Wouldn’t it be great if every piece of content you wrote resulted in high search engine rankings for your website?
We all know writing quality content requires time and space. But what if we told you the process can be made fast and efficient while keeping the quality of content in check? Seems like a long shot? Wait.
Just like all other marketing activities, content creation can take a measured and organized approach. To create content that ranks high in search engines, you need to plan and structure your content in a hierarchical format. This hierarchy constitutes an outline for your content, which is very important for SEO.
While researching a given topic can provide ample information to write your content, organizing this information in proper flow and easily digestible chunks of text can be a task in the absence of a content outline.
In this article, we will talk about the importance of working with a content outline and what constitutes a great outline. We will also explain how different SEO tools can optimize this process.
What Is a Content Outline?
A content outline serves as a blueprint to put your central ideas down in a well-organized manner using keywords, subheadings, and other supporting elements, and write faster and clearer, creating engaging content for your audience. It gives you a detailed overview of what your article should look like upon completion.
A content outline should essentially establish the goal of the article and include the main headings and subheadings stated clearly with <H2>, <H3>, <H4>, etc., tags. Make sure you derive inspiration from the existing content on Google to cover the most important questions and long-tail keywords searched for by users.
Why you should always outline your content
Professional writers are tasked with churning out high-quality, deeply researched content within strict deadlines. And sometimes, when all hands on deck fall short of the speed required to achieve a certain number of deliverables, the work must be outsourced. Imagine if content outlines didn’t exist; would teams be able to keep up with clients’ demands?
Outlining content can, thus, make things easier to manage as it offers these benefits:
Optimizes your research efforts
To ensure you are gathering the right and most relevant information for your content, a prioritized list of search queries can be useful. The list should cover the most researched topics and questions that people commonly ask. This way, you can offer all of your actionable insights in one article.
Guarantees you cover everything
Writing for businesses is geared towards creating exhaustive, insights-laden content. This means that if you write without locking down a structure for your content, your written pieces can have loose ends and scattered ideas. As a result, you may have to revisit the pieces and reorganize the information at a later time. A content outline can save you this trouble and help you ensure all the right keywords, critical points, and supporting data to satisfy the users’ search intent have been duly covered.
Makes writing a systematic process
Creating content as seen in the mind’s eye can be very gratifying. However, due to the large amounts of information we find on the internet, we can often find ourselves puzzling over what to include and what not to include, what’s relevant, and what would just be extraneous matter. Taking bits and bobs of information from different sources and stitching them together to create a well-structured piece of content is what an outline helps you do. It makes writing a systematic and well-thought-out process.
Facilitates outsourcing to freelancers
Content outlines can turn even hack writers into star writers by helping them produce good quality, highly targeted content that ranks well on search engines. So, even if you’re working with a bunch of freelancers who have no direct contact with your clients, a content outline can ensure their writing quality matches that of your in-house writers.
What is included in a great outline?
A great content outline is a detailed document that includes all the important components that every SEO content outline must have. These components are mostly based on Google search ranking requirements and best practices that have a huge impact on your rankings. Let’s drill down into some of these components.
Working with a sense of direction you’re headed in is crucial to the content shaping up just the way you intend it to. For this, having a content outline stipulating what the topic and goal of writing is will be invaluable. A content outline also helps you add notes on the specific direction if someone else is going to work on the content. Does the content need to be SEO-focused, or is it for sales or culture? The other person wouldn’t know if the content outline did not specify the purpose for writing. You can also include specific links to the outline you’d like them to refer to for writing.
Bullet points, not sentences
Creating content in the listicle format with critical information highlighted with bullet points draws in more readers than using longish sentences in uncomfortably huge blocks of text. This helps to retain the reader’s attention and keep them reading down to the last word. Using bullet points also aids in keeping ideas clear and separate.
As with any SEO-focused content, keyword research is a non-negotiable part of creating a great outline. Researching several relevant keywords and deciding on a primary keyword that can be included in the URL address of your website, the meta description, the title, the content body, and the subheads will help drive more organic traffic to your website than ever. And once you find your primary keyword, determining the secondary and tertiary keywords will be relatively easy.
