Content Strategy (Part 2): How to Research and Plan Your Content for Success

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This is part two of three of my content strategy. You can find part one here. If you haven’t read it yet, make sure you do.


By now, we have a wealth of ideas, keywords, and inspiration. Thanks to all the work we’ve done in the previous section, we can dip into the actual writing with confidence.

Time to write!

Yes?

Nope.

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Research before writing

Listen, here is the deal.

I’m sure you want to get stuck into writing your amazing piece of content. We all do. But, there is a little bit more research that needs to take place before you do so.

Trust me, it is for your own good.

In my experience, diving straight into writing will only give you:

1. A rant

You just start typing and let the words flow. You know your keyword and decide you’ll smash out 800 words before the day ends and you need to go pick up the kids.

What happens? You start ranting. You get into this sort of ‘words-at-all-cost’ mode. You start a sentence (or a paragraph) without any focus.

Michael Scott rant

2. An un-targeted piece of content

Your article is (almost) completely random. I’ve done this more than I can remember. In fact, if you remember the refactoring example I gave in section one, this is exactly what happened.

An un-targeted piece of content is an article about nothing in particular. It’s a bit about this, a bit about that, it sounds like you’re on topic but you’re not.

Boo to that.

3. An uninspired piece of content

Ugh.

These are the worst. You try to smash out an article, don’t do any research, and you struggle to really find any excitement for your topic.

Lack of research often means you’ll lack knowledge and unique thoughts on the topic. If you lack those, you basically end up copy-pasting what you (and most likely your audience) already know about the topic.

Your readers will feel the boredom from miles away.

4. An un-thorough piece of content

Finally, an un-thorough piece of content is, well, a shame.

You put the work in, you write good stuff — but you forget loads. As we’ll see in a bit, performing thorough research will ensure you end up covering everything you need to cover in your article.

Research

As you can probably guess from the section above, I take research pretty seriously. For every article I write, I like to prepare a small ‘library’ of sorts on the topic.

My library consists of

  • At least five high-quality articles that cover the same or similar topic.
  • At least three high-quality pieces of media content (images, infographics, videos, podcasts, etc.) that cover the same or similar topic.
  • A TF-IDF export.
  • A spreadsheet with a combined list of all backlinks to the top 10 Google results for my target topic.

Let’s go over each.

Collect high-quality articles

Your article should be unique. It should be a unique take on a topic, ideally not rehashing what others have said.

That said, knowing what others have said is extremely important.

I always do a fair amount of reading on the topic I am going to write about before I actually dive into it, even if I have my own take on it. I like to know what others have said so I

  1. Don’t cover the same things they have, in the exact same way.
  2. Know who I agree with and who I disagree with.
  3. Have quotes and references I support, debunk, or combat in my article.
  4. Understand the landscape of the topic.

I like to save a few of them (usually five) for future reference.

You have to remember, this Trello board is a living ‘document’. I may not write my piece of content straight after finishing my research. By saving them, I can refer back to the pieces when I actually start writing and jog my memory.

🔥Hot tip🔥

Quotes and thesis

In the first part of this series, I mentioned it’s often a good idea to write content that goes against the thesis of others (if that is what you believe in, of course).

This is where you put this in practice.

In your research, write down quotes you could use to your advantage. I love looking for platitudes as well, things well-performing pieces of content or highly-regarded authors have mentioned as fact without digging deeper.

For instance, say you are writing a piece of content on keyword research for SEO. Most guides would tell you to use Google’s ‘Keyword Planner’ tool to find keyword data. Most guides wouldn’t even justify that choice within their content.

If you don’t believe this is the best strategy, this is a great opportunity to go completely against that thesis. In fact, that is what Nick Eubanks did in his keyword research article.

So, when you go through the ‘top five’ articles on the topic, do so with a fine-tooth comb. Leave no stone unturned. Drill down into those ‘facts’ and ‘truths’ people just throw out there. There may be great opportunities there.

Add a comment to your Trello card with the list of links. I like to add a short (2-3 words) note on each link, just to jog my memory down the line.

