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How to achieve ranking success with long-form content

Ben Garry, SEO account executive at digital marketing agency Impression, explains how to gain the full benefits of long-form writing.

If you’ve been in marketing for any length of time, you’ll probably have heard content’s trumpet blown on a number of occasions. But many sites aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities that long-form content offers. The full benefits of writing well go beyond better rankings for product searches.

The power of informational searches

There are three main types of intent behind a search query:

● Navigational: the user searches the name of a site rather than typing the URL.
● Transactional: the user searches for a product or service with the intention to buy.
● Informational: the user is looking for information on something.

For many sites, transactional queries are the holy grail, but informational queries are a goldmine for companies looking to get exposure away from their competitors and to reach a new audience.

This is becoming more and more important in a search landscape dominated by household names. With brands controlling organic results and, increasingly, paid positions, it’s hard for smaller companies to gain visibility.

For example, a small clothing retailer might struggle to rank against the likes of Asos, Next and Debenhams for products searches, but stands a good chance of ranking for ‘laundry symbols’, which attracts approximately 3,500 searches a month.

Someone reading this content can start to get to know your brand, and may start to recognise your business as a trustworthy voice, making them positively disposed towards you when they’re ready to shop.

SERP features: the organic Holy Grail

By now, we’re familiar with SERPs that look like this:

These featured snippets and ‘people also ask’ boxes provide content producers with multiple new opportunities for organic exposure. In the above PAA box, a site called Mr Blacks appears for ‘how do you dry jeans?’, but doesn’t otherwise rank on page one for the search term.

Featured snippets might not increase the number of SERPs you appear in, but they do put you in ‘position 0’ if you obtain them. As long as you rank on page one for a search term, your content could be used in that term’s featured snippet.

Bear in mind that all PAAs and most featured snippets are answers to questions, so as you write your content, think about writing a few sentences that could answer a question or explain a concept without the need for additional context – this is the kind of thing that Google is looking for in its features.

Writing on broad topics with lots of interest, gives you a good chance to appear across a range of searches, either in the ‘10 blue links’ or in SERP features.

Using Moz’s Keyword Explorer

Moz’s Keyword Explorer is a great way to bridge the gap between theory and writing. This relatively new tool is perfectly placed to help you discover the topics and ideas that will turn your keyword into informative content capable of ranking across multiple search terms.

The key with Keyword Explorer, based on advice from Moz’s Dr Pete, is to sort your keywords into groups based on low lexical similarity, as you can just about see in the screenshot below.

This function sorts the thousand or so keywords that Explorer returns into groups of similar phrases, allowing you to see the different topics that you could cover (and rank for) within your broader content idea.

When I did this for ‘how do 3d printers work’, I discovered these groups of keywords that I could then shape my content around:

● What are 3D printers?
● How do 3D printers work?
● How do powder based 3d printers work?
● How does metal 3D printing work?

By using these groups as guidelines, I can start planning long-form content that talks about the history of 3D printing, the science behind it, and the different variations and materials that can be used.

Topics, not keywords

My goal with long-form content is to write something that is well-rounded and informative. This means breaking from old SEO traditions of focusing on keywords, and having more of a topical focus.

That’s not to say that keyword targeting is unimportant. My experience in writing long-form content is that it’s still beneficial to mention your primary target keyword in the title and in the body. But your writing should go beyond a simple focus on one target keyword, and cover wider topics.

Google appears to be getting better at semantics, something that Dr Pete explores in depth in that article I linked to earlier. This means that it is becoming better at recognising that information on topics related to a keyword is likely to mean that the content is going to be useful for searchers.

How can you write topically? One tool that helps me is OnPage.org’s TF;IDF tool. TF;IDF (term frequency; inverse document frequency) looks at all of the page one results for your target keyword, and sees which other words appear frequently across those documents, which gives us an indication of the terms that Google sees as topically related.

For ‘how do 3d printers work’ content, the related words include terms like:

● Additive
● Sintering
● Stereolithography
● Printer head

All of those words are terms that, if I can work them into my content, will show Google that it is relevant to that search term, giving me a higher chance of ranking well.

Iterate continually

Iteration, the process of updating and improving something, is the key to success with long-form content. Organic positions and SERP features aren’t fixed, so if you don’t rank for your target keywords straight away, edit and try again.

This process, while creative, is also methodical and experimentally-based. Rankings can dramatically improve with small tweaks, so don’t see your content as finished when you first publish it. Return to it in a week or two, and see what you can do to improve it.

If you get it right, this process can lead to you reaching new audiences, and gaining exposure that your competitors can’t match.

This article was written by Ben Garry, a content writer at Impression. If you want to find out more about this topic, he has also written a longer guide to researching and writing long-form content on Impression’s blog.

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