How-To Content Isn’t Going Anywhere (and What That Means for Your Strategy)

Posted by amandamilligan

I’m a big fan of the Lore podcast, and in a recent episode, the host discussed a book called the Malleus Maleficarum.

Two words starting with the “mal” prefix doesn’t sound super friendly, right?

Well, the book is essentially a guide on how to identify witches and conduct witch trials. It turned out to have quite the horrible impact on society — as we’ve learned in history classes — but the host notes that it’s also one of the first how-tos ever written.

And it was published in 1486, ore than 500 years ago.

How-to content isn’t new, and from what I can tell, it isn’t going anywhere. Look at how many search results come back when you narrow content down to titles including “how to.”

It’s not just that there’s a ton of this type of content, either. People want to read it.

The prominence of “how-to” content

My team at Fractl did a study about how different generations search online. We gave nearly 1,000 people this prompt:

You just got engaged! It’s time to start thinking about the wedding, but you’re not sure where to start. What is the first word or phrase you would search using Google or another search engine?

Thirteen percent of all the respondents’ hypothetical searches had “how to” in them, and the youngest respondents — millennials and Gen Zers — used it the most.

It serves as additional proof for what we already suspected: how-to content remains a staple in the content world.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it? How-tos not only lend themselves to the thrill of learning new information online (and the seemingly endless number of things that are available to learn); they also serve as a tool of empowerment. Even if you don’t know how to do something, you can figure it out just by going online and reading/watching/listening to content someone else put together for you.

If people continue to desire this type of content, how can you make sure you’re incorporating it into your content plans accordingly?

Finding how-to opportunities

In some cases, it’s obvious how more how-to content can help your brand. Perhaps you’re a B2B SaaS company with a product designed to help teams collaborate online. You could write how-to articles about improving communication, transitioning to a new chat client, and plenty of other topics.

It’s important to have these articles, because not only do they speak to a direct need of a certain audience, but they’re also directly related to your brand offering. They’re rife with more natural call-to-action opportunities, and they demonstrate your willingness to help solve a problem.

This article by Brembo is a perfect illustration of this.

After the helpful guide, they have a CTA to:

“Just go to the configurator ( and enter some simple information about your motorcycle such as brand, engine displacement, model and year. The configurator will search through the entire Brembo line and quickly indicate which Brembo products are available for the selected bike, even including the pad compounds.”

And voilà! You have a useful guide that ties directly into your product.

However, the trick is making sure you’re seizing every opportunity and not settling on just the obvious how-tos.

Here are some ways you can find creative new opportunities:

  • Ask your audience. Run a poll on social media. Survey your email list. Call your customers. Whatever your preferred method, ask what they want to see! Get to know their challenges better so you can create content that will address them.
  • Research what’s being asked online. You can start by going to Answer the Public or using BuzzSumo’s Questions tool. Both allow you to see what people are asking across the web regarding topics. But you can also look at similar content that exists and see what people are saying in the comments. Is there any confusion? Any points that still need to be covered?
  • Talk to your sales team. They’re the ones “on the ground” discussing potential worries and concerns from your clients and customers. If you haven’t already, set up a regular check in with the sales department so you can stay updated on what questions are popping up that the marketing team can answer in its content.

Additionally, for brands that might not have clear ideas for how-to content, it’s important to explore top-of-the-funnel opportunities, which you can do using the same tactics above.

Top-of-the-funnel means that, while the how-to guides might not be directly related to your service offering, they’re still good for introducing your brand to people who are interested in your general industry.

For example, like many other food brands, King Arthur’s Flour has recipes involving flour on their site. However, unlike many other food brands, their article, “How to make high-rising biscuits” has more than 94,000 engagements on Facebook, according to BuzzSumo.

Now, this is arguably middle-of-the-funnel because you need flour to make the biscuits and it’s a flour company creating the content. But people looking this up probably already have flour in their homes. The benefit of creating this content is that now they’re familiar with this brand of flour, and if the recipe goes well, they have more trust in this particular brand.

So, the article doesn’t have to be “how to choose the right type of flour.” It can be something your audience wants to know related to what you offer.

Getting creative with how-to content

Sometimes you want to create a guide that technically might already exist, but you want to do a better job in one way or another.

That’s great! But it means going the extra mile, thinking outside the box, and every other cliche you can think of. And that doesn’t always mean doing something costly or extravagant.

For example, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC released a piece about how to wash your hands correctly. Rather than sticking to the diagrams you see in restaurant bathrooms, they created a clean list of steps followed by a video showing exactly how to execute each step.

Just the addition of the videos made the content much more valuable to readers.

I also love this article from Taste of Home. I’ve read a million recipes on how to make chocolate chip cookies (what? I have a sweet tooth!), but this is the first time I’ve seen one that helps you adapt a basic recipe to make the best cookie for you.

The simple addition of this graphic adds an entirely new value to the piece that so many other variations lack by offering visual representations of textures for each recipe option.

