Content that answers questions is one of the most effective forms of content marketing. In preparation for our upcoming webinar with Lee Odden on ‘How To Be The Best Answer’ we analysed over 600,000 answer posts. We set out below our findings including:
- the benefits of being the best answer, including authority, longevity and links
- the 10 key elements of a ‘best answer’ post
The Benefits of being the Best Answer
a) Achieving links
When people find a good answer they like to share it but more importantly they like to bookmark or link to it for reference later. Take as an example the question “what is content marketing?”
The Content Marketing Institute have written a comprehensive answer to this question on their site.
This CMI post has been shared less than 5,000 times, which is relatively low for a top post on content marketing but it is the best answer to the question ‘what is content marketing?’ As a consequence the page has received over 1,000 links from over 640 domains. That gives it authority and a high ranking on Google. In fact it is the top answer to the question ‘What is content marketing?’ on Google.
The ability to generate links is a major benefit to your marketing and SEO. Is there a question where you can provide the best answer in your industry as CMI have done with content marketing?
b) The winner takes it all
The best answers to a question do not perform a little bit better than other posts, they perform significantly better. As with so much on the internet it is a winner takes all game.
For example, you can write your own post on ‘what is content marketing’ but unless you can be a better answer than the CMI post above, few people will refer to your answer. Even Wikipedia’s page on content marketing, which is second on Google for the search ‘what is content marketing’, has less than a tenth of the links of the CMI post.
The third post on Google by Forbes is headlined “What is content marketing?” and has so far received 50 links. Not bad but less than 5% of the links the CMI post has achieved.
“Be the best answer.”
Lee Odden, Top Rank Marketing
People are less inclined to share, and even less inclined to link to, say the 5th or 7th best answer to a question. Thus when Lee Odden says you need to be the best answer it really means something, it is not a turn of phrase. When you are writing your content you have a challenge, a clear benchmark, can you provide a better answer than the current top answers? If not, then look to answer a different question where you can be the best answer.
Good answers to common questions have potential longevity, they are evergreen, as people will continue to ask the question and look for answers. As an example take this post published 7 years ago by Copyblogger on ‘9 Proven Headline Formulas’.
This post is still appearing in the top Google results for searches about headlines over 7 years after it was published. The post is timeless as people continue to ask questions about headline formulas almost every time they write a post. Thus the post continues to drive traffic and awareness after all these years. Not many of us can point to content we wrote 7 years ago that’s still doing the business today. It demonstrates the remarkable return on investment when you create a best answer post.
d) Achieving both shares and links
From previous research we found that most content tends to either get shares or links depending on the content, for example quizzes get mainly shares. We also found that it was much easier for content to achieve shares rather than links. However, good answer content achieves links as we have seen. This means that answer posts, particularly long form posts, have the ability to achieve both shares and links, a magical sweet spot when it comes to content marketing.
Here are just a few examples from our content marketing research.
The post from Heidi Cohen not only achieved over 10,000 social shares but 69 links from 42 different domains.
This post by Paddy Moogan achieved 6,800 shares and also 40 links from 39 domains.
e) High search engine rankings
Google aims to list the best answers to questions at the top of their search page results. Thus if you can create a best answer post you are also likely to achieve a high search engine page ranking. When writing content you should always be thinking about how your article can be the best answer to a question, not simply another answer. We have outlined below 10 elements of a ‘best answer’ post which will hopefully help your content gain a higher SERP result and more traffic.
10 Elements of a Good Answer Post
From our research we have identified the following 10 elements to consider and include when writing an answer post.
1. A good answer addresses the questions your audience is asking
There is little benefit in creating a really high quality answer, even the best answer in the world, if it is not a question your audience is asking. It may seem an obvious point but you need to be clear that people really are asking the question. Think of it another way, is the answer to your question important to your audience, is it keeping them awake at night? Ok, maybe not awake but it is something they are keen to know the answer.
