Presented at the 2017 Grand Rapids WordCamp
Hi, I’m Peter DeHaan. Here’s a little bit of information about me. I’m a published writer. I’m a passionate blogger. I’ve written about 2,200 blog posts for myself and about 500 for other people. I’m a commercial freelance writer, a magazine and newsletter publisher, and a WordPress fan. I have fourteen websites for my business and my writing. They keep me busy. That’s why I’m here at WordCamp: to learn how to use my sites more successfully and maximize my effectiveness with them.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about in this session. So, let’s dive into the twelve tips for better content creation, the first point is…
1. Focus Your Content.
This is key, when I started blogging in 2009, I wrote about whatever interested me, and I was all over the map. The only person my blog would fully interest, would be someone just like me. I talked about politics, about the weather, and about my family. About holidays, and about technology—whatever. I had an audience, but they weren’t interested in everything I wrote. I realized early on, I had to focus my content.
Have a Vision: Develop a vision for what you want to accomplish with your posts or the blog on your website, and let that guide you. It doesn’t mean that you can’t ever switch. You can pivot later. But initially, to form an audience, you want to have consistent content, so they know that every time they go to your blog, they’re going to hear about A, B, and C and not X, Y, and Z and then to something else.
Be Consistent: Stick with that theme. And when I use the word theme, I’m not talking about a WordPress theme. I’m talking about a content theme. You want to have one consistent theme for your blog, so visitors will know what you represent and what kind of content they’re going to get when they come there.
Think Long Term: Make sure you have plenty of ideas before you start. I heard about one person who wanted to start a blog. He had a topic he was passionate about and really wanted to write about it. He wrote his first blog post and covered everything. He was done. His blog, even though he was very passionate about the topic, had one post on it. And he never wrote a second one.
Make sure you have plenty of things to talk about. That doesn’t mean you can’t repeat concepts. You can rehash it, give it a different angle, or talk more in depth. Maybe summarized two things together. When you handle content this way, you tell your audience, “Yes, I can give you new content every time you’re here.” You don’t want to repost the same thing all the time and expect them to like that.
What you can do is brainstorm before you start blogging to make sure you have enough ideas. In all my blogs and all the work I do for my clients, I know what I’m going to write in the future. That’s why when I sit down to write, I don’t have to ask myself, “What should I write about today?”
People who do this may look outside and see that it’s snowing. Then they write, “As I look outside my window, the snow is falling…” Well that’s a sign of a writer who has no idea what they want to say. Don’t be that writer.
Instead, develop a topic list so you know what to write about and what to focus on. But that doesn’t mean, that’s what will actually occur. It’s a starting point.
Sometimes I’ll start my blog post, but I realize it’s too long for one post. It can become two posts or maybe five posts. Or I’ll start with an introduction, but I weave over to another idea. Now I have a post on two different topics. By cutting them in half, one becomes a post for the day, and the other becomes a post for next week.
Make sure you have plenty of content ideas. If you don’t have enough to write about before you start, then widen your focus so you can encompass more things. If you have too much to talk about, then narrow your focus. Make it more specific.
The more niche you make your content, the more you can attract people. It’s going to be harder to find them, but once you find them, they’re going to stick with you.
2. Maintain an Idea List
As I mentioned, when we sit down to start a post, we don’t want to say, “What will I write about today?”
Always Look for Topic Ideas: If you have an idea list, you’ll always know what you can write about. The nice thing about that is if you have five things listed, you might look on the first thing and not want to write about that today. What’s the next thing on your list? Maybe, I’m inspired to write about that. There’s been times when I’ve looked at all the things on my list, and I don’t want to write about any of them. But a sixth idea comes to mind, and I write about it.
Having a topic list eliminates what’s called “writer’s block.” Now I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I think it’s a mental thing. Whatever job you’re in—let’s say you’re a house painter—and you get up in the morning and say, “I’m just not motivated to paint houses today. I’m not going to do it.” No, you get up, push through, and paint the house. The same thing with writers.
Pick Evergreen Topics: These are topics that play well today, next week, next month, and next year. They’re always in season; they’re evergreen. The reason you want to post them is to resonate with your audience for the long-term. When blogging about current events, news, sports, and politics—yes, those posts may go viral—but it’s not going to have a long-term effect on your traffic.
I heard from a professional blogger who did an analysis of when he has posts go viral. He might have a traffic spike of hundredfold for that day. Two days later he’s back to his normal traffic, and he didn’t sell anything additional. He didn’t have more people sign up for his newsletter or his blog. That short-term spike had no business ramifications for him. The lesson is, don’t chase after viral content with trendy topics. Aim for evergreen content. (Yes, all my posts are now evergreen.)
