Author: Ashwin Balakrishnan
If you ask 100 content and search marketers for the top three elements of a successful website, chances are “better content” shows up in most answers. Google even released a search algorithm update in 2022 called the helpful content update.
For many marketers, the quest for better content is a dead-end thanks to vague definitions of what that content looks like. What we can agree on is that it takes balance to create content that has value and ranks. Address the problems your (potential) customers face, but also make it easy for search engines to understand what it’s about.
Since every industry and business has its nuances, we’ll focus on the shared traits that make content better—and a few universal truths about the way they’re presented for search engines.
Table of contents
What does “better” content mean anyway?
It’s tough to define “better content” because there’s always some variance. One business might get better results with short-form videos, while another benefits from deeply researched white papers that run thousands of words.
Instead of looking for a best practice, go where your audience is by building your content around the three purposes Ann Handley outlines in Everybody Writes: utility, inspiration, and empathy.
- Utility means it helps an audience. Readers will read what we write only if something is in it for them - Inspired means it’s inspired by data or creatively inspired. Or both. - Empathy means we understand the reader’s point of view. Also: We make it easy to understand. We don’t make the reader work too hard. We take as long as we need to tell the story well. (The length of the content is dictated by the kind of content we’re creating.) —Ann Handley, Everybody Writes, 2nd Edition
Boiling this down to even simpler terms, this means that you need to create content that’s helpful, unique, and connects to your audience. Let’s get more granular with each of these aspects of successful content so that you can use them to enhance your strategy.
How to create content that’s helpful
If utility is the easiest purpose to achieve, that’s because it’s the most superficial. It often is as simple as finding out what problems your customers want to solve and then producing content that shows them how.
Truly helpful content has several second-order characteristics, including specificity, authority, and actionability.
Specificity: When deciding what topics to address, being as detailed as possible will take you further. Trying to rank for best social media strategies might serve the purpose, but it isn’t as powerful as something that targets how to grow followers on Twitter. After all, long tail keywords account for the bulk of intent.
Authority: Content is more likely to rank higher and carry weight with audiences when you involve subject matter experts. Your audience may perceive opinions from outside your business as objective, thus validating your ideas. As a bonus, subject matter experts often have sizeable audiences, which can help with reach beyond search if they also promote your content.
Actionability: Content that sheds light on a problem often passes as acceptable. To rank highly and win hearts, aim to tell (or better yet, show) people how to solve it. It could be a detailed step-by-step video or a list of experiments to try. Either approach is better and more positive than just talking about what’s wrong.
How to create content that’s unique
Once you know what elements to incorporate to make your content helpful, it’s time to layer in something that helps it stand out. In most situations, you’re far from the only one trying to rank for a topic. Your audience doesn’t want to read or watch the same thing a dozen times, so what are you saying or offering that everyone else isn’t?
Unique content comes in many forms—research, perspective, and visualization among them.
Research: Original research is often the easiest way to make your content unique, but it’s not always simple. Research is expensive and time-consuming, but numbers are hard evidence of an idea; they carry more weight than any unsubstantiated claims. Allowing the data to speak lets you focus on interpreting what it means—a far more valuable pursuit for your business.
Perspective: Known as “the angle” in journalism circles, a unique perspective on a topic is often all you need to stand out for the right reasons. Having an angle also allows you to boost specificity, making the content more relevant for your target audience. If you want to go deeper on how to take care of a monstera, for example, one angle might be how to take care of a monstera in cold climates.
Visualization: Walls of text are eyesores and hinder user experience. People are visual creatures, and we respond better when ideas are presented as images. Data, graphics, and diagrams explain concepts faster and more effectively. If you plan to rank using the written word, invest similarly in the creativity and quality visuals to accompany them.
How to create content that connects
Just because your content is helpful and unique doesn’t mean it’ll resonate with audiences. Add a layer of empathy to your content to make a good impression on visitors—one that gives them reason to choose your brand over others. This is arguably the most difficult part, and while it begins with deeply understanding your audience, too many marketers stop at the surface.
Once you’ve dived into the psychology of what your audience fear and crave, you can use that knowledge to make your content more relatable.
Fear: I’ve had the opportunity to work with some brilliant strategic planners in my career, and every one of them has used fear to help craft brilliant communication. Headlines and titles are a great way to make that first connection by speaking to people’s problems, worries, and fears. The key is to do it subliminally and with a positive spin, speaking about solutions with the problems in the subtext.
Motivation: Nearly all decisions are emotionally charged, so appealing solely to your audience’s logical side leaves room for others to create that emotional connection. People buy things because they want to escape a situation (push) or feel something (pull). If you want them to take notice of your content, give them a reason to believe that you can provide what they seek.
Connection: There’s a difference between content that speaks at you and content that speaks to you. A conversational tone is good, but there’s more to framing your message in a way that makes people feel understood. Use their terminology, don’t be preachy or disparage their current situation, and carry yourself with the air of someone who wants to make things better.