There are various ways you can research the questions your audience is asking. For example, you can speak to your sales and support teams who will have direct knowledge of the questions your customers are asking. You can also search the questions they are asking on Quora, for example type ‘site:quora.com content marketing’ into Google to see the questions asked on Quora about content marketing. To see the most shared questions and answers on Quora you can use BuzzSumo as follows.
Buyer personas are also valuable in understanding questions. They enable content developers to understand their audience and importantly the type of content that will be valuable and helpful to them. And of course, you are a persona. If you’re an expert in your field, there was a time when you weren’t. Remember the questions you wanted to ask when you were starting out – is now the time to write the definitive answer for others?
Finally, simply reviewing the most shared posts for a topic can give a good indication of the questions that people are asking. For example, here are some of the most shared answer posts about content marketing. I have highlighted some of the topics being shared.
- How To Create An Easy Content Marketing Strategy You’ll Actually Use
- How to Hire a Content Marketing Manager
- How to Craft Headlines That Draw People to Your Content
- How to Be a Guest Writer on 11 Popular Sites
- Content for Leads: How to Create Content That Spreads and Fills the Funnel
- How to Republish, Repurpose and Reinvent Your Content Using LinkedIn Publisher
- How to Write Better Content for Social Media
- How to Use Visual Content to Drive More Traffic
- How To Outsmart Your Competition With Content Marketing
- How to Use Google Analytics to Optimize Your Content
Reviewing the most shared posts in your industry or area can help highlight areas and topics where people are asking questions. Can you write a better post in any of these areas?
2. A good answer promises specific value
The best performing answer posts promise something very specific in the headline. For example, we took 11,000 content marketing answer posts and then looked at the top 100 content marketing answers from this dataset and at the most common 3 word phrases used in the headlines of these 100 posts. The most commonly used phrases of the top 100 posts were as follows:
Thus over 30% of the top shared posts used one of these specific 3 word phrases.
We then looked at the top 2,000 posts and the most commonly used 3 word phrases in these articles. The results were similar to the top 100 posts as follows:
Thus it appears that the most shared answer posts use specific 3 word phrases that promise value in the headline. They are simple, clear and to the point.
Across all content, when we looked at the numbers of shares and links, on average we found that “how to” posts outperformed other answer post types. We found headlines such as ‘the secret to’ or ‘secrets of’ were very popular in the context of consumer topics such as secrets of a longer life or weight loss.
3. A good answer is credible and authoritative
A good answer is well researched, it has facts and insights that make it authoritative. To be credible you also need to explain or demonstrate why you have expertise or first-hand experience in the subject. You can demonstrate credibility by providing your own research as well as referring to your experience and other research sources. Bring your own experience to your answer, which also makes it more personal.
The more extensive your research and the more it is evidence backed, the greater the potential to create an authoritative answer which is referenced and hence one that gets links. One of my own examples of a comprehensive research post is one I published on Moz about whether posts that get shares also get links. This post may only have attracted 5,700 shares but it achieved 231 links from 180 domains, which I believe is due to the extensive research undertaken for the post.
4. A good answer provides examples or case studies
This is linked to the point above about research. A good answer not only cites the research sources as is the case on sites like Wikipedia but it also provides examples, which hopefully this post has been doing. In B2B marketing there is significant potential to provide informative case studies. Case studies show that your answer is better – because real companies have applied the insights you’ve set out, and are getting results. They don’t have to be case studies you’re directly involved with, of course – but a well researched answer should be able to cite evidence to back up its position.
5. The best answer is timeless
Clearly you get a better return on your answer if it is an evergreen answer to a common question. This also allows your answer to gain more links over time. Shares tend to happen quite quickly whereas links tend to build more consistently over a period of time. An evergreen answer can be about a specific time period but contextualised eg why Obama won the election in 2012.
We saw earlier how an evergreen post by Copyblogger on ‘9 Proven headline Formulas’ is still driving traffic 7 years after being published.
