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The Content MVP Framework: Create and iterate to rank on any budget

an image of author Erika Varangouli accompanied by various search-related iconography

Experienced content creators and SEOs know that the gap between creating some content and creating efficient content is enormous.


After all, you’re pouring dozens of hours into planning, creating, editing, and optimizing without necessarily understanding where in the search results your content will show up.


Instead of investing all your resources before your content goes live, you can scale more quickly and get a better idea of the steps you need to take to improve content performance by adopting the Content MVP Framework. 


It’s a strategy that I’ve gradually developed to allow teams to create content that delivers results regardless of the available resources or budget.


The framework is based on two simple ideas: 


  1. Knowing when your content is ready enough to be published makes all the difference.

  2. Success with content is an iterative process.


Let’s unpack these ideas so you can put them to work for your content program.


Table of contents:




Why content is pivotal for online success (and why you’re struggling to nail it)


Before we get into the strategy, let’s recap some crucial context.



Google accounts for 82% of the search engine global market share on desktop. If you’re marketing your business online, that means you want to be visible on Google. 


This is typically achieved by creating content (at least, in 99.9% of the cases I know).


Here’s a great paradox you have to work with in this scenario:


To perform well on Google… you shouldn’t create specifically for Google. Successful content isn’t about trying to please bots or algorithms. 

This comes straight from Google. The company’s advice is to “focus on creating people-first content to be successful with Google Search, rather than search engine-first content made primarily to gain search engine rankings.”

 

For years, Google has consistently evangelized the same approach to content. From the Panda algorithm update in 2011 to the Helpful Content system in 2022 and everything in between, Google keeps urging online publishers to create content that answers people’s needs.


In practice, though, this seemingly simple advice can become really complicated: 


  • What does “helpful” mean in each case? What might be helpful to one person might be useless to another.

  • What does “people-first” involve? Does that mean I’ll get penalized if I optimize for search engines? (Before you condemn this as a daft question, I’ve been asked this in real life.)

  • What if I’m using AI to create content? Do I stand no chance of ranking?


I’m not one to sugarcoat things, so below are a couple more considerations that further complicate things.


Google’s response to chronic mediocre content and AI

For years, SEOs and content marketers have created content based on a simple formula:

  • Identify target keyword

  • Analyze the top ranking pages

  • Replicate/paraphrase the content from the top ranking pages (same format, topic, and subtopics covered)

  • Sprinkle in a few more graphs if possible


And for a few years (or for a few websites), this approach seemed to work. 


Which is why we ended up with millions of SERPs (search engine results pages), the content of which, when stripped of SERP features, would be mind-numbingly repetitive.


I think you’ll agree with me that this is not a people-first approach. 


Google seems to be onto this, too. 


In 2022, Google was granted a new patent on “information gain scoring.” Essentially, this patent demonstrates how Google can calculate and score the uniqueness of a content piece compared to the rest of the content on the same topic.


And, at the time of writing this article (March 2024), Google was in the midst of rolling out a core and a spam update in combination with handing out a number of manual penalties. 


In its own words: 


“We believe these updates will reduce the amount of low-quality content on Search and send more traffic to helpful and high-quality sites. Based on our evaluations, we expect that the combination of this update and our previous efforts will collectively reduce low-quality, unoriginal content in search results by 40%.” Google, March 2024

This comes as a response to what has transpired in the last 12 or so months: The rise of generative AI tools (like ChatGPT) has allowed unhelpful, unoriginal content to scale and spread like never before. 


Content marketing is neither easy nor cheap 

The top five challenges content marketers face (according to Semrush’s 2023 State of Content Marketing report) are


  1. Attracting quality leads via content

  2. Creating more content faster (and finding resources for it)

  3. Generating content ideas 

  4. Generating enough traffic via content

  5. Generating ROI and sales via content


A graphic that says “What are the top challenges you face in content marketing?” The top answers are: Attracting quality leads via content (45%), Creating more content faster (and finding resources for it) (38%), Generating content ideas (35%), Generating enough traffic via content (35%), and Generating ROI and sales via content (34%)
Source: Semrush.

So, here we are now, in 2024:


  • Google SERPs seem seriously repetitive and broken.

  • More AI-generated content keeps getting added to the sea of existing mediocre content out there.

  • Content marketers struggle to come up with ideas (or ideas that generate value). 


How do we deal with the situation?


Start treating content as a product


Best practices suggest auditing your published content regularly to refresh, consolidate, or prune it. 


But, what SEOs and content marketers rarely talk about is: “Is our content ready to be published? How do we know how little is too little or how much is too much to begin with?”