Curating a world-class content experience
People don’t go to movie theaters just to watch a movie; they go for the reclining seats, the decadent snack bar, the immersive sound, the big screen. The method of consumption is as important as the product itself, which is why your content experience is make-or-break. It’s here that you make things both enjoyable for people and suitable for search.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to do.
Format: Content has different goals, including education, promotion, and conversion. The format you produce should match what your content seeks to achieve. Teaching someone how to fix a problem? A highly structured blog lends itself to instruction, especially if paired with a how-to video.
Length: People are busy, so if you want them to actually consume and share what you create, it has to be digestible. Don’t record a 45-minute video to explain something that takes 10 minutes—we’ve all seen these, and we all hate them. Lead with value, get to the point quickly, and use only as much time and space as you need.
UI: The way your content is displayed greatly impacts how it’s perceived. Third-party platforms like YouTube offer a consistent, uniform experience. But, if you’re hosting content on your website, make sure your layouts are readable, load quickly, and respond well on both web and mobile.
UX: After visual appeal comes the enjoyability and ease of the experience itself. If you’re publishing on your own website, monitor core web vitals—loading time, interactivity, and visual stability. You should also pay attention to navigation, readability, and ease of access among other things.
Discoverability: If people can’t find your content, then it likely doesn’t serve the audience or your brand. Ensuring that your content is easily discoverable by search engines means you’re helping them help your potential customers find answers. Achieve this with well-written titles, descriptions, and schema markups. Keep an eye on crawling and indexing after publishing, and build backlinks to grow authority.
Accessibility: Among your audience, there will be people who cannot enjoy your content the same way you create it. Build accessibility into your content by subtitling your videos, adding alt text to images, avoiding stylized fonts and excessive emojis, and writing in simple language.
Examples of better content in the wild
Content comes in many shapes and sizes, so we picked five common ones. Here are examples of high-quality content for those formats and why they work.
Blog post: Podia
What it got right
Helpful: Relevant advice from those who’ve achieved success
Unique: Includes inputs from experts in Podia’s network
Empathetic: Anchor links let you skip to what interests you
Podia does all types of content exceptionally well (one of the hallmarks of a go-to-market strategy without a traditional sales component). Its blog is particularly good: Each article is easy to navigate, clearly explains the value and topics being discussed, and makes great use of Podia’s network of expert creators. You’d be hard pressed to find this level of content on any of Podia’s competitors’ sites.
Product page: Notion
What it got right
Helpful: Shows how to use the product—not just what it does
Unique: Generous images of the Notion interface put everything into context
Empathetic: Speaks to the challenges of cross-functional collaboration
Notion’s growth over the past few years has been one of the greatest stories in tech. While a good chunk of that success is because of funding, the company also nailed both the product itself and how it communicates its value. Rather than stuffing it with keywords, the copy clearly explains what teams can expect when using their product, supported by rich graphics that show you how different features look and feel.
eCommerce site: Obvi
What it got right
Helpful: Products presented by need (e.g., anti-aging, weight loss, etc.)
Unique: Customer reviews back what Obvi claims
Empathetic: Site optimized for mobile (primary source of traffic)
When it comes to eCommerce and direct-to-consumer marketing, brands win and lose revenue in a matter of seconds. Obvi’s landing page for its collagen-based protein powder does everything it needs to do—from showing the product and explaining who it’s for, to explaining why you should buy it and how much people love it. Anything a person might be interested in learning is a tap away.
Learning resource: HubSpot
What it got right
Helpful: Explains what you can expect as outcomes
Unique: Creative angle addresses social media beginners
Empathetic: No attempts to sell HubSpot software
In addition to creating great software for revenue teams, HubSpot has developed a reputation as a knowledgeable educator for marketers. One of its offers is a social media workbook leading to a HubSpot certification. The landing page for this asset explains the progression clearly, putting it beside a slew of benefits. Combined, it makes for a compelling offer that social media beginners will find hard to resist.
Video: Solutions 8
What it got right
Helpful: Clear titles with no false promises
Unique: Eye-catching thumbnails
Empathetic: Varied video duration
Solutions 8 began investing in YouTube as a growth driver in 2022, and its business value is visible in the quality of its video library. Not only does everything look great when you land on the channel; the videos themselves are well-researched and address topics that are both relevant and lacking in quality content.
Whether you’re David or Goliath, better content is within reach
If creating better content were as easy as some people claim, we’d all be doing it. In reality, the bar is low—as it stands, nearly 91% of pages on the web get no traffic from search engines. Low-quality content is not just prevalent; it’s the norm.
So, unless all of your competitors are running highly optimized websites—which not all of them are—consistent, patient investment in content and SEO can help you establish yourself as a user-first brand and catch up to or overtake your competitors.
Ashwin Balakrishnan is a B2B SaaS marketer specializing in organic growth, backlinks, and content SEO. He leads the marketing team at Optmyzr, where he hosts the Search Marketing Academy podcast. His personal backlink profile includes gaming, Lego, and electronic music. Twitter | Linkedin