5 ways to level-up lazy listicles
Avoid being an armchair commentator. Upgrade your next list article by following these five simple steps.
Most list articles — think “The Top 10 DSLR Cameras” or “The 5 Best CRM Products” — are written by armchair commentators.
They’re utilitarian, boring, and easy for rivals to copy.
Even if your lists rank well, their success is usually short-lived. Eventually, a competitor with greater authority (and perhaps a bigger word count) will swoop in.
Despite mountains of pageviews, try to measure their return on investment and you’ll find that… well, there probably isn’t one.
But there’s no need to fret.
Your list articles (or “listicles”) can be transformed into interesting, defensible, revenue-generating assets in five steps.
1. Choose novel selection criteria
Most list articles are based on the same research methodology. If it had a name, it would probably be called “the first 10 things I found on Google.”
You search for your target keyword, scan the top-ranking content, and choose an assortment of popular things — software, products, people — to collate in your own article.
It’s a pragmatic process: deadlines are tight, original research is time-consuming, and compiling a list of popular “things” will never be controversial.
But this selection process is neither useful to your target reader nor defensible.
Your list risks recapitulating the same information as the existing search results.
It becomes another commodity among many.
Good listicles — like all good content — need a strong hook, a way to pique the reader’s interest and differentiate them from similar lists.
Your selection criteria can create this hook:
- Try ditching the “best” qualifier and pick something more concrete and interesting (e.g., X Overlooked/Foundational/Overrated…)
- Target a particular reader or use case (e.g., X for Front-End Devs/Content Marketers/CFOs…)
- Focus on a particular product trait (e.g., The X Best Browser-Based/Freemium/No Code …)
2. Persuade the reader by surfacing your thought process
Many writers assume that listicles don’t need to be persuasive.
After all, they’re intended as an educational resource, a repository of objective information that allows the reader to make their own informed choice.
As a result, most list articles dump things on a page and leave the reader to reach their own conclusions.
But I would disagree with this assumption.
I think that it’s more important to be persuasive because the entire premise of your list hinges on a promise to your reader: that the items you’ve featured really are the best, most relevant, most carefully selected choices from a sea of myriad alternatives. Your job is to persuade the reader that your selection and your selection methodology are worth trusting.
A good way to achieve this is to surface your thinking and explain the rationale behind each choice. You had selection criteria in mind when compiling your list, so bring the reader along for the ride, and answer the questions they’ll be thinking:
- Why did this particular thing warrant inclusion? “This is the most recommended…,” “This is the lowest-priced…”
- Why did you omit others? “We excluded any products without a freemium plan…”
- Is there something about this choice that defies conventional wisdom? “Though not a conventional CRM, this database tool is perfectly equipped to handle core CRM tasks…”
3. Share personal experience to demonstrate credibility
One sad reality of SEO is that good results — at least in terms of keyword rankings and pageviews — can come from bad articles.
In the case of listicles, “bad” means written without any firsthand experience of the items being curated. (My first published article, some 12 years ago, was a review of hair-curling tongs. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I am as bald as an egg.)
Although these armchair articles can often rank for their intended keywords, they fail where it really matters: encouraging the reader to believe the advice on offer and make an actual purchase.
If your goal for content is to generate meaningful revenue — and not just rank for keywords — then it’s necessary to show firsthand experience of the thing that you’re recommending (and prove it to the reader).
Usually, this means some combination of:
- Screenshots of the back end of the software being reviewed (any part of the interface that you can’t access without actually logging in)
- Real-life product photos that don’t look like stock photography (bonus points for including yourself in the photo)
- Personal anecdotes about usage and sharing experiences that only a user would have
4. Lean on the experiences of others when personal experience is impossible
One caveat to the “share personal experience” point: it’s not always easy to have firsthand experience. Some products are too complicated, situational, or downright expensive to experience.
Given the constraints of content marketing, it’s never going to be cost-effective to pay your writer to train as a systems architect or implement an enterprise-level data warehousing solution.
Crucially though, your reader won’t care about your constraints: they want to see credible advice regardless.
So if you can’t personally experience the thing, base your listicle on the experiences of those who have. That means surveying, quoting, and synthesizing the experiences of real firsthand users of the product, tool, process, or service.
If you don’t feel credible, find someone who is credible.
If you have access to a large audience — like surveying your client’s customers or their social media audiences — this process can become a differentiator in its own right, allowing you to market your article on the breadth of its research (how many other listicles can say they’re based on “surveying 50 systems architects”?).
If you don’t, a deep dive into one person’s expert opinion can still be enough to lend credibility to your list (e.g., “The Best Startup Data Warehousing Solutions, According to This Startup CTO”).
5. Make a single, opinionated recommendation
The primary goal of listicle content isn’t to rank for keywords or generate traffic; it’s to help the reader make a decision.
Most listicles are good at one part of this process: offering a wide array of suitable choices. But these choices are often less helpful than they first appear.
Does the reader really need to know about 20 DSLR cameras if they’re only ever going to purchase one?
Most articles hedge their bets because collating popular “things” doesn’t provide enough information to make a useful recommendation.
But if your article didn’t help you choose — how will it help your reader?
Great listicles provide options but also go a step further: they take a stand and make a single opinionated recommendation.
This is a potent differentiator.
By seeking out firsthand experiences of the “things” on review, it becomes possible to form opinions and make clear, defensible recommendations: we did our homework; here’s the one you should buy.
Wirecutter is a master of this strategy, pairing extensive research (for their “best everyday wineglass” list, reviewing over 250 glasses) with a single final recommendation.
Optimize for revenue, not pageviews
These recommendations probably sound great in theory, but are they actually worth implementing?
Do we really need to dedicate more time and money to listicle content if we can generate tens of thousands of monthly pageviews from articles with a less rigorous research methodology?
Pageviews are only useful as far as they further our ability to generate revenue.
Long, meandering copycat articles, lacking clear recommendations and written without credible research, may generate pageviews (for now) — but they don’t generate revenue.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.