The consensus nowadays is that you have to have the best content possible in order to rank. But, how can you deliver this the first time, every single time?


This puzzle is what led me to approach content creation differently—by identifying its similarities to a product launch. 


To be successful, content and product both need to:


  • Target a specific audience 

  • Meet this audience’s needs

  • Involve a unique value proposition (UVP)

  • Offer a great user experience 

  • Be marketed efficiently

  • Go through iterations/revisions


This last part (going through iterations) took me back to product development 101: 


Minimum Viable Product (MVP): A simpler or stripped down version of a product that you can still market and expect to see results. 

MVPs help businesses explore new ideas without dedicating huge budgets or resources to produce the end product. They allow you to collect feedback, understand product-market fit, iterate, and much more. 


So, what if we applied this approach to content creation?


The Content MVP Framework


In simple terms, the Content MVP Framework helps you determine the minimum quality and information required in a piece of content in order to generate results post-launch/publication.

 

Similar to an MVP, the Content MVP allows you to launch a viable content product that can serve its purpose and its audience (so, it’s viable), but that might not be the end product. 


You launch it to monitor how well it will perform. Based on the insights you gain, you can focus your resources and optimizations more strategically. This approach also allows you to publish content faster (especially when your resources are limited).


“Results” here depend on your goals and your subjective measure of success. That may mean organic traffic, rankings, engagement, or something else.


Whatever it might be, the Content MVP Framework relies on two simple ideas:


  1. You don’t have to (and perhaps you shouldn’t from the outset) invest all your content budget and resources into your first content iteration.

  2. The first version of your content needs to be good enough to generate some results. Based on those results, you can plan your next iterations. 


The Content MVP Framework is about efficiency and effectiveness in content marketing. 


And while this may sound like something that’s not for you (wink: editorial teams or companies that strive for “excellence”), I challenge you to continue reading. 


Consider this: Content MVP doesn’t mean thin content. Or sloppy content. 

In fact, I developed this framework in an attempt to put an end to all the sub-par content I used to receive from writers and editors.


In the next sections I’ll explain how you can build a content MVP. You’ll discover that it has nothing to do with lower quality standards and everything to do with maximizing your resources and your results. 


How to build your content MVP


For a lot of workflows and content (especially evergreen content), there’s a general notion that once it’s published, you probably won’t have to do any major updates on it for a while.

This mindset is actually counterproductive when using the Content MVP framework because this strategy is all about process and gradual improvement.


A text graphic that says: “How to build your content MVP. 1. Choose your main topic. 2. Identify relevant subtopics. 3. Define your unique value proposition. 4. Incorporate your product/service naturally. 5. Review your content based on quality marks. 6.Set your goal and KPIs. 7. Iterate”

Here’s the exact process I follow to build my content MVP: 


  1. Choose your main topic

  2. Identify relevant subtopics 

  3. Define your unique value proposition 

  4. Incorporate your product/service naturally 

  5. Review your content based on quality marks

  6. Set your goal and KPIs

  7. Iterate


It’s important that you understand the entire scope of the process before getting started. Let’s dig in.


01. Choose your main topic 

Let’s say, for example, you’re a mattress seller and you’ve identified the query [how to clean a mattress] as relevant to your audience (Semrush shows 14,800 monthly searches for this query).


(Note: If you’ve already performed keyword research and created your content strategy, great. If you haven’t, you need to conduct keyword research first and build your keyword and content strategy around target topics. Now, back to the rest of this guide.)


This is the main target keyword for the content you want to build. 


Next, identify close variants you will target within the same piece of content. If you use an SEO tool like Semrush, you can use its keyword analysis features to gather these terms. 


For example, Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool shows [how to clean mattress] (9,900 monthly searches) and [how to clean your mattress] (1,600 monthly searches) are both close variants that you can target with the same piece of content. 


Screenshot of Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool results for the term “how to clean a mattress”.
In Semrush, select the “Related” filter in the Keyword Magic Tool to show related terms in order of relevance.

And if you don’t have access to an SEO tool, it’s still relatively easy to identify close variants manually. For each of these queries, the SERPs are quite similar (for example, the top results may be exactly the same, or upwards of 60% of the SERPs may be the same, even if the ranked pages are in a different order). 


02. Identify subtopics to cover 

Next, look for queries that are semantically relevant and/or indicate very close or complementary keyword intent to the main query. 


There are different tools that you can use to get these (both free and paid). If you don’t have a paid tool subscription, you can use generative AI (like ChatGPT or Google’s Gemini) to help you here. 


