James Parsons is the founder and CEO of Content Powered, a content creation company. He’s been a content marketer for over 10 years and writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc, and many other publications on blogging and website strategy.
8 Signs You Picked the Wrong Topic for Your Blog Post
A large part of what bloggers do regularly is thinking of new blog topics to write about. Keyword research guides the process, but for most of us, a lot of it comes down to our intuitions and our experience.
None of us are infallible beings. We can all misjudge the competition, the interest in a topic, or the quality of our work. I’ve had posts I’ve put a lot of work into and have been very proud of the turnout, but I’ve also had similar posts that had zero traction. I’ve also written posts that I’ve dashed off in a couple of hours out-perform much better posts. Sometimes it’s quality, sometimes it’s capturing lightning in a bottle with a topic, and sometimes it’s just timing.
One thing I’ve picked up in my years of doing this is that you can kind of tell when a post isn’t going to go the way you want it.
Here are the eight signs I’ve distilled that experience into.
Laying the Groundwork
Before we begin, I have a bit of exercise for you. If you’re looking at a post and you’re trying to determine if it’s something you should write, or if you think you may have picked the wrong topic, start here. If you’re looking for more general advice, go ahead and just read the signs.
Here’s the exercise. Look at the topic you’ve chosen, the post you’re writing, the content you wrote, or whatever it is. Now put yourself in the shoes of your users. What would they type into Google to find this post? What search term or keyword would they use? Assume your site is big enough you’ll rank, so you don’t have to tack on a brand name to it or anything. In a perfect world where you’d be number one for the terms, what terms would they be? Come up with 2-3 of these, at a minimum.
Keep those in mind; I’ll reference them later.
Sign #1: Your Content Lacks Focus
This is the first major warning sign, and you’ll start to notice it during the exercise above. Your content lacks focus. The search term you come up with is something too simple, too generic, like “marketing” or “shoes”. I know I said to think of it in a perfect world where you would rank for the keyword, but realistically, for keywords that broad? You don’t stand a chance. There’s a reason long-tail keywords, longer search queries, and focused topics are so important.
This is an easy mistake to make, and it’s one I still occasionally make. I’ll find myself writing a post and just stop and think “what’s the point?” No, it’s not just seasonal depression and the ennui of living through a pandemic. It’s a serious question. What’s the point of the post?
In general, I do my best to find a narrow topic with tangible points I can make. I’m not so much a believer in keyword research as much as I’m a believer in broad topic research. Rather than coming up with a phrase I want to say, I come up with a point I want to make about a topic. Then I come up with why I want to make that point, what evidence I need to support that point, what explanations I need to deliver to give the point context, and so on.
All of this results in a blog post that is focused on a given topic and, more importantly, on the purpose of the post. Every blog post you write should have a purpose. It might be educating readers. It might be building hype for a new product launch. It might be solving a frequently asked question. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it exists.
Sign #2: Your Chosen Topic is Too Competitive
Take those search phrases from the introduction and search for them. What’s the competition like?
Now, I’m going to buck the trend a little bit here. I don’t often worry about writing content where the competition is too stiff. I know I’m pretty unlikely to rank in the top five, but if I’m in the top ten, that’s often fine. Yes, the vast majority of traffic goes to the #1 spot, but Google has been doing a lot of work to solve that problem. If you have a focused response to a specific question, even though the competition is strong, you might still win a knowledge graph result.
It’s still worthwhile to review your topic and look at the competition. A lot of times, one or two giants ranking for the same topic will scare people off. I think that’s wrong. After all, if there are two strong competitors you doubt you can out-rank, that still puts you at #3. A bronze medal ain’t bad!
Competition becomes a problem with 7-10 of the top results are too stiff to consider out-ranking. When the spread of competition is made up of sites like Forbes, Hubspot, Ahrefs, and so on, you’re going to have a hard time of it.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write the content. It just means you need to have realistic expectations for how it will perform.
Competition is by far the hardest part of keyword research to judge. Some of it is obvious. If Forbes wrote a highly relevant piece on a topic, the chances that you can out-rank them are slim, though it’s still technically possible. It gets a little harder when you get out into the weeds a bit. Mid-range blogs might be familiar names to you, but are they familiar to your audience? Can you compete against them despite your unique impressions?
