SEO experts are quick to tell their followers that the secret to high page rankings and endless web traffic is great content. Here’s the funny thing, though: not many actually share how to make great content.
It figures — after all, there is no magic bullet for producing quality content. Simply put, making great content is hard and takes time.
While no easy recipe for success exists, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide for creating effective content that both users and Google love.
Keep reading to get started.
Why Great Content Matters
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty details, here’s a quick lesson (or refresher) on why producing excellent content matters and what makes content “good.”
Google strives to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
In other words, Google wants to produce the best results for users’ search queries.
This means great content will rank, or be positioned, higher on search engine results pages (SERPs). The higher the page ranking, the more users see a page, thereby driving web traffic.
The desire for greater traffic and a higher rank is ultimately why the field of search engine optimization (SEO) exists. SEO services and strategies focus on increasing traffic by affecting web page visibility on SERPs, a major component of which includes producing quality content.
But what exactly is quality content?
According to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, quality content:
- Is unique, valuable, or engaging
- Is made for users, not search engines
- Does not deceive users
- Does not use tricks to manipulate search engine rankings
Google also goes on to list major content don’ts, including pages with little or no original content, hidden text or links, and malware-ridden pages.
You’ll notice that these guidelines generally outline what not to do, making it difficult to actually distinguish good from great, and great from excellent.
While this leaves marketers in the dark about what makes the best content the best, these guidelines are crucial to understanding what search engines like Google prioritize when crawling the web. (Crawling refers to the process of exploring webpages to find data that matches user search queries.)
Though these guidelines don’t paint a clear picture of what makes content great, they provide a basis for what it generally looks like.
So, here’s how to really think about quality content.
Just imagine the kind of content you’d want to bookmark for later or share with your friends. You certainly wouldn’t bookmark or share something that’s poorly written, hard to read, or provides useless or unoriginal information.
Most likely, a page is worth saving for later or passing along because you find it helpful and interesting. Entertaining, even.
That’s quality content.
Generally speaking, it’s original, informative, and well-designed. And in this guide, we’ll dive into how to create just that — quality content that people and Google love.
Why not just copy great, preexisting content?
Google specifically warns against duplicating content to manipulate search engines.
Duplicate content is a deceptive practice that’s exactly what it sounds like: repeat appearances of the same content in search results. Since this negatively impacts user experience, Google may remove duplicate pages from its index. (Note that this specifically applies to duplicating content maliciously, or for the sake of manipulating page rankings. Unintentionally created duplicate content will unlikely be penalized.)
In addition, you should avoid producing “thin” content that contributes little or no value to a reader. That means pages that are poorly written, make little sense, or that exist only for the sake of linking elsewhere. Like malicious duplicate content, thin content is grounds for the removal or deranking of a website.
Now that you’ve got an idea of why quality matters, it’s time to get started. Here are 20 ways to make excellent content that performs well with both readers and search engines.
1. Determine your marketing goals
An effective SEO content strategy requires clearly defined marketing goals. To help define these goals, ask yourself:
- Who are you creating content for?
- Why are you creating it?
- What do you want the audience to get from it?
- When should it be published?
- Where will it be published?
Pay special attention to the “who” — understanding the demographics of your audience and its needs and preferences will go a long way. For instance, a page catering to female millennials should look different from a page for female retirees even if they’re about the same topic.
Got your marketing objectives down? It’s time to do research for your content, which brings us to our next point…
2. Do keyword research
Keyword research is integral to creating optimized content because it establishes a framework for your piece, reveals how most users search for keywords related to your business, and shows what Google provides those users in response.
Specifically, doing keyword research sheds light on:
- Search Volume: This is the amount of searches performed for a keyword, typically expressed as monthly search volume. The higher the volume, the more the keyword is searched for.
- Competition: Keyword research helps gauge how difficult it is to rank for a particular keyword or phrase. This information is particularly crucial for assessing which keywords are worth pursuing; for example, you may find that it’s a wiser investment of time to target low-competition words instead of high-competition words.
