Setting the Table: How to Approach Content Planning
To know where you need to go, you first need to establish where you are right now.
When we work with new clients, the first things we do are establish the common journalistic questions:
- Who (who are you, who are your competitors, and who are you selling to)
- What (what type of content should we publish, what keywords should we target, what’s the conversion pathway for content readers)
- How (how should the content be structured, how many links per article will we need to rank, how much money per article can or should we spend, how long will it take for us to see results)
The quality of your content program can largely be determined by the quality of questions you’re willing to ask.
Instead of just charging forth with ill-conceived assumptions (e.g. “we can just copy our competitors,” or “we’ll just write about X topic and our audience will love that”), you first need to understand your strengths, weaknesses, and distinctions and how to find the edge that you can exploit to grow much faster than the competition.
The two most useful tools at this stage are:
- A SWOT analysis
- A Content Growth Model
Every client we work with starts with an audit, culminating in those two deliverables (plus a Content Roadmap Report, or action plan -- more on that in later lessons). To build a SWOT analysis & growth model, here are the things we look into:
- Checking baseline SEO website metrics
- Analyzing internal link maps
- Analyzing historical content quality and publishing frequency
- Mapping out the content opportunity by looking at competitors
One by one, here’s how we do those things:
Checking baseline SEO website metrics
We’re going to use Ahrefs for this, but you could just as easily use Moz, Majestic, or SEMRush. In any case, you’ll get a ton of value from an SEO research platform, so I recommend investing in one. Ahrefs is my favorite.
Log into your Ahrefs account and type your domain into the “Site Explorer” report. We’ll be using various examples throughout this course for demonstration purposes. Here we’ll look at MasterClass:
The first two metrics you want to glance at are UR and DR, which stand for URL Rating and Domain Rating.
The former is an algorithmic score that ranks the relative power of the specific URL you enter into the search bar (in this case, the homepage).
Domain Rating is the best indicator of the “power” your website has to rank for new keywords. It’s also algorithmic on a scale of 0-100, 100 being the maximum score.
While there are no absolute rules with regards to Domain Rating, the higher the better. If you have a Domain Rating of 95, for example, you can pretty much just pump out content, and as long as it is aligned to search keywords and decent quality, it will probably rank.
Conversely, if you have a Domain Rating of 25, you can follow the same playbook but hardly anything will rank - instead, you need to write much higher quality content and build backlinks to that article.
Suffice to say, a high Domain Authority is a “Strength” in our SWOT analysis. We can add that to our matrix for MasterClass:
The next score you want to look at is backlinks and referring domains.
Though this will correlate highly with Domain Rating, it may be the case that a website has an impressive amount of backlinks, but most of them come from low quality websites or spammy domains.
This would result in a high degree of backlinks, but a lower Domain Rating. A very quick look at MasterClass’s backlink profile (you can view links by clicking on the number of backlinks) shows that they have many links from websites with high Domain Ratings, meaning they have a strong profile:
That’s a strength, too. We can see that they leverage their high profile course creators to get links from their sites, a strength that is very difficult for other sites to copy:
Finally, we can see MasterClass is bringing in some nice traffic (estimated at 1.5M organic traffic according to Ahrefs). We’ll dive deeper into what kind of traffic this is when we look at historical content quality and publishing frequency.
Analyzing internal link maps
Next, you want to figure out if your website is actually optimized for search. We do a full SEO audit that includes URL structure, technical SEO, site speed, and UX, but one easy thing to do is analyze the internal link structure of your website.
An internal link is when you link one page to another. Internal linking helps users find similar content, but it also tells Google which pages are “thematically relevant.” For example, a blog post about “how to set up a sales CRM” should link to other articles about CRM software as well as the CRM software product page to show Google (and your readers) that all of these things are relevant.
To do an internal link audit, Screaming Frog is one of the best tools you can use.
Using Screaming Frog is pretty straightforward, though the tool is quite powerful so for advanced use cases, check out their documentation. The tool itself is just a spider that scrapes your site, but what you do with that data is extensive (Excel wizardry comes in handy here).