I often find that marketers fall into one of two categories. Either you’re way over-estimating yourself and think the right combination of words will let you out-rank Google for the search term “Google”, or your way under-estimating yourself and if you had a little confidence, you could produce #1 ranking content and compete with sites you think of as way out of your league.
Sign #3: Your Audience is Mismatched
This is another common issue. Take those search terms you came up with at the start and think a little deeper. Who is searching for those terms? What is the audience you’re likely to attract?
Pay attention here. I said the audience you’re likely to attract, not the audience you want to attract. There’s an important difference there. You might want to write an article for advanced users of a product, but you’re addressing a question only novices have because advanced users have already discovered the answer. You then create content best suited for people who have deep knowledge of the product, but only beginners show up to read it. As such, most of its value flies over their heads, the post doesn’t perform well, and you’re left wondering why.
For example, I write tips to help bloggers and marketers. Running a website and coding are both closely related, but if my topic is skewed towards programmers, I’m going to attract more programmers than marketers – even if that wasn’t originally my intention.
It’s not like Google Analytics can tell you the skill level of your visitors.
Thus, you need to think about the characteristics of the audience who will be searching for your topic. Are they attached to small businesses or large businesses? Are they B2B or B2C visitors? Is there a way they might misinterpret a phrase and land on the wrong page?
A mismatch can be anything from the assumed skill level of the users to their age to their demographics and more. Even the framing of content (e.g. “How To Solve X Problem” versus “Addressing the Problem with X”) can be important.
Sign #4: Your Content is Time-Sensitive
With content marketing, the average word count for a good blog post is around 1,500-2,000 words. Real deep pillar, flagship, or 10x content can be 4,000, 5,000, or even longer. That kind of content is very good. It brings in returning visitors for years to come, and it positions the author as a thought leader in the space. You know, as long as the content is good.
Then you look at sites like HuffPo, Inc, Forbes, or what have you. Have you ever counted the words on their posts? Often times they’re under 1,000 words. Why do they rank so well despite having shorter content? Why do we recommend longer posts when sites can produce nothing but short posts and dominate their industries?
There are a few reasons here, but one of the big ones is the nature of news and time-sensitive content.
A business blog should rarely try to cover the news in their industry. There are a million sites already doing so, and most of those sites have reporters on-site with developers, getting cutting-edge news delivered directly to them, or otherwise exploiting connections.
More importantly, sites like Forbes publish dozens or hundreds (if not thousands) of pieces of content every single day. They’re huge through volume and reputation, not through individual pieces of content.
If you could publish that volume of content, you’d dominate the results too. That’s how HuffPost went from nothing to a big name; they were publishing a new post every single minute for months to establish a powerful market presence.
But here’s the thing; very little of that content matters a week later. How many times do you click on a news post published on Forbes from 2018, or 2016, or 2012? How often do you click on posts with publication dates like that from blogs like Ahrefs, ProBlogger, or Backlinko? Are you ever tempted to read up on the iPhone 4 release notes from 2010?
When volume isn’t accessible – and for everyone reading this, it’s not – quality has to carry the day. That means you can’t write about topics that are only relevant for a few days or a few weeks, you need to write evergreen content.
Sign #5: Your Topic is Too Granular
This is the opposite of the too-broad issue, and it’s still just as much of an issue. Sometimes we as content marketers get lost in the details. We know long-tail keywords are good, so we try to come up with quite narrow topics.
Once upon a time, I wrote a 2,000-word article on a yes/no question.
Oh, sure, I packed that post full of value and other talking points. I talked about the reasoning behind the problem. I talked about possible solutions to the problem if they were ever implemented. I discussed alternatives to accomplish the task until the problem was solved. It wasn’t 2,000 words of fluff. It was, however, a question that could be answered with a single word, perhaps a paragraph if you wanted more context.
That post performed well, but that’s because I put a lot of effort into it. Most people don’t. There’s a certain level of effort to reward where diminishing returns mean it just isn’t worth doing. We wrote a blog post on this recently.