Semantically related keywords to include
These are secondary and tertiary keywords that supplement your primary keyword’s function of making the content suitable for search engine rankings. These additional keywords add more depth to the content, making it even more relevant for searchers who will target the keywords used in the content. Uncovering these secondary and tertiary keywords involves analyzing search results and noting terms that appear prominently in the top ten rankings.
Surfer makes this process easy by presenting the recommended keywords worth adding and highlighting the ones you’ve already used in your content. It also shows the total number of mentions you have made or should make next to the terms for further insight.
Questions to answer
For creating a great outline, the types of questions you include play a pivotal role. This is so because Google identifies certain queries as commonly searched ones people will always make. If you observe Google trends closely, you can pick on an interesting trend: A good number of SEO titles and meta descriptions are strategically centered around answering these queries. This essentially underscores that search engines will always prioritize content based on how accurately it addresses users’ search queries. And when users can find content that offers solutions to their problems or answers their queries, they are more likely to land on your website.
This alignment of content with the users’ search intent will not only make your content relevant and help you get high rankings in search engines but also increase your visibility, CTRs, and organic traffic to your website.
Creating a list of all the internal links to your relevant landing and product pages and adding it to your content outline can help speed up the process of internal link building while writing the content. It will not only save you time by having a comprehensive list ready when you begin adding links to your content but also help you plan your content better. Make sure to use keyword-rich anchor text in the content where you would like to use these links.
While you’re already at it, do include some external links to the websites to which you’d like the content to be linked. These external links should be of reputed and authoritative websites that you know are accessed by many users. To make it more specific, you can add the names or URLs of your preferred websites.
Examples of great content
Just as offering guidance on the direction of the content is helpful, including some relevant examples of good quality content serves as a benchmark to track quality. Doing SEO competitive analysis of the leading web pages and analyzing the use of elements like inbound links, title tags, description tags, and URLs will provide you valuable insights into how these brands are using content to maximize their success, and you can leverage these insights to create your own strategies to outperform them.
How to make a Great Outline
Now that we have covered quite a bit about what content outlines are, what they should include to make great outlines, and how they can help you create top-notch content that ranks high on search engines, it’s time to learn a few ways to create them.
While different people will have different approaches to achieving this, we recommend using a combination of manual research and an SEO tool like SurferSEO.
As a starting point, always nail down your primary keyword no matter what platform or tool you decide to use. It could be Google Analytics, Google Search Console, or Ahrefs, but the thumb rule remains the same. Once you identify the primary keyword, input it in SurferSEO’s content editor, and it will return results of the highly recommended search terms for you to choose your secondary and tertiary keywords from. You can export the outline along with the list of search terms to Google Docs for easy access. The outline conveniently appears in the sidebar of the Google doc you work on, eliminating the need to toggle between different tabs.
This might be the best feature of SurferSEO, as it allows writers to check the strength of their content by tracking the score on the right-hand side of the doc, ranging between 1-100%. There is an average score and a top score that writers can aim for. While it’s always recommended to beat the top score for better search rankings, surpassing the average score is also deemed acceptable if you’re unable to reach the top score for some reason. These scores help set the benchmark for content to be acceptable for search engines, and writers can evaluate the effectiveness of each written piece in real time.
Although SurferSEO can help you create effective content to quite an extent, tracking Google rankings and search intent cannot be ruled out of this process. Analyzing these two aspects helps you determine what kind of content and rich snippets are performing well. Look for elements like videos, images, and maps in the top-ranking page links. If you find these there, you should definitely consider using these elements in your content to make it just as relevant.
How to Outline Your Content in Six Steps
Okay, enough context setting. We will now break down the content outline creation process into six easy-to-follow steps. These six steps will give you a holistic picture of how content outlines offer a coherent structure for you to translate your ideas into compelling and meaningful content pieces.