If you want to occasionally write about current events, that’s fine. But realize that in a couple of days it’s going to be old news. In a week, it’s going to be out of date.
To define evergreen topics, look at what’s not evergreen: the things trending on Twitter. Those are not evergreen topics. This presentation is an evergreen topic. What I’m talking about today is going to be just as relevant now as in a year. In fact, I gave a different version of this topic three years ago; it’s the same outline with some different details. That’s an example of an evergreen topic.
3. Invest in the Title
Don’t Skimp: Don’t make the title an afterthought. Too many people write the title at the last minute, in a few seconds. They spent two to three hours writing their post, and as they wrap up, they realize they need a title. Then they just write the first thing that comes to mind, and that’s their title. A title is going to make or break your post. Give it a lot of thought.
Find Balance: Make your title SEO friendly, but don’t make SEO your primary objective. Remember that you’re writing for people. You want to attract people’s attention, but you want to attract their attention and be SEO friendly, too.
I can come up with clever titles that will catch people’s attention, but search engines will not know what I’m talking about. I like to create a play on words, try to be clever, or make a vague reference to movies or books, but the search engines aren’t going to understand.
Write to people first, but keep search engines in mind. Therefore, use simple, straightforward titles.
Different Titles: Tweak the title to make a permalink. On WordPress, you can do that. You can have a title be one thing, your permalink may be something different, and your metadata title be a third thing.
Some platforms don’t allow you to do that. Whatever you pick for your title, it gets replicated in all three areas. In WordPress be sure to tweak your title. There was a trend that I call “long form URLs” for the post. It might be two hundred characters long, because the entire title was put into the URL. Don’t do that. Edit it. Make the permalink short and friendly for search engines.
Effective Title Formats: For your title, here are some effective formats you can use:
- Ask a question
- Provide a solution
- Give a “how to,” such as “How to grow your email list.”
- State a number of tips. That’s what I did for the title of this presentation: “12 Tips for Better WordPress Content Creation.”
Use these formats. People like them; search engines like them. You’re grabbing their attention right away with the title, so don’t skimp on it.
When I write a post, sometimes I start with the title and then write the post to the title. Other times I start with the concept, write the post, and then write the title last. Sometimes I have a great title, but my post veers off in another direction and doesn’t quite match the title. Then I go back and tweak the title.
But I always give attention to the title. I’m not going to skip that step. Some people say that 50 percent of the effectiveness of your post is going to reside on the title. Give the title some deliberate consideration.
4. Use Categories and Tags Wisely
This tip may be something you all know about, so I’ll go through it quickly.
I think of my blog as a file cabinet. Categories are the drawers in the cabinet, and tags are the file folders in each drawer.
Categories: I see too many blogs where the category is “uncategorized.” This tells me they were lazy, or they don’t understand WordPress categories. This doesn’t help readers or with SEO.
Avoid uncategorized; always use a category. I’ve heard experts say you want three to eight categories. If you only have one category it doesn’t mean anything, because it doesn’t differentiate your content. If you have too many categories, you confuse readers. I like to have between four to six categories. I also like to list my categories on my sidebar. That way if someone reads a post they like, they click on the category and read more posts just like it.
Categories, also help with SEO. I configured my permalinks with my category as part of the permalink. It combines the website, category, and shortened title the comprise the URL. And this helps SEO.
Tags: Tags are more for people. If they read a post and see a certain tag on it, for example, WordPress, and they click on that tag, they get more posts about WordPress. Experts say to aim for no more than forty to fifty tags on your blog. But one of my blogs has 1,400 posts. As a result, I’ve exceeded that number of fifty tags out of necessity.
Periodically, I look at my blog and ask, “Is one category or one tag being overused?” If that’s the case, I split it up and divide the content into different categories or different tags. Or if a tag isn’t being used at all or only has one entry, then I move the post to another tag. A tag with only one entry accomplishes nothing for your readers, because when they click on it, they get the post they just read and nothing else.
5. Make it Easy to Scan.
Most people reading blog post do not read them, they scan them. And personally, the longer the post, the more I scan. We’ll talk more about post length later, for now, here are some tips to facilitate scanning.
Bullet Points: Bullet points are a way to slow people down and let them get your key elements.
Numbered Lists: Another tip for scannable posts is using numbered lists.
I often get the question, “When do I use numbered lists and when do I use bullet points?” The key differentiation is if you state a number in your title, then use a numbered list. If your introduction cites six items, then use a numbered list.
If you haven’t promised a number, then use bullet points. That’s the main guideline. Some people say to not use more than five bullet points, because then it becomes confusing to readers. Try to keep the number of bullet points short. However, I prefer bullets over numbered lists, because it seems everyone’s using numbers.