- Related Keywords: Related keywords are words and phrases relevant to your target keyword. These are oftentimes more specific long-tail keywords that have lower search volumes. Including more of these in your content can provide greater page context and specificity, which can draw in more traffic in the long run.
There’s a whole world of keyword research tools out there, but for the best results, we recommend SEMrush, Google’s AdWords Keywords Planner, and Answer The Public.
SEMrush (starting at $99.95/mo)
It’s no wonder why — for any given keyword, SEMrush provides comprehensive analytics abouts its top ranking websites, monthly search volume, and related keywords.
Check out our sample search for “cryptocurrency” below.
SEMrush’s analytics indicate that “cryptocurrency” has a monthly search volume of 8,100 while also revealing low-volume phrase match keywords like “cryptocurrency news” and “cryptocurrencies” — the perfect targets of a long-tail SEO strategy. The report also shows the top ranking organic search results for a keyword, helpful for studying your competition.
Besides its use in keyword research, SEMrush comes in handy for understanding web traffic, ad history, and backlink data. Though it may be hard to navigate for the novice web marketer, SEMrush’s extensive data makes it the perfect launchpad for building an effective SEO strategy.
Google’s AdWords Keyword Planner (free)
Google also offers a free handy tool for keyword research: the AdWords Keyword Planner.
It can be a little difficult to access without creating an AdWords campaign, but rest assured that it’s possible.
Using the Keyword Planner, you can identify new keywords to target, find trends in search volume, and multiply keyword lists for new combinations.
The Keyword Planner’s extensive search volume statistics include average monthly search volume, an assessment of competition level, and a suggested bid for your keyword against online ad competitors. This information is especially helpful for gauging how intense the competition is for a particular keyword or phrase.
A word of caution: Keyword Planner’s average monthly searches appear as deceptively large ranges. You can access exact search volume data only if you’re running an active campaign.
Answer The Public (free)
Ever take a look at Google’s autocomplete results while typing in your own query?
The results are occasionally entertaining, but more importantly, they’re informative. These search predictions are based on the very text you’re typing, the relevance of your past searches, and recent trending topics.
This is where Answer The Public steps in. By analyzing search query data from auto suggest results, this tool reveals the most common questions and phrases related to a target keyword.
Just take a look at our sample search for “self-driving cars.”
This wealth of data provides insight on trending topics and specific things users want to know about a given keyword — for instance, in our sample query, “what are self driving cars” and “self driving cars and ethics.” Though it doesn’t provide keyword volume figures, Answer The Public can help ensure that you answer all the questions users have about your topic, which improves the quality of your piece.
3. Aim for novelty
As you conduct research for your target keyword(s), you’ll likely notice how saturated the competition is. After all, the world wide web is full of content, so it’s doubtless that your chosen topic has been written about time and time again.
To make your content stick, find a different angle to approach it from.
For example, you could:
- Spin the typical “how to” guide on its head by doing a “how NOT to” guide instead.
- Share a personal experience or controversial opinion.
- Conduct a case study to uncover and share some new insight.
- Use Brian Dean’s “skyscraper” technique to outdo your competition.
Alternatively, consider narrowing your subject matter. The broader the topic, the harder it is to find a unique spin. Niche fields are less saturated, leaving more room for novelty.
4. Be thorough
Regardless of how niche your topic is, though, you should give some thought to the level of depth you want in your content.
Although short-form content has its merits, research shows that long-form posts tend to get more shares. Maybe it’s no surprise, as Google strives to provide users with valuable and informative content, after all.
With that in mind, have you noticed any major holes in your competition’s work?
Do some market research and find where you can beat them. However, beware that in order to produce more detailed, novel material, you’ll probably have to conduct larger research projects and surveys yourself.
5. Use an appealing headline
As you begin creating your content, you should also come up with a catchy article title.
