You don’t have to be a subject matter expert to create great content, as long as you have an expert system in place.
I used to find writing grueling before I found the right content research process that prepared me for it properly.
Well-researched and data-powered content performs best on the web. Simply put, readers will always trust articles backed by studies, stats, and examples, more than just someone’s opinion.
In this article, I will show you how to significantly improve your research and writing in just three steps.
You will learn to:
- Scout your competitors’ top-performing pages for data-driven topic ideas.
- Use a “Skyscraper” approach to analyze and structure content, and create an improved version of current best performers.
- Research the web for the best resources fast.
Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Research Your Competitors’ Top Content for Topics
You want to begin by analyzing your competition’s top-performing pages to get an idea of which of their topics perform the best.
If some topics are performing really well, getting your competitors a lot of traffic, this information will shape your content marketing efforts.
You don’t want to waste time writing a ton of blog posts on topics nobody is searching for or wants to read.
Seeing which blog posts perform well for competing websites, you will avoid chasing stale topics, as you’ll already have proof of what works.
How to Find Your Competitors’ Top-Performing Pages
How do you get that valuable data? Well, it’s 2020. There is an app for everything.
Many tools provide insight into your competitors’ data but remember they are not 100% perfect, nor instantly precise. Luckily, that’s not what you’re looking for in the first place.
What you are looking for are content strategy guidelines, and for that, simple competition analysis comes in really handy.
Some of your competitors will be more useful to analyze than others, and that’s ok.
Those who are really bad at content marketing won’t provide actionable insights so you won’t need to spend too much time analyzing them.
Understandably, you want to learn from those who are already successful at content marketing and whose pages are getting traffic from search engines.
To do this type of analysis you have to use the right tools. There are some amazing paid tools that I would recommend, and some free alternatives that are less robust, but will help you get started.
We will focus on two of them, Ahrefs and UberSuggest.
But before I explain how these tools work, let’s cover the basics—how to find competitors to analyze in the first place.
How to Detect Your Competitors
My clients are no experts in SEO or market research, but they usually know who their competitors are.
So I will assume you also have a grasp of your competition. If you don’t, use one of the following three ways to find them.
1. Find Them Using “Your Main Keyword + Tool” Query on Google
This is quite straightforward. Just Google your main SEO keyword — use some of the keywords your potential clients might type into the search bar to find you.
Let’s say you are a time-tracking SaaS company. You should search Google for keywords like “time tracking”, “time tracking tool, “time tracking software” and similar phrases to find your best-performing competitors.
For a Project Management tool, you would Google “project management tool” or “project management software”. You get the idea. When looking for keywords relevant to your business, you will recognize many of the ranking websites as your competitors.
You want to zero in on the most relevant keywords, ones that really describe your business, to detect your direct competitors.
2. Find Them Through Blog Topics They Are Likely to Cover on Their Website
A bit more complex than the previous step, this process will broaden the scope of competitors to analyze.
First, ask yourself: “What kind of topics would my competitors cover on their blog?” Once you come up with an answer, run a Google search for those topics.
You can also add words like “tips”, “how to”, or “advice” to your search.
Keep in mind that your successful competitors will often target a specific niche on their blogs. The topics on their blog will be aimed at that particular audience.
For example, if your product is a software for construction companies, your competitors’ content will also target the construction industry.
In that case, try searching for phrases like “management tips for construction companies” or “how to hire people for your construction company”.
This will land you on other people’s blog posts, and some of the websites you discover will be your direct competitors. While some might not be, they might still cover the same niche tips on their blogs.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to such websites.
- Advantage – as they target a similar audience, they might provide you with fresh topics you wouldn’t otherwise think of
- Disadvantage – because they are not in the same line of work, their topics will usually be less relevant
Nevertheless, browsing for niche topics is beneficial and eye-opening. You should always tailor your blog content to your targeted audience, not your product.
3. Browse Capterra & G2
If you are a software company, head over to software directory websites such as Capterra or G2 to find other companies in your industry.
Even if you are not listed in those directories, find the category you’d belong to if you were.
Doing so will generate a great list of your competitors. Some of them will have links to their websites, while some will be unknown to you. Run a Google search to make sure the unfamiliar companies are indeed your direct competitors.
Browsing directories is an effortless way of discovering other companies within your niche. A word of advice, though: avoid fixating on a single category, check other relevant ones as well.
Some companies will be listed in multiple categories—many tools these days have multiple features and uses, allowing them to be listed in multiple categories.
Now that you have found your competitors, you know whose top-performing pages to analyze, and we can return to analysis tools. Let’s start with Ahrefs.