You can use a simple prompt (like “Propose 10 semantically related terms for [how to clean a mattress]”) or a slightly more complex prompt (like “I want to write an article to target the term [how to clean a mattress]. Propose 10 keywords I should also target in this article”). 


Using the examples above, ChatGPT (I’m using ChatGPT4) returned the following results:


Terms ChatGPT generated from the simple prompt

Terms ChatGPT generated from the more complex prompt

  • Mattress stain removal

  • Deodorizing a mattress

  • Deep cleaning a mattress

  • Removing odors from a mattress

  • Cleaning mattress spills

  • Mattress disinfection

  • Vacuuming a mattress

  • Freshening up a mattress

  • Mattress care and maintenance

  • Sanitizing a mattress

  • Mattress cleaning tips

  • Removing stains from mattress

  • Mattress deodorizer methods

  • DIY mattress cleaning

  • Best mattress cleaners

  • Mattress hygiene practices

  • Urine stain removal mattress

  • Dust mite removal mattress

  • Natural mattress cleaning solutions

  • Bed care and cleaning


Explore variations of these prompts as well as commonalities between Google SERPs in order to decide which ones to include in your content brief and content MVP. 


I also use AlsoAsked and a bit of good ol’ Google Search to discover relevant search terms and questions people ask around my main topic. AlsoAsked, provides two-level deep insights if you don’t have an account (on the paid subscription you can dig deeper). 


Here’s what it returned for my main topic: 


Screenshot of AlsoAsked results for the term “how to clean a mattress”.

And on Google, my search for [how to clean a mattress] returned the following filters:


Screenshot of the filters included at the top of Google SERP for the term “how to clean a mattress”.
The search filters (in this case, videos, images, forums, with and without baking soda, etc.) can clue you into formats, topics, or other elements to include in your content.

As well as the related searches below:


Screenshot of the “Related searches” feature on Google SERP for the term “how to clean a mattress”.

There are also numerous paid tools you can use at this stage, from MarketMuse and Frase to Semrush and Inlinks and so many more. 


Using a paid tool like Semrush, I obtained these semantically related keywords: 


  • Dust mites

  • Dish soap

  • Hydrogen peroxide

  • Memory foam

  • Mattress pad

  • Learning how to clean

  • Upholstery attachment

  • Spot clean

  • Stain remover

  • Dead skin


All the data above provides me with great ideas to consider while planning and creating my content. In many cases, some of these ideas warrant separate content pieces. 


At this point, sift through the data and clean it up so that you end up with only the queries and subtopics you definitely want to target within this one piece of content. 


03. Define your content’s unique value proposition

To perform well in search and make an impact on your audience, your content doesn’t just need to be high quality and helpful—it also needs to differ from the rest of the content out there. 


At this stage, you need to define the unique and additional value you’ll bring to readers with your content. 


Start by analyzing the top-ranking pages for the keyword(s) you identified earlier. Once again, you can do this using free or paid tools (or manually, but this will take longer).


If you have a paid SEO tool like Semrush, MarketMuse, Clearscope, Inlinks, etc. you can get this information directly from the platform. Each software provides these insights in a different format, but the important thing here is to be able to conduct a gap analysis of your SERP competitors.


Once you’ve gathered this information, cross-reference it with the insights you gathered in steps one and two. Search for gaps between the content covered by your SERP competitors and the relevant terms you discovered during the initial steps of your research. 


Any topics that are not covered by your competitors present great opportunities to add unique value with your content.


I’ve often found that top-ranking pages involve similar content, but:

  • Either none of them include all of the relevant subtopics (lack of breadth)

  • Or, they don’t go into the necessary detail to analyze their topic sufficiently (lack of depth)


You can address these gaps with your content. Or, you can come up with a whole new approach to the topic. 


Assess whether content in the SERPs addresses the main user intent. Then, come up with new ways to add value for readers. Some examples of this involve: 


  • Leveraging original data

  • Publishing an opinion-led piece (thought leadership)

  • Using a case study as a basis for content

  • Dispelling myths around a topic

  • Collecting insights and quotes from experts

  • Making your content way more visual than the rest of the content out there


You can also use generative AI to explore gaps in the top-ranking content. Simply define your reader (audience) and the topics/subtopics covered by the top-ranking pages, then ask it to propose new angles or ways to address the reader’s needs. 


04. Incorporate your product/service

Demonstrating how your product or service is relevant to the main topic is crucial. 


Connecting the dots between what you’re writing about and why you’re writing about it is paramount in helping readers make subconscious associations between your brand and the problems you help them solve.


The big bet at this point, though, is to do so in a natural way that doesn’t come across like you’re trying to sell them your product now-now-now. 