So how can you achieve the same result? When you’ve decided on a topic to write about, do the following:

  • Sum up in one sentence exactly what you want to teach people. Be as specific as possible. This will keep you focused when you’re creatively brainstorming how to execute.
  • Explore what other how-to content already exists and what they’re lacking. Does the type of content work well for the topic? Is it too long, too confusing, too boring? How can you make yours easier to understand and more interesting?
  • Constantly bookmark inspiration you come across. All kinds of content out there can provide you with creative ideas on how to execute a how-to guide. Put all of the links or images in a Google doc to create a sort of virtual vision board, or make it a habit to go to sites like


Knowing that how-to content is always going to be desired is a great prompt for examining its role in your strategy. Which of your previous how-to pieces have performed the best, which have performed the worst, and what can you learn from both?

Hopefully the tips I’ve shared in this piece will help you explore new opportunities to serve your audience with step-by-step guides. If you have more examples of how-to guides you love, share them with me in the comments below or on Twitter @millanda!

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Understanding & Fulfilling Search Intent – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by BritneyMuller

Google houses the world’s information, and it’s their goal to serve the best answers to searchers’ questions. That means that understanding what your target audience is searching and why is more important than ever — but how do you effectively analyze and fulfill true search intent?

In this brand-new Whiteboard Friday, Britney Muller shares everything you need to begin understanding and fulfilling search intent, plus a free Google Sheets checklist download to help you analyze the SERPs you care about most.

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high-resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Hey, Moz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Today we’re going to be uncovering understanding and fulfilling search intent, and this is a really important topic to understand and better prepare your content around.

I want you to think about this idea that Google houses the world’s information. They very likely know what the majority of people searching X are seeking, and they’re going to continue to get better and better and better at that.

Understanding search intent

What I would suggest you do and what you arm yourself with is this idea of really leaning on Google to better understand the intent behind any given search. You’re probably very familiar with the informational, navigational, investigational, and transactional-related intent types, and you can pull this information, like I said, directly off the SERP.

Analyze: informational, navigational, investigational, transactional?

You’re probably very familiar with the informational, navigational, investigational, and transactional-related intent types, and you can pull this information, like I said, directly off the SERP.

  • Is there a featured snippet? 
  • Is there a knowledge graph? You can pull that sort of information. 
  • Are there site links? 
  • Is it navigational in nature, people just trying to go to one destination? 
  • Is there a comparison table? 
  • Are they perhaps investigating?
  • Transactional, are there tons of ads? 
  • Are there lots of product pages showing up in the results? 
  • Is there a shopping carousel? 

You can pull intent types directly from the search. What’s interesting though is any given SERP doesn’t necessarily have one intent type.

In fact, it likely has a couple of nitty-gritty intent types that Google themselves haven’t quite totally figured out. I want to pull back the curtain on how Google is actively trying to get better at understanding intent within questions and answers within content.

They put up a competition to a bunch of data scientists to determine if anyone could build a model that can accurately weight these various intents with the content. 

Question information

There’s question information that they wanted the model to predict around: Is this fact-seeking? Does it have multi-intent? Is it not really a question? That’s my favorite. Is it well-written

  • Asker intent understanding
  • Body critical
  • Conversational
  • Expect short answer
  • Fact-seeking
  • Has commonly accepted answer
  • Interestingness to others
  • Interestingness to self
  • Multi-intent
  • Not really a question
  • Opinion-seeking
  • Well-written

Question type

Then they’re also trying to understand the type of question. Is it a definition? Is it instructions? Is it spelling, which is most of my searches? 

  • Consequence
  • Definition
  • Entity
  • Instructions
  • Procedure
  • Reason explanation
  • Spelling

Answer information

Then they get into answer information. Is the answer intent helpful? Is it plausible? Is it relevant? Does it satisfy the question

  • Helpful
  • Level of information
  • Plausible
  • Relevance
  • Satisfaction

Answer types

They even drill a bit deeper into answer types. Is it instructions, procedure, well-written

  • Instructions
  • Procedure
  • Reason explanation
  • Well-written

Again, you see these sort of themes occur. So it’s important it’s not just these four. It’s great to know these and sort of run with them a bit. But put these in your back pocket and know that it goes a lot deeper and it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Search Intent Checklist

Let’s dig into this checklist of sorts. The idea behind this is that there’s a Google sheet that you can have today, make a copy and tweak however you’d like, that walks you through really this first process of understanding the intent and then fulfilling it.

Make a copy of the Search Intent Checklist

Once you do this a couple of times, you’re not going to need this checklist. This will become second nature to you. Let’s just walk through what this looks like. 

1. Uncover the SERP intent

First, what is the primary SERP intent? For my example, I have phonetic alphabet, informational. Secondary intent might be investigational for the types of content people are looking for.

2. List any SERP features and other SERP notes

I list the SERP features that I notice in the search results. I’m really just making mental notes of what I’m seeing. So for this particular SERP, there were a lot more visuals than I expected, and so I made note of that. That kind of surprised me. I also made note this is the order of the features that are showing up.