Analyzing historical content quality and publishing frequency
Now, we’ll step over to the MasterClass website and look at how often they’re publishing:
These guys are publishing like 7 articles per day, which is an absolutely insane clip for most brands. However, the content is on a broad swath of topics (though it does align with their courses, which are broad), and the content itself isn’t of immaculate quality. The articles are usually pretty simple listicles around 1,000-1,500 words, which can easily be beat or replicated by competitors.
This implies some strengths but also some weaknesses. Before adding those to the SWOT matrix, though, let’s click into their Ahrefs keywords report (from the same Site Explorer dashboard) and see what they rank for (notice I switched the URL to masterclass.com/articles/ to only see blog posts):
Some high traffic keywords here. They’re going for the volume game instead of the precocious quality 10X content game. Here’s what I’d write on their SWOT:
In what is true about many areas of life, a strength when looked at another way could always be a weakness. MasterClass can publish a lot of content on a wide variety of topics, but if you imagine a more niche competitor (say they only teach cooking classes), that competitor could easily produce fewer articles of much higher quality and beat them there, stealing that niche of keywords.
Mapping out the content opportunity by looking at competitors
Finally, in isolation, none of this means much. We need to ask the question, “who are we competing with?”
In search, you’ll compete with two types of websites (with a third catch-all miscellaneous category):
- Direct competitors
- Indirect competitors and publications
- Miscellaneous websites
Direct competitors fight for the same slice of pie. If a direct competitor ranks for a keyword, it means they are acquiring customers that you could be acquiring. For a SaaS company like HubSpot, this could mean Marketo or Drift. For MasterClass, this might mean another low-priced consumer course platform like Udemy or Skillshare (though this space is interesting in that you could easily subscribe to many course platforms).
To see who MasterClass competes with in search, we can hit the “competing domains” report:
This shows us a sort of venn diagram of keywords that both websites rank for and lists those with the highest overlap:
This is interesting, because it doesn’t look like many direct competitors are ranking for similar keywords as MasterClass. This could mean a few things:
- They’ve left their competition in the dust and are simply outranking them everywhere
- They’re competing on keywords their competitors don’t care about as much
In this case, I’d wager it’s a mixture of both. We already know MasterClass is playing the content and traffic volume game, meaning they’re probably organizing their topics by the maximum search volume and not necessarily the highest intent.
We can further research, though, by typing competitors’ domains into Site Explorer and seeing, among other things, what their Domain Rating and other metrics are as well as what keywords they rank for. Here’s Skillshare:
Wow, a very high Domain rating, higher than MasterClass. Though they rank for much fewer keywords overall. Here are the keywords they rank for:
There are certainly some keywords in there that MasterClass would love to rank for. What about Udemy?
Wow, an even higher Domain Rating! And much more keywords and estimated traffic. What about their keywords?
Seems their blog is a bit more scattered, but still some keywords in there that are valuable. So I’m going to amend my “high Domain Rating” strength on the matrix and add in some clear threats:
A SWOT analysis can, should, and will change over time, but we’ve got a pretty good roadmap on where we should focus. The play here for me is probably to pinpoint the highest value topics and courses and then map out high intent keywords to bring customers directly to those products. We may lose on the volume play a little bit, but the ROI might be superior and will build a bigger moat.
I’d continue to leverage the big name course creators for backlinks and social buzz, but I’d also invest in email list building (Google search traffic comes and goes, but once someone is one your email list, they’re much more valuable).
To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’re at.
A SWOT analysis is a great tool to do that, and you can use many data analysis and SEO tools to help you quantify your strengths and weaknesses. Once you know where your strengths are, you can exploit that edge in your content strategy and reap greater rewards than you otherwise would by copying your competitors or doing a “spray and pray” content strategy.
Like I mentioned above, usually after a SWOT analysis, we build a quantitative content growth model.
Next lesson we’ll cover “Content Economics” and the “Barbell Strategy,” two concepts that will help use design and plan our portfolio of different content topics and ideas.