In SEO terms, a title tag is the HTML element that tells users and search engines what a web page is about.
The best title tags help increase your content’s click-through rate, which measures how many users actually click on your page in search results.
You can create a title with a high click-through rate in two different ways: SEO-centric and social-centric titling.
Taking an SEO-centric approach means including your target keyword and any other relevant words in your title tag.
Specifically, you should aim to get keywords toward the beginning of your title.
Having your keywords early on in your title tag means search engines will recognize it earlier, giving your content more potential to rank higher on SERPs. Just remember to do this in a natural way — after all, your page is meant for a human audience.
In the same vein, you should also avoid stuffing your target keyword across one or multiple page titles, especially if it’s irrelevant. Your title should ultimately be descriptive but concise.
Check out these examples of SEO-centric titles:
- Pollen Allergies: Types, Symptoms & Treatment – Healthline
- How to Deadlift with Proper Form: The Definitive Guide | StrongLifts
- Pet Boarding vs. Pet Sitting – Which is Better for Your Pet | petMD
As you can see, SEO-centric titles are simple and to the point.
Social-centric title tags, on the other hand, require thinking a little more outside of the box.
They’re designed with the intent to entice users to visit a page, otherwise known as clickbait. Unlike the more conventionally named SEO-centric titles, social-centric ones incite curiosity and promote sharing across social platforms.
For examples of eye-grabbing titles, take a look at BuzzFeed’s articles:
Of course, BuzzFeed’s content is titled in such a way to appeal to its target demographic — you wouldn’t see publications like The Wall Street Journal and The Economist using similar ones.
Thus, you’ll need to choose an appropriate tone for your own social-centric title, one that matches the nature of your content and appeals to your specific audience.
6. Create a good hook
Just like a catchy title, it’s important to develop a powerful first sentence to draw readers in. Consider some of the world’s literary greats and their alluring first sentences:
- “It was a pleasure to burn.” —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
- “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
- “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)
Notice how these authors create intrigue by making readers wonder what they’re writing about?
Literary writing is certainly different from web writing, but the idea of leaving readers hanging is the same. Consider using one of these openers to get your readers’ attention:
- A question
- A noteworthy fact or statistic
- A shocking statement
- A funny statement
- A quote
For an idea of how these might look, check out these intriguing first-liners from around the web:
- “So you finally want to get paid what you’re worth?” —The Ultimate Guide to Getting Paid What You’re Worth
- “Living in the US increasingly looks like a health risk.” —What the Dip in US Life Expectancy is Really About: Inequality
- “In further proof that real life is wilder than fiction, the most active volcano in the Philippines is currently spewing its guts out, creating a scene that looks straight out of Lord of the Rings and that’s caused tens of thousands of nearby residents to flee.” —The Philippines’ Most Active Volcano Is at It Again
7. Strengthen your copywriting
The quality of your copywriting can make or break your content. After all, copywriting is the voice that delivers your message.
Is it interesting and exciting? Or dry and uninspiring?
There’s no question which leaves a better impression. To enhance your web copy, follow these tips.
- Use active voice instead of passive.
- Make your call to action (CTA) clear.
- Cite concrete examples, facts, and statistics.
- Provide testimonials and success stories.
- Bold key words and phrases to make them stand out.
- Write short paragraphs.
Strong copywriting ultimately makes your content more persuasive and helps guide readers down your marketing funnel. And just like any other skill, it takes practice and concentrated effort to improve upon. Be sure to incorporate expert copywriting tips into your content.
8. Cut the clutter
Writing effective copy for the web requires writing clearly and concisely. Forget long-winded narrative writing from the days of yore — online copy should be succinct.
If a word or phrase doesn’t meaningfully contribute to your work, nix it. Think quality over quantity when it comes to word count; you’ll lose reader interest with sentences that are longer than they need to be.