Do:

  • Include screenshots/GIFs of your product in the content naturally to demonstrate a solution to a problem or to show a practical aspect of it.

  • Use graphs/charts/tables leveraging original data from your product/service to strengthen an argument.

  • Share workflows and use-cases to make a complex idea digestible.

  • Add relevant CTAs (calls-to-action)


Don’t:

  • Use promotional and salesy language to talk about your product/service.

  • Include your product/service in the content if it’s not organically connected to the point you’re making.

  • Feature sales materials (promotional videos, battlecards, etc).

  • Overdo it with the CTAs / use multiple CTAs throughout the page.


Here’s an example from Wix. The article is about on-page SEO for eCommerce websites. For the sections that Wix offers a suitable solution, the author includes a breakdown of how the user can use Wix’s feature to complete the step. 


A screenshot of a Wix SEO Learning Hub article showing a screenshot of the Wix editor’s structured data field. The caption reads “Wix Stores pages come with predefined structured data, enabling site owners to get a head start with their rich results.”

05. Assess content for quality thresholds 

It sounds like the most logical thing in the world, yet the number of times I’ve seen a content piece fail at this stage is way higher than I like to admit. 


Here’s why: Editors, SEOs, email or social media managers (or anyone else getting involved with creating and approving content) often focus on grammar, spelling, or syntax. 


These things are important, but they should not be the A to Z of your editorial standards.


A content MVP is good to go if—at a minimum—it also passes the inspection for:


  • Covering the main topic and subtopic efficiently

  • Delivering on the unique value proposition

  • Balancing information and demonstrating the value of your product/service

  • Cohesion and logical flow

  • Content formatting

  • Including a table of contents for skimability

  • Including a summary and the most important information/takeaways at the top

  • Including visuals to make complex points simpler and engage readers

  • Adherence to your brand’s tone of voice and style

  • Language that is easily comprehensible by your audience


There are more criteria you can include in this stage. The main challenge is to distinguish between the content elements you need to run during pre-launch versus the “nice-to-have” elements that can wait until the first iteration. 


The former are essential in order to launch a viable content product. 


To that end, create an editorial checklist before you get to work on any new content. This checklist should include the practical checks each stakeholder has to run from creation (usually the author) to editing (the editor) to publishing (which may include an SEO strategist, a designer or a developer, etc). 


Ensure that:

  1. You define each check clearly so it's easy to understand for everyone involved.

  2. You group elements to check according to their type (editorial, SEO, etc.) for the associated stakeholder.

  3. Every check is marked complete before publishing.


06. Set your goal and KPIs

For the Content MVP Framework to succeed, it’s not enough to just set overall goals and KPIs for the whole of your content program.


You need to set a clear goal and KPIs for each content piece before launching your content MVP.


This is central to assessing whether your MVP is actually viable, how well it delivers on its potential, as well as how many (and what kind of) iterations you’ll need. This part of the process is particularly important when a piece of content is part of your wider content marketing program, as it helps you quickly spot the content outliers and address issues efficiently.


At this stage, complete the actions below:


  1. Define the goal for a given piece of content: This can be the same as your website’s overall goal (e.g., increase organic traffic) or it can be different (e.g., attract new audiences through word of mouth). I avoid setting more than one goal per piece of content as this often leads to creating content that tries to tackle multiple topics, intents, or needs—ultimately underdelivering on all fronts.

  2. Set only appropriate and necessary KPIs: Based on your goal, determine the set of KPIs you need to track. For example, if I want to increase organic traffic, I will track organic clicks, organic rankings for my main keyword(s), and potentially organic impressions and CTR. But, if I want to attract new audiences via word of mouth, I need to measure referral traffic, and potentially social shares/mentions and backlinks. The main point here is to not only choose appropriate KPIs, but to also avoid the temptation of picking too many KPIs. The fewer KPIs you set for your MVP, the clearer the picture you will get once it goes live. Skip every metric that could be considered a vanity metric. 

  3. Benchmark: Once you’ve picked your KPIs, you can create your benchmarks. The way you approach this will most likely depend on: 


  • The type of content

  • The content’s goals/KPIs

  • Whether the MVP is a new content piece or an update to an existing one

  • The popularity of the topic

  • The popularity, relevance, and authority of your domain

  • Etc. 


The dataset you use to create your benchmark is critical. Let’s say you’re creating a blog post to target a topic that gets a few hundred searches per month. It could be a mistake to benchmark based on the average traffic all your blog posts get (regardless of the popularity of their topics, their age, etc).


A different approach would be to benchmark against your average ranking position for blog content after one, two, or six months and set expectations accordingly. 


