Content, NP Digital Jul 8, 2020

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Research Tips for Writing Content That Ranks: How to Size Up the Competition

In 2019 Google ran over 464,065 experiments (383,605 search quality tests, 62,937 side-by-side experiments, and 17,523 live traffic experiments) resulting in 3,620 improvements to their search results. That’s over 50 experiments per hour, every hour, every day, for the entire year. These experiments helped Google better understand how to display the best set of search results that are aligned with the user’s intent of their searches.

The user’s experience continues to be at the forefront of Google’s recent updates. In fact, they published an article detailing how a user’s page experience will become more of a factor in organic rankings in 2021 and beyond.

While that update is primarily focused on the user’s ability to interact with the content, ensuring the content is aligned with their needs continues to be one of the main pillars of organic visibility.

It all starts with thoughtful, empathetic research that is driven by the needs of your target audience. In this blog, we’ll cover tips you can use while researching the competitive landscape to align your content with the needs of your users, giving it the best opportunity to achieve top rankings.

But first, you’ll need to identify a target keyword (i.e. what you want your content to rank for). If you still need to perform this step, check out Neil’s guide on keyword research for tips on choosing a term/terms that align with your brand and business goals.

What Topics Does the Competition Cover?

Put your target keyword and any relevant variations into Google and start clicking through the top search results as if you were a member of your target audience. For this blog, we’ll say our target keyword is:

how to potty train a puppy

Our target audience is young adults (18-35) living in urban cities who have recently adopted a new dog.

For ideas on keyword variations, look to the “Searches related to…” section at the bottom of the SERPs:

Google SERP results for keyword "how to train a puppy"

And the search suggestions that pop up when you start typing your keyword into the search bar:

Google search suggestion for keyword "how to train a puppy"

Possible keyword variations to explore may include:

  • How to potty train a puppy to go outside
  • How to potty train a puppy to go on pads
  • How to potty train a puppy fast
  • How to potty train a puppy in an apartment
  • How to potty train a puppy at night
  • How to potty train a puppy with a crate

As you conduct your research, ask yourself the following questions, and take note of the answers you uncover:

  • What topics are consistently covered by competitors and top-ranking sites?
  • If you were in your target audience’s shoes…
    • What questions would you have?
    • What problems are specific to your situation?
    • What pitfalls do you anticipate while trying to solve the problem?
    • What are the biggest or most challenging obstacles you face?
    • How much impact would a solution have on your life?
    • How much time and effort will it take to reach a solution?

Keep a document open where you can quickly jot down your key findings.

For an even greater understanding of what information is important to users, look to the People Also Ask box in the SERPs. The questions here can help you identify additional topics you should address in your content.

Here’s the People Also Ask box from our example:

People Also Also box for keyword "how to train a puppy"

After performing these research tactics for “how to potty train a puppy,” these were the key themes and takeaways:

  • It’s important to establish a routine for your puppy
  • There are different methods for potty training puppies
    • Indoor-outdoor vs. pee pads – since our target audience may not have access to an outdoor relief area, we should put more emphasis on the pee-pad method
  • There will be setbacks when you’re house training–look for what triggers the accidents and address them
  • You should wait until your puppy is at least two months old to begin the potty-training process
  • It usually takes 4-6 months to potty train a puppy
  • Use positive reinforcement; do not punish your puppy for going inside
  • Crate-training can be a highly effective way for potty training your puppy
  • Hours-wise, puppies can typically wait their age in months plus one before needing to go out
  • Look for cues that your puppy needs to go: sniffing, whining, looking at their leash/the door
  • If your puppy has an accident, thoroughly clean the area so the odor is gone (there are products specifically for this)

At a minimum, the content should cover these topics and if you have the expertise, expand on them with new and innovative ideas. Including your own, unique take on the topic will help differentiate your content from the competition while also giving the article–and your site–more authority.

How Is Their Content Structured?

