A proper content outline will help you craft a better story, make it easier to write, and help you rank your articles in search engines. In this post, I’ll show you exactly how I make content outlines that continue to rank in Google time and time again.
Whether your content marketing strategy is to drive organic traffic to your website, or you’re trying to write articles faster, knowing how to create a content outline is an important skill.
Every copywriter, content marketing manager, and SEO should know how to brainstorm content ideas and become an expert in content outlining.
In this article, I’ll cover the following topics (feel free to click to each section):
- What is a content outline?
- The goal of a content outline
- How to make a content outline that ranks (in 6 steps)
- Content outline examples
- Why is a content outline important?
Okay, let’s dive in!
What is a content outline?
A content outline is a document that you fill out before you begin writing a piece of content. Content outlines help you craft a content strategy for your articles and determine what topics need to be covered.
A content outline will typically start off with a topic, or keyword, that you want to target. From there, you create headings, subheadings, and gather information on what needs to be covered under each heading within your outline.
Getting in the habit of creating a content outline before you begin writing will not only help you avoid writer's block, but it will also help you write quickly for editorial SEO (because you already know what needs to be covered).
The goal of a content outline
The goal of a content outline is to help you identify what needs to be talked about in your content, and help speed up the writing process.
The better your content outline is, the better your final draft will be.
In fact, I truly believe that one of the most important skills a content marketer can have is the ability to identify what type of content to create and create a content outline based on that idea.
Then, if you want to scale your content output, you can hire freelance writers or content writing services and tell them to write articles based on the outline you created for them. This ensures that any time you work with an external writer, you’ll be confident in knowing that they are covering the right topics — and that they’re writing for SEO.
From a pure tactical sense, content outlines help you rank and show up in Google’s SERP (search engine results page). This is because you are able to tell what Google wants from your content and what it likes to rank on the first page of search results for a given topic.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to show you exactly how I create a content outline. One that helps me with the content creation process and allows me to write for humans (and search engines).
How to make a content outline that ranks (in 6 steps)
Here is the exact order of steps I follow when creating content outlines:
1. Identify your keyword for SEO
The first step is to identify a target keyword you want to go after (or a topic you want to write about). A lot of writers ignore the keyword research process and decide to write about topics they think their target audience will like.
The thing is, your own judgment may not always be correct.
Keyword research is not just for SEO’s. It’s an integral part of any writing process because it helps you identify demand for different topics.
You’d be doing a disservice to your audience if you aren’t trying to figure out what content they are already looking for.
I wrote an article about how to write SEO blog posts and in that post I explained my exact keyword research process. But I’ll try to explain it briefly here (and only give you the important information).
The first step is to use a keyword research tool. I have two that I use — Ahrefs and Keysearch.
Ahrefs is a bit more comprehensive, and will run you a minimum of about $100 a month. Keysearch is a bit more straightforward and will only run you about $17 a month.
Either one will work.
In my “how to write SEO blog posts” article that I linked above, I showed how I do keyword research in Ahrefs. So in this post, I’m going to show you how I do it in Keysearch (so you can see both processes).
When you first open up Keysearch, you’ll see this:
Keysearch actually has a lot of cool features besides just keyword research. They have a content explorer to find content ideas, the ability to do a competitor analysis, track keyword rankings, and a web content assistant.
But, the best thing Keysearch does is keyword research.
I’m not going to get too much into finding the right keywords to go after, I already have a few blog posts on my blog about that topic.
But, I will walk you through how I would quickly identify a topic to write about.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to pretend like I have a tea blog and I’m looking to target a low competition keyword around the topic of “teas.”
In the screenshot above, you can see that I actually typed in the word “tea” and made a search in Keysearch. But this keyword is very difficult to target, and you can see that by how much red is in that screenshot (lol).
So, what I’m going to do is add some modifiers to this search. I’m going to be looking for a keyword that has a difficulty score under 40.
I can do this by scrolling though what Keysearch shows me and see if I can come across anything.
On the right panel, I can scroll down through a bunch of keyword ideas. But even these seem to be quite competitive.
So, I’m going to add a filter.
When I click on “Filter” at the top of the right panel, I’ll get a drop-down that looks like this:
I can add some modifier words like “best, how, what.” This will then show me a list of keywords related to “tea” that include the modifiers I added.