When your topic is too narrow, too granular, or otherwise too laser-focused on a single question or point, your prospective audience grows too small for it to be worthwhile. The only reason my yes/no post worked is that it was a topic with some real interest in it. It was one of those “this doesn’t exist and it’s baffling why not” scenarios. If the topic doesn’t have any people searching for it, then we can’t reasonably assume people will land on it from search engines.
The point is, look at factors like search volume and interest in the topic. Are there enough people out there looking for that information – using those search terms you came up with – to justify it? If you’re spending a week writing a deep, detailed blog post, and your audience consists of 50 people across the country, it’s not really worth it unless all 50 of those people become high-value customers. Trust me; they won’t.
Sign #6: Your Post is Too Short
I’ve already mentioned and linked to my research study about the word count for blog posts and mentioned counter-examples that are both much longer and much shorter. This one goes back, in part, to the volume versus length argument.
The competition you face for a post determines how long your post needs to be for it to be considered worthwhile. If your competition is writing 5,000-word posts, you can’t write a 2,000-word post and assume you’ll out-perform them.
You can out-rank them, but two things need to be true. First, they need to have their word count fluffed up with unnecessary content. Second, yours can’t be. You need to pack more value and nuggets into your 2,000 words than they do in their 5,000 words. That’s doable in some cases, but it can be very difficult. The larger the competing post is, the more difficult this will be.
You also have to consider the impact of the site’s authority. Forbes can out-rank me for my topics with a 500-word post simply because they’re Forbes. I have to write much longer and much better articles to have a chance at competing.
Try not to consider any given word count the Golden Count you need to target to rank. It’s too variable for that. Just aim longer whenever you’re in doubt.
Sign #7: Your Topic is Hijacked by Google’s Algorithms
What do I mean by this? Well, this gets into a complex topic of discussion relating to truth and the nature of the information.
Google wants to be impartial. They want to provide the best information to answer any question asked of them. They give you pages upon pages of search results so you can flip through it and judge for yourself which sources of information are trustworthy enough to answer your question accurately.
The problem is, SEO exists. Sites that peddle misinformation (intentionally or just because they simply don’t know better) can actually out-rank the factual articles because the misinformation is better formatted, has more backlinks, and has better engagement.
Google doesn’t want to solve this problem, but we’re quickly reaching a crisis point around the world. Fake News is just one facet of it. Medical misinformation is another big one; posts that talk about supplements and medications, medical conditions and diseases, they’re the realm of snake oil salesmen. The “doctor Google” stereotype is real.
Google is being put in a position where global governments are going to start regulating them if they can’t get things under control. They forestall the issue by implementing subject-relevant algorithms. One of the biggest is medical topics. It’s virtually impossible for a new blog, no matter how well-written, to rank for a medical topic.
Why? Google has already defined authorities in that space, and unless you’re equal in authoritativeness, you aren’t going to compete. Breaking news is similar; Google will rank CNN and NPR over any small blog. That’s another reason not to write trending or time-sensitive content.
Essentially, anything that requires expertise on the level of a doctor, lawyer, or accountant is something that Google either currently regulates or will in the future. The problem is only going to get worse, and that means the possibility of ranking for those topics is going to get slimmer and slimmer. So think about YMYL topics; Your Money or Your Life. Topics relating to those fields are going to face heavy scrutiny about the authority and trustworthiness of the author and the blog. If you aren’t an expert in the field with the appropriate accreditation, it may not be the right topic for you.
Sign #8: You Haven’t Analyzed the Data
When you research a topic, look into the situation you’re walking into.
Where are you going to get your backlinks? You need at least a little competition because your competition provides you with inspiration and collaboration for SEO. Links are extra potent if they’re from a site with a similar niche. You might think you’ve found a competition-free golden opportunity, but what you really found was an isolated topic that won’t get links, traffic, mentions, or engagement.
Look for social shares, look for comments, and look into metrics like domain authority. There’s a lot of data out there, and it’s well worth the effort to look it over and make sure you’re in a position to benefit from what already exists. Trailblazers are great, but trailblazers are rarely remembered.
Do you have any tips that you’d like to share for people thinking about writing a blog post? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!
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