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Your “How-To” Post Will Fail If You Don’t Use These Techniques

This guest post is by Neil Patel of KISSmetrics.

Gone are the days when you could write a simple “how-to” blog post and rank in the top search results. Why is that? Two very good reasons.

First, all of the general and highly-competitive posts like “how-to blog” or “how-to find a roommate” are already written.

The other reason is Google Panda. Remember Google’s update this past year that took down a lot of the content farms? That algorithm was designed to penalize short and shallow articles and reward high-quality content.

Now, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.

The bad news: If you want to write a “how-to” guide that stands out, then you have to work. The good news: Not very many bloggers are willing to put in the hours and effort. And fortunately I’m going to give you the secrets to creating these posts so you won’t have to work nearly as hard.

Start with detailed research

Great how-to blog posts have great content. But it’s never easy coming up with that content, which means you need to do a little research. Here’s a two-step process you can use to come up with ideas:

  1. Visit your competitors’ blogs and see which posts generated a lot of comments and/or got shared a lot on the social web. You can put a list of headlines into a spreadsheet along with the number of retweets and Facebook “like” on each post.
  2. Browse the trending topics on Tweetmeme, Google Trends, and Google News for the last week. Once you discover what people are after, start to think of topics that are related to the trending ones.

But don’t stop there. When you’ve got your idea nailed, read about a dozen articles and posts connected to your idea.

Make notes as you read and bookmark them. Follow rabbit trails. You may not need all this information right away, but this kind of research will prepare you for what’s going to come next.

Show the visual data, always

When it comes to creating blog posts in this very competitive blog world what you are really trying to do is kill the really boring blog post.

The old way of writing a how-to you could get away with just describing the steps. Here’s how it was popular to do it on eHow:

Pretty lame, right? No wonder video tutorials and picture slides have taken over their content.
See, today you need to show the data. That’s means you need to share charts, graphs, reports, blow-outs of details. This is one of the reasons that infographics are so compelling. You have complex data simplified in a picture.

For example, here’s a visual data explaining how Page Rank works:

And with the blogging tools available today, you don’t have to be a designer to provide good visual data.

However, I do have to warn you. To quote Edward Tufte in his The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, “When you go about Data graphics should draw the viewer’s attention to the sense and substance of the data, not to something else.”

In other words, your visual data must be relevant.

Back up all your claims with examples

One of the easiest ways to separate your how-to blog posts from others is simply to provide examples of the claims you are making…namely links to other content.

This does several things.

For one, you are showing your readers that you took the time to find these examples. It also shows that you understand the unwritten blogging rule about linking to other people and keeping the conversation alive.

Besides, web readers scan the text of a blog post for three things: sub headlines, images and links. If there are no links, you are missing out on opportunities to capture reader interest.

Design your how-to post for the power scanners

How-to blog posts by their nature are scannable because you are giving your readers steps to follow. But not everyone thinks that way or even designs it with that in mind.

You have all this great research and the worst thing you could do is dump it on the page so it looks like this:

The lines are too long because the margin is too wide and the paragraphs are too thick. While this blogger has links, he’s missing sub headlines.

What do you think … is it easy to scan? I don’t think it is. Blogs posts should allow skimmers to read the headline, scan the sub headlines and understand what the post is about in less than 30 seconds.

Use killer images to slow down RSS readers

You have no excuse these days to not put images into your blog posts. Word Press and other blogging platforms make it drop-dead easy.

Why are images important? Because that’s what people on the web prefer. Whether it is an image to open the post or a series of images throughout the post, images are much attractive to readers.

In fact, this summer Cyrus Shepherd ran an experiment where he published an article with images and an article without and then shared the results on SEOmoz. When it came to link-backs and social sharing momentum, the article with images buried the other one. There was no competition.

Another reason images are important is that for your readers who use a RSS reader to consume content, an image is more likely to get them to slow down as they scroll through their feeds. I discovered this trick about four years ago when Robert Scoble told Tim Ferriss how he read 622 RSS feeds each morning.

Finally, putting images into your blog posts brands your personality. Do you remember Dosh Dosh? His sight is no longer up, but one of the most compelling and interesting things about his blogs were his anime images.

Here’s one more example: the This Isn’t Happiness Tumblr blogger has branded his or herself on images alone.

Create a compelling introduction using the PAS formula

You might think that when it comes to writing “how-to” guides that you can just jump straight into the steps. Don’t kid yourself.

Even if you have the clearest and most compelling headline and all the greatest data in the world, you need to prepare your reader for what’s going to come next.

But just writing a short introduction isn’t enough. You have to write a compelling one. Use the PAS formula to do that.

  • Pain: describe a real problem that your readers can identify with.
  • Agitate: make that pain seem even worse by bringing up more bad news.
  • Solve: tell your reader there is a solution…the blog post they are about to read.