Now, I can see a few keywords with difficulty scores of 40 or under.
In this case, I’m going to go after the highest volume one (that is low competition), which will be “best green tea for weight loss.”
Now that we have a keyword idea, let’s start making an outline.
2. Use a content outline generator
If you want to write with the goal of ranking in search engines, I highly recommend using an SEO content optimization tool.
For this article, I’m going to use one called Surfer SEO. It’s the best value out of any content optimization tool out there.
Surfer SEO is an AI marketing tool that will help you craft better content by increasing the competency of your outlines. It does this by analyzing thousands of already ranking articles and telling you what they all have in common.
It’s a key step to how I continue to rank blog posts in Google and drive traffic like this:
When you open up Surfer SEO, you’ll be prompted to a dashboard that looks like this:
From here, you want to head over to the “Content Editor” tab and type in the keyword you want to target.
Click on “Create Content Editor” and your initial content outline will begin to generate.
What Surfer SEO is doing, while the report is generating, is scanning all the top ranking articles for our desired keyword and finding all the keywords they have in common.
The report will then tell us what keywords we should be including in our content outline to maximize our ranking and traffic potential.
It’s an extremely powerful tool and one I recommend everyone use (who is serious about getting SEO traffic to their content).
Once the editor loads, we will see this:
As you can see, there is an editor where we can write our content, along with an SEO score for our article.
There’s even an “OUTLINE” tab that will show us how to create a content outline that is optimized for search engines.
Here, we can see what the top ranking articles for this keyword have as their main title and subheadings. We can also see things like ideal word count — something we want to either aim to reach or surpass.
However, you don’t need to follow these to a T. I’m going to show you how I manually create a content outline, and then use Surfer SEO at the end to make sure I’m including the right keywords in my article.
3. Research and gather information
This part of your content outline will require that you gather some important information. Some things we want to figure out are:
- The search intent needed for our outline
- The title
- Headings in our outline
- Internal links
- External links
Let’s go over each one.
The search intent needed
One of the most important ranking factors is search intent. Get this wrong, and your article will never rank high in search engines for your desired keyword.
Google’s goal is to end the search journey as quickly as possible. This means that when someone searches for something in Google, the top ranking articles should give the searcher everything they’re looking for.
For example, if someone searches for “web design inspiration,” Google shows resources where people can go to find web design inspiration — these are generally list posts filled with resources.
If we try to target the keyword “web design inspiration,” but write an article titled “How to find web design inspiration,” it will not rank high for our keyword.
This is because Google knows that when people search for “web design inspiration” they simply want to find resources that can help them right away. They don’t want to read a “how to” blog post telling them how they can find it. The searcher already knows how to find it which is why they are Googling it.
The best way to understand search intent for your content outline is to open a new window and simply Google your keyword (in an incognito or private browsing window). We want to do this in a private window so Google does not tailor our results based on our previous searching behaviors.
When we Google our keyword “best green tea for weight loss,” we can see that the top two ranking articles are blog posts that show a list of the best teas (in 2022).
This means that we need to go after the same intent in our outline — an article with a list of the best green teas for weight loss in 2022.
Next is the title of our content outline. This is an extremely important part of our outline because if no one is compelled enough to click on our article, it will never get any views.
Our title is going to be based on our search intent and our own creativity.
Come up with 5-10 different working titles based on your search intent. For our example, it could look like this:
- 20 best teas for weight loss in 2022
- 20 best teas for weight loss (that actually work) in 2022
- 20 best teas for weight loss in 2022 (according to experts)
I only came up with three titles, but you should try to come up with as many as possible.
Some key takeaways about your titles:
- Make sure it follows the same intent as the top ranking articles.
- If there’s a date, like 2022, in the top ranking articles, then you should also consider adding one.
- Make sure all of your titles are under 60 characters long so they don’t get cut off in Google’s search results.
Once you have a few different title variations, you can ask around friends or coworkers to see which one they are more likely to click on.
Or, you can use a headline analyzer tool to help you decide which one is the best.
In this case, I used the headline analyzer tool linked above and entered in all three of my title variations.
The tool said that the title “20 best green teas for weight loss (that actually work) in 2022” is the most compelling one.