Subheadings: I use subheadings to make my key points stand out. I also like to make my subheadings bold, so readers can easily see them. That moves us to the next tip to make for scannable content.
Bold: Sometimes I have a post that has no bullet points, no numbers, and no subheadings. Then I go through and bold certain phrases within the article. Readers can scan from bold, to bold, to bold. And in a few seconds, they know the gist of the post. Some people don’t like that, but I find it works very effectively.
A guiding principle, is making no more than 15 percent of your post bold. I have a friend who blogs, and over half of her post is bold, because, to her, everything’s important. But you can’t scan it. If you have a 600-word post, then no more than 90 words should be bold. That’s a good goal to shoot for.
Things to Avoid: Avoid underline because it looks like a link. Avoid italics because it’s harder to read, especially on a screen.
6. Limit One Point per Post
Having one point per post is very important. Some people are stream-of-consciousness writers, where they start talking about A and then they morph into B. And then they see something that sounds interesting, so they talk about C. Then they need to wrap up their post, and they end with a different statement that doesn’t relate back to the beginning. Aim for one point per post. That doesn’t mean you can’t have subpoints, but each subpoint needs to support the main one.
What’s the purpose of your post? Have a vision for what you want to accomplish. Do you want to communicate information about a topic? Do you want people to sign up for your newsletter? Have a goal and write with that goal in mind.
If you don’t have a purpose when you write a post that means that your post is without purpose. And that means you’re probably going to be that 75 percent of bloggers who creates content no one ever reads. And you don’t want that. You want to be the 25 percent that gets read. Write to accomplish an objective.
What’s the main idea you want people to take away from your post? Have one key takeaway. I use the plug-in “Click to Tweet” where you pre-make a tweet for them, they can click on it, and it automatically goes to their Twitter feed. I put my key point in the Click to Tweet box. That’s what I want them to walk away with.
Write with one idea in mind from start to finish, including the title.
We’ve all heard about clickbait, and I think some people make their title clickbait. And when their post doesn’t support that, it disappoints people. Make sure everything is consistent as you develop your post.
7. Aim for the Right Length
There’s a lot of debate about the ideal post length. I understand Google needs at least 200 words to be able to index a post. Even though some popular bloggers sometimes have shorter posts—and people just love it—I don’t know how SEO really works in those situations. But if you have a big following, SEO doesn’t matter as much.
I think 300 to 500 words is ideal for most readers. I seldom read a post over 500 words. I just don’t want to invest the time to read it. No matter how much I like the title, no matter how much I respect the author, the idea of reading more than 500 words overwhelms me. I don’t like that.
What about longer posts? You hear people talk about long-form content. A thousand words, 2,000 words, 5,000 words. [This post clocks in at 4,300 words.] I’ve heard about one blogger with a 20,000-word blog post. That’s the length of a short book. I’d rather write a short book than a long post.
Longer converts better, with more readership and more engagement. But if you’re writing a 2,000-word blog post to have four times the engagement, I’d prefer to write four 500-word posts and get the same amount of interaction. Plus, that would give four pages people can land on. That’s my personal perspective.
Look at your audience. If your audience is busy professionals, they’re probably not going to tolerate a long post. They will more appreciate a 300-word post. Learn how to hook them on the first line, give meat on the second line, and end with one call to action. Keep it short and sweet. They’ll read it; they’ll appreciate it. That’s my opinion.
8. Remember Metadata
A lot of bloggers don’t bother with metadata. Maybe it’s because they don’t understand it or because they’re too busy.
Title: You want your title tag to be sixty characters. I heard someone who says fifty-seven, I don’t know why. I usually hear sixty. If you make it longer than sixty, it will probably be cut off. And that’s not good, because it won’t give people a clear idea of what your post is about.
Also, you have sixty characters, so use them. Don’t make a ten-character title, because then you have real estate you’re not using. Use as many of the sixty characters as you can.
Description: The post description is for your reader and for search engine optimization. For your description, you have 160 characters. That’s where you can sell your post to someone who finds you through search, so make it good.
The way I write, often my opening paragraph or my concluding paragraph is a great place to copy to use for my 160-word description. Sometimes I need to edit it. Sometimes neither of those work, so I write a new description, but make sure your post description sells your content to a person who sees it on search results. Sell them so they click one more time to read your post. And if you just automatically use the first 160 characters of your post for your description, but it doesn’t put hook the reader or it doesn’t compel them to click, then you wasted your effort for that post.
Keywords: The last thing is keywords. Google has said for a couple years that they ignore keywords. Yet some SEO tools still have a place for you to enter your keywords. I’m compulsive, and I can’t ignore that empty spot, so I’m going to put in some keywords. But don’t spend much time on it. I give myself about thirty seconds.