Now did you notice that’s what I did in this introduction? Did you think it was compelling?

Craft an irresistible headline using these four elements

I saved this one for the last because it’s the most important. A headline will make or break your blog post. And you should put in as much time on the headline itself as you do the article.

Headlines are what going to attract readers. And like I mentioned in the introduction, a basic headline isn’t going to do it.

  • Specific: for example, let’s say you are a designer and you want to write a how-to on making a design illustration out of mixed media that is organic. This is specific: How-to Create an Organic Mixed Media Illustration. You could get more specific by including “in 11 Short Steps” or “in Five Minutes.”
  • Keyword-rich: usually when you are that specific, your keywords automatically come out and that’s what you want because all the general and competitive headlines like ““how-to” Design an Illustration” are taken. You are writing for the long-tail search.
  • Special: a successful how-to headline these days stands out because it is original. For example, the Inc. magazine article Overworked? 4 Signs You Need to Recharge is about a pretty common topic. But it doesn’t feel that way because it’s combined terms in unusual and unique ways to create a fresh headline. It feels special.
  • Sensitive to time: great headlines also suggest a sense of urgency to the reader. The BPA Lurking in Your Thanksgiving Dinner was time-sensitive when it was published, because that holiday is coming up for Americans. Obviously your how-to needs to provide a practical solution for your readers’ problems.

Conclusion

There are still plenty of opportunities to write “how-to” blog posts that rank in the top page. You just have to be willing to work hard to write them.

What tips can you share on making today’s “how-to” blog posts compelling?

Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics and blogs at Quick Sprout.

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Comments

  1. Jym says:

    ‘Power Scanners’! Now that I love…

    I still think the ‘good old how to…’ can rank and be well received – as long as it’s based on solid stuff.

    That said, it’s the ‘killer pillars’ which really old a blog up.

    That and a good dose of pain and longing for whatever the blog has to offer of course :)

  2. I’ll always share a post if I know I’ll need it in the future, especially if the post includes links to a list of credible sources. Rather than bookmarking all the sources individually, I’ll bookmark the post instead and read each one at a later date. As well as providing more return traffic for the blogger, it also increases my awareness of their blog, leads me to look at other pages on their site and I might also follow them on Twitter if I like the links they have shared.
    Therefore my tip would be to lead your readers to other important sources – not only is it good for your readers but it’s great for your credibility, too.

  3. Justin Mazza says:

    Hi Neil,
    Your post is so spot on. I don’t get much out of posts that give you “The top 5 ways” to do something. That’s just a “data dump” without any real substance behind it. Bloggers are writers too, and the more they put into their posts the more they will get out of it. Especially when it comes to getting post shared on social sites.

    I like the idea of using graphs in my post but I don’t have the first clue as to how to make and use graphs.

  4. victorDairo says:

    wow wow!! this is an almost Epic post, or am I missing something? Information packed though. Thanks for the just-in-time advice neil. You blew it on this one.

  5. The points shared in this post are just right on point. However, I think it’s also important to get straight to the point instead of beating around the bush. Viewers of your blog are interested in reading the how-to; not any other unnecessary details like how your dog barked as you write the post. This will also help in reducing the length of the post.

    Thank you

    • Simon Oliver says:

      I agree with Oluwatobi: if the piece isn’t clear and concise and gets to the point quickly then it ain’t worth writing. You may laugh at the old e-how suggestions but there’s a lot of common sense in there.

  6. this is a wonderful post Neil. And you are so right when you say about the ‘research’.
    no matter how long the post, if you have made research, it will be appreciated by people.

  7. Bryan says:

    Great post, Neil. Since a lot of my posts are how-tos, this is a very timely article for me. Your PAS formula really crystallized how I can improve my introductions. It also makes me feel better that all the time I put into my posts is worthwhile. Thanks!

  8. E.Montoya says:

    Thanks for this great post! I have written several posts that I thought were helpful, and the an extent, they were. Yet, they seemed to miss something. This post may be the answer to my question.

    Thanks!
    E.M.

  9. Brett says:

    I love it! I’ve been working on a “How to do a proper Push-up” post and I think video with the text is going to be the way to go.

  10. Great post here. I use a lot of these tips here n my “How To’s”. But found a couple gems I’m definitely gonna implement in my next one.

    Bigups to this post brotha.

    • Drewry says:

      hey Joey,

      how many articles do you have published, and are you heavily into article marketing? :-)

      • Joey says:

        I have tons published on both my blogs. I’m not to much into article marketing. I write mostly for my list, subscribers, and audience.

        Sorry it took a while to answer this.

  11. Jo Harrison says:

    Really informative post, just need to find some time to write some compelling posts now… Difficult when you’re just starting out to earn a living and write great content.

