S. English is generally considered the web standard, but if your audience is mostly in the U.K., then you might not want to get your “colours” mixed up. It could be instinctively understood as content that’s not relevant for the reader in that region.
One final piece of advice
Creating good online content is part science, part art. Ideally, one informs the other. Yet, the final piece of advice I want to impart is this: Forget everything you’ve just read.
Well, not all of it. Maybe keep the optimization stuff in mind.
The point I want to make is: Don’t be so focused on data, SEO, and ranking that you forget to just write a story because you have a great idea. Even if it fails, you’ll learn from it. And if you don’t take risks from time to time, you’ll never, truly, create something original.
This is arguably the most important way a journalist thinks. Be brave in trying new ideas, imagine something that your competitors can’t, and enjoy every step of the writing process. Because that’ll result in content that Google will really love and rank well.