How to Write Content for Answers Using the Inverted Pyramid – Best of Whiteboard Friday
Posted by Dr-Pete
If you’ve been searching for a quick hack to write content for featured snippets, this isn’t the article for you. But if you’re looking for lasting results and a smart tactic to increase your chances of winning a snippet, you’re definitely in the right place.
Borrowed from journalism, the inverted pyramid method of writing can help you craft intentional, compelling, rich content that will help you rank for multiple queries and win more than one snippet at a time. Learn how in this fan-favorite Whiteboard Friday starring the one and only Dr. Pete!
Hey, Moz fans, Dr. Pete here. I’m the Marketing Scientist at Moz and visiting you from not-so-sunny Chicago in the Seattle office. We’ve talked a lot in the last couple years in my blog posts and such about featured snippets.
So these are answers that kind of cross with organic. So it’s an answer box, but you get the attribution and the link. Britney has done some great Whiteboard Fridays, the last couple, about how you do research for featured snippets and how you look for good questions to answer. But I want to talk about something that we don’t cover very much, which is how to write content for answers.
The inverted pyramid style of content writing
It’s tough, because I’m a content marketer and I don’t like to think that there’s a trick to content. I’m afraid to give people the kind of tricks that would have them run off and write lousy, thin content. But there is a technique that works that I think has been very effective for featured snippets for writing for questions and answers. It comes from the world of journalism, which gives me a little more faith in its credibility. So I want to talk to you about that today. That’s called the inverted pyramid.
1. Start with the lead
It looks something like this. When you write a story as a journalist, you start with the lead. You lead with the lead. So if we have a story like “Penguins Rob a Bank,” which would be a strange story, we want to put that right out front. That’s interesting. Penguins rob a bank, that’s all you need to know. The thing about it is, and this is true back to print, especially when we had to buy each newspaper. We weren’t subscribers. But definitely on the web, you have to get people’s attention quickly. You have to draw them in. You have to have that headline.
2. Go into the details
So leading with the lead is all about pulling them in to see if they’re interested and grabbing their attention. The inverted pyramid, then you get into the smaller pieces. Then you get to the details. You might talk about how many penguins were there and what bank did they rob and how much money did they take.
3. Move to the context
Then you’re going to move to the context. That might be the history of penguin crime in America and penguin ties to the mafia and what does this say about penguin culture and what are we going to do about this. So then it gets into kind of the speculation and the value add that you as an expert might have.
How does this apply to answering questions for SEO?
So how does this apply to answering questions in an SEO context?
Lead with the answer, get into the details and data, then address the sub-questions.
Well, what you can do is lead with the answer. If somebody’s asked you a question, you have that snippet, go straight to the summary of the answer. Tell them what they want to know and then get into the details and get into the data. Add those things that give you credibility and that show your expertise. Then you can talk about context.
But I think what’s interesting with answers — and I’ll talk about this in a minute — is getting into these sub-questions, talking about if you have a very big, broad question, that’s going to dive up into a lot of follow-ups. People who are interested are going to want to know about those follow-ups. So go ahead and answer those.
If I win a featured snippet, will people click on my answer? Should I give everything away?
So I think there’s a fear we have. What if we answer the question and Google puts it in that box? Here’s the question and that’s the query. It shows the answer. Are people going to click? What’s going to happen? Should we be giving everything away? Yes, I think, and there are a couple reasons.
Questions that can be very easily answered should be avoided
First, I want you to be careful. Britney has gotten into some of this. This is a separate topic on its own. You don’t always want to answer questions that can be very easily answered. We’ve already seen that with the Knowledge Graph. Google says something like time and date or a fact about a person, anything that can come from that Knowledge Graph. “How tall was Abraham Lincoln?” That’s answered and done, and they’re already replacing those answers.
Answer how-to questions and questions with rich context instead
So you want to answer the kinds of things, the how-to questions and the why questions that have a rich enough context to get people interested. In those cases, I don’t think you have to be afraid to give that away, and I’m going to tell you why. This is more of a UX perspective. If somebody asks this question and they see that little teaser of your answer and it’s credible, they’re going to click through.
“Giving away” the answer builds your credibility and earns more qualified visitors
So here you’ve got the penguin. He’s flushed with cash. He’s looking for money to spend. We’re not going to worry about the ethics of how he got his money. You don’t know. It’s okay. Then he’s going to click through to your link. You know you have your branding and hopefully it looks professional, Pyramid Inc., and he sees that question again and he sees that answer again.
