When creating content, uniqueness, audience research, and topic relevance are essential themes to keep in mind.
But it’s important to dive deeper than that.
There are dozens of other criteria, like technical factors, article length, and visuals, that all play a role in how well your content performs in organic search.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do guesswork to figure out the magic formula for success.
We conducted thorough research spanning multiple industries to identify what makes content:
- rank higher in search
- produce impressive organic traffic
- generate social media engagement
- attract backlinks.
For the State of Content Marketing: 2023 Global Report, we selected 500,000 English-language articles. These were published on blogs with 30,000 and 500,000 average organic monthly views in 2022 (before September).
We focused on organic search results, social media (Facebook) engagement, and backlinks (links to these articles from other websites).
We took an average of all the metrics and designated them as follows:
High-performing (20%), average-performing (60%), and low-performing (20%) articles.
How We Compared the Content
We then chose a few common characteristics among the pieces for comparison purposes:
- Headline types
- H1 length
- Heading depth (H2, H3, H4)
- List presence
- Image presence
- Video presence
- Date of publication
- Publishing frequency
Using the data we amassed, we gained insight into whether any (or all) of these common characteristics impacted content performance.
Key Attributes of High-Quality Organic Content
While no two pieces of content that ranked well featured the same formula for success, some standout features were shared among well-ranking, high-traffic organic content:
- It’s guided by customer research and keyword research.
- It features original data and is based on real-life experience.
- It has a variety of titles and subheadings. This is known as an H-tag structure, and these articles contain H2s and H3s, or H2s, H3s, and H4s.
- It is structured to improve the reader experience, having shorter paragraphs and sentences, lots of white spaces, bullet points, and lists.
- It is updated every 6 to 12 months, keeping it fresh and useful
- It has a consistent and relevant tone of voice.
- It is comprehensive content. Topic coverage is extremely important. Analyzing the top-ranking articles for your keyword can help establish a benchmark for optimal length.
After identifying these characteristics of success, we drilled deeper to get rich data on how each characteristic influenced content success.
In the wake of Google’s helpful content update, tailoring your content to suit the needs of searchers has become paramount to success.
In other words, you should focus on creating content for humans, not for search engines.
Analyzing your audience’s search intent before creating content can help you do so. For instance, you can google your keyword and see what kind of articles rank on page one.
But there’s more to it. Different types of articles vary in their performance and can be more (or less) suitable depending on your topic and goal.
We looked at how some common article formats performed against others in organic search and on social media.
- “Everything You Need To Know” titles and Comparison articles generate the most unique monthly pageviews on average
- Articles with “Mistakes To Avoid” titles and Guides get the most shares
- How To and Comparison articles attract the most backlinks
- How-to articles, guides and listicles also provide solid results
Looking at the three bullet points above, an opportunity for content marketers emerges.
While “Everything You Need To Know” articles get the most traffic, they’re uncommon.
In fact, we saw that only 0.4% and 0.8% of all articles are in this content format.
Honing in on this type of content could noticeably impact the amount of organic traffic coming to your site.
Crafting outstanding content is like building a home with solid architecture.
Using proper heading tag structure and lists to corral important information makes it easy to give your reader snackable content.
Also, the frequency with which you update your content plays a pivotal role in how well the article resonates with searchers and search engines.
In addition, headlines can give readers a sense of your brand voice and tone in writing.
Headline tag structure is crucial. Especially if your article has some complexity or covers a dense topic.
We found a strong correlation between headline depth and how well articles performed in search.
Use a variety of subtitles. While the most common article type had only H2 tags, 28% of the blog posts in the high-performance group had H2s and H3s.
And 29% of them have H2s, H3s, and H4 tags.
Number of Lists
Lists are a great resource for your reader.
They’re easy to digest and quick to read. Busy visitors who are short on time can skim your article while still gaining valuable insights from the piece.
Our research found that the number of lists included correlated with how many pageviews, shares, and backlinks that article received.
Articles with 3-4 lists do better across all metrics. On the other hand, articles with no lists are the most common (68%)—and these usually underperform.
In the age of ChatGPT and other A.I. content generators, the question “How much does content readability matter” has become a topic of hot debate.
But, our research showed that content readability is still an important factor in an article’s performance.
So, it’s not advisable to just create long articles just for the sake of topic complexity. You’ll want to make sure that your content has shorter paragraphs and words with less syllables.
You can read more about the Semrush readability score here.
To craft articles that readers will stay focused on, pay attention to your target audience, your target audience’s intent, and provide only the information they need to satisfy their query.
Top-performing content demonstrates quality, authority, unique topic angles, and appropriate coverage determined by each industry.
Your main objective is to create a clear and readable piece. Arguably, this is the most important factor in getting your content to rank well. Pieces that are difficult to read have a tendency to perform poorly, no matter how much information is stuffed into them.
