A lot of bloggers just open up WordPress and start writing about a topic that interests them. Maybe they do a little research beforehand or create an outline to organize their thoughts, but that’s basically the gist of it.
That’s a fine way to approach blogging, but it’s not the best way.
Sure, some people might enjoy the article, especially if they’re already interested in your niche.
But, outside of the people who follow you on social media or already subscribe to your blog, will your article have an audience? Will it appear in search results when people are Googling questions related to the topic?
… or will it just sit idle on your website without any readers?
A strong content research process can help you figure out what topics audiences actually want to read about.
It can show you what people are searching for and, more importantly, what search terms your site has a chance of ranking for on search engines. That way, your blog goes beyond helpful information for readers, it actually attracts new readers.
What Is Content Research (and Why Is It Important?)
Simply put, content research is the process of identifying topics to make content about.
This process can be very basic, like when a blogger asks their readers for topic ideas. Or it can be very complex, involving sophisticated software and heavy data analysis.
Either way, the aim is always to generate content ideas that will help a brand achieve its goals — whether that means growing the audience, boosting sales, establishing the brand as a thought leader, or something else.We also look heavily at what the target audience is and isn’t getting from competitors’ websites, which is the most important thing you can learn from content research.
After all, if you can identify audience questions that aren’t sufficiently answered in existing results, you could attract a lot of readers just by answering those questions. A piece of high-quality content about one of those topics could help you establish your site as the go-to for topics related to your niche, and, in turn, grow your audience.
Even better, if your blog is part of a content marketing strategy to sell a product or service, that article can help you find leads and generate business.
Our 3-Step Content Research Process
Let’s walk step by step through the research process we use when working with clients (and to drive organic traffic to our own site).
1. Client Discovery
The first step is always to learn about what our client needs.
Through conversations with our clients and our own research, we learn about their:
Every piece of content is created with a specific person or group in mind. For businesses, that person is also the target buyer in most cases.
We ask all of our clients about their target buyer’s demographic info, such as their age, income level, etc.
We also work to understand that person’s pain points, or the problems they face.
- What kinds of questions do they need answers to?
- What kinds of issues do they struggle with that we (and our client) can solve?
- How can our content make their lives easier?
We look at search data later on in the process to identify common search questions and specific pain points, but thinking about these questions early on helps form an idea of who you’re going to be writing to.
Having a lot of competitors isn’t usually thought of as a good thing, but for content marketers, it’s actually great (for research).
By looking at your competitors’ most successful content (the pieces getting the most hits, social shares, etc), you’ll learn what your audience is seeking.
Even better, you can look for gaps in competitor content, as those are potential ranking opportunities for you. We’ll get into this more in the competitor analysis section below.
In other words, the topics they don’t have content about could be things you want to create content about.
Current Site Performance
Existing website metrics show you where you’re starting. Knowing your starting point will help you measure the success of your content creation efforts
- Average monthly traffic: How much traffic does the site get each month?
- Traffic sources: How many visitors come to the site through each channel (search engines, social media links, links on other websites)?
- Backlink profile: Which other sites link to the site, and what pages do they link to?
- Keyword rankings: Which Google searches does the site show up in?
This data will show you which of the pages on the site are currently the most valuable and which need improvement. There’s a chance that you might be able to boost your website traffic by simply improving upon an existing piece of content.
Our goal when working with clients is always to drive more organic traffic to their website through search engines.
Ideally, this accomplishes two primary goals:
- Establishing the client as a helpful source of information in their niche
- Generates qualified leads (and, eventually, sales)
Sometimes, clients come to us with more specific micro-goals, such as getting more people to sign up for their mailing list or ranking for a particular keyword.
Before you start coming up with content topics, you should know exactly what you want your content to accomplish for you. When you know what you’re trying to achieve, it’s easier to identify the keywords and content ideas that will help you get there.
2. Competitor Analysis
Competitor analysis is the practice of analyzing other websites in your niche to see how they currently rank on search engines and what you need to do to outperform them.