On a similar note, use industry-specific jargon wisely. Some experts recommend avoiding it altogether, as it may confuse readers and narrow your potential visitor pool. However, there’s good reason to use it as well — particularly in establishing your familiarity and credibility with a topic. Just make sure that if you’re using it, you’re also explaining it.
When writing for broader audiences though, stick to simple vocabulary. Easy readability makes for easy comprehension, and studies show that most American adults read at or below an 8th-grade reading level.
9. Give actionable advice
Excellent content provides users with practical tips they can use after reading.
Unfortunately, many marketers produce content that lacks concrete, actionable takeaways. For instance, SEO experts often recommend creating “good content” to get more web traffic — yet they rarely share insight on what good content is and how to produce it.
To make your content more actionable:
- Provide and explain examples to illustrate your point in greater depth.
- Dive more into the “how” of your subject.
- Include links to resources that align with your content’s advice and suggestions. For instance, an article about finding the best real estate agent might include links to online agent directories.
Pages that are vague and lack actionable advice don’t resonate with users and may encourage them to look elsewhere. Conversely, readers who come away from your work with practical takeaways will see its value and may recommend it to others.
10. Engage readers with bucket brigades
Cutting the clutter doesn’t mean your writing has to be boring and prosaic.
Even topics typically regarded as dull can be written about in a way that’s engaging.
Engaging writing will increase time on site — the amount of time visitors spend perusing your website. Though Google never explicitly identified time on site as a major factor in determining page rankings, Moz’s research found a slight relationship between time on site and ranking.
Similar to how a catchy hook draws readers in, you can sustain reader interest by using the popular copywriting technique, bucket brigades.
Bucket brigades are words and phrases that captivate reader interest and smoothly transition readers between sentences. Try inserting a few throughout your content:
|But wait — there’s more.||It gets better.||Think about it.|
|Here’s the kicker.||That’s only part of the story, though.||You might be wondering…|
11. Always proofread
Before publishing your work, get another set of eyes on your content to catch any typos you may have missed.
Unsurprisingly, spelling and grammatical mistakes damage your website’s reputation and affect consumers’ trust. Visitors that spot typos on a page are more likely to bounce (or leave without any other page interaction), which will hurt your SEO.
If it’s not possible to enlist a proofreading service, take a break from your content and review it at a later time for errors. Content free of typos looks polished and adds to your website’s credibility and professionalism.
12. Put your most important information at the top
Did you know that users spend 80% of their time looking at the content at the top of a page?
Consequently, it’s crucial to organize your content in such a way that draws the user in and keeps them there.
Specifically, put your most important information above the fold, the block of space users see immediately after entering a page. This should include your content’s title, company name, target keywords, navigation menu, and any copy or media you deem most necessary to be immediately visible to users.
This tactic for page organization will help direct curious readers along rather than lose their interest.
13. Create a table of contents
For long pieces of content that answer the questions of many different user personas, a table of contents is key to helping readers immediately find the section they care about.
Otherwise, users may be intimidated by a page’s length, and bounce from it.Seeing a tiny scroller can overwhelm impatient readers, after all — but by simplifying page navigation, a table of contents can convince them to stay.
Wikipedia is a great example of a website that uses tables of contents to great SEO effect. Check out their table of contents page, which has a table of contents, and also ranks #1 for the keyword “table of contents.”
14. Use subheadings generously
Don’t be shy with your subheadings — they make your text more readable and boost your content SEO.
This is because subheadings separate content into easily digestible sections, making a lengthy piece more skimmable for readers. Since subheadings are larger and oftentimes bolded, they stand out to readers and give them a bird’s-eye view of what your content is about.
Moreover, including keywords in subheadings (formatted in h2 through h6 tags) tells search engines what your content is about. Although it may not be the largest ranking factor, Google’s algorithm uses subheading information to understand page structure.
15. Insert related content
Got related content users might like?
Don’t forget to add a section linking to related pages, and position it where appropriate, e.g., in a sidebar or at the end of a post.