3. Read, consume, and take notes about the ranking URLs

The next thing you do is to read and consume all of the ranking URLs. This is so, so important if you’re serious about ranking for a particular keyword. You should actively be consuming this content and making notes about topics and entities covered. 

  • What sort of multimedia are they using?
  • What are the layouts? 
  • What does it feel like? 

You can really start to have a better checklist of what does that content look like and what are those expectations. 

4. Scan ranking URLs’ Domain Authority with MozBar

Then, ooh, my favorite secret hack is to activate MozBar for the search result page. You can see the Domain Authority and the backlinks for every single URL on a SERP.

A lot of people don’t know you can use MozBar directly within Google search results, and it’s fantastic. What I use this for, if I want to rank for something like this, I would just evaluate all of the organic DAs, and I would really evaluate that range and see if the website or my client’s website might be competitive with it.

If they’re not even close, maybe I pivot this and I try to target something more appropriate for them to rank for in the short term. 

Fulfilling search intent

Now the fulfill part, are you fulfilling this intent? 

Page goal

What is the page goal? Every page should have a goal.

Outline scannable framework

I want to just briefly explain what I mean by this. Scannable content is so, so important. More and more people are on mobile. Our attention span is getting shorter and shorter. 

1. Generate 10–20 title ideas and use the extras for social

This idea that you should generate multiple title ideas to come up with the best one, but then use the others for social media. Shout-out to Andy Crestodina, who came up with that, which I love. 

2. Use the inverted pyramid

Use the journalistic style where you tell people the most important information at the top. 

3. Succinct summaries

Make sure you have succinct summaries. Omit needless words, whether that be at the top or at the bottom of your content. It’s so important to have. Google loves pulling that information for things like featured snippets. 

4. Scannable subtitles

Make sure you have scannable subtitles. Copyblogger does this beautifully, where you can just scan one of their articles and you quickly understand what the content is about like that. That’s incredibly helpful for users. 

5. Leverage multimedia

There’s no reason why you couldn’t also take a piece of content you’re working on and provide other options or other forms for your visitors to consume it. We don’t know what any given visitor might be or the position they’re in to consume content at that time.

Maybe they’re going for a walk and they want to hear audio. It’s really great to provide different media types. 

6. Provide relevant next steps

Then lastly, I have this here and here, are you providing relevant next steps? So I really thought about this for someone searching phonetic alphabet that are looking for information.

What might be relevant next steps? It sounds like they’re sort of in a learning mode. So why not quiz them on it? Why not entice them to learn more about aviation jargon and language? You can start to like put yourself in the mindset of the user and really try to cultivate logical next steps for someone to go through on your site, so really building out that supportive content.

Make sure you have a CTA

Then lastly, make sure you have a CTA. Hopefully, it’s to fulfill the page goal that you set for yourself. But ideally this should become second nature after a couple of passes, where you just have these kind of mental checks in your head and you can quickly and better evaluate search result pages to target and rank and succeed in search. 

 I really look forward to hearing your thoughts and your comments down below. Thank you so much for joining me on this edition of Whiteboard Friday. I will see you all soon. Thanks.

Video transcription by

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Should You Test That? When to Engage in SEO Split Tests

Posted by Portent

This blog was written by Tim Mehta, a former Conversion Rate Optimization Strategist with Portent, Inc.

Running A/B/n experiments (aka “Split Tests”) to improve your search engine rankings has been in the SEO toolkit for longer than many would think. Moz actually published an article back in 2015 broaching the subject, which is a great summary of how you can run these tests.

What I want to cover here is understanding the right times to run an SEO split-test, and not how you should be running them.

I run a CRO program at an agency that’s well-known for SEO. The SEO team brings me in when they are preparing to run an SEO split-test to ensure we are following best practices when it comes to experimentation. This has given me the chance to see how SEOs are currently approaching split-testing, and where we can improve upon the process.

One of my biggest observations when working on these projects has been the most pressing and often overlooked question: “Should we test that?”

Risks of running unnecessary SEO split-tests

Below you will find a few potential risks of running an SEO split-test. You might be willing to take some of these risks, while there are others you will most definitely want to avoid.

Wasted resources

With on-page split-tests (not SEO split-tests), you can be much more agile and launch multiple tests per month without expending significant resources. Plus, the pre-test and post-test analyses are much easier to perform with the calculators and formulas readily available through our tools.

With SEO split-testing, there’s a heavy amount of lifting that goes into planning a test out, actually setting it up, and then executing it.

What you’re essentially doing is taking an existing template of similar pages on your site and splitting it up into two (or more) separate templates. This requires significant development resources and poses more risk, as you can’t simply “turn the test off” if things aren’t going well. As you probably know, once you’ve made a change to hurt your rankings, it’s a lengthy uphill battle to get them back.

The pre-test analysis to anticipate how long you need to run the test to reach statistical significance is more complex and takes up a lot of time with SEO split-testing. It’s not as simple as, “Which one gets more organic traffic?” because each variation you test has unique attributes to it. For example, if you choose to split-test the product page template of half of your products versus the other half of them, the actual products in each variation can play a part in its performance.