While you’re perusing the competition and conducting your research, pay close attention to how the content is structured, both in terms of the headers and the copy itself. A well-structured piece of content lets Google know what your page is about while also delivering the information to the reader in an organized and digestible manner. It’s a UX-SEO win-win!

Take note of any themes you notice in the headers your competitors write, using these questions to guide your findings:

  • Are there words or topics that you see consistently in their H2s?
  • Are there certain aspects of the topic that are consistently broken down using subsequent H3s and H4s?
  • Are there areas you think could be structured better?
  • If you were a member of your target audience, what information would be most crucial to solving your problem (this should be in H2s towards the top of the page) and what information is just nice to have (bottom of the page and/or in an H3)?

By starting to identify these patterns, you can create an outline for your own piece of content.

After performing this exercise for “how to potty train a puppy,” this could be a potential outline to follow:

  • H1 – 5 Tips on How to Potty Train Your Puppy Fast
    • H2 – Choose a Potty-Training Method that Fits Your Lifestyle
      • H3 – Pee Pads
      • H3 – Indoor-Outdoor
    • H2 – Recognize the Signs They Need to Go
      • H3 – Training Your Dog to Tell You When They Need to Go
    • H2 – Create a Routine and Stick to It
      • H3 – Benefits of Using a Crate
    • H2 – Use Positive Reinforcement
    • H2 – In the Event of an Accident…
      • H3 – Cleaning Up to Prevent Future Accidents
    • H2 – Puppy Potty Training FAQs
      • How long does it take to potty train a puppy?
      • How long can my puppy go between bathroom breaks?
      • How old does my puppy need to be to learn potty training?

Bulleted and Numbered Lists Are Your Friends

People read content online much differently than they read content in a book, or even in a newspaper: there is a lot more scanning than reading going on. Bulleted and numbered lists make information quicker and easier for readers to scan, ultimately improving the user experience.

As a general rule (and if your editorial guidelines allow), if a piece of information can be written as a bulleted or numbered list instead of a paragraph, do it! Your readers will thank you.

You may notice certain pieces of information where top-ranking sites consistently use bullets and numbers to convey information. You may also come across blocks of text that could have been converted to a bulleted or numbered list for easier reading, which you should do in your own piece of content.

What Rich Media Do They Use?

You can create amazing content, but if it’s not engaging, it might as well not be there at all. Using rich media elements can up engagement by presenting the information in an aesthetically pleasing and easily digestible way. Ultimately, including these elements should help improve on-page metrics, like time on page and bounce rate, which send positive UX signals to Google.

Rich media elements can include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Images
  • Video
  • Infographics
  • Checklists
  • Quizzes
  • Calculators
  • Interactive designs

While you’re conducting your research, take note of what rich media shows up in the SERPs for your target keyword and what competitors use in their content. Don’t forget to check the Google Image results for inspiration, too.

Also think about moments during your research where you wish there had been an image or infographic, for example, to help explain a concept better. Taking all of this into account, you can start to plan out what engaging rich media will best serve your content and target audience.

In our puppy potty training example, video results are featured in the SERPs. This tells us that users likely find video to be a helpful way of getting information on the topic, so we may want to consider making an explainer video.

Video SERP results for keyword how to train a puppy

Looking further into what the competition is doing, we can see that most sites use little to no rich media, which is great! This means there is an opportunity for us to create a piece of content that is more engaging than what our competitors are doing.

Perhaps we create a printable planner for new pet parents to use while establishing their puppy’s potty-training routine. Or a calculator that determines how long a puppy can go between bathroom breaks based on their age. Whatever you decide, do it from the perspective of what will be most helpful to your target audience. Empathize with their needs and don’t be afraid to get creative with it.

How Long Is Their Content?

Not all search queries will require the same amount of content to meet the user’s needs. Depending on the topic you’re covering, you may only need 500 words—or 5,000. For example, a piece of content on how to make a PB&J sandwich should require a fraction of the amount needed to explain how to take out a small business loan.

