10 factors that make great content great

Everybody knows great content is important but what makes "great content" great? That's the question I answer (from an SEO perspective) in this article.

10 factors that make great content great

“You need great content.”

“Content is king.”

“Content, content, content.”

We know it. Content is important. We also know that just content isn’t enough, it has to be great! But what makes content great? That’s the question I’m seeking to answer and underline with real-life examples in this article.

The SEO Scale Model - how important is content for YOU?

Content, a pillar for SEO, is often understood as “text. That’s wrong! For e-commerce companies, content is inventory. For (most) marketplaces, content is user-generated. For (most) SaaS companies, content is self-generated (or company generated).

I created an overview a while ago (for the SEMrush article “How startups should do SEO”) that summarizes the importance of content for certain types of companies: the “SEO Scale Model

the seo scale model
The SEO Scale Model

The SEO Scale Model gives startups guidance as of what to focus on. Especially when resources are scarce, it’s important to invest into the right area. If that investment isn’t made right from the start “SEO debt”, the cost of not doing SEO properly, scales with the growth of the company.

This article, however, focuses on companies that need self-generated content to scale SEO: companies without public inventory and without user-generated content.

With that clarified, here’s a list of factors that make content great:



Great content isn’t always text

As I wrote in the intro, thinking “content = text” is a costly equation. The optimal format depends on user intent. Sometimes, an image says more than a thousand words. Widgets, images, or small applications are much better suited in some cases and stand out.

(Screenshots from https://whydoiprocrastinate.com/, walking the user through a set of questions that help her understand why she procrastinates)

what is my day rate calculator
(Screenshots from https://www.whatismydayrate.com/, providing users a tool to calculate optimal daily rates for freelancers)
(Screenshot from https://www.letscrunchit.com/product_adoption, providing a widget to visualize product adoption)

In fact, I’d recommend you to always think about how you can go beyond “just text” and create something exceptional.

Great content uses (custom) visuals to explain concepts

Custom visuals help users scan content, make concepts easier to grasp and entertaining to consume. On top of that, visuals can be shared on social networks and are sometimes used in other blog articles or presentations, which can bring in backlinks.

(Screenshot from https://triviumchina.com/2017/09/10/looking-ahead-the-19th-party-congress/, showing the seats of China’s governing body over time)
(Screenshot from https://www.signs.com/branded-in-memory/, showing the evolution of popular brand logos)
(Screenshot from https://www.kevin-indig.com/how-to-build-a-content-marketing-flywheel-for-saas-startups/, showing how content marketing scales with a company; shameless self-promotion)
(Screenshot from http://www.r2d3.us/visual-intro-to-machine-learning-part-1/, showing the functionalities of machine learning)

The value of custom images cannot be overstated. Besides improving the quality and readability of the actual text, they make content easier to share and attract more attention. An interesting image can grab a user on social networks within seconds - I would argue even as efficient as a good headline.

Great content uses interactive elements to take the experience beyond reading

If you want something even better than custom visuals, provide an interactive experience.

(Screenshot from https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/poor-millennials/, explaining structural disadvantage. Users can move the figure by scrolling)

Great ways to foster interaction are quizzes...

(Source: http://www.pewresearch.org/quiz/news-statements-quiz/, a quiz about differentiating between opinions and facts.)
(Source: https://www.fcbarcelona.com/football/first-team/news/2017-2018/quiz-fc-barcelona-against-portuguese-teams, a quiz from and about the soccer club FC Barcelona)
(Source: https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/quiz/, a quiz in which you can find out how many of the top100 American novels you’ve read)

...calculators (of course)...

tax bill calculator
(Source: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/17/upshot/tax-calculator.html, a calculator showing you whether the tax bill released in 2018 would affect you and if, how much)

Interactive experiences are even more likely to be shared and keep the user engaged on the page if done well. Scrolling, clicking, sharing. The more engaged a user is, the more likely she is to consume the whole content, click through other articles and return to the site.

(Source: https://qz.com/work/1083411/this-calculator-makes-the-unpaid-work-women-do-visible/, a calculator that returns the value of housework. Notice the link to TaskRabbit, which provided the data)

… and interactive articles.

(Source: https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2018/04/entertainment/marvel-infinitywar-timeline/index.html, an interactive timeline of the MCU and Avengers universe)

Make sure to optimize meta-title and description and add machine-readable text to the page, especially when coding the interactive experience in Javascript. Even though you should get good engagement signals, it helps to provide context about the experience for search engines (and users).

Great content is a synthesis of the top 10 results

Google wants to provide the best result for a search. “Best” is defined by the most accurate, relevant, clear, and coherent answer given from the most authoritative source possible. That means by summarizing and synergizing the top 10 results for a query, your content should come out as best. Now, you need to make sure you have the highest authority, which is a topic for itself.

(Source: www.consumerreports.org/pillows/how-to-wash-a-pillow/, an article about washing pillows with a convincing value proposition: fresh smell)

The article mentioned above ranks for roughly 1,700 keywords and gathered 70 backlinks since the beginning of 2018.

(Source: AHREFs)

When you look at the top10, look at the design of meta-title and description and try to provide something that stands out and conveys a certain value.