Therefore, you have to create a projection of organic traffic for each variation based on the pages that exist within it, and then compare the actual data to your projections. Inherently, using your projection as your main indicator of failure or success is dangerous, because a projection is just an educated guess and not necessarily what reality reflects.

For the post-test analysis, since you’re measuring organic traffic versus a hypothesized projection, you have to look at other data points to determine success. Evan Hall, Senior SEO Strategist at Portent, explains:

“Always use corroborating data. Look at relevant keyword rankings, keyword clicks, and CTR (if you trust Google Search Console). You can safely rely on GSC data if you’ve found it matches your Google Analytics numbers pretty well.”

The time to plan a test, develop it on your live site, “end” the test (if needed), and analyze the test after the fact are all demanding tasks.

Because of this, you need to make sure you’re running experiments with a strong hypothesis and enough differences in the variation versus the original that you will see a significant difference in performance from them. You also need to corroborate the data that would point to success, as the organic traffic versus your projection alone isn’t reliable enough to be confident in your results.

Unable to scale the results

There are many factors that go into your search engine rankings that are out of your hands. These lead to a robust number of outside variables that can impact your test results and lead to false positives, or false negatives.

This hurts your ability to learn from the test: was it our variation’s template or another outside factor that led to the results? Unfortunately, with Google and other search engines, there’s never a definitive way to answer that question.

Without validation and understanding that it was the exact changes you made that led to the results, you won’t be able to scale the winning concept to other channels or parts of the site. Although, if you are focused more on individual outcomes and not learnings, then this might not be as much of a risk for you.

When to run an SEO split-test

Uncertainty around keyword or query performance

If your series of pages for a particular category have a wide variety of keywords/queries that users search for when looking for that topic, you can safely engage in a meta title or meta description SEO split-test.

From a conversion rate perspective, having a more relevant keyword in relation to a user’s intent will generally lead to higher engagement. Although, as mentioned, most of your tests won’t be winners.

For example, we have a client in the tire retail industry who shows up in the SERPs for all kinds of “tire” queries. This includes things like winter tires, seasonal tires, performance tires, etc. We hypothesized that including the more specific phrase “winter” tires instead of “tires” in our meta titles during the winter months would lead to a higher CTR and more organic traffic from the SERPs. While our results ended up being inconclusive, we learned that changing this meta title did not hurt organic traffic or CTR, which gives us a prime opportunity for a follow-up test.

You can also utilize this tactic to test out a higher-volume keyword in your metadata. But this approach is also never a sure thing, and is worth testing first. As highlighted in this Whiteboard Friday from Moz, they saw “up to 20-plus-percent drops in organic traffic after updating meta information in titles and so forth to target the more commonly-searched-for variant.”

In other words, targeting higher-volume keywords seems like a no-brainer, but it’s always worth testing first.

Proof of concept and risk mitigation for large-scale sites

This is the most common call for running an SEO split-test. Therefore, we reached out to some experts to get their take on when this scenario turns into a prime opportunity for testing.

Jenny Halasz, President at JLH Marketing, talks about using SEO split-tests to prove out concepts or ideas that haven’t gotten buy-in:

“What I have found many times is that suggesting to a client they try something on a smaller subset of pages or categories as a ‘proof of concept’ is extremely effective. By keeping a control and focusing on trends rather than whole numbers, I can often show a client how changing a template has a positive impact on search and/or conversions.”

She goes on to reference an existing example that emphasizes an alternate testing tactic other than manipulating templates:

“I’m in the middle of a test right now with a client to see if some smart internal linking within a subset of products (using InLinks and OnCrawl’s InRank) will work for them. This test is really fun to watch because the change is not really a template change, but a navigation change within a category. If it works as I expect it to, it could mean a whole redesign for this client.”

Ian Laurie emphasizes the use of SEO split-testing as a risk mitigation tool. He explains:

“For me, it’s about scale. If you’re going to implement a change impacting tens or hundreds of thousands of pages, it pays to run a split test. Google’s unpredictable, and changing that many pages can have a big up- or downside. By testing, you can manage risk and get client (external or internal) buy-in on enterprise sites.”

If you’re responsible for a large site that is heavily dependent on non-branded organic searches, it pays to test before releasing any changes to your templates, regardless of the size of the change. In this case, you aren’t necessarily hoping for a “winner.” Your desire should be “does not break anything.”

Evan Hall emphasizes that you can utilize split-testing as a tool for justifying smaller changes that you’re having trouble getting buy-in for:

“Budget justification is for testing changes that require a lot of developer hours or writing. Some e-commerce sites may want to put a blurb of text on every PLP, but that might require a lot of writing for something not guaranteed to work. If the test suggests that content will provide 1.5% more organic traffic, then the effort of writing all that text is justifiable.”

Making big changes to your templates

In experimentation, there’s a metric called a “Minimum Detectable Effect” (MDE). This metric represents the percentage difference in performance you expect the variation to have versus the original. The more changes and more differences between your original and your variation, the higher your MDE should be.

