Writing content that answers questions

Whether it’s informing a purchase, studying for an exam, or deciding where to go on holiday, the search engine is the place people go when they want their questions answered.

Google calls these little moments of action the “I-want-to-know”, “I-want-to-go”, “I-want-to-do”, and “I-want-to-buy moments”. According to its data, we have thousands of them every day. And as it is the quickest and most effective means of resolving any of these actions, it only makes sense that most of them happen on mobile devices.

This search for answers when on the move is highlighted by Google’s Featured Snippets feature and the rise of voice search. More of us are less likely to scroll through pages of search results and more likely to put trust in what the algorithm gives us. If we can get a concise, direct, and unbias answer to a question from doing as little as possible, you can guarantee we’ll take it.

But this raises the question: how do you create content for such a world? After all, won’t doing so simply be giving up power to the search engines? More than that, with only one result needed, isn’t is just a waste of your time and an entirely futile pursuit?

With ComScore predicting by the year 2020 that at least half of all online searches will be performed with voice search, answering user’s questions certainly isn’t futile. There is, however, certain things to avoid and certain methods to follow to improve your chances of success.

Avoid the simple questions

Writing content for Featured Snippets is not just about providing the answers to any questions your audience may have. One of the types of questions you want to avoid targeting is the simple ones that can be covered in a few words, like those answered by Google’s knowledge graph.

Such simple questions, which often come in the form of “who did X”, “how tall is X”, or “what year did X”, are typically asked by users wanting an answer as quickly as possible so they can move on to the next thing. If they ask “What year did Elvis die?”, maybe to settle a bet, they get the exact date right there in the search results. They also get answers to related questions like “What did he die of?” and “What did Elvis enjoy eating?”, and links to Spotify and Youtube if they’re feeling in the mood.

The point is, the user isn’t necessarily interested in the whole history of Elvis’s life and buying Elvis merchandise. So even if you do rank and appear high in the results, from a traffic and conversion perspective, you’re going to get very few people clicking through.

Pick a good question

Simple questions avoided, when you do find one worth answering, there’s often the fear of giving too much away so that users won’t click through to your site.

It’s a legitimate but unfounded concern. For one, the users who just want the answer are not the kind of people that are going to convert. But two, it’s when you give the user what they want and do a good job of answering their question that they’re most likely to trust you and follow up for more information.

The trick here is to pick good questions. Good questions are those that have both a simple and an extended answer. The simple answer acts as the doorway into the extended version, giving a taste of what you can offer as well as wetting their appetite for more data and details.

Say you own a pet store that sells snakes. A good question to answer may be, “What do pythons eat?”. Here you can give a general answer whilst pointing out that it varies according to size and age. In the linking article, you would expand on the question and give a comprehensive overview of the diet of a python, including how often to feed them, what to look for in sourcing quality foods, and any other common serpent eating queries. As well as generating a piece of evergreen content that could even be made into a static page, such a resource offers the added benefit of helping you rank for multiple keywords and queries.

Build the pyramid 

So, rather than answering one simple question with your content, you want to, in fact, answer lots of things. In this way, you’re not answering a question then saying buy my stuff. But you also don’t want to just answer question after question and then say buy my stuff.

To get around this conundrum, we can use a method borrowed from journalism called the inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid is based on the idea of first starting with the lead or, in this case, the answer, following with details or data, and then giving some wider context, i.e. answering related sub-questions.

Say you run an essential oil business and you want to answer the question “how to give a swedish massage”. This would be the lead that would be answered right in the Featured Snippet. The details would then go on to answer the real questions people want to know the answer to: What’s it good for? How is it different to other massage techniques? What are step by step instructions for doing it right? Even better if you have original data to back up your answers.

Once the users know that you have quality info to offer them, they may want to find out more. For instance, how to do more advanced techniques or incorporate essential oils into a massage. This is the equivalent of journalists providing the wider context on a topic so as to give some grounding to a report or article. This is the chance to show off your expertise and provide a gentle segway into your call to action.

Using these three tips you can create content that’s not only fit for our increasingly mobile and voice-based world, but that also only keeps on giving as it generates more and more traffic and conversions as the days go by.