For instance, I’ll write:

  • [link], a tool that does X
  • [link], thinks Y is the best option
  • [link], section 3 is gold

And so on.

Collect high-quality media

I’m sure you already know where I’m going with this.

This is very similar to the section above, except I focus on media content. I like to know what’s been done and, most importantly, what hasn’t been done.

If I find valuable videos, I’ll dump the link in the card. If I find cool images, I’ll attach them to the card.

This is all fantastic inspiration for later on.

Maybe you can find an image that supports a thesis you are about to refute. Perfect opportunity to see how they presented this thesis and see how you could create the ‘opposite’ image.

Maybe you find a fantastic video, complementary to the thoughts you’re going to share in your article. Perfect opportunity to offer your readers all the information they need, show you care about them, and shout out to the content creator.

A TF-IDF report

🔥Hot tip🔥

Please read the entire section

I can already see some of you cringe at the mention of TF-IDF. Please keep reading to get the full picture of what I’m trying say here.

This one remains a bit controversial.

TF-IDF stands for Term Frequency Inverse Document Frequency. It’s a bit of a hot topic in the SEO community at the moment. Some believe search engines use TF-IDF (or something similar) to find out what words are typically included in an article about a specific topic. Then, use that knowledge to evaluate future pieces of content.

Here’s my dumbed down explanation of how it works. For a more technical breakdown, read KD Nuggets’ article.

Imagine feeding 100,000s of documents, journals, articles, etc. about whisky to a machine. The machine figures out all the words that are typically mentioned across the entire corpus and ranks them based on frequency. Then, using this knowledge, when we ask the machine to estimate the ‘value’ of a brand new piece of content about whisky, it can compare the content to what it would expect to find across the entire corpus.

Alright, WHO CARES?

Some people care because they believe this is the way search engines rank content, at large scales.

In practice, it is my opinion that search engines are far more complex than this. As a rule of thumb, anything that could sort of be gamed is probably not something Google does — and TF-IDF sounds pretty game-able.

John Mueller, webmasters trends analyst at Google recently said:

This tells us TF-IDF might have been used way back but search engines have evolved far beyond it now.

So, if it’s old and irrelevant to search engines, why do I care about it?

I believe there is still merit in glancing at a TF-IDF report for a quick sense check. Again, we’re not using this to stuff keywords or ‘game the system’. We’re literally using it to quickly check whether there is anything you might have missed.

I shared my thoughts in a recent (heated) discussion on AHREF’s Facebook group:

a rant on TF-IDF

The tool I use, Ryte, uses Google’s top results for a particular keyword and runs the algorithm across that corpus of content. It then spits out a report like this:

tf idf report for the keyword whisky

I take a screen grab like the one above and dump it into my Trello card. Job done.

Note: please, please, please understand. We’re not taking each of the words on that report and stuffing them into our content. We’re making sure that there’s nothing on the report that we might have missed as part of our content.

Stuff keywords is bad and will never result in anything.

Top 10’s backlinks

Admittedly, I am jumping the gun a little bit here. But, I have my reasons.

Backlinks are the lifeblood of the internet. Writing and publishing great content will never really be good enough. You need people to find it. You need search engines to find it.

Backlinks are links from other domains that point back to your website. Pretty basic stuff, but they are incredibly important.

In most content strategies, you’d dig deeper into the backlink profile of the pages you are competing with a little further down the line. Most likely, you’d do the research above, write your piece, publish it, then start tackling a few of the well-known tricks that can get you links.

I like to get a bit of a head start.

The point of gathering these links early on is, again, research.

I like to know what I’m up against before I even write the first sentence.

Mo’ (competitor) backlinks, mo’ problems

As you prepare to write your content, you are studying what ranks at the moment. These pages are, after all, what you are out to beat.

Let’s say you are going after Keyword A. The top ten Google results for Keyword A have a combined total of 27 backlinks.

Now, let’s say you are going after Keyword B, for which the Google top ten have a combined total of 427 backlinks.

Which keyword would you rather go after? Most likely Keyword A.