You’ll learn a lot looking at your competitors’ content stats, namely:
- Some of the topics your audience is interested in
- Some websites that link to sites in your niche
- The topics you have a chance at ranking for on search engine results pages (SERPs)
- The topics you don’t have a chance at ranking for (at least not yet, because too many high-authority sites already occupy the first few search pages)
If your competitors have been around for years longer than you and have a much larger audience, Google and other search engines will see their site as much more valuable than yours.
Therefore, it wouldn’t make sense to target the same keywords they do, at least until you grow your audience a bit. Even if you’re 100% confident that you write better articles, it’ll take a ton of website hits and shares to convince search engines that your page is as valuable as the ones on more established sites.
However, if you target search terms with less competition, you’ll have a better chance at ranking. Even if those terms get fewer searches each month, ranking high for any terms relevant to your industry will lead more people to your site and help you earn authority in Google’s eyes.
How to Perform a Competitive Analysis
To conduct an in-depth competitor analysis, you’ll want access to Ahrefs, SEMrush, or a similar content research tool. These platforms track the performance of nearly every site on the visible web and give you access to all of their available data (or nearly all of it, depending on your subscription plan).
These tools show you all of the info you need to know about your competitors’ websites, as well as your own:
- How much traffic they’re getting
- Which keywords they rank for
- Which sites link to them
- Which pages those sites link to
For example, here’s the overview that Ahrefs gave of our website (before we rebranded to Inter):
From the overview page alone, we get so much information, including:
- The site has 21.2 thousand backlinks to the site (whether to the homepage or individual pages).
- The site ranks for 6.5 thousand keywords.
- The site sees an estimated 2.2 thousand organic hits (visits strictly from search engines) per month.
We can also see how quickly the site has gained backlinks over time.
For content research purposes, the most valuable information to look at is which pages on their site get the most backlinks.
Because when a page has a lot of links, it means that a lot of people find it valuable. And if you can create a page that’s even more informative, readers might start linking to your page instead.
To find the pages with the most valuable links, click Best by links under the Pages subcategory on the left-hand side of the screen.
From there, look at the pages that get the most external links. Those are the articles on your competitor’s site that are shared most across the internet. Therefore, they are topics you might want to write about yourself.
Before opening up Microsoft Word and starting to write, though, you should ask yourself a few questions:
Is this topic relevant to your audience?
Just because you and your competitor work in the same niche doesn’t mean that every topic they create content around is relevant to your audience.
For example, maybe you run a donut shop in a small city and your biggest ranking competitor is the bakery across the street. While you stick strictly to donuts and coffee, they might sell bagels, croissants, and all sorts of other baked goods.
In that case, it wouldn’t make sense for you to have an article about bagels on your website, even if that’s the best-performing blog topic on their website.
On the Top Pages page, look at the Top Keyword for each article, located toward the right side of the screen. That keyword is the search term that attracts the most people to the web page in question.
If that keyword isn’t relevant to your business, skip it and move onto the next one.
Do you know the topic well enough (or have the research skills) to create content about it?
If you don’t know enough about the topic to write an entire blog about it — and a blog that dives deeper than your competitors’ blogs — you either need:
- To research the topic to learn enough about it for a good piece of content.
- Someone to write the article for you.
Depending on how much free time you have, you might want to research the topic and write the article yourself.
If you don’t know enough about the topic and lack the time for in-depth research, hiring someone to write for you is always an option. Whether it’s an in-house marketer, a digital marketing agency, or a freelance subcontractor, hiring out instead of writing your own content can save you a lot of time.
Does your site have a high enough Domain Rating to compete for this keyword?
If your competitors have been around significantly longer than you and see a lot more traffic, you might not be able to target the same keywords as them — at least not yet.
We’ll get into this more in the keyword research section below, but you can look at your Domain Rating to get an idea of how search engines see your website in comparison to your competition.
Your Domain Rating, or DR, is located in the top-left corner of the Ahrefs Overview page.
Pull up an Ahrefs report for your own site and your competitors. Compare your numbers. If their number is significantly higher than yours (more than ten or fifteen points), you shouldn’t bet on ranking for the same high-volume searches as them.
It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility, but you’ll have to do some keyword research before committing the time and energy to certain topics.
