Lists don't have to be clickbait. Those nerve-wracking posts about the best potato chips or most ripped celebrity you see on Facebook give lists a bad rap.
It's entirely possible to make a great list of … pretty much anything.
This post will show you how to do just that.
Lists, also called list posts, are articles that are structured around lists. They usually add extra information to each item in the list to make it more useful to readers.
Why do people like listings?
Here are just a few reasons:
- Easy to skim over because each subheading usually corresponds to a list item.
- Easy to digest because by definition they are broken down into bite-sized pieces.
- Easy to measure because you always know how much of the number is left in the title.
Is that an exhaustive list of reasons? No, but we cannot list them all. Check out this Smithsonian Magazine post if you're curious about other reasons for its popularity.
Writing a list is easy. Just open a blank document, list a bunch of things, and you'll get a list. However, writing a list that drives traffic that people actually want to read is a little more involved.
This is how it works:
- Choose a theme
- Make sure it makes sense
- Decide on the length
- Choose a format
- Choose a winning angle
- Brainstorm list items
- Expand your ideas
- Meat every point
- Illustrate your points
- Wrap things up
1. Choose a topic
If you want your list to increase traffic from search engines, you need to choose a topic to search for.
Since keywords are usually topics, you can do that with a good keyword research tool like Ahrefs Keyword Explorer. Just look for a broad topic and then go to Phrase match Report showing keyword ideas sorted by monthly search volume.
Make sure you choose a topic that you have some knowledge of. Otherwise, you will struggle to make a clear and valuable list.
If you're not an Ahrefs user, our free keyword generator can get you up to 100 ideas.
2. Make sure it makes sense
Not every topic is suitable for a list format. This is pretty obvious for some subjects, such as: B. "How to Tie a Tie". You can tell from the query that people are looking for a step-by-step process, not a list of many different methods.
But things aren't always that obvious …
Take a topic like "SEO Expert". It's not clear if users want a step-by-step guide, list of tips, or something else.
You can find out by looking at the top results on Google. Because Google's business model is based on delivering relevant search results, top results are a great indicator of what searchers want to see.
If you look at the screenshot above, you can see that there is only one list in the top 5 for "SEO experts". Since the rest are step-by-step instructions, this is probably not a good topic for a list.
If you're having trouble finding a suitable topic for a list, add these words to the inclusion filter in Keywords Explorer: Ideas, Tips, Best, Tools, Things, Strategies, Tactics, List. This will limit the results to keywords that contain at least one of those words. These are often great candidates for lists.
3. Set the length
In general, the number of items should be on your list rough Adjust the number of list items that appear on the top pages. If all are two or three digits, a five-item list is likely not what searchers are looking for.
For example, the top scores for "Date Ideas" are lists of hundreds of ideas.
While none of the top 5 results for “Blogging Tips” top 30.
Is that a hard and fast rule? No. If you think a list of more than 100 articles is completely pointless and doesn't really help the searcher, you can deviate from this advice. What we're doing here is using the top results as a proxy for what searchers want, but it's not 100% foolproof.
Also, the length of your list can ultimately be limited by the number of ideas you have. However, it's good to have a rough baseball figure in mind first.
4. Choose a format
There are two possible list formats.
Basic lists are short and to the point with 1-2 sentence descriptions for each list item. Use this format when one or both of the following conditions are true:
- Your list will be long. People probably don't want to read an essay about each of the 50+ items on your list.
- Your subject is simple. For example, let's say you're compiling a list of date ideas. Most of them are likely to be simple things like "roller skating" or "hiking". You don't have to write 500 words about each of these things.
Detailed lists are meatier lists where you add a few sentences or paragraphs to each point. Use this format when one or both of the following conditions are true:
- Your list will be short. If you have few items in your list, your post is likely to attract more visitors if you provide more content and detail about each one.
- Your subject is complicated. Suppose you are putting together a list of SEO Tips. SEO is a complicated topic, so readers will likely need practical advice or step-by-step instructions on how to complete each tip.
5. Choose a winning angle
Here are some popular viewing angles for lists:
While you can only choose an angle based on what feels most interesting, it is better to be inspired by the top results. Remember, this is the best proxy for what searchers want to see.