[Editor's note: I used the phrase “best teas” when I should have written “best green teas.” Big mistake on my part, sorry.]
Great, we now have a proper title for our outline that serves the right search intent.
Next, we want to figure out what headings and links we need to cover in our outline to make it valuable for our readers (and Google). We’ll go over this in the next section.
4. Create your headlines
This next step of our content outline process is where things start to come together.
For this part, you can either build out your outline in Surfer SEO, or just use a Google doc. I’m going to use a Google doc that can be shared with an external writer. I’ll also show you how to integrate Surfer SEO into your Google doc in the “Start writing” section of this article.
You’ll want to create a content outline template in a Google doc that you can duplicate each time you create a new outline.
Depending on what task management platform you use, I use Asana, you can create a content calendar that houses your content template.
This is what mine looks like (I’ve burled out some sensitive info):
As you can see, I have a template for an article task and in that task I have a Google doc draft template.
This is what the Google doc template looks like:
The draft template has a section for the title, the audience, the goal, a little reminder for the author, the meta description, a lede (which is a hook section), the author, the URL slug, and a place for our Surfer SEO report.
Then, after the table is filled, I write out the headlines for my content outline.
Let’s fill this Google doc out for our keyword “best green tea for weight loss.” (Make sure to make a duplicate of your template so you don’t override the template.)
Here is our table filled out. We have all the proper information filled out to begin creating our outline.
The meta description is a max 155 character-long description of our article that will be used for Google so it can determine what our article is about. Make sure you include your keyword somewhere in the meta description (I bolded it so you can see it in my meta description).
You’ll also want a lede section to hook the reader. Make sure to put some effort into this. I didn’t do the best job in the screenshot above, but it gives you an idea of what its purpose is.
Then, you want to add the “slug.” A slug is just a term used to describe what your URL will be for this given piece of content. As you can see, I only included the keyword we want to target in my URL. Some bloggers make their URL the exact same as their main title. But you don’t want to do that. For the best on-page SEO, you only want your keyword in the URL, nothing else.
Next, I added a share link to the SEO report generated by Surfer SEO. You can find this from the “Share” tab in your Surfer SEO dashboard. This is important to include because I’m going to show you what we will do with it after we complete our outline.
Next, we want to get our headlines in place.
List posts generally follow this pattern:
- [H1] Your main title
- [H2] Some question related to your topic
- [H2] A variation of your main title
- [H3] 1. Example 1
- [H3] 2. Example 2
- [H3] 3. Example 3
- [H3] 4. Example 4
- [H3] etc
- [H2] Concluding paragraph
This structure will help Google understand where your list is (H2 opener and H3 list items) and will give you a better chance of ranking in Google’s featured snippets.
Here is what our outline can look like for the example of “best green tea for weight loss”:
- [H1] 20 best green teas for weight loss (that actually work)
- [H2] Does green tea burn belly fat fast?
- [H2] The best teas for weight loss
- [H3] 1. Tea 1
- [H3] 2. Tea 2
- [H3] 3. Tea 3
- [H3] etc… all the way to 20
- [H2] Which green tea is best for belly fat?
The H1 (heading 1) is the title of our article that we already came up with. Then, the first H2 (heading 2) is a question the reader may have about how to identify which green teas are the best.
You can come up with this first H2 by either using Surfer SEO’s recommendation, looking at competitor articles to see what they wrote, or leveraging Google’s ‘People also ask’ section.
In this case, I found this first H2 idea from the ‘People also ask’ section:
This shows you related questions people have when they’re searching for topics around the best green tea for weight loss.
Then, after this first H2, we want to open our list of the best green teas for weight loss. We do this by having another H2, that is a variation of our title, and placing H3’s of our tea examples underneath it.
This format will give us the best chance of ranking in Google’s featured snippet. Here is an example of what that could look like:
Google loves to pull H2’s and H3’s for list items.
Then, we close our list by using another H2. This last H2 is generally our concluding paragraph. For the example of the best green teas for weight loss, I took another question from the “people also ask” section — “Which green tea is best for belly fat?”
This last H2 could be a roundup of the top choices for the best green teas from our bigger list.
When we transfer this over to our Google doc, it will look like this:
The first page of our outline is the table I showed earlier. The second page is this screenshot (above) with our content outline.