AHREFs, the software we’ve used in part one of this series, displays a very useful metric in their Keywords Explorer: keyword difficulty (KD).

ahrefs keyword difficulty example

This particular keyword, ‘picture frames’, has a KD of 22.

I don’t have any insider information about KD, so I can’t tell you exactly how they come up with it. What they do, though, is indicate, along with that metric, how many backlinks you would have to build to your new piece of content to reach the top ten.

ahrefs kd and links required to beat it

With a KD of 22, to even hope to reach top10, you will have to build 22 links

In the example above, we see that ‘picture frames’ has a KD of 22. We also see we would need to build around 22 links to our piece of content to rank in the top ten.

Note: this is, of course, not an exact science. Don’t write a crappy article, build 23 crappy links, and expect to rank. Duh.

So, why are we grabbing those top ten backlinks right now? Two main reasons:

1. It’s more research on the topic.

Sure, we’ve saved five great pieces of content and a few pictures. But, what do people who link back to these say about them? What are the topics that interested them? What caught their eye and made them even want to link to the pages you’ll compete against?

This is tremendous information.

2. It’s a difficulty leading indicator

I’d rather know how much work I’m going to have to put into ranking my article right now.

I will already be aware of it to a certain degree. I know my keyword, I’ve researched it previously, and I know its KD. But a metric, however good, never tells the whole story.

Here, I get to dig a bit deeper. Does the top article on Google only have 3 links? Amazing! Are those 3 links from Amazon’s homepage, the NASA’s contact page, and Elon Musk’s personal blog? Different story. [Tweet this]

I want to know now.

I use AHREFs to gather this information. The process is quite simple.

Step 1: open AHREFs.

Step 2: under keyword explorer, search for your keyword.

Step 3: open the top ten results’ backlinks in a new tab.

ahrefs collecting backlinks

Step 4: in the backlink view, click ‘export’. In most situations, a simple default export (‘Quick export’, Microsoft Excel (UTF-16)) will do just fine.

ahrefs exporting backlink profile

Step 5: combine all the CSVs into one.

Save the master CSV file and attach it to the card.

This concludes our research. We’re now aptly armed to start writing. To the keyboard!

In progress

Get yourself a cup of coffee. Find a comfortable spot. Sit, focus, and start writing.

After all this preliminary work, you can finally move the card from research to ‘In progress’. A card doesn’t get out of ‘In progress’ until you’re done writing the content.

This is the exciting bit for the writers out there (and the terrifying bit for the technical SEOs).

I give myself a small set of rules when writing content. In my opinion, it’s important not to be too strict here.

🔥Hot tip🔥

This isn’t 2008 anymore

Back in the early days, you could cheat the system by following what used to essentially be a checklist. Follow that checklist to the tee, and you’ll rank. It was as easy as that.

And it made for terrible, terrible content.

Today, search engines are smarter and so should you be.

Don’t believe anyone who gives you a very strict set of rules you need to follow to make your content perfect for ranking. It just doesn’t exist.

Instead, here’s the top secret tip: write good content. Good, thorough, honest content. Optimise it, sure, but mainly write good, insightful shit. [Tweet this]

The tips below work for me and the type of content I write. You can follow them, though ideally, at some point, you should do your own research.

For each piece of content I write, I make sure I do these 7 things.

1. Remind myself of the search intent (and answer it)

I covered this in part one. Search intent is immense. It is the most important thing to keep in mind, especially while you’re writing.

Throughout the entire writing process, I repeatedly ask myself ‘am I answering my reader’s question?’.

Read what you wrote. Read it again. Are you sure you are answering the question?

Imagine you’ve just landed on this article after performing a Google search. Would you be reading ferociously or scanning through the headlines? Would you jump back to Google? Would you share this article with a friend who has a similar question?

2. Write over 1,000 words

Some say 500. Some say 2,000. I say 1,000.

Research shows longer pieces of content rank better (covers a wider keyword spread, attracts more backlinks, etc.).

It doesn’t mean you should be smashing out 10,000 words just to crush your competition.

Ultimately, the exact number doesn’t really matter. The point is, your content should be worthwhile. I found that, in my case, I successfully answer my readers’ search intent when I’ve covered the topic thoroughly.