When we do this for the keyword "travel tips" we see that most of them are based on personal experience:
With "dinner ideas" pretty much all of the results focus on ease.
However, things are not always that straightforward. Take a look at the results for “Marketing Ideas,” which have two dominant angles: creative and free. The best choice is everyone's guess.
In any case, make sure that you stay away from clickbait angles. If you can't deliver what your perspective says, choose something else.
6. Brainstorm list items
Bringing in new and unique ideas is crucial when writing a list (or other content). While it seems tempting to just copy everyone else, if you just make a copy of the lists that are in place, nobody will care about your post.
Worse, backlinks are unlikely to be attracted, making it harder to rank on Google and get searches.
For this reason, before you even think about what existing lists have to say on the subject, be sure to write down your own ideas. This process doesn't have to be complicated. Just open a blank document and start listing potential ideas.
7. Expand your ideas
If you are not very knowledgeable about a subject, you will likely have difficulty finding enough items on your own to make a comprehensive list. Input from friends or colleagues is one way to resolve this. However, you can also get inspiration from the top sites.
Here are two ways to do this:
a) Use the report "talk about it too"
Plug your target keyword into Ahrefs Keyword Explorer and go to Also talk about Report. This shows words and phrases that are featured frequently on the top pages for your keyword.
Not all of these words and phrases are particularly illuminating. Therefore, it is best to search the list for suggestions that could form the basis of potential points.
For example, here are some words and phrases that might appear for "date ideas":
- movie theater
- animal shelter
- Board games
- Rock climbing
When we combine these ideas with our own knowledge and common sense, we can easily turn them into valuable points:
- Receive ice
- Go to movie theater
- Visit a animal shelter
- play Board games
- Walk Rock climbing
b) Check sub-headings
Most lists use sub-headings for each item. A great way to get inspiration from high level pages is to extract the subheadings. You can do this for free with Ahrefs SEO Toolbar. Just install it, open one of the top ranked pages, then click the little page icon in the top left to see the report on the page.
If you are wondering why you don't just look straight at the pages, this is your chance. However, this is an easy way to get too inspired. You may read all of the subheadings and your list will soon become a copy.
8. Meat out every point
Now is the time to expand on each point and refine your list. The level of detail here depends on the desired list format.
- For simple lists. Add a few sentences to each point.
- For detailed lists. Write as much as you need to explain each point in detail.
Keep in mind the angle of your list. When writing a list for beginners, avoid unnecessary jargon and detail. If your list is based on personal experience, now is the time to add more thoughts and opinions to it.
9. Illustrate your points
Listels are easy to skim through and digest. But they are arguably even easier to digest when you break with pictures and illustrations. This becomes even more important if you want readers to actually remember the items on your list thanks to the image superiority effect.
According to Wikipedia:
The image superiority effect refers to the phenomenon where images and pictures are more likely to be remembered than words. This effect has been demonstrated in numerous experiments using various methods.
If you've read any of our lists, you'll know that we have a lot of pictures. For example, our list of 17 marketing ideas contains 39 images. This is because marketing is a complicated topic and some points are difficult to understand without pictures to illustrate. You don't have to use that many images in your lists so don't force them to do so.
10. Pack things up
Listings tend to end abruptly. You get to the last point and things just stop.
It's easy to see why. Most list readers are skimmers, so they probably wouldn't bother reading a conclusion anyway. However, this is not a reason not to include one. For the people who read your list from start to finish, a good close can help wrap things up and get the point home.
Here are some tips to help you write a good close for your lists:
- Hold on short.
- Do not repeat points that you have already made.
- Focus on the main point where you want to go home.
- Link to other relevant posts (they don't have to be lists).
Given that we're roughly following this advice for our own lists, we figured we'd finish things off by sharing some lists from our own blog that rank high and generate lots of organic traffic.
Not all lists are created equal. Just because Buzzfeed's lists are the lowest common denominator doesn't mean you have to. Pick the right topic, angle, format, put some effort into the content, and you have a recipe for organic success.
Any questions? Ping me on Twitter.