  12. This is great stuff. I just launched my website and have written my first how to post. I am glad I have done most of what was said, but to have it in writing really helps make it stick and it will also help with avoiding mistakes in the future. Thanks, Neil.

    • Drewry says:

      Mohammad,

      glad to hear that you finally launched a website and you have written your first post. If you need some helpful tips on how to effectively promote your website and website content to the online masses free of charge, please let me know how I may be of service in helping you succeed :-)

  13. Drewry says:

    in the past and even sometimes today, I may potentially write posts which are deemed boring by people. Something that I learned recently was to include more images and posts and blogs, so people can relate not only to the content that is published, but they can clearly see where I am coming from, on an intellectual note, by producing images, as well as charts and graphs within published posts. Thank you for bringing this topic to the light, as I will strive more intellectually in delivering more meaningful content, along with more images :-)

  14. Josh Sarz says:

    I love your take on the importance of images. We’ve read a lot before about how NOT to put images on your blog posts because it’s not SEO friendly, and that it takes up space. But the truth is, a vast majority of people are leaving out images and creating full-text blog posts, myself included.

    I admit, I myself find full-text blog posts boring nowadays. I think it’s time we crank up the pictures. I’m interested in exploring infographics as well.

    Thanks for the good read today.

  15. Great informative post again Neil you always go the extra mile. I like to structure a scan read post because I read the same way. In the fast paced age we live in you need to consume quickly and efficiently.

    Good stuff mate

  16. This is a great post!! Thanks for showing me how to make my “How To” blog post work especially by Showing the visual data, always…

  17. EF Cussins says:

    Thank you. I know I am still learning a working at getting my blogs to where they will pay. The Shopping Nazi is going better this year as opposed to last year. The quality of the content is getting better, by learning the principles to write better.

  18. mlac57 says:

    Thank you Neil. Your article has left me with a lot to think about in regards to how I go about writing my blog posts. I may start implementing the PAS model in the near future.

  19. Philos Mudis says:

    Great stuff here Neil. Liked the part on images. Will consider how to start adding images to my blog. May be by using Photobucket and hotlinking to the images or may be using the Dropbox plugin.

    Got some tips on this?

  20. Verne says:

    thank you for the information. might start experimenting with this.

  21. Add copyright to all your charts and images as too many content liefs are these days.

    • Drewry says:

      VI,

      this is very true about content thirves out there in the online universe. I am a victim of having some of my articles republished by some websites and not getting a link back to me, nor any credit attributed towards me for writing the article. I understand where you are coming from :-)

  22. Caleb says:

    Slowing down a skimmers pace is yet another benefit of using pictures which I hadn’t thought of but it makes sense especially if those images are thought-provoking enough.

    Great how-to post on how to do “how to” posts!

  23. Brad Dalton says:

    I’ve written over 300 How to articles and agree with most points here except the one about researching competitors

    This is totally against the spirit of qaulity blogging

    A blog is about your own authentic personal experience. Not about creating content based on research of your competitors

    If you haven’t completed the task in the ‘How To’ personally, don’t write about and portray that you have because that’s NOT authentic.

    Prove you have by showing screen shots and include a video showing the complete process

  24. Caleb says:

    Hey Neil, I just featured you along with a snippet of this article as a part of a curated post I recently published…thought you and your fans might want to check it out ;)

    Keep the content flowing man!

  25. Liz says:

    It’s the PAS or pain, agitate and solve method that you describe has worked for me. It’s really making your reader feel their pain and then describing how to eliminate it that works the best.

    For this strategy it helps a lot to know your reader or customer and know what exactly it is they’re feeling or what it is that strikes a chord with them. Many internet marketers are surprised to find out that they really don’t know their readers as well as they think.

  26. purarek says:

    I agree with you about adding image. I have make it well in one of my blog. Image seems to be very useful to attract more visitor coming but I have a problem with this. My blog load a bit slowly…

  27. viqifrench says:

    Lots of fresh ideas here, and your title for this piece drew us right in.

    Likewise, your last section re: “creating irresistible titles” is the part I valued the most. You say to devote as much time to creating a title as you do writing the article itself. Scaaaary thought, given that every fiber of my being urges me to speed up my laborious article-writing process!

    Still, your title-writing tips are helpful. I promise to spend more time trying to nail these suckers. :D

  28. Janjan says:

    Yes, “How To Blogs” have always been effective. But Because everybody is using it and all the words have already been blogged by former users, its hard to see the new “How to blogs” increase in search engine pages, because of the presence of the older posts. The tips here are very accurate and could be use to make successful “How to blogs”. Thanks for sharing.
    Nice Post

  29. rakesh kumar says:

    I have read a lots of how to and even written some for my readers but now i think i have to rework with all these how to. so that i can get some new readers for these beautifully written how to.