Another important aspect is to cover all (or most) question in the direct answer box in your content. It increases the content’s relevance and the likelihood of ranking in one of these answer boxes.

Great content is built on empathy

Empathy is a major key to meeting user intent because you need to understand what the user is trying to achieve with her search and overshoot that expectation #userintent.

For the search “starting a business”, Google shows an ordered list featured snippet below the paid results.

As I outlined in “User Intent Mapping on Steroids” That indicates the user wants to see a step-by-step process. Google has learned that this format suits the search best and therefore, the content has to be structured in that way.

Related searches can help you understand what the user intent behind a query is. For the “starting a business” example, the related searches indicate that users are looking to start a business without money or want a simple explanation “for dummies”.

Great content is formatted in a simple and efficient way

It’s not just about the information content carries but also how easy it is to find and consume. It should be easy to consume on mobile AND desktop, use an eye-friendly font, and have headlines and image captions to segment text.

(screenshot from http://besttv.theringer.com/, a list of the 100 best TV episodes in history, including video scenes.)

Great content is written by experts when the topic demands it

Expertise has become an important factor in organic search. One way it manifested years ago is brand combination searches, e.g. “Jira Project Management”. Google gives the brand, in this case, Atlassian, a strong ranking bonus because it’s the most authoritative source of information. Author rank, manifested through rel=author, was another format of authority and it has somewhat stayed in search, just a bit more hidden.

The best person to write about business entities or legal obligations is a lawyer, of course. An outsider can only synthesize so much. An insider understands the intricacies, real-world hurdles, and practical application. Nassim Taleb would say “you need skin in the game”. That’s why, whenever you can, an expert should write the content.

Books as SERP features, as shown for the keyword “starting a business” in the screenshot below, indicate deep topics, which are usually best written about by an expert.

Learn to “read” the SERPs, as I mentioned before, to create the best content possible. Any feature that seems to need deeper expertise should be treated as such. Suitable authors have specific titles (e.g. “Dr.” or “Professor”), are listed in certain directories (e.g. university lecturers), or published in well-known journals (e.g. Pubmed). It doesn’t always have to be an academic background, but you get the message: many external signals indicate an author to be an expert in for a topic.

Great content has a clear topical focus

Google understands when an article has no focus on a topic vs. when it does. It has a clear idea of what entities are relevant for a topic (and sub-topics) and can, therefore, measure “Topical Relevance”.

When you write about cars, for example, you should also write about “horsepowers”, “windshield wipers”, “color”, “price”, and “tires”. These sub-topics come from different attributes but they’re all relevant to the topic of “cars”.

Great content is entity-optimized

Entities are things, such as places, names, or concepts. They can be clustered into topics and their relationships can be quantified. Google uses this concept for Knowledge Graph and extends with Knowledge Graph 2.0, about which I wrote in “A new Google - from search to discovery engine”.

It’s still important to mention the main keyword (and entity) in the

  • The meta-title
  • URL
  • Body content

And if impossible in the

  • Article headline
  • H1
  • Image alt-tags
  • Internal links pointing at the content

However, it’s not as important anymore as it was 5-10 ago. More important is to satisfy user intent, cover relevant entities, and make the content entertaining and informative.

(Source: https://www.nestpick.com/berlin/, landing page from Nestpick in Berlin)

Nestpick’s Berlin landing page, for example, ranks for some pretty juicy keywords and gets loads of traffic from it.

(Source: SEMrush)

The Google NL API recognizes that the landing page and site is highly relevant for the topic of real estate...

(Source: Google Natural Language API, search category for nestpick.com)

… and finds over 170 relevant entities in the (lengthy) content.

(Source: Google Natural Language API, search category for nestpick.com)

As I mentioned before, text needs to cover sub-topics, but if you want to make sure you actually cover all relevant entities you should use one of the following tools:

Great content is as long as necessary and as short as possible

Length for length’s sake is not the goal, but longer content tends to cover more sub-topics and be more coherent. Thus, longer = better when content covers more information, not when it’s filled with fluff.

(Direct answer for the search query “should you pop a blister”)

Healthline ranks #1 (November 2018) for “should you pop a blister” and answers most questions asked in the direct answer box in their content.

(Source: https://www.healthline.com/health/should-you-pop-a-blister, showing how to address questions the right way)

Google’s perception of great content changes over time

SEO is never static, it’s ever-changing. That’s also the case for content and the factors that make it great. In the early days of SEO, it was the simple number of keywords. In 2018, the role of engagement as content quality factor has grown significantly. Hard factors for us to measure engagement are CTR, long vs. short click, and dwell time. But we have to keep in mind that every piece of content comes with its own requirements of engagement and that’s where a lot of confusion occurs. A query around soccer results probably doesn’t lead to a dwell time of 10 minutes, while one about Goethe’s Faust might do.*

*Also, a query about soccer results is probably served by Google directly and doesn’t lead to any dwell time ;-).

Part of the reason is that it’s easier to look at how users react to content and interact with it than trying to understand quality by quantifying the content itself. It appears Google does both, hence we need to make sure the experience around content is excellent and that content is optimized from a mechanical level.