During your research, start to get an idea of how much content the top-ranking sites are producing on the topic. They are ranking highly for a reason: their content provides a complete and satisfactory answer to the millions, possibly billions, of searchers who have sought out the query you’re after.

While you don’t need to hit an exact word count with your own content, it should fall within a range similar to your top competitors. You may find that a topic you thought could be covered in just 500 words actually requires 2,000, and vice versa. There are plenty of free word counting web tools and browser extensions you can use to figure out the average length of your competitors’ content.

For our example, most of the top-ranking sites have between 1,000 and 1,500 words on the topic of potty training puppies, so we should aim to write something within that range.

What Are They Linking To?

Internal and external links tell both Google and users what content is relevant to the topic you’re covering. Internal links go a step further and tell search engines how the information on your site is organized and related: if one page on your site is linked to from many other pages, Google will recognize this as an important, core page to your website and overall brand. Core pages are typically mid- to low-funnel pages that are valuable to your brand’s identity and business goals.

By examining your competitors’ links, you can start to understand which supplementary topics are necessary for users to understand for them to fully grasp the solution. You may find that top-ranking sites link out on terms and topics you hadn’t even considered, which could make good candidates for future content pieces on your own site.

There may also be instances where competitors link out on a piece of information that would be much more helpful if it were explained in-full on the current page.

Notice if there are consistencies in the concepts that competitors link out on, and make sure that when you create your own piece of content, you provide the reader with a way to access and understand that same information. As you’re crafting your linking strategy, don’t forget about your own core pages by including internal links to them (with thoughtful anchor text) throughout your piece of content.

In the context of puppy potty training, a crate can be useful for getting the puppy on a regular bathroom schedule. However, without knowing how to properly crate train a puppy in the first place, pet parents likely won’t have success with this suggestion. That’s why we find that there are quite a few instances where the top-ranking sites link out to separate guides on crate training alone.

For us, this means there is an opportunity to create and/or link out to a piece of content on crate training best practices, which will provide more value to the user and informational context to Google.

What Are They Missing?

By this point, you’ve sized up the competition pretty well, and have an idea of:

  • The topics you need to cover
  • How to structure the information
  • What rich media you want to include
  • How long the piece should be
  • What supplementary content you should create and/or link out to

Before diving into content creation, take a moment to get into your target audience’s head and ask if there are still questions that need answering. What are the potential pitfalls or problems specific to your target audience that the top-ranking sites don’t address very well? The more you can hone in on your particular target audience’s needs, the more successful a content marketing campaign you will run.

In our example, our target audience consists of young adults living in urban city environments. This means they’re likely living in apartments and may not have access to an outdoor space for their puppy to utilize. Since they’re likely younger in their careers, they may not have as much money to spend on pet supplies compared to an older demographic. On a similar note, they may also be more inclined to use social media to share and seek out support on this topic.

With all this in mind, how can we tailor the content to meet our target audience’s specific needs? Here are a few ideas:

  • Focus the instructions on potty training methods that are apartment-friendly (e.g. pee pads and crate training)
  • Teach users how to make their own carpet cleaner from simple, low-cost ingredients so they don’t have to spend money on store-bought products
  • If possible, provide referrals or coupon codes to pet stores
  • Include mentions of roommates in the copy (e.g. make sure your roommate recognizes the signs your puppy needs to go in case they’re home and you’re not)
  • For readers who have balconies, suggest they place a fake grass mat outside and use it in lieu of a backyard
  • Link to Facebook groups/pages for new puppy parents

The more you are able to understand your target audience, the better you will be able to present them with helpful solutions, and Google will always favor content that answers the users’ needs. By helping your visitors overcome a problem with comprehensive, engaging, and expertly written content, you ultimately position yourself for higher search rankings.

Research tips for writing content that ranks infographic
Infographic by Lauren Doerfler

Tierney Brannigan
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