Just like internal links within your content functions to keep users on your website, so do related posts. These help keep users engaged while also reducing your website’s bounce rate.
16. Link to your references
Websites without references offer little in terms of reliability.
You can build credibility and expertise by linking directly to your sources, even if it means linking to your competitors. Including backlinks (outbound links leading to another website) benefits your content’s SEO by positively adding to search engine algorithms and creating linking karma.
If you can link internally to other pages on your own website, that’s great. An internal linking strategy not only facilitates navigation around your site; it also builds page authority and ranking power.
If you can’t link internally, don’t worry. As a content creator, your goal is to make your content better than your competitors’ — and link hoarding, or linking only internally, won’t accomplish that.
When choosing resources to link to, look for trustworthy websites. This means websites from established institutions (e.g., universities, government offices) and companies with demonstrated expertise. Be wary of linking to online forums and commercial websites with biased content.
17. Incorporate multimedia
Quality content isn’t limited to just text.
In fact, building content made solely of text will likely turn visitors away. As Brian Dean’s study of 1 million search results shows, having at least one image makes pages rank higher.
It’s not just images, though. Including a wide variety of multimedia makes content more visually pleasing and interactive while also enhancing branding.
- Audio clips
18. Add a comment section
Did you know that user-generated content can also contribute to your SEO strategy?
Including a comment section not only makes your page more interactive but also increases the amount of related words on it — so long as the comments are relevant. In fact, it’s even possible for search engines to pull snippets from comments for results pages.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should display spammy comments for the sake of having comments. Filter for those that meaningfully contribute to your page or incite discussion. For instance, comments with questions present the perfect opportunity for you to respond with clarifying details and include other relevant keywords.
19. Review page analytics
Making excellent content doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it can take years before you hit a homerun.
With that in mind, it’s important to track your site’s performance over time to understand its successes and failures. From there, you can create new content accordingly.
A variety of online analytic tools are available for free or monthly/yearly subscriptions. To get the most comprehensive data reports, we recommend Google Analytics.
As the most popular web analytics tool, Google Analytics provides a comprehensive host of data, such as visitor demographics, page views, and the types of device used to access your site. With a wealth of information at your fingertips, it’s especially helpful for tracking your page’s bounce rate and average session duration.
This refers to the rate at which users visit a page but don’t interact with it further, e.g., clicking on a menu item or an internal link. A high bounce rate indicates a large amount of single-page visitors, which may be a sign of poor engagement or low quality. While this is not always the case, bounce rate is a good way to assess whether or not a page needs further attention and optimization. According to the creative agency RocketFuel, an above-average bounce rate is between 26 and 40%.
Average Session Duration
Google Analytics defines a session as the group of interactions with a website in a specified time frame. Average session duration thus describes the average amount of time users spend on a website. Like bounce rate, this metric may be a sign of how engaging your content is. However, you should take this figure with a grain of salt, as average session duration can easily be skewed by external factors you have no control over — for instance, someone who steps out for a lunch break while in the middle of browsing your website.
20. Revamp and update pages
Along the same lines, use page analytics to adapt old content to new information and industry trends. Of course, this applies only to evergreen content, as these posts can be reused over and over again.
If you’ve noticed a steady decrease in pageviews, set aside time to do some investigative research and make any necessary changes to your content. This includes fixing broken links, rewriting article titles, and adding internal links to related posts. Perhaps a new product or buzzword has emerged — consider incorporating this information to make your old content more relevant.
Even major news companies like Vox rework their preexisting content; check out their case study of how updating old evergreen articles brought in over 500,000 readers.
It’s a long road to creating high quality and well-ranked SEO content — one that requires a large investment of both time and effort.
The wonderful thing about web content, though, is that it’s not permanent. In other words, you can edit and optimize your content again and again after publishing it, whether for better or worse.
Content experts, got any more advice you want to add? Leave a comment if you think our guide is missing anything.
This post was originally published in January 2018.