I use dictation to write the first draft for my posts. Then when I finish, I speak the keywords, which takes me about ten seconds. Then I copy, paste, and they’re there.
If you think it’s a waste of time, don’t do it. But don’t fixate on it either. Don’t spend a lot of time doing research or anything like that. Just get something in there quickly that reflects your post.
SEO Plugins: There are two popular ones. All in One SEO is what I use. Yoast SEO is another one that other people use.
I understand that if you use one and want to switch to the other, there’s import-export tools that lets you migrate your content. You can imagine with me having a blog with 1,400 posts, that if I switch SEO plugins, I don’t want to have to rekey all the SEO information. I want to be able to move content from one to the other. And depending on who you talk to, some people like one plug-in over the other. From what I gather, they’re pretty much comparable on what they accomplish and the way they accomplish it.
9. Engage Readers
Schedule Content: You want to have a schedule. When I started blogging, I was doing it whenever I felt like it. Sometimes I felt like blogging five times a week, sometimes once a week. Then I hit a season where I dwindled to a couple times a month.
Set a schedule for yourself: at this time, on this day, every single week, I’m going to publish a post. It keeps you disciplined, and it lets your readers know that something will be there. The last thing you want is for someone to come to your blog and see your last entry was a year ago. They’re gone. They’ll never come back.
Offer Options: Allow them to subscribe by email or use an RSS feed. This is not as important now as it used to be, but for people who want to consume content these ways, make sure you provide the options for them to do so.
I have blogs I want to follow, but I don’t have a way to subscribe by email, which is how I consume content. I can bookmark it, but I’ll never come back. I can sign up for the RSS feed for me to check later. But when I do check, there are so many things there that I get overwhelmed, and I just skip the whole thing. Make sure you provide an easy way for readers to consume the content of your blog.
Ask for Comments: If it’s aligned with your business purposes, if you want engagement with your audience, you need to ask for comments. But if you don’t intend to respond to them or are too busy, then don’t ask for them to leave their thoughts.
Respond to Comments: When you receive comments, respond to them. It doesn’t have to be long or profound. But let them know you read and understand what they said. You just can’t say, “I agree,” or give a thumbs up. Let them know that you read what they said.
Seed Commenters to Get Started: If you want to engage with readers on your blog, ask some friends to leave comments for you. That way you can have a couple of comments on every post. This will encourage more people to leave comments and engage in your discussion.
Make Commenting Easy: Provide a simple way for people to share their thoughts about your posts. Sometimes I have to jump through hoops to leave a comment. I type up a response but can’t figure out how to log into whatever tool they’re using for comments, so I ditch what I wrote. I like to be able to leave my name, email, web address, and comment. Click, I’m done.
10. Pictures and Graphics
Use relevant pictures and graphics on every post. This helps you capture people’s attention. Make sure you add SEO to your graphics. You can use licensed graphic content, attribute content, or avoid content. I prefer to develop all my graphics inhouse.
I heard of one blogger who got graphics from a creative common site, but someone had placed a licensed image there. The blogger took the image, thinking it was available for use. Then they received an $800 bill from the owner of the graphic. The blogger wasn’t happy.
If you want to make your own graphics—which I recommend—use Canva or Pic Monkey, both have free versions and are easy to use.
11. Add Links
For internal SEO, link to past posts, I’m pretty good at remembering to do that.
From older posts, link to new content, I’m not so good at remembering to do that. But both helps with SEO.
Minimize off-site links. There are different schools of thought about off-site links. You can tolerate a few, but keep them to a minimum.
12. Proof and Publish
Beginning bloggers often make one of two mistakes.
Avoid Perfection Paralysis: One is they want perfection. They write a post. They think about it. They proofread it the next day, tweak it the next week. A month later, they still haven’t posted it, because they want it perfect. But they’re never going to have perfect. Write it, proof it, and publish it.
Don’t Hurry: The other thing is they rush. With only a few minutes, they dash off something quick and click publish. They haven’t proofed it or done anything to optimize it. And that doesn’t help their cause either.
Use a Scheduler: Consider scheduling posts in advance to take off the pressure of doing things at the last minute. I schedule my post one week, up to a month, in advance.
And that’s it. I just got the warning that my time is up. Thank you for listening. I appreciate your time and attention. Thank you.
[This is an edited transcript of Peter DeHaan’s presentation at the 2017 Grand Rapids WordCamp. Here are the slides. The video recording of the session didn’t turn out, but a recording of the same topic from 2014 is available. The content is very similar. And since the video didn’t work out, I later recorded a do-over with Brian Richards at WP Sessions.]
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.