When it came to visual content, the data told a compelling story: readers like the experience of dynamic content that includes photos and videos. They want imagery when they are consuming written content.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to use images in blogs best, check out this handy guide to get you started.
In addition to images, video can help you secure clicks for different SERP features.
Visuals are one of the important content marketing trends emerging in B2B and B2C industries this year. Marketers tasked with creating content should be on the lookout for opportunities to include images and videos that improve the user experience.
- Articles with seven or more images get the most backlinks (a percentage increase of 555% compared to those with no images) and the most unique page views (a 259% increase). Aim to put in at least three images per article where possible.
- Articles with at least one video generate 70% more organic traffic than those without. At the same time, only 8% of all blog posts we analyzed had a video. So, there are lots of untapped opportunities for content marketers.
Knowing when and how many articles to publish to your site is industry dependent and also comes down to what you can reasonably manage or outsource.
That said, there are content publishing sweet spots that you’ll want to aim for to get the highest performance out of your writing.
According to our industry survey, posting more often is the number one success tactic for ranking on Google.
In addition, you will also want to do frequent content audits and pay close attention to the data you collect to ensure that you are updating your content on a good cadence.
Our survey revealed some interesting trends that suggest the industry standard advice of posting 2-4 times per week might not result in high performance.
Interestingly enough, posting one article per day resulted in the best chance of securing high performance.
However, it doesn’t mean you have to post every day. Consistency and quality are way more important. So, choose a publishing cadence that fits your current situation.
If you don’t blog often that isn’t a bad thing; blogging randomly here and there is terrible. The biggest mistake is committing to a specific frequency, then not delivering on your promise to your audience.
It’s true that posting more appears to correlate with better results. But, you should only post if you have highly relevant, readable, quality content. Don’t write content for the sake of it—chances are it won’t rank well.
Just as with publishing new content, there is a sweet spot when it comes to the age of an article and how well it performs in search.
While it is true that it takes time for Google to crawl and index content, fresh content seems to perform best and has a pretty quick expiration.
There are fewer low-performing articles under one month old and more in the 12-month old group (15.39% and 23.84% respectively).
Running content audits and performing content optimization on your blog posts could help maintain blog performance.
Besides, based on our survey, frequently updating your content can help you generate better results:
In the next two sections, we look at how article length and the inclusion of research impact organic search rankings.
We took a sample of 30,000 articles. One-third was labeled as “high performing,” one-third “medium performing,” and the final third as “low performing.”
We looked at the following data:
- Number of organic positions in the top 100 Google results
- Number of organic positions in the top three Google results
- Organic traffic estimates
Our data shows posts that perform better in organic search tend to be on the longer side.
It’s important to note, however, according to Google’s guidelines, the length of a text is not a ranking factor—but comprehensiveness is, as we discussed above.
The optimal length of your blog posts should be determined by the specific requests of your readers and their search intent (the reason they search for a specific topic)—not by what you think Google wants to see.
In other words, your content should be long enough to cover the topic.
Data and Research
Providing original research and data is said to increase your chances of ranking.
To test this theory, we looked for articles that include research and data in our larger (500,000 article count) data set.
We checked how often the articles contained numbers (statistics) and how often they appeared on average. We excluded numbers that looked like dates and focused on the “filtered” numbers.
We also looked at whether articles contained words like “data,” “research,” “study,” “infographics,” and “chart.”
So, the medium-performing content group had the highest percentage use of “data” and the high-performing content group had the highest percentage use of “research” and “study.”
Articles with filtered numbers also showed that the high-performance group had the most articles and the highest average number of filtered numbers within the text.
All of the data seem to support the claim that doing research and using compelling, original data positively affect how well your articles will perform.
Finally, using a very simple model, we determined how often studies appeared in our collection of articles.
We found that articles including data tended to be higher performing, with 5% of all articles in the high-performing group having data studies, compared to 2% in the low-performing group.
Enhance Your Content Marketing This Year
There is no “unicorn” piece of content that will always rank above all others in search.
However, our research uncovered that specific traits are commonly found in high-performing content and outstanding content marketing strategies:
- High-quality content emphasizes the user experience above appeasing search engines
- Well-organized headline depth, including several lists within your content, and focusing on the readability of your piece are all likely to result in content that performs better in organic search
- Images add to the reader’s experience and multiple images are frequently found in successful blog posts
- While videos aren’t often featured in written content, they are frequently found in content that ranks well
- Fresh content published daily has the highest likelihood of ranking well according to our research—do frequent content audits to keep your articles relevant
- High-performing pieces tend to be longer, but the focus should always be on providing readers value over length for length’s sake
- Doing original research and providing unique data can help your work stand out from pieces that don’t include these elements
The State of Content Marketing: 2023 Global Report has hundreds of new data and insights that can help you make 2023 the most successful year for your content marketing.