For example: “I will consider this piece successful if it ranks within the top five after one month, as this is a 20% improvement on my current performance.”


Or, if you want to set an ambitious goal around traffic, you can benchmark against the performance of your top content (e.g., using the 80/20 rule). So, you can say: “I will consider this piece successful if it generates X clicks within the first three months, as this is a 30% improvement on the average performance of the top 20% of my content.”


07. Iterate 

This is the final and most important part of the workflow because adopting the Content MVP framework means planning for iterations further down the line. 


Before publishing your content, you need to define:

  • How long you’ll wait until you review your MVP’s performance — This may vary depending on how big/authoritative your website is or the type of content you publish. From the outset, define the timeframe you’re going to monitor your MVP against set KPIs. Avoid setting a timeframe that is too narrow to allow you to extract meaningful insights or too long, which will lead to a delay in reaching high performance sooner. 


  • What the first iteration may look like — Create hypotheses to establish an initial approach for future content revisions/iterations. For example:

    • “If the piece fails to rank within the top five for [keyword], then review SERP changes, page title, subheadings, secondary keywords, and topics coverage.”

    • “If the piece fails to rank within the top five for [keyword] after [1 month] from the first iteration round, then review internal links and backlinks.”


Hypotheses help you create a plan of action and set internal expectations around what may need to happen and when. In turn, this allows you to plan your resources in advance, which is essential in small businesses or teams with limited headcount or skills. 


The one thing I waited this long to tell you: Preparation is everything


In my experience, the Content MVP Framework can prove hugely successful or disappointingly useless. What determines success or failure is how much research and work you front load—meaning what you put in place before you start creating your content. 


Although the preparatory work may differ across industries, businesses, or content types, here are the assets I put in place to ensure my content MVPs work. 


  • Keyword and topic research: This provides me with a wider view of the topics that are relevant to my audience and my business.

  • Keyword strategy: This helps me prioritize my topic list based on reach or conversion potential (or both).

  • Content strategy: This shows how each content piece is linked to the rest and to the overarching goal, which allows me to assess the types of resources I’ll need and acquire ahead of launching my content program.

  • Editorial guidelines: These form a nice basis for everyone involved to work off of. I create guidelines that go beyond the typical “we spell things this way” or “we use ‘we’ versus the brand name.” These are all essential and good to have, but I’m looking for things that really help writers and editors achieve the writing style and quality I’m aiming for. Think along the lines of: “Only one point per paragraph” or including tons of examples, like “Don’t write ‘Here are a few steps to help you accomplish [X]’, instead write ‘Here are the exact 5 steps [person, brand] used to achieve X’,” etc.

  • Templates: These help ensure a minimum quality standard for every content piece and help me speed up the process. The first template I put in place is the content brief. Depending on the content type and the goal, each content brief adopts a relevant template that includes all the necessary information. Additional templates you can create include…

    • Article templates based on article type (e.g., listicle, how-to, etc.) 

    • Landing page templates

    • Email templates

    • Social media post templates (based on type of content shared)

    • Testimonial / quote template

    • Visual assets templates

    • Reporting templates 

    • Etc.


What I’ve learned from applying the Content MVP Framework


I’ve used the Content MVP Framework for over 10 years now. It has helped me achieve great results for my clients and my employers—and often with very limited budget or resources (or both).


At Semrush, for example, it helped my team to increase the blog’s organic traffic 7x within less than a year.


Here are my top takeaways after years of successful (and unsuccessful) applications of the framework:


  • “Content MVP” does not mean thin, rehashed, or AI-generated content.

  • This framework does not mean that content is created fast or that it requires minimal effort.

  • It’s better to carry out substantial work during the research and preparatory phases, instead of waiting for the content production phase to do most of it.

  • Templatizing as much as possible helps speed up work and ensure certain standards are met every time.

  • Setting clear goals and KPIs is pivotal to launching the right content and for planning for the right iterations.

  • Explaining the framework to all stakeholders (including the leadership team) is key. You need to address all the different ideas around what “great,” “perfect,” or “ready to go,” content means and get everyone on the same page. You also need to get buy-in from management. If they’re not clear on the expectations for this content, having to iterate a few months down the line can (and will) be seen as failure or damage control in many cases.


I hope this framework helps you and your teams create content that works—faster and better than ever before.


 

Erika Varangouli

Erika Varangouli is responsible for growing Riverside.fm’s organic visibility. Before Riverside, she led organic and brand teams at Semrush. She has worked with companies like Capterra, Symantec, Travelex, Asics, HSBC etc. She is a guest speaker, webinar host, and awards judge. Twitter | Linkedin

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