Giving the searcher a “scent trail” builds trust
If you’re afraid that that’s repetitive, I think the good thing about that is this gives him what we call a scent trail. He can see that, “You know what? Yes, this is the page I meant to click on. This is relevant. I’m in the right place.” Then you get to the details, and then you get to the data and you give this trail of credibility that gives them more to go after and shows your expertise.
People who want an easy answer aren’t the kind of visitors that convert
I think the good thing about that is we’re so afraid to give something away because then somebody might not click. But the kind of people who just wanted that answer and clicked, they’re not the kind of people that are going to convert. They’re not qualified leads. So these people that see this and see it as credible and want to go read more, they’re the qualified leads. They’re the kind of people that are going to give you that money.
So I don’t think we should be afraid of this. Don’t give away the easy answers. I think if you’re in the easy answer business, you’re in trouble right now anyway, to be honest. That’s a tough topic. But give them something that guides them to the path of your answer and gives them more information.
How does this tactic work in the real world?
Thin content isn’t credible.
So I’m going to talk about how that looks in a more real context. My fear is this. Don’t take this and run off and say write a bunch of pages that are just a question and a paragraph and a ton of thin content and answering hundreds and hundreds of questions. I think that can really look thin to Google. So you don’t want pages that are like question, answer, buy my stuff. It doesn’t look credible. You’re not going to convert. I think those pages are going to look thin to Google, and you’re going to end up spinning out many, many hundreds of them. I’ve seen people do that.
Use the inverted pyramid to build richer content and lead to your CTA
What I’d like to see you do is craft this kind of question page. This is something that takes a fair amount of time and effort. You have that question. You lead with that answer. You’re at the top of the pyramid. Get into the details. Get into the things that people who are really interested in this would want to know and let them build up to that. Then get into data. If you have original data, if you have something you can contribute that no one else can, that’s great.
Then go ahead and answer those sub-questions, because the people who are really interested in that question will have follow-ups. If you’re the person who can answer that follow-up, that makes for a very, very credible piece of content, and not just something that can rank for this snippet, but something that really is useful for anybody who finds it in any way.
So I think this is great content to have. Then if you want some kind of call to action, like a “Learn More,” that’s contextual, I think this is a page that will attract qualified leads and convert.
Moz’s example: What is a Title Tag?
So I want to give you an example. This is something we’ve used a lot on Moz in the Learning Center. So, obviously, we have the Moz blog, but we also have these permanent pages that answer kind of the big questions that people always have. So we have one on the title tag, obviously a big topic in SEO.
Here’s what this page looks like. So we go right to the question: What is a title tag? We give the answer: A title tag is an HTML element that does this and this and is useful for SEO, etc. Right there in the paragraph. That’s in the featured snippet. That’s okay. If that’s all someone wants to know and they see that Moz answered that, great, no problem.
But naturally, the people who ask that question, they really want to know: What does this do? What’s it good for? How does it help my SEO? How do I write one? So we dug in and we ended up combining three or four pieces of content into one large piece of content, and we get into some pretty rich things. So we have a preview tool that’s been popular. We give a code sample. We show how it might look in HTML. It gives it kind of a visual richness. Then we start to get into these sub-questions. Why are title tags important? How do I write a good title tag?
One page can gain the ability to rank for hundreds of questions and phrases
What’s interesting, because I think sometimes people want to split up all the questions because they’re afraid that they have to have one question per page, what’s interesting is that I think looked the other day, this was ranking in our 40 million keyword set for over 200 phrases, over 200 questions. So it’s ranking for things like “what is a title tag,” but it’s also ranking for things like “how do I write a good title tag.” So you don’t have to be afraid of that. If this is a rich, solid piece of content that people are going to, you’re going to rank for these sub-questions, in many cases, and you’re going to get featured snippets for those as well.
Then, when people have gotten through all of this, we can give them something like, “Hey, Moz has some of these tools. You can help write richer title tags. We can check your title tags. Why don’t you try a free 30-day trial?” Obviously, we’re experimenting with that, and you don’t want to push too hard, but this becomes a very rich piece of content. We can answer multiple questions, and you actually have multiple opportunities to get featured snippets.
So I think this inverted pyramid technique is legitimate. I think it can help you write good content that’s a win-win. It’s good for SEO. It’s good for your visitors, and it will hopefully help you land some featured snippets.
So I’d love to hear about what kind of questions you’re writing content for, how you can break that up, how you can answer that, and I’d love to discuss that with you. So we’ll see you in the comments. Thank you.
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