Tools for Top Pages Analysis
My go-to tool for analyzing top pages is Ahrefs.
I have been impressed with Ahrefs since I first started using it. I had used Moz, SEMrush, and many others before, but Ahrefs has become my absolute favorite.
I use it for much more than checking top-performing pages. The tool offers rank tracking features, backlink analysis, a content explorer, and more.
But in this case, let’s focus on my favorite feature—top pages.
Top Pages Feature
The data this feature provides is simply priceless. With the top pages feature, you will be able to see which of your competitors’ content performs best on search engines.
Ahrefs extrapolates the data by scraping search engines, analyzing their rankings for popular keywords, and then estimating their traffic based on ranking positions.
It’s not perfect, but it’s the next best thing to having access to your competitor‘s Google Analytics or Google Search Console.
This feature provides additional useful data. For example, you will see how many websites are linking back to the top-performing pages of your competitors. This data is found in the “RD” column, which stands for Referring Domains.
Why is this data important? The more referring domains a page has, the better its chances to rank on search engines. Alternatively, you might find that the top-performing page and topic are too competitive to rank for.
If you are just starting out and your website does not have domain authority yet, be picky about analyzing your competitors’ top pages — look for pages and topics that don’t have too many RDs.
How I Use the Top Pages Feature + a Few Tips
Here is what I do when looking at the top pages in Ahrefs. I put in the competitor’s URL in the site explorer. After that, I click on the Top Pages feature.
I start my analysis at the top, where the most popular pages from a competitor will be.
Not all pages on the list will be blog posts—some will be landing pages or other parts of their website. Look at URL patterns to detect blog posts.
Blog posts usually have longer URLs and target informational keywords. Look at the example below:
Also, some websites will have their blog in a subdomain that looks like this: blog.website.com. Others put it in a subfolder: website.com/blog/
You will have to click on some of those pages to see if they are really blog posts.
But usually, after checking a few of them, you will be able to differentiate between product or feature pages and genuine blog posts.
You don’t have to go through the whole list, either. I tend to focus on the top 50 or top 100 pages if it’s a strong website. In most cases, pages beyond that number are not performing well enough anyway.
You only want a “tried and tested topic” that sends traffic to your competitor.
Now you have used Ahrefs to find your competitors’ most popular blog posts, the next step is to cover those topics on your blog, but better.
Ahrefs is a paid tool, and an expensive one, but it’s more than worth it. It’s the best SEO & content marketing tool out there and if you are serious about your SEO and content marketing efforts, you should get it as soon as you can.
But in case you can’t afford Ahrefs just yet, there is a free alternative you can use instead.
Ubersuggest is a free alternative to Ahrefs that offers many of the same features. I don’t think it’s as great as Ahrefs, but it can help you get started at zero cost.
The story of Ubersuggest is really interesting as well. They used to be a simple tool that aggregated all the autocomplete search suggestions on a certain keyword that Google would return when you used their search engine.
You can see Google’s autocomplete feature in the image below.
The famous marketer Neil Patel later acquired this tool and decided to upgrade it. What he created was an Ubersuggest on steroids.
His goal is to attract users, so he provides free tools with the same features other tools would make you pay for.
Neil is constantly upgrading and improving his tool.
Even though Ubersuggest is not as advanced as Ahrefs yet, it’s a great free tool with the potential to surpass the paid tools someday.
Step 2: Skyscraper Others’ Content Structure
In content terms, “skyscraping” something means creating a better version of it, analogous to building a taller skyscraper.
In this step, you will research the structure of existing content to create the perfect outline for your article. You want to structure your headings and subheadings before delving into writing.
Why is it important to outline the article before creating it?
A better outline is the foundation for creating superior content.
Your content needs to be structured or you might wander off topic, and there is nothing more detrimental to the flow of your article than rambling beside the point.
So here, you will leverage and analyze other content, search for weaknesses, and ways to improve—so you end up with a better-structured article than your competitors.
With the access to your competitors’ top-performing pages, you know where to look—check the content from your competitors’ top pages.
Keep in mind that you are only looking for a starting point. Your goal is not to copy from your competitors, as this would only result in duplicate, low-value content.
With this attitude, you will give both readers and search engines exactly what they want—better, unique content!
Sometimes, being only 5-10% better than the top ranking content is enough to get you better results.
Simply because if your content is even 5% better, that still makes it THE BEST. Google will always try to rank the best content on the topic.
This happened with an article on my travel blog, where I wrote about the best beaches in my city.
Case Study for Content Skyscraper Approach
What made my blog the best? Well, everyone else was using the same information to write about the topic. I added 5-10% more facts than the others, which immediately made my content the best source on the topic.