Decide on the goal of your article
You can’t begin writing any content if you haven’t thought about why you need to write in the first place. Being crystal clear about the goal of your content is essential.
Your goal could be to foster brand awareness, explain use cases for your products, show the right way of building backlinks into content for SEO, or educate marketers on how using keyword rankings can help them optimize their content. So, unless you have a clear goal in mind, your writing will not come together in a logical way.
A practical approach to do this is to look at the search engine results pages (SERPs) and develop an understanding of the content that’s being written and published by other industry players. Use tools like Moz, SERP Simulator, and SEO Minion to streamline this task and analyze the SERPs. Observe what kind of content is ranking high, what are the common subtopics, and what are the search features and snippets.
Analyze Competitor Content
Your content competitors can be different from your business competitors. Other brands that may provide the same products and services as your brand may not necessarily engage in the same content creation as you. For instance, if you sell bath essentials like shampoos and body washes, other brands in the same business may not necessarily be relying on content to market their products. But if a brand sells herbal shampoos and body washes, they can be your content competitors because they might be writing extensively about the benefits of using their herbal products.
When you keep tabs on the content produced by your competitors, you get to understand the industry trends, customers’ expectations, and how they engage with different kinds of content. It also helps you identify gaps in the existing content and explore opportunities to provide what needs to be added to the existing literature. Knowing what your competitors are writing about helps you differentiate your content and ensure you’re offering unique content. Analyzing competitors’ content can, thus, help you formulate your own content strategies along with content outlines.
A practical approach here would be to list out your content competitors, review the content published on their website and social media, draw up a list of key SEO metrics like target keywords, organic traffic, domain authority, on-site engagement aspects, and backlinks, and run an audit for their content. You might be familiar with the E-A-T model for checking domain authority. E-A-T stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Consider using it while determining the domain authority for your competitors’ websites. This in-depth analysis will help you compare your content with your competitors’ content and understand how to offer your audience content that stands out.
Pick your target keyword
Never begin writing any content without conducting basic keyword research – even if the goal of your article isn’t to rank for the chosen keyword on search engines. Keyword research presents you with relevant keyword options to select your target keyword and build a content piece that can generate additional website traffic – even if your target keyword has minimal search volume.
To begin your keyword research, you can put basic keywords related to your topic into an SEO tool like ahrefs’s Keyword Explorer and analyze the results. Other SEO tools include Google Keyword Planner and SEMrush, which will be equally helpful for finding keywords with high search volume and low competition. Make sure your target keyword is specific, descriptive, and reflects the intent of your topic.
Look at the search volume for your keyword in the overview section. How does it fare in SERPs? Are there high-domain websites in the top results? This will show you if the selected keyword will be useful for composing effective content. An important consideration here will be your website. If you don’t have a strong website, ranking for the selected target keyword can be difficult regardless of its search volume.
Take cues from the ‘Keyword Ideas’ panel for coming up with more potent short- and long-tail keywords. To check the effectiveness of the chosen keywords, you can use the featured snippet website and check your website’s Domain Rating (DR) score. This score will evaluate the strength of your website after you have published the content, so even if the content has fewer backlinks but uses the target keyword that ranks well, your content can still secure a good rank due to the keyword.
Another way to pick your target keyword is by conducting Google searches and looking at the top results. What are some commonly used keywords? Do they sufficiently capture the query you aim to answer through your content piece? Delve into the related searches, ‘people also ask,’ and autosuggestions to get more ideas and variations of your target keyword. Remember, your goal is to understand the user’s intent, expectations, and needs, and to fill any gaps with your unique content.
Research your keyword’s search intent and article angle
Search intent is the reason behind a search query, indicating why a user searched for a particular keyword. Understanding search intent is crucial to decoding the kind of content you should be crafting for a given keyword. There are four categories of search intent: Informational (knowledge or answers-based), navigational (Users looking for certain web pages), transactional (purchase-based), and commercial investigation (intended for comparative analysis of products and services).
