Outlining for content performance

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Building the outline structure

What makes a good outline? When it comes to blog outline strategy, it’s worth studying the internet’s favorite reference resource: Wikipedia has simple, logical UX on virtually every page. And, from a content marketing standpoint, the Wikipedia voice is so welcoming – it’s not trying to sell you anything. Feast your eyes upon one fine screenshot:

Content-Outlines-9-Wikipedia.png

See how simple and unimposing that ‘Contents’ section is? It starts with basic context (‘History’), moves on to analysis (‘Implications’) and then more nuanced details. Your outline can be this basic too. The best ones usually are.

There are infinite ways to structure a document, though we’ll focus here on the simple, linear form. No matter what structure you adapt, the core advice for this template will apply: be specific and detailed every step of the way. It will make the writing process much easier.

Research

Once you’ve filled out your parameters and SEO specifications, you can start to outline the main content. Conducting thorough research in the outline stage will save you time (and stress) during the writing and revision processes.

(This section of the guide will focus on Google, by the way, but there are a lot of other sources you can use. Talk to your customers! Or your customer success team. Find out what questions they frequently encounter, for example. Research on Google is just the tip of the iceberg.)

To start, type your target keyword into the search bar and check out the results. As you read through the ranking pages, take notes, particularly from the pages that rank near the top. Write down anything that seems relevant or insightful for your content project.

Content-Outlines-7-Search-Bar.png

And ask yourself questions as you go through the top ranking pages:

  • What are the common talking points among them?
  • Do you strongly agree or disagree with any of the arguments you’re finding?
  • How does your view of the topic differ from everything else you’ve seen?
  • What topics do they all seem to cover?
  • What topics do you think they could cover that they aren’t?

Next, you’ll want to find more related material that’s adjacent to what you’ve already found. There are a few different tactics you can try:

  • Use Google’s suggested searches at the bottom of the page.
  • Iterate phrases on your own to find different types of data. Let’s say your target keyword is ‘accounting software best practices’. In order to get qualitative and quantitative material you could search terms. For example:
    • Accounting software success stories
    • Accounting software challenges
    • Accounting software statistics

Content-Outlines-8-Search-Bar.png

Create subsections

Make a list: 3 to 5 of the most useful insights you’ve cultivated through research and your own analysis. These will become the blog’s subheadings. As you’re compiling the list, keep these questions in mind:

  • What’s relevant to your audience?
  • What feels true to the company’s solution framework?
  • How can you naturally include the target keyword in (most) subheads?

Next, expand each of those items with 1 to 3 supportive talking points. When it comes time to write, the bullet-pointed sections will guide your copywriter’s decisions.

  • Structure them like talking points. Start with major, differentiated parts of an argument. Don’t worry about the language here being beautiful – it’s just an outline.
  • Be substantial. Each point should deliver a fact or assertion. As you go, ask yourself: Would my audience find this valuable?
  • Be clear and direct. Think of the outline as an instruction manual for the copywriter who will be working from it. If you provide great directions, they’ll be able to assemble the piece in your vision.

Here’s an excerpt from the outline for a blog post about content optimization and page metrics:

Content-Outlines-10-Outline-Example.png

Keep the language simple

When keeping tabs on all these technical details, it’s easy to forget that the point of this is to connect with other people.

  • Subheads should be readable and informative.. People scan text. Huge blocks of text might scare readers away. Subheads help with both of these issues.
  • Keep sections short. We recommend 2-3 main bullet-points per subhead. Those will usually translate to about 2-3 paragraphs per subhead in the final written blog.
  • Include keywords wherever they might (sensibly) fit. Don’t stuff them with keywords (it doesn’t help ranking).

WagePoint does all of this really well in this blog post:

Content-Outlines-11-Wagepoint.png

Include keywords in headings naturally

It’s important to include your focus (and other) keywords in headings, but do it in a natural, human-sounding way. Otherwise you’ll end up repeating the same phrase in every single heading, which won’t read well. And keyword stuffing won’t win you any points with Google either.

Check out the natural way that LaunchDarkly incorporates the phrase ‘canary deployment’ in subheads of this blog:

Content-Outlines-12-LaunchDarkly.png

Make sure headings follow a ‘semantic structure’

Google rewards sensible, easily navigated structure. Search engines look at headings to understand what your page is about. Subheads act as signposts. Semantic structure of headings is key in this regard – and Wikipedia is a sterling example of it.

What do we mean by ‘semantic structure’? The headings in a document are arranged logically (the blog title is the biggest, subheads are smaller, etc.) – and these different header sizes correspond to the actual HTML tags that are used in the document code.

When your headings are arranged in a logical order, Google will have an easier time appreciating your page. For example, this blog post uses H1 for the blog title. Each subhead is an H2, and within subheads we use H3.

ExamSoft is using semantic structure in this page’s format:

Content-Outlines-13-ExamSoft.png

This structure is also evidence of thoughtful UX, which Google also factors into page ranking. Try to work with your web developer to make sure that blog headings actually appear as headings in the code too.

Create the introduction and conclusion sections last

These sections are easier to compose after the main points of the blog are completed. It might seem counterintuitive, but you can’t write these sections until you know everything else in the piece. Both should be relatively concise.

Almost done! Let's add some recommended resources where your writers can learn more.


Let’s revisit some of the parameters and SEO specs.