6. The next best answer is one that is regularly updated
Not all answers are timeless, for example, a post on the best social media tools may become outdated. For example, Topsy was a great social media tool but it is no longer available now.Similarly an answer on how to use Google analytics is likely to need regular updating as the software changes and new features are introduced. If you are answering a question that is not timeless you need to stay on top of things to be the best. Regularly updating your content takes time but gives you the opportunity to be the best answer because you can be both comprehensive and current.
7. A good answer is comprehensive and complete
This is similar to points about being well researched but goes further. The best answer is comprehensive and long form. The post fully explains in detail and answers the question without needing to refer elsewhere although it will still refer to sources and examples.
We have found that long form answers perform well in terms of both shares and links. The nature of the answer post is often signalled to the reader in the headline eg ‘comprehensive guide’ or ‘complete guide’. Short answers are generally less valuable and this is reflected in less shares and links.
8. A good answer has a summary
Whilst good answers are generally long form and comprehensive, the best answers also contain a summary. Someone may not want to read the whole post now and a summary allows them to decide to bookmark or save it for later reference.
9. A good answer is well structured and scannable
Long form answer posts need to be well structured and scannable with a good use of sub-headings, images and structured steps. Structured steps can help walk the reader through an answer or how to do something. In our previous article on the perfect ‘how to’ post we set out the following elements which are often used in ‘how to’ posts:
- numbered steps
- scannable text
- annotated images and videos
- a case study
- links to tools
- practical tips
- links to further resources
This answer post by Ann Smarty How To Optimize Your Slideshare For Maximum Exposure is is a great example of how to structure a post. The post starts with a clear promise
“In this article I’ll share five tips to get the most out of your SlideShare deck.”
You are in no doubt about you will get, and whether it’s right for you. The post is also long form and detailed but broken up with the use of steps, images and tips as shown below.
10. A good answer has instructive or educational content
There are educational content types which work particularly well in answers such as facts, images, guides, and instructive content such as processes. This is particularly common in ‘how to’ posts.
Learning designers have spent many years researching and testing the best ways to help people learn. The top answer posts draw on this research and on well tested instructional models. These models provide a clearly defined structure that scaffolds or supports learning and which also works for answer posts, for example a typical structure might be:
- introduce the topic and gain attention – e.g. after reading this post, you won’t make the mistake that 90% of people make when it comes to email marketing
- signpost prior knowledge: e.g. if you already know x, you might want to skip to step
- provide information in structured, bite sized elements – e.g. lists, bullets, step by step
- exemplify the information, often with worked examples or case studies
- provide clear logical steps – numbered lists with pictures
- use a range of media – use images, video, to help bring engagement and retention
- summarise with actions – let people know what to do next to apply the answer
- identify sources and provide links to further resources
This form of structure is similar to the way Wikipedia might structure a content entry.
In summary, if you are writing content that answers a question you want to be the best answer.
So ask yourself a set of questions to make sure you’re writing the best answer:
- Am I answering a question that people really care about?
- Am I promising specific value – will people know what they’re going to get?
- Am I demonstrating credibility and authority?
- Am I backing up my assertions with case studies and examples?
- Is this answer going to be relevant in a year? When should I update it?
- Is it comprehensive and completel? Could someone act on this advice without another source?
- Do I have a clear summary that could be scanned to get the point across?
- Do I a clear structure with sections and steps?
- Do I teach effectively, setting out a clear educational model?
If you can say yes to all of these points, you’re on your way to being the best answer. Now, what’s the question?
Notes on our research
It can be difficult to determine what exactly is an answer post. To narrow things down we looked at posts that included in their headline specific words and phrases, for example:
- How to
- Ways to (often preceded by a number)
- Need to know
- Reasons why
- Secrets of
- Guide (e.g. Comprehensive guide, Complete guide)
- What (though we had to filter out all the viral quizzes eg what animal are you?)
For our research we looked at some of the top articles on Google, top answers on Quora and some of the most shared and most linked to answer posts in our database. Overall we looked at around 600,000 posts. The most common answers we reviewed were ‘how to’ posts and ‘need to know’ posts.
We also looked at 11,000 answer posts specifically on content marketing, as it is an area of interest to us and our readers.