When you understand these search intent types, you are better equipped to structure and write content the right way. Informational and commercial investigation intents are for blog articles, and navigational and transactional intents will be more relevant for the product and other sections of your website. You probably work more on blog articles. But simply using one of these search intents won’t help you write distinctive content; there needs to be an ‘angle’ to your writing, too.
Angle refers to the the unique perspective you use to write on a particular topic. For instance, if you want to write about the benefits of herbal shampoos, what are you trying to convey through your article? Are you highlighting just the benefits of using them or doing a comparative analysis of using herbal shampoos and regular shampoos?
While the first approach is one-dimensional and does not really bring a unique perspective to the topic, the second approach is evidently two-dimensional and does more than just highlight the benefits of using herbal shampoos; it tells us why these benefits outweigh the benefits offered by regular shampoos. A deep-dive SERPs research can unveil the kinds of content that exist on Google about the benefits of herbal shampoos and help you figure out how you can do your piece differently.
Decide on a USP and title
For the unversed, USP stands for unique selling point. The USP of your content is often evident in its title and helps distinguish it from your competitors’ content, making it more appealing to your audiences.
Even when you examine the titles of articles from your competitors online, you’ll see they clearly highlight what is offered in the content. For instance, you want to write an informative article on getting out of debt. Now, when you look at the existing Google articles, you might see titles like “How to get out of a debt?” “Effective ways of dealing with a debt,” “28 ways to get out of debt,” “How to pay off debts faster?” etc. You’ll notice that “28 ways to get out of debt” appears in the featured snippet, as it clearly highlights the USP.
To crack the most relevant title for your content, explore the SERPs and the “People Also Ask” section to understand what kind of titles attract the most users. Forums like Reddit can also offer valuable insights into what type of content interests users the most.
Pro tip: Always make a list of all the relevant titles you can come up with for your content and choose the most compelling one. The right title has the potential to drive website traffic and bump your rankings, so avoid making snap decisions when it comes to this.
Outline your article with headings and subheadings
Finally, we’ve got to the part where we choose the headings, the sequence to put them in and decide what should come under each heading. This greatly impacts the article’s quality and helps optimize on-page SEO.
To determine what should be covered and in what order, refer back to the SERPs and look at how your competitors structured their content.
In addition to analyzing the competitors’ content, consider exploring the “People Also Ask” box to understand what kind of search queries people make with the keyword you’re targeting. This uncovers the common pain points of searchers and opportunities for you to tailor your content with the right solutions.
To derive more inspiration for your headings, you can click on questions to expand them, and when you do this, Google will reveal additional questions. Don’t forget to also explore the related searches at the bottom of the SERPs. Using this method, we can build our content with relevant headings and create a very detailed piece.
Coming to the order of these headings, you can set off the main headings with <H2> tags and the additional points under these headings with <H3> tags. These additional points can either be sub-headings or supporting arguments for all the main headings. Under each main heading, having at least a couple of subheadings or supporting arguments laid out in bullet points can prove helpful in explaining what each section should include, offering the writer more context. The more details you provide about your expectations, the more accurate the content will be.
Using tools like MindMeister, Workflowy, or Google Docs can simplify the process of creating your outlines. Do include secondary keywords as well as short- and long-tail keywords in your headings and subheadings to optimize your content for SEO.
Ready to get cracking on building a great outline?
With this exhaustive content outlining guide, it should not be so much of a daunting task. Most professional writers swear by content outlines because they save them time and effort, catapulting their written pieces to the top of the SERPs. So, if they benefit from this practice, wouldn’t it be good to adopt it yourself and write better, faster, and more efficiently?
And, oh, remember to end your outline the right way – with a conclusion and a call to action (CTA). The conclusion should capture the main ideas of your content, and the CTA must prompt your readers to take some action (Like they should start creating a content outline after reading this article). With tools like HubSpot Blog Ideas Generator, SumoMe Headline Generator, and Unbounce Landing Page Builder, you can write and test both your conclusion and call to action.