The graph below emphasizes that the lower your MDE (lift), the more traffic you will need to reach a statistically significant result. In turn, the higher the MDE (lift), the less sample size you will need.

For example, If you are redesigning the site architecture of your product page templates, you should consider making it noticeably different from both a visual and back-end (code structure) perspective. While user research or on-page A/B testing may have led to the new architecture or design, it’s still unclear whether the proposed changes will impact rankings.

This should be the most common reason that you run an SEO split test. Given all of the subjectivity of the pre-test and post-test analysis, you want to make sure your variation yields a different enough result to be confident that the variation did in fact have a significant impact. Of course, with bigger changes, comes bigger risks.

While larger sites have the luxury of testing smaller things, they are still at the mercy of their own guesswork. For less robust sites, if you are going to run an SEO split test on a template, it needs to be different enough not only for users to behave differently but for Google to evaluate and rank your page differently as well.

Communicating experimentation for SEO split-tests

Regardless of your SEO expertise, communicating with stakeholders about experimentation requires a skill set of its own.

The expectations with testing are highly volatile. Some people expect every test to be a winner. Some expect you to give them definitive answers on what will work better. Unfortunately, these are false expectations. To avoid them, you need to establish realistic expectations early on for your manager, client, or whoever you are running a split test for.

Expectation 1: Most of your tests will fail

This understanding is a pillar of all successful experimentation programs. For people not close to the subject, it’s also the hardest pill to swallow. You have to get them to accept the fact that the time and effort that goes into the first iteration of a test will most likely lead to an inconclusive or losing test.

The most valuable aspect of experimentation and split-testing is the iterative process each test undergoes. The true outcome of successful experimentation, regardless if it’s SEO split-testing or other types, is the culmination of multiple tests that lead to gradual increases in major KPIs.

Expectation 2: You are working with probabilities, not sure things

This expectation applies especially to SEO split-testing, as you are utilizing a variety of metrics as indirect signals of success. This helps people understand that, even if you reach 99% significance, there are no guarantees of the results once the winning variation is implemented.

This principle also gives you wiggle-room for pre-test and post-test analysis. That doesn’t mean you can manipulate the data in your favor, but does mean you don’t need to spend hours and hours coming up with an empirically data-driven projection. It also allows you to utilize your subjective expert opinion based on all the metrics you are analyzing to determine success.

Expectation 3: You need a large enough sample size

Without a large enough sample size, you shouldn’t even entertain the idea of running an SEO split test unless your stakeholders are patient enough to wait several months for results.

Sam Nenzer, a consultant for SearchPilot and Distilled, explains how to know if you have enough traffic for testing:

“Over the course of our experience with SEO split testing, we’ve generated a rule of thumb: if a site section of similar pages doesn’t receive at least 1,000 organic sessions per day in total, it’s going to be very hard to measure any uplift from your split test.”

Therefore, if your site doesn’t have the right traffic, you may want to default to low-risk implementations or competitive research to validate your ideas.

Expectation 4: The goal of experimentation is to mitigate risk with the potential of performance improvement

The key term here is “potential” performance improvement. If your test yields a winning variation, and you implement it across your site, don’t expect the same results to happen as you saw during the test. The true goal for all testing is to introduce new ideas to your site with very low risk and potential for improved metrics.

For example, if you are updating the architecture or code of a PDP template to accommodate a Google algorithm change, the goal isn’t necessarily to increase organic traffic. The goal is to reduce the negative impact you may see from the algorithm change.

Let your stakeholders know that you can also utilize split-testing to improve business value or internal efficiencies. This includes things like releasing code updates that users never see, or a URL/CMS update for groups of pages or several microsites at a time.


While it’s tempting to run an SEO split test, it’s vital that you understand the inherent risks of it to ensure that you’re getting the true value you need out of it. This will help inform you on when the scenario calls for a split test or an alternative approach. You also need to be communicating experimentation with realistic expectations from the get-go.

There are major inherent risks of engaging with SEO split-testing that you don’t see with on-page tests that CRO usually runs, including wasted resources and non scalable results.

Some of the scenarios where you should feel confident in engaging with an SEO split test include where you’re uncertain of keyword and query performance, proof-of-concept and risk mitigation for larger-scale websites, justification for ideas that require robust resources, and when you’re considering making big changes to your templates.

And remember, one of the biggest challenges of experimentation is properly communicating it to others. Everyone has different expectations for testing, so you need to get ahead of it and address those expectations right away.

If there are other scenarios for or risks associated with SEO split-testing that you’ve seen in your own work, please share in the comments below.

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Help Us Improve: The 2020 Moz Blog Reader Survey Is Here

Posted by morgan.mcmurray

It’s been a few years since we last asked you to tell us what you love (and don’t love so much) about the Moz Blog, and since then our company, our industry, and our world have undergone massive shifts. 

With so much having changed, we wanted to be sure we’re still living up to the high standards we set for this blog, and that we’re still providing as valuable an experience as we can for you all. That’s where you come in today.

