I’m going to relay a situation that, as a content marketer, you’ve surely encountered. But I want you to step back and consider how weird it is.
You’re working with a company and the company itself is new to you as a client or employer (or there’s a new manager or there’s a new content strategy). They’ve identified a high-value keyword or a topic highly relevant to their audience. You’ve heard about the topic but your knowledge of it ends there.
Here’s the thing: You need to write a blog post about the topic by the end of the week.
And no, it can’t be an introduction to the topic (even though you yourself need an introduction). And no, it can’t be written for beginners (the company’s audience consists of professionals or even executives). And no, it can’t be superficial (to perform in the SERPs or impress the audience enough to share it on social media, it needs to be broad and deep but also nuanced but also concise).
Weird, isn’t it? Described like that, many other professions would consider our work somewhere between impossible and absurd.
The truth is that they’re right: Creating good—really good—content under these conditions is almost impossible. The trouble is two-fold:
My argument is that one major upstream improvement content marketers can make is to get better at research. In this article, I’m going to lay out eleven ways I’ve learned how to research—all of which are oriented toward making my job as a content marketer (and hopefully yours) easier and faster while making the end results better.
Much of this list, especially at first, is going to seem like a lot of work. And it is. But the way I think about it is to frame the work as effort toward building a machine.
I’m using “machine,” here because it captures the idea that you’re putting in large amounts of initial effort (building the machine) that result in a product (here, a series of procedures, tools, and techniques) that requires much less work to use than to build (running the machine). It might sound foreign at first but other professions have similar machines, such as a journalist with a Rolodex of contacts or a scientist with go-to journals and databases.
This might also sound foreign because, as an industry, we generally don’t emphasize the importance of research nor the importance of thinking critically about how to research. Early on in a content marketer’s career, we demand that writers pump out as much content as possible at the cheapest prices, meaning there isn’t an incentive to do good research—much less encouragement or resources. That can easily become part of a content marketer’s DNA.
The industry suffers from a negative, spiraling feedback loop, too: As content marketers rely primarily on Google and the first results its shows, inexperienced content marketers can absorb the often mediocre research done by other content marketers. That might sound harsh at first but remember how frustrated you felt the last time you searched for a good statistic and found yourself desperately looking for linked sources amongst a giant listicle of “Most Important Stats To Remember In [Industry] for 2023.”
Content marketers aren’t foolish, of course—we know we’re trying to write about something we know little about. The trouble is that the normal pathway for gaining in-depth knowledge, learning from the ground up, is either unavailable to content marketers or highly impractical.
And that’s another reason why I frame it as building a machine: You’re building something that’s tailored to your personal needs and to your needs as a content marketer. I recommend picking and choosing, starting small and iterating, and being willing to swap parts in and out.
The machine will evolve as you make career changes and as your skills develop. Some parts will be more useful in one field or for one purpose than another. You’ll also want to peer in on other machines from other people in other fields to see what you can learn from and adapt. It’s a long game.
I hope you didn’t think I’d be anti-Google considering what I said in the previous section. Given the sentiment turning against Google (an article titled “Is Google search dying?” became the eleventh most upvoted article in HackerNews history last year, for example), I might actually be an abnormally big fan of Google.
Why? Well, first, Google is a miracle we often take for granted. Step back from its immediate utility and think about how it changed the Internet: With Google, we generally expect that anyone anywhere can publish any content and that we, as searchers, can find that content without knowing who or what published it. When we complain about the quality of Google search results, which is usually valid, we often miss the forest for the trees and forget how amazing it is that we can input one word and find content that by and large matches search intent.
Second, remember that Google has the most generic, user-agnostic interface ever designed. Google performs 8.5 billion searches per day and most searchers, I’m willing to bet, perform those searches from the exact same interface. When you’re doing research, you have to do so from the standpoint of a professional and not a layperson.
There’s a whole variety of Google tips and tricks out there but I’m going to focus on three practices that don’t involve Boolean searches or even leaving the primary interface.
Google tends to bias its initial results toward what’s new and what’s best optimized. That makes sense if you’re shopping for shoes but likely won’t work for you if you’re doing research.
Recency bias can often mislead you because what’s published now often depends on, if not outright steals from, much older sources. Even in business and technology, which seem to move pretty fast, old concepts, such as “MVP” and “disruption,” tend to rule.
Similarly, relying on optimization can often mislead you by directing you toward marketing content instead of original content. This is a bit counterintuitive but I find that, even as a content marketer, it benefits me to avoid content marketing when I’m doing research. Good SEO skills correlate with good content but good content alone does not result in organic success.
That means there’s tons of great content out there that isn’t optimized at all, is poorly optimized, is too old for Google to prioritize, is underrated in terms of backlinks, or is from a site Google won’t often highlight (such as Reddit).
Similarly, there’s often great content that touches a target but doesn’t aim to be the final word on the topic. When I was researching an article for Kolide about the SSO tax, I googled, unsurprisingly, “SSO tax” and found a lot of expected results on the first page.
But as I dug through the results, I also found a few interesting examples of companies I’d never heard of that had written transparently about the issue, such as SSO should be table stakes from the startup Tulip. This article contained amazing nuggets, such as “If you’re a new SaaS founder and you want to maximize your revenue, I recommend you create an enterprise tier, put SSO in it, and charge 2-5x your normal pricing. Even with no other benefits, some customers will be forced to choose this option.”
I would never have found that without Google nor without scrolling through pages and pages of results.
When I google, I use two heuristics: Read at least ten pages of results or keep clicking on new pages of results until two or three pages in a row don’t have a relevant result. I can almost guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you find.
Counter to what I just said, initial Google results often aren’t recent enough.
If you’re looking for research reports, news stories that might provide a hook or an example, or trends about a given topic, it’s often best to do your initial search and hit the News tab.
You might find, for example, if you’re writing about data breaches, that the News tab will show a big story you might be able to hook your article on.
And if you go even a little deeper, you can find more stories, examples, and potential trends.
Here too, you’ll want to Google deep. Since content marketers aren’t journalists, we don’t necessarily need to hook our articles to the latest breaking news. It’s more than likely better to pick a news story that’s six months or a year old if it fits your article better.
The search results are only the beginning of the hunt. When you’re searching keyword by keyword, it’s often tempting to slip into thinking that what you’re finding on Google is the destination. But often, the best sources lie beyond what Google turns up.
Sometimes, mediocre or irrelevant sources link to great or relevant sources. That overly long ultimate guide might be worth skimming if it links out to or references interesting research. That article about cybersecurity in hospitals might reference industry-agnostic statistics you can use for your article about cybersecurity in a different setting.
It’s a similar strategy to one you might have used in high school or college: Find a Wikipedia entry on a given subject and click on its citations to find primary sources. The same idea works here.
Finding primary resources is more useful than you might think. You can bolster your claims significantly if you cite primary sources because:
Successful wide Googling takes a combination of persistence and taste. You will close many more tabs than you’ll actually read and as you get better at it, you’ll develop a “nose” for citations and allusions that are worth pursuing.