3. Make sure I have H2s and H3s

Again, basic stuff.

I like to use H2s and H3s the way they’re meant to be used: headings and subheadings. I don’t think you need to keyword stuff them, though I do believe you need to make them somewhat targeted.

For example, if I’m writing an article on picking the best running shoes, I would probably do something like:

H1 (my title): Pick the Best Running Shoes in 17 (Not Literal) Steps

H2 (my first heading): The qualities you want in outdoor running shoes

H3 (my subheading below that previous H2): 3 measurements to look at

Note: can you tell I know nothing about running shoes?

You get the gist. I am using H2s as a way to introduce a part of the concept I’m covering, then H3s to introduce sections within that concept.

Again, really basic stuff. It’s just a good reminder to scan through your article once you’re done and make sure they’re in there, in the right format.

🔥Hot tip🔥

Multiple H2s !?1!!11?

For a little while, there were heated discussions about having multiple H2s on a single page.

The point was that H2s are very powerful indicators (to search engines) of the topic you are covering and therefore having multiple H2s would somewhat dilute the content’s focus.

I say bogus to that.

Think of H2s like a book chapter. It helps the user know where they are in the ‘story’ of your article. As long as you don’t cram your keywords in there repeatedly (aka keyword stuffing, bad) or create too many confusing H2s that don’t seem to belong to the overarching story you’re telling (aka unfocused article, bad), you’re good to go.

4. Make sure I have at least two unique images

This one can be tricky or easy, depending on where you stand.

I strongly believe images help content a lot. I know I personally scan through an article quite quickly, and unless it’s been highly recommended by peers I trust, I’ll ditch it if it looks like a massive wall of text.

Note: there are caveats to this, as always. For instance, I love reading Tomasz Tunguz’s blog and he rarely uses images (other than charts etc.). I just find his content entertaining and insightful enough to keep me hooked in.

I try to keep a ratio of at least 1 image per 1,000 words.

There are a few, quite obvious, reasons to use images in your content.

  • They break your content and make reading more enjoyable.
  • They make the page look nicer, more approachable.
  • They engage the reader.
  • If done properly, they can sometimes rank in Google images, attracting traffic.
  • Really great images can be re-used by others, which can build your brand and your link profile (see Link building section).
  • They can attract the eye on social media.

And more.

🔥Hot tip🔥

Not a designer? Me neither

Images can feel daunting because they imply designing things. It’s not like words where you can basically just type stuff and pretend it’s good. Images need to be striking.

I’m no designer, as you can probably tell from this article and others. Here’s the ‘design stack’ I use to still get by (and not spend £100s hiring designers).

I have found I can use a mix of Canva + Unsplash to create decent enough images.

Canva is a SaaS platform with loads of pre-made templates. You can use any of them, change the words and imagery, and create your own. They have a free plan, though I recommend the paid version for $12.95/mo. A paid version allows you to save your branding (colours, logos, font, etc.). If you can afford it, it’s also always nice to pay the good devs who built the product.

Unsplash is an incredible resource of free photographs. It’s sort of a Shutterstock, but with indie photographers giving away their work for free. There are no copyrights on these images (though these people obviously do this to get their name out there, so giving credit goes a long way).

Mash the two and you can create decent images like this one.

example of an image with canva

SEOing your images

SEO recommendations for images are pretty boilerplate, so this won’t take long. There are three key things to do to make your images search engine friendly.

It’s 2019. If the images on your website are still named picture01.png, wake the fuck up.

Try to name them according to what they are. Here’s a little nifty trick: look at the image and say ‘in this image you can see…’. Whatever naturally comes after that, that’s your image name.

Also, use dashes (-) and not underscores (_) in your names.

2. Alt-tag the bad boy

Same as above. If you’re not using alt-tags on your images, does your image even exist on the web?

I tend to use alt-tags the same way I use the image name. Just be descriptive about what’s on there (and remove the dashes).

3. Keep it under 100KB

Sort of a rule of thumb across the SEO community. It’s not always easy, images can be surprisingly large files, but try to keep it under (or as close to) 100KB.

