How to Outrank Competitors With Semantics

At times, it seems as though the world of internet writing has become a race to the two extremes. On one side, social media has popularized the short, Buzfeed-style post. The only way click bait works is if you don’t trick people into reading a long article. They will be resentful.

On the other side, the “academi-fying” of the longer, more thoughtful web pieces has democratized traditional high-brow writing once accessible only with a subscription to The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. Our colleges are producing plenty of journalistic talent, and for once, the internet has given them the medium to be heard.

So how do you write high-quality content that stands out from a crowd? What can we say here to give you meaningful advice for improving your online product? It delights me to say that you should look back to your liberal arts education and dig a little deeper into some of the forgotten catacombs of your freshman and sophomore years.

The courses you despised for their pre-noon start times and “when am I ever going to use this?” material are the very courses that are helping this new generation of authors produce excellent, thoughtful content. So grab your old college notebooks and get in the game.

outrank competitors

Rhetoric and Discourse

Let’s be clear about something up front: this advice does not apply to traditional investigative reporting. In the last fifty years, the resources may have changed, but the methods have not. If you are trying to produce a masterpiece such as this incredibly detailed explanation of the San Francisco housing situation, old-fashioned legwork still applies.

What we are talking about is taking a topic of discussion – be it an opinion piece, a news analysis piece or a product review – and digging down beyond the surface to get to the core insights that will make your article worth reading.

The first step is taking the topic and stepping back to look at it from the “30,000-foot level,” so to speak. Identify the surrounding issues, context and the sides of the issue. For instance, could we discuss the popularity of procedural crime dramas on network television as escapism for an audience that lives every day in a world filled with injustice and a lack of accountability?

Does that sound like the thesis of a term paper in a 200-level psychology class? Absolutely, because here’s the thing: this type of discourse is actually meaningful. We have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees when we sit in a college class. Our minds are on a hundred other things that make up the college experience. But now, we are free from our hormone shackles and the restrictions of the professor who grades on a curve.

Stewart, Colbert and Oliver

Perhaps the most accessible example of creating high-quality content without succumbing to the ponderous weight of academic pretension can be found in the brilliance of the half hour “fake news” shows that have made so much money for Comedy Central and now, HBO. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver have staffs of writers who have proven their facility with rhetoric, discourse and their cousin semantics. Slicing up modern hypocrisy and absurdity with the skill of a surgeon, these programs can teach us a lot about how to approach our own craft.

Let’s take a look at the most recent entrant in the genre, HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. This show follows almost the exact same format as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but the no-advertising format of HBO has removed the commercial-break bonds the other two must deal with and as a result, Oliver and his writing staff have the opportunity to dive much deeper into their subjects.

In his piece on the absurdity that is the continued existence of the Miss America pageant, Oliver attacks the claim that the Miss America organization is the largest provider of scholarships to women in the whole world:

In his own humorous way, Oliver picks apart the veracity of the claim:

If – if it is actually true that Miss America is the world’s largest provider of scholarships to women, that’s a little bit weird, because Miss America does not offer scholarships to all women, only those who compete in its pageants.

He then goes on to break down the semantics of their claim, which hinge on one single word – provider.

And it turns out, the key word there is provider – some schools offer scholarships directly to pageant contestants, and the trick is Miss America counts all of them, not just the ones they can physically take.

He and his staff performed extensive research because they are a team of professional writers who have a week or more to prepare these bits:

You may not have that kind of time, but the logical tools they applied to this subject are available to anyone who paid attention in their liberal arts classes.

Let’s look at one more example from the show. In his discussion of student debt in America, Oliver offers an interview with a former executive at Phoenix University that explains why for-profit colleges are so expensive:

Oliver then takes aim at the ITT Tech commercials highlighting a student success story. Cherry-picking examples to support your case is a time honored tool in the argumentation belt. However, failing to account for all of the facts can leave you open to criticism, as Oliver then proved:

Lastly, Oliver delivers a knockout blow. He shows us the example of Corinthian College’s nursing program and some former students who, shall we say, left school a tad unprepared. Corinthian College, naturally, took offense to Oliver’s allegations, so when they were contacted for comment, they set themselves up for destruction. Oliver did not disappoint. All he had to do was apply some logic to the situation and dig below the surface to get to the true heart of the matter.

Academic Journal or Website

Breaking free from the lazy, hackneyed writing that dominates social media feeds is a surefire way to retain readers. After all, your readers are pretty much just like you – and don’t you appreciate thoughtful, well-written content? In order to elevate your prose, you need to go back to school. But figuratively, not literally. I’m pretty sure John Oliver has already covered why that would be a bad idea.

How Does This Actually Outrank Competitors?

According to Buzzsumo, the more technical side of semantic copy plays an important role in ranking factors. This means when writing about topics at length, it’s beneficial to consider as many tangents of discussion as possible, thus having more possibilities of being indexed for the variety of keywords and keyphrases.

A simple,  but effective tactic is to look at your competitor(s) websites and see which pages are thin. Do they have resource sections and location-targeted landing pages? These are the areas to focus on and identify content opportunities in. For example, the stone/tiling company Lesher Marble, has your standard navigation offerings which include an about page, products page, photo gallery, contact information, etc. Most competitors in this space are actually competing with visuals – which unfortunately, are not something Google robots use to rank for their most important keywords. The images themselves might rank, but that’s only in the image stream. Lesher utilizes semantics with a stone surface fact guide, offering insights to the range of surfaces from polished and honed to thermal and tumbled.

The largest example of this strategy is too simply reflect on the top sites that show up most often for general searches:

  • Wikipedia
  • About
  • Wikihow
  • News/publications

All of their content is continuous, updated, and usually adds value – but not always. In addition to outranking your competitors, you can even outrank thin guides on Wikihow, or historical/technical information unique to your inudstry, which Wikipedia often lacks.

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Jesse Aaron

I'm a blogger, homebrewer, and community manager. Aside from writing, I have a passion for music and design.

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