Now, we can visually see the hierarchy (a logical order) of our content outline, and Google even shows us the outline on the left panel (outlined in red).
5. Start writing
At this point, our content outline is pretty much done.
Now, you can either write the article yourself or hire a freelance writer to do it.
This will make content writing a breeze because you already know what you need to talk about. All you need to do is fill in the right words under each headline until you have a completed article.
But if you want to maximize your content outline for ranking potential, you’ll want to integrate Surfer SEO with this Google doc that you created.
Go back to your Surfer SEO report and click on the Share button:
Here, you want to click on “Get Chrome extension for Google Docs” and download the Surfer SEO chrome extension.
Then, go back to your Google doc for your content outline and click on the Surfer SEO plugin. You’ll then get this panel on the right side of your content outline:
You can now either type your keyword, and click on “Create Content Editor,” or click the report you already generated inside of Surfer SEO earlier.
And yes, you can actually do this without ever needing to go into your actual Surfer SEO dashboard. Another reason why this tool is so cool.
Once you link the Surfer SEO report, you will get a full SEO content assistant straight in your Google doc outline:
As you write, you want to make sure your Surfer SEO score is over 90. This will ensure that your article has the best chance of ranking well.
Your score will go up as you include the keywords Surfer SEO recommends in your article. For this example, you can see Surfer SEO is telling me to include the following words in my article:
You can then share this document with a writer and they will give you a fully SEO-optimized piece of content.
Boom, you’re done… almost.
6. Link your content together
A great content outline also includes internal and external link recommendations.
You want to make sure that every piece of content you write is being linked out to another page on your website.
For example, in the best green tea example, we’ll want to also include links to other articles on our blog that talk about tea and green tea. This will help us build topical authority and show Google that we are subject matter experts.
We also want to include valuable resources and CTAs from external sources so our readers know we’ve done our research. Usually, in the case of list posts, our external resources will be the actual examples we are linking out to.
But in the case of “how to” articles, we’ll want to include resources to statistics and other external sources.
I’ll show you some examples of other outline frameworks (like “how to” posts) in the section below.
But at this point, we are pretty much done. Now you have a content outline that is 10 steps ahead of what most people do — increasing your chances of success and driving organic traffic to your website.
Content outline examples
Not every content outline will look the same. However, there are general frameworks you can follow, so let’s go over those.
Here is a content outline example for list posts (mentioned earlier):
- [H1] 20 best teas for weight loss (that actually work) in 2022
- [H2] Does green tea burn belly fat fast?
- [H2] The best teas for weight loss
- [H3] 1. Tea 1
- [H3] 2. Tea 2
- [H3] 3. Tea 3
- [H3] etc… all the way to 20
- [H2] Which green tea is best for belly fat?
Here is a content outline example for a “how to” post:
- [H1] How to make green tea (with no bitterness)
- [H2] What is the difference between matcha vs green tea?
- [H2] Does green tea have caffeine in it?
- [H2] How long to steep green tea?
- [H2] What does green tea taste like?
- [H2] How to make green tea the right way
- [H3] 1. Heat your water to the right temperature
- [H3] 2. Pour water in your glass first
- [H3] 3. Add the tea leaves to your water
- [H3] 4. Steep the tea for 3 minutes
- [H3] 5. Add in sweetener of your choice
- [H2] Conclusion
I took the “how to” example from this post.
As you can see, outlines generally have H2 and H3 heading tags. Some even have H4 headings when they want to dive deeper into an H3 heading topic.
You can get all of your heading ideas from looking at the top ranking articles in Google.
The thing to remember with any content outline example is that you need to use heading tags. Don’t just bold your text to show a heading, actually using a heading tag.
This will create a better user experience by making your articles easier for readers to scan through and visually see the hierarchy. It will also help Google determine what topics your content addresses.
Think of this like a table of contents for each content outline that you make.
Okay that’s it!
Why is a content outline important?
Content outlines are important because they help you write articles faster. They also help you determine what needs to be covered in a piece of content to give your readers the most value (and to help you rank for SEO).
A content outline, or content brief, is the foundation for successful content. Without it, you’re going to have a hard time understanding how you should approach and write your content.
Good content is subjective, but if you can get in the habit of creating useful content outlines, the quality of your content will show.
The more effort you put into a content outline, the better your content will be.
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