Google had no choice but to rank it on the top. The only website that ranks better for certain keywords is TripAdvisor. For other keywords, though, I’ve beaten even Tripadvisor!
Of course, my content is unique. Still, there is a limited amount of what you can say about these beaches—and it’s always the same. I can’t write inaccuracies, so I have to provide the same information as the others.
But, I used my own style to cover it, created unique content, and added 5-10% more value.
It was enough to improve my rank on search engines. This may not always be the case. In more competitive industries you will have to put in more effort, but it’s a good process to follow.
Now, back to remodeling the content structure. Here’s the step-by-step process.
Review the Content of Your Competitor
If one of the blog pages you found through the Top Pages feature is ranking well and getting traffic, there is a good chance its article structure is solid as well.
Make sure to check if you can leverage that content to create an outline for your post.
Though amazingly effective, this process doesn’t always work. Sometimes, the content ranks because it’s on a strong domain with many direct backlinks, and it was promoted well. The article doesn’t necessarily have a good structure. So keep in that mind.
If you don’t like what you see, ignore it and move on to the next step.
Run a Google Search for the Target Keyword
Find the top 10 or 20 best ranking blog posts, and analyze their structure.
Remember, in this step you are only analyzing blog post structure, not the overall writing quality.
Some people might prefer the review or comparison types of articles, while others favor how-to’s and lists.
Use your judgment to decide which of the ranking articles seem best, and which post formats fit the topic or your writing style.
Once you have found your one “role model” structure, it’s time to revamp it.
A – Find Weaknesses and Things to Remove From the Article Structure
The easiest way to analyze the existing content structure is to check the headings and look for shortcomings. Anything that doesn’t provide value or educate the reader must go. If some information is excessive, off-topic, or poorly covered, just cut it from your outline.
After all, you don’t want to use the same structure as your source. You want to improve upon it. This includes trimming the article of low-value data.
It’s smart to have a process and a framework to help you get started. Still, frameworks are not templates, and you are not doing all this research to imitate others, but to learn what is performing well, and improve upon it.
Scratch roughly 40% of the information. If you think some of the headings might work, with some editing or a different angle, add a note to keep them, but rephrase later.
B – Improve the Rest and Add Additional Sections
In the previous step, you trimmed the structure.
Now your article is shorter and therefore less valuable than the competing content, so you need to compensate for that trimming by brainstorming things to add to the article.
For example, consider whether your role model covered the following:
- Pros & Cons
- Reasons why this topic is important
Overall, you are looking for potentially important information they may have missed.
This is just a brainstorming step. You are not doing research yet, just giving yourself some time to come up with ideas for improvement.
I usually have my own ideas to add to the article. But if nothing comes to mind, don’t worry: just research the topic further to unleash your creativity!
C – Search for Additional Articles on Your Topic
You focused on a single “role model” blog for skyscraping.
Next, you will analyze the ranking of other articles for your main keyword.
This is a rapid research process, where you are skimming several articles on the same topic, to figure out what to add to yours.
The goal is to find ideas. Just by looking at headings, subheadings, the points others covered, and even the images and screenshots they included, you will find things to cover in your article.
There is no limit to how many articles you should analyze. Just try not to get sucked into a rabbit hole. In other words, don’t spend the entire day researching and piling up ideas without committing to anything.
You only want to include extremely relevant information, and avoid wandering off in various directions, otherwise, your content will have no substance. Articles have to stay on point to have a good flow.
Also, try to do the research in batches. Open up 5-10 competing articles on the topic, analyze their structure, write down some ideas you could use, then move on to the next batch if you are not satisfied with the results.
Having 50 tabs opened will overwhelm you, and potentially crash your browser 🙂
Just jot down the best ideas for headings in your document, and don’t overthink this step. You will do the final review of your structure in the next one.
D – Do the Final Review of Your Structure
In this final step of outlining your article, quickly review the structure you’ve made and edit it if necessary.
Decide which ideas from the previous step you really want to keep and which ones can go.
So just analyze the information you’ve got and trim the less relevant headings.
Spend some time reorganizing your outline. You can even promote some ideas to top-level headings, and downgrade those not substantial enough to elaborate.
There you have it! Now you have a great final outline for your future article. You have used data-driven research, expanded, and trimmed your outline, and now you can move on to the next task.
Step 3: Research for Sources for Each Section
With an outline in place, it’s time to find information sources for each section.
The more structured you are in your process, the better research you can do. Great research is about more than just investing a lot of time. In fact, putting in too much time can lead to information overload.
