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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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?