To help us serve you better, please consider going through the survey below, which asks about who you are, what challenges you face, and what you’d like to see more of on the Moz Blog.

We’ll publish the results along with our takeaways in a few weeks, and will use them to guide our work going forward. From all of us at Moz, thanks in advance for your time!


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Mapping Local Essentials: Being the Business that Grows, Sells, or Markets the Beans

Posted by MiriamEllis

Image credit: Kenneth Leung, Michael Coghlan

“Dried beans saw a more than 230% increase in demand and rice sales spiked by 166% in that same time.” – ABC

How should a business operate now? Where is there work to be done? Economists are making stark predictions about the future of small businesses in the US, but at the same time, I live in a town without a courier service established enough to meet the mushrooming demand for home delivery.

Frankly, it’s devastating reading headlines forecasting the permanent closure of 7.5 million American SMBs, but while absorbing these, I also spent six weeks shaking the Internet for bathroom tissue before locating some 1,400 miles away.

Point being: Where there’s need, fulfilment can be a public good, and where there’s upheaval, any possibility is worth considering. Necessities are emerging in bold relief on the map of each town and city. Demand must be met by determined small entrepreneurs to keep society functional.

If you have a strong desire to actively support communities in new ways, by either retooling your existing business or even launching a new one, the doors of opportunity are open:

Tools and exercises can help you assess local demand, with the goal of building a stable business based on serving the public exactly what it needs most. What I see emerging is a marketplace that’s essentials first, luxuries second. With a consumer public struggling to get its basic needs met, you want to own the business that grows, sells, or markets the dried beans if you can determine they’ll continue to be a must-have in all times and seasons. Let’s think this through together today.

Map local essentials

One of the hard lessons so many of us have learned from the past few months is that our local communities are neither prepared for disasters nor sufficiently self-sufficient to meet all basic needs. Where is the wheat field, flour mill, yeast manufacturer “near me” so that I can bake enough bread to keep my household going instead of staring at “out of stock” messaging on the websites of remote major brands? If you’re considering becoming part of the local solution to this widespread problem, I’d like you to try this simple city planning exercise with me.

Take out a pen and paper, or open a design program if you prefer, and map out the essential needs of your community. Your community could be your city, or could be a larger geographic area such as a county. Include everything you can think of that human society requires, from water and food, to skills of all kinds, with an emphasis on long-term sustainability. Your map may look very similar to mine, or it could have substantial differences:

Once you’ve created your own map, answer these five questions:

1) Based on what I currently know, where in my community are the worst, ongoing local resource deficits? For example, in my community, we make too much alcohol for the residents to drink and don’t grow enough food for them to eat.

2) From what the present emergency is teaching me, which local resources have proven both essential and hard to access during a disaster? For example, there is only minimal manufacture of necessities in my town and a tax base that hasn’t been geared towards safety from wildfire.

3) Where would my existing skills and passions fit most easily into this map today? My skills, for example, would enable me to teach almost any business in town how to market themselves.

4) What new skills and assets would I need if I want to adjust my current offerings or move to a completely different role in my community? Let’s say I wanted to be an organic farmer instead of a local SEO — how could I transition?

5) If large-scale government planning fails to ensure that all members of my community have what they need to support life, what are my options for cooperating with neighbors at a local level to ensure my city or county is more self-sustaining? For example, my city has a Buy Local association I might tap into for large-scale, organized planning.

From this exercise, I want you to be able to tell yourself and others a compelling story about what your place on the map lacks and what it requires to become more self-reliant, as well as begin to gauge where you might personally fit in contributing to solutions.

Assess local demand

Now it’s time to research specific demand. How do you know what’s most needed at a local level? Try these tools and exercises and take notes on your findings.

1. Center your own experience and see if it’s trending

More than anything else, it’s your powers of local observation that will tell you most about business opportunities. Businesses exist to solve problems, and right now, the problem we’re confronting is local self-sufficiency during times of emergency as well as in better days.

Here’s an example of a problem. My household eats legumes at least twice a day in some form. We’ve always been able to get dried beans, lentils, and peas in bulk from the grocery store. However, with the public health emergency, stores ran out of stock and we had to order boxed products from an international brand headquartered far away. I can check to see if the problem I’ve noticed locally is part of a larger phenomenon by looking at Google Trends:

Sure enough, this tool is reporting a spike in demand for dried beans across the US in mid-March. Of course, this isn’t a reason to run out and start a new business, but the data can engender good questions like:

  • Have I identified an anomalous spike in demand or a permanent need?
  • Is there explicit value for customers if this demand could be supplied locally instead of via distribution/online channels?
  • Are there already local companies fulfilling this demand? If I got into this line of business, who would my local competitors be and how well are they marketing themselves?

Pay special attention to any insider information you have as a local. For example, I happen to know that in my region, there is just one local grower of dried beans and they aren’t large enough to make the community food-secure. They specialize in organic, heirloom varieties and, every year, their small crop rapidly sells out.