In this stage, we simply use Google to find sources of information for each section. Here’s how.
1. Boil It Down to a Keyword
Before you start Googling away, you need to know what to type in the search bar.
There is no need for advanced search operators here, just use this simple and reliable trick: boil down your headings to “searchable” keywords of 2-4 words.
For example, if your outline contains the heading“ The Benefits of Using Time Tracking Software for Your Business” just search “time tracking software benefits” or even just “time tracking benefits”.
Doing this will return the most relevant resources for that blog post section, as you will have filtered out the “noise” and removed the unnecessary information that might skew your search results.
Have you noticed that we used the trimming process again in this step? It is very common for the research process to entail both expanding and trimming stages.
2. Use Those Keywords
Great, you now have keywords to find information sources for your article.
Some writers start their writing in this step. And that’s ok, they might be experienced enough to need less discipline or subject matter experts.
The rest of us who are not naturally gifted writers need systems. Luckily, systems like this one can enable every single one of us to produce great content. You don’t have to be an expert, just run a Google search for these keywords one section at the time to find the best sources.
Again, open the top 10-20 articles ranking for this keyword and skim them. Don’t delve into every single article, because you will spend days reading the content without writing anything.
You are still in the research phase. Once you get to the writing phase, you will go back to these sources and examine them more closely.
You can read a few sentences to see if the article is relevant, but at this stage, speed is of the essence.
It’s important to know where you are in the process, as this keeps you accountable and focused on the goal for that particular stage, preventing you from rushing to other stages.
Here you need to be able to quickly determine whether the source is relevant. Don’t worry if you’re slow at first. With a couple of articles under your belt, you will start to recognize credible sources for your niche, and your process will speed up significantly.
The articles you find useful for a specific section in your article should go into your outline. Just paste the URL of the resource into your document, right under the relevant heading.
Here’s an example from one of the briefs our writers get:
As a general rule, try to include only one great information source per heading to avoid getting overwhelmed. If you can’t find one great source and have to use multiple ones, limit yourself to a maximum of 3 per section. This way, you won’t get bogged down reading.
Trust me, there is no point in spending 8 hours researching a section that will be 100 words long.
Why is it important to look for separate information sources for each section or subchapter?
If you use only 1-2 sources of information for your whole article, you will only end up with rehashed, rewritten content, which will make you seem like a copycat.
You may not want a hundred sources for a single section, but you do want each section to provide fresh information. Thus, do your best to find a unique source for each section.
Of course, the goal of the research is to push you in the right direction in terms of topics, structure, or what to include in your article.
However, try to always put your own spin on the story with original ideas and tips. Even when you are writing about a topic that has been covered a thousand times, try to approach it from your own angle, with a unique perspective or writing style. This adds more value to your article.
3. Update Your Structure
There is one last step you should be doing during research—update your article structure when necessary.
As you search for information sources, you might discover a new idea, a better angle, or additional elements to include.
When that happens, you have to be open to adjusting your finalized structure.
Of course, you should keep this to a minimum, and avoid restructuring your entire outline in a way that negates all your previous efforts. That said, don’t limit yourself.
Just because your outline is finished, it doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. You can edit it, but do it only if you are 100% sure those new edits in the structure will improve your article.
A Few Final Productivity Tips
Use these steps if you need to escape writer’s block, or if you don’t know where to start.
- Do the research ahead, about 1-2 days before you start writing. That way, you will have an outline as a starting point with all the information you need for writing.
- Limit the time you spend on each step to avoid “analysis-paralysis”. Try to cover each phase as thoroughly as you can in the shortest feasible amount of time.
- There is no need to include every single piece of information about the topic in one article. Your blog post will end up lacking focus, and you’ll run out of things to write about in the next one.
- Approach each topic with dedication. Let the sources light a creative spark and get you to start writing.
- Don’t just write. Use this system to benchmark what others are doing and to improve upon that!
With these three steps, your content marketing will be data-driven and deliberate.
You’ve learned how to choose top-performing topics, use multi-tiered research to get specific deliverables in each stage. You have also mastered making an article outline.
Writing is not about reinventing the wheel. You are allowed to draw inspiration from other sources for your article outline, as long as you avoid producing rehashed content that doesn’t perform.
You have also learned how to properly search for sources—something everyone does, yet few are organized in their approach. Rearrange the steps to find the process that works for you, if you want, but be sure to break it down to smaller, purposeful steps.
I use this system to continuously create the best content out there, one that ranks high and gets readers.
Overall, your goal should be to go the extra mile to provide value to your readers as much as the bots. Do this consistently, and your content will always be great, well-researched and—in most cases—the best content on the topic!