What do you keep top of mind when creating content? Maybe uniqueness, audience research, or topic relevance?
Yes, those are all essential, but it’s important to dive deeper than that.
Dozens of other criteria, like technical factors, article length, and visuals, all play a role in how well your content performs in organic search.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do any guesswork to figure out the magic formula for success.
We’ve already done it for you.
For our State of Content Marketing: 2023 Global Report, 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 our report, we selected 500,000 English-language articles. These were published on blogs that had between 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 (top 20%)
- Average-performing (middle 60%)
- Low-performing (bottom 20%)
How We Compared the Content
We then chose a few common characteristics among the pieces for comparison purposes:
- Article types
- H1 length
- Heading depth (H2, H3, H4)
- List presence
- Image presence
- Video presence
- Date of publication
- Website’s 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
No two pieces of content that ranked well featured the same formula for success. However, some well-ranking, high-traffic organic content shared similar features. The articles all:
- Are guided by customer research and keyword research
- Feature original data and are based on real-life experience
- Have a variety of titles and subheadings (known as an H-tag structure); they contain H2s and H3s, or H2s, H3s, and H4s
- Are structured to improve the reader experience, having shorter paragraphs and sentences, lots of white spaces, bullet points, and lists
- Are updated every 6 to 12 months, keeping them fresh and useful
- Have a consistent and relevant tone of voice
- Are comprehensive. 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 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 starters, google your keyword and see what is ranking 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.
Our research concluded:
- “Everything You Need To Know” titles and comparison articles generate the most unique monthly pageviews on average
- “Mistakes To Avoid” articles 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 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.
Homing in on this type of content could have a noticeable impact on 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. In addition, headlines can give readers a sense of your brand voice and tone in writing.
Additionally, adding elements like lists can help provide a structure for your reader that makes it more skimmable. But first, let’s take a look at headline depth.
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 subheads. 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. They help busy visitors who are short on time skim your article while still gaining valuable insights.
Our research found that the number of lists included correlated with how many pageviews, shares, and backlinks that article received.
Articles with three or four 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.
Our research showed that yes, content readability is still an important factor in an article’s performance. (Read more about the Semrush readability score here.)
Therefore, it’s not advisable to 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 fewer syllables.
So, how do you craft articles that readers will stay focused on? Pay attention to your target audience, determine 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 comes to visual content, the data tells 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 best use images in blogs, check out this handy guide to get started.
In addition to images, video can help you secure clicks for different SERP features.
Visuals are an important content marketing trend emerging in B2B and B2C industries this year. Marketers tasked with creating content should look out for opportunities to include images and videos that improve the user experience.
Add more images to your articles. 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). We advise aiming for at least three images per article.
And there are lots of untapped opportunities to include video in your content.
- Articles with at least one video generate 52% more organic traffic than those without
- Only 8% of all blog posts we analyzed had a video
So, keep visuals top of mind as you’re creating and updating your content.
According to our industry survey, posting more often is the number-one success tactic for ranking on Google.
That said, there are content publishing sweet spots that you’ll want to aim for to get the highest performance out of your writing. Let’s discuss them below.
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, 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. 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.
Consistency and quality are more important overall. So, choose a publishing cadence that fits your current situation.
It’s true that posting more appears to be correlated with having better results. However, 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 yet has a pretty quick expiration.
For low-performing articles, there are fewer under one month old (15%) and more that are 12+ months old (24%).
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:
To determine an ideal length for best performance, we took a sample of 30,000 articles. One-third of the articles were 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, at over 1,100 words.
It’s important to note, however, that 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 use of the word “data” and the high-performing content group had the highest use of “research” and “study.”
Articles with filtered numbers also had the highest percentage in the high-performance group and the highest average number of filtered numbers within the text.
All of the data seems to back up the claim that doing research and using compelling, original data have a positive effect on just 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 some specific traits that are commonly found in high-performing content and outstanding content marketing strategies:
- High-quality content emphasizes the user experience above appeasing search engines
- Having well-organized headline depth, adding several lists to 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; perform content audits frequently 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
- 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 unique data and insights that can help you make 2024 the most successful year for your content marketing.