This is all to do with loading speed and page speed in general. Most of the time, your Google Search Console will flag images over 100KB and recommend you compress them.

I like to use compressjpeg.com or compresspng.com.

4. Link to outside sources

Linking outside of your website (also called outlinking) is misunderstood.

Many so-called SEOs still advise against it. Something to do with ‘losing link equity’ (i.e. relevancy in the eye of Google. If you have to point to someone else to supplement your content, you are therefore not the best source of truth on the topic).

Others don’t like the idea of links being used as ‘confidence votes’ by the search engine algorithms. They’d rather not link out to anyone, in fear of pointing to a lesser quality website.

Finally, some just want to keep the visitor to themselves. Linking to an outside website is giving them a way out, and they won’t have it.

All three reasons are ridiculous.

You should point out to other websites that are more knowledgeable than you are on topics you touch on.

You should ‘vote’ for other websites, citing your sources and standing behind the sources you trust.

Your website should offer more ways to discover more content. It’s the way of the internet.

Having said that, you want to limit the number of outlinks. Pages with lots and lots of outlinks tend to appear spammy and seen as lesser quality. As a rough rule of thumb, I try to limit my outlinks to two per 1,000 words.

5. Internal linking

Internal linking is a vast SEO topic, one I wouldn’t dream to cover here.

If you’d like to dig deeper, here is a great article by Kevin Indig.

Chances are, you’re going to write about similar topics across your entire website. Some pieces of content will intertwine. An internal link is a link placed on your new piece of content that links to another of your pieces of content.

Like external links, internal links help your readers understand more about the topic. Except, this time, you get to keep the reader within the realm of your own website — woohoo!

And, like external links, you don’t want to overdo it. I try to create two internal links per 1,000 words.

That’s it. These are my rules. They’re simple really:

  • Satisfy the reader’s intent (don’t trick them)
  • Cite your sources (but not too many)
  • Use images (humans are visual creatures)
  • Help your readers with further reads they might enjoy
  • Write long form (but don’t stuff)

Proofing

Congrats, you’ve made it through the more extensive part of the article. All smooth sailing from here.

Once I’m done writing, I try to hand over my article to someone for proofing.

Whether or not you have someone on your team who can do that for you, move the card to the Proof swim lane and add a reminder. I like to set it for three days. In three days, I’ll poke my friend and ask if (s)he’s done.

Here are a few tips I found help speed up the proofing process.

  1. Use Grammarly. Yes, it costs money. Yes, it’s freakin’ amazing. Pay for it, trust me. The only downside, Grammarly doesn’t work offline.
  2. Completely optional, but if you can afford it, use Hemingway. While Grammarly looks at grammar (duh), Hemingway looks at readability, sentence structure, ‘proper English’ prose. Also, Hemingway works offline!
  3. Give your text some formatting. This is especially true if it’s long form. I like to add ‘H3’ in front of my titles, for instance. This lets my proofer know it’s not a random sentence.
  4. Be open to criticism. Just throwing it out there, some people can be ruthless and their edits may hurt.

Sit back and wait for them.

Ready to publish

Ohhhh boy!

We’re at ready to publish. This is getting serious.

This is going to come off as a surprise but here it goes. I use this swim lane to store all the content that is… ready to publish. Dun dun dunnnn

More seriously, this is a great swim lane to store your content before you pull the trigger. Your friend has proofed your article, you got it back. Move the card in ‘Ready to publish’ and start prepping your article to go live.

My article is going to sit in there while I add it to my CMS, format it, etc.

Whether you want to keep this swim lane or not is up to you. I find it helps me pace my content, know what’s going out next, and what I’m working on.

Some pieces (like the one you are reading now) can take quite a while to go from ‘proofed’ to ‘published’. This is the perfect lane for this limbo state.

This concludes part two of our content strategy.

What? We haven’t published our piece of content yet? Cray cray.

In the next and final part of this series, I will share my publishing, repurposing, and ‘to infinity’ strategies.

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ALEX DEBECKER

Digital marketer. Company grower. Bearded internet warrior. I grow projects into profitable businesses.

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