What do you know about supply and demand in your community, from lived experience?

2. See if your need is mentioned in Google’s Rising Retail Categories

Google’s brand new Rising Retail Categories tool doesn’t specifically mention my dried bean example, but it’s another interesting vehicle for watching demand trends.

For example, here’s data capturing a 50% increase in US demand for tortillas and wraps:

Unfortunately, Google’s tool can’t zoom in to a local level, and you can’t query the tool, but it’s great for brainstorming business concepts based on trending queries. Right now, for example, anything to do with home and garden improvement and growing food is off the charts.

Seeing the larger picture, this could simply be a predictable seasonal trend with summer coming up, but I can again pair this with my insider knowledge. Every plant nursery and home improvement store in my area is sold out of multiple products — from tomato cages, to grow bags, to compost. At least for the present, I believe we are witnessing substantial growth in the desire to enhance life at home and to have access to fresh food. Take note of anything you’ve wanted that’s been sold out or available in only limited quantities.

3. Crosscheck demand via keyword research tools

If you’re not a Moz customer, making use of a free trial to check out Keyword Explorer will give you a ton of data about national supply and demand. And don’t overlook the beta of Local Market Analytics, which shows you local keyword volumes. Add in a few local cities you’d ideally like to serve and the website address of your own business or that of a potential competitor, even if you’re not yet open for business.

Free keyword research tools like Answer the Public or the Google Adwords Keyword Planner can also help you assess large-scale demand.

4. Ask, listen, repeat

To further explore whether there is desire for your offering in your community, test the waters by asking strategic questions in multiple places and of multiple people, including these:

  • Nextdoor
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Local fora (Craigslist, community hubs, local newspapers, etc.)
  • Industry fora (agricultural, manufacturing, retail, etc.)
  • Buy Local associations
  • Chambers of Commerce and other business associations
  • Local government bodies and officials
  • A formal focus group
  • Friends and family
  • Local reporters and bloggers
  • Successful local business owners

What you ask will vary depending on your business idea. In my dried bean hypothesis, I might want to poll feelings of frustration about local food shortages and gauge interest in improving local food security, as well as discover if people would pay for direct-to-consumer (DTC) delivery of my crop on a regular basis. I’d be researching agricultural programs, grants, loans, and other forms of assistance to help me start farming myself, or to form a collective of farmers willing to devote acreage to a bean crop, or to supply stores and restaurants, or to market my product.

I’d want to gather as much information as possible from as many people as feasible to help determine whether a business idea is viable or not. Whether I want to become a grower/manufacturer, resell the output of an organized effort, or launch a marketing campaign, the fundamental requirement is that I’ve discovered my offering is definitely in demand.

5. Look Back

In 1960, 95% of the clothing Americans purchased was made in the US. In the 21st century, that figure has fallen to just 2%. A couple of generations ago, 60% of us lived in rural areas near farms, but today, only 20% of us do.

As we weather the pandemic, my mind keeps turning to a drive-through dairy my family visited weekly in my childhood. It was convenient for my mother to steer the station wagon under a portico and have the dairy’s staff fill up the trunk with milk, yogurt, cheese, and a half-a-dozen frozen push-up pops for the kids. If consolidation and economies of scale hadn’t made that independent dairy obsolete, their curbside service would be doing record business in 2020. Walmart wants to do this with robots — I’d prefer to make sure my neighbors have living wage jobs and my town has a tax base.

In these days of “buy online, pickup in store” (BOPIS) and same-day delivery, I recommend befriending your city’s library or historic society to gain access to business records depicting the state of local 20th century commerce. See how your community was sustained by the farmer, the tailor, the baker, the vegetable wagon, the milkman, the diaper truck, the cobbler who repaired non-throwaway shoes, the town-supported hospital and doctor who made house calls, and the independent grocer. What you find in the archives could shine a light on creating modern sustainability if trying times and local desire converge in a demand for change.

Once you’ve done as much research as you can into the demand, it’s time to consider how you would promote your offering.

Market like Ma Perkins

When unemployment peaked at 24.9% and thousands of banks closed in the 1930s, who was still operational? It was Ma Perkins, “mother of the air”, progenitor of content-based marketing and soap operas, and radio star who offered homespun advice to her fictional town while selling Oxydol to the listening public. Realizing that people would still need soap even in hard times, Proctor & Gamble swam against the austerity tide, doubling down on their marketing investments by launching the “Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins” radio show, making the brand one of the most famous Great Depression- era success stories.

This historic example of tying an essential offering to dedicated communication feels just about right for our current time. Scanning headlines like “Some small businesses are flourishing in the COVID-19 pandemic”, I’m hearing crackling echoes of Ma Perkins in the storytelling ventures of Cleancult’s orange zest cleansers and Tushy’s bidets. There’s precedent behind SEOs telling clients not to pause their marketing right now if they can afford it. Being a visible, reliable resource in this moment isn’t just good for brands — it’s a relief and help for customers.