3. Keyword Research
Keyword research is the process of identifying search terms to base your content around.
Ideally, those terms meet two criteria:
- High search volume
- Low competition
“High” and “low” are relative here. For a site that sees tons and tons of traffic, “high” search volume might mean 9k searches per month. But for a brand-new website that just wants to attract some attention, 90 mostly searches could be considered “high.”
How to Find Search Volume for a Keyword
The easiest way to find a keyword’s search volume is to plug it into Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer tool, found at the top of the Overview page.
Just type the keyword into the box …
… then click the little orange magnifying glass toward the right of the screen, and you’ll get a whole bunch of data about that keyword.
From this screenshot, we can see.
- The term sees roughly 150 searches per month in the United States.
- It sees around 350 average searches per month globally.
- Ahrefs estimates that a website would need 13 backlinks from other websites to prove to search engines that it’s a valuable page (which Ahrefs has used to assign the keyword a Keyword Difficulty of 12).
There’s more information to be found in this section of Ahrefs, including related keywords, but the information above is the most useful for choosing keywords. It tells us both how many searches the word gets per month and how difficult it’ll be to rank for it.
Look at this page for every keyword you’re considering for a piece of content.
If you don’t yet have a lot of backlinks to your website, stick to keywords with a low Keyword Difficult rating, as you may be able to rank without a ton of links. As you earn links and your Domain Rating climbs, you’ll be able to start targeting more difficult (and usually more high-search) keywords.
How to Find Keyword Ideas for Your Content
There are a few easy ways to find keywords to base your content around. Here are three of the methods we use:
Ahrefs Site Explorer
Ahrefs shows you all of the keywords your competitors rank for on their Site Explorer page. As we discussed above, your site won’t be able to rank for all of those keywords (and not all of them will be relevant to you), but you might find some high volume/low difficulty opportunities.
To see your competitors’ keywords, click Organic Keywords toward the right side of the screen:
Without giving too many of our own keyword rankings away, you’ll see a page that looks like this:
All of the site’s rankings are laid out there — search volumes, Keyword Difficulty (KD) scores, the site’s position on the SERPs, etc.
Again, look for keywords that have:
- A low KD score (or relatively low for a site with your reputation/backlink score)
- High search volume (or high enough to justify the effort it’s going to take you to create a piece of content about that topic)
There’s a much less technical option than using Ahrefs:
Browse Reddit and Quora for common questions.
If you’re unfamiliar, Quora is a platform that people use to ask questions to experts. Reddit is a platform where people with shared interests go to discuss that particular interest — each niche has its own “subreddit,” or message board, where members chat about the topic and answer each other’s questions.
These sites are both very helpful for content research, as they’ll show you the questions people in your niche are asking but not getting answers to.
After all, if someone goes to Quora to get an answer to their question, it means that they probably couldn’t find a sufficient answer on Google. If there were, why would they go through the trouble of submitting a question to Quora?
And if one person has that question, at least a handful (probably more) of other people also have that question.
Collect some of these questions in a Word or Google Drive document and enter them into Google yourself. If you find that there indeed isn’t a page that answers the question, create your own!
And if you want to take advantage of Ahrefs’ data, enter these questions into the Keyword Explorer feature. It’ll show you exactly how many people search that question every month and just how difficult it’ll be to rank for.
AnswerThePublic is a keyword research tool that shows you all of the most popular searches containing a particular word or group of words.
It looks like this:
When you type a word or series of words into the search bar, you’ll get a long list of related searches, like this:
Not all of the searches AnswerThePublic returns will be relevant to you, but some of them could make great content for your website.
And, even better, you can export the list as a .csv file, then copy+paste the list into Ahrefs to see which ones are the best opportunities for you.
What other ways are there to up your content game? Read: Day to Day
Although the term “content research” calls to mind the image of someone sitting in a library researching topics to write about, that’s not exactly it. In digital marketing, content research is more about identifying the topics that’ll have the greatest benefits for your business.
Our team is committed to creating the best content for our clients (just see this case study for one example). If you’re looking for help with any aspect of your marketing campaigns — from research to content analysis — we want to help. Let’s hop on a call and see what we can do!