For your local business idea, there will be a tandem marketing task ahead of you:

  1. Tell a story of and to your local customers and tie it into your offering.
  2. Tell such a persuasive story of the need for local resource security that you needn’t go it alone. Help the local business community reimagine itself as a city planning task force with the goal of increased self-sufficiency.

Marketing needs to be baked into your business concept — not treated as an afterthought. To broadcast your storytelling to the public in modern times, local radio can still be a great tool, but you will also likely need to master:

Moz has many free guides and a vast library of expert articles to help you gather skills you need, and I hope they’ll help you on your business ideation journey as you consider the role promotion will play in getting the word out about what you can do for your community.

Circling back to our tale of dried beans, if you can tell your customers’ stories, tell a good story about yourself like heirloom bean grower Rancho Gordo, inspire others to talk about you as in this local industry news piece on Baer’s Best beans, you are on the way to a win.

If you learn how to cumulatively build press and awareness around your brand, your business idea could wind up a local household name by demonstrably improving life where you live.

Within the realm of possibility

“Could the reduction in air pollution be good news for fighting climate change? (University of Toronto researcher Marc) Cadotte says a small blip like the one we’re experiencing will have minimal impact on the long-term challenge of climate change. But if the pandemic continues and emergency measures remain, some countries may end up unintentionally meeting emissions targets set through the Kyoto Protocol and Paris agreement.” — Air quality improves by up to 40% in cities that took action on COVID-19

Theater buffs are currently arguing about whether Shakespeare may have written some of his masterworks while quarantining from plague. What’s at stake in such debates is the scope of human creativity in the face of adversity. My own community in California has already been so hard-hit by the wildfires of climate change that COVID-19 has the odd feeling of being “just another disaster”. It has made the reduction in car travel feel trivial to my friends and family, given the benefits of a massive reduction in emissions.

Is it unsound to consider reenvisioning your business or opening a new one in a reality where upheaval has become a dogged companion and stability has become a prize beyond compare? Scientists warn we can only expect more of the same until we seize the full measure of problem-solving and make our own masterwork a sustainable planet.

Against that backdrop, let’s have the courage to say it’s within the realm of possibility for you to grow beans, or build an alliance of farmers to sell them, or market that alliance to your county. Or do whatever work strikes you as most powerfully contributive.

Let’s say it’s not beyond things dreamt of in your philosophy that a tri-county alliance could provide water, food, clothing, housing, home goods, education, professional services, safety net, civic life, and culture to all regional residents. And perhaps your region makes a blueprint for others, and progress is slowly redefined not by short-sighted market wins but, rather, permanent gains in the human happiness index.

In an essentials-first economy, let’s say that people, and their capacity for solving problems have, in fact, become essential.

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Black Lives Matter.

Posted by SarahBird

The time to use our platforms and privilege to speak out against the deep racism that plagues our society was years ago. I regret staying silent in those moments. The next best time is now. Silence is harmful because it prioritizes the comfort of those of us who benefit from racist policies at the expense of those exploited and victimized by them.

It’s not enough to simply “do no harm” or “not be racist.” That well-trodden path has produced the same brutal results again and again. At Moz, we’re moving to a higher standard. The creation of a more just world requires us to be loudly, unceasingly anti-racist.

We must acknowledge that human rights exist beyond politics.

We must hear and validate the lived experiences of people of color and amplify their voices.

We must show up.

We must reinforce, loudly and often, that Black lives matter.

This is an uncomfortable conversation for most of us. We’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, offending people, losing relationships, jobs, customers, and in some cases physical safety. By design, white supremacy has made it uncomfortable to speak out against white supremacy. Fearing angry backlash for speaking out against the risks and injustices people of color face every single day only serves a system designed to keep us silent — a system that has been shaped over centuries to oppress and exploit people who are not white. At Moz, we will practice the courage to speak out and show up for love and justice. Maya Angelou said wisely, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

Today, we express solidarity with Black people grieving the losses of David McAtee, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many, many others. We share and honor the outrage rippling through our country. We stand with you and we stand for justice and love.

We want to amplify the signal of inspiring people doing powerful work. Activists like Rachel Cargle and her work on The Great Unlearn project. Resources like the Intentionalist, an online directory that allows you to discover and patronize diverse local businesses in your community. Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race illuminates the harsh reality of police brutality, inequitable mass incarceration, and other lived experiences of Black people in the United States and gives us tools to talk about race and racism. EmbraceRace is an organization focused on helping parents, teachers, and community leaders raise children to think and act critically against racial injustice. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist asks us to think about what an anti-racist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it. Ross Gay’s poem, A Small Needful Fact, is a powerful memorial that says so much in a few beautiful words. I invite everyone to re-read or listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s full Letter From a Birmingham Jail. His statements and questions are heartbreakingly relevant today. May you be moved beyond thought to action, as we are.

Be well and love each other.

Editor’s note: We’re disallowing comments on this post to make sure the focus remains on the problem at hand: the indiscriminate mistreatment and murder of Black people in the United States. In addition, we will be forgoing our typical publishing schedule to make space for the more critical conversations that need to be held.

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