The Anatomy of a Great How-To Guide

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The Anatomy of a Great How-To Guide

If you take a bit of time to consider your relationship with search engines, you may discover that you most often turn to them for help and concrete advice. How often should I feed my cat, how to boil an egg, can I eat out of date soup – these are just some of the questions Google gets.

There is a subcategory to this category of question that content marketers often like to produce: the how-to. 

When looking for a step-by-step guide or a more in-depth answer to a “how can I do something” type of question, you’ll want to read a detailed and useful article. In this post, we’ll show you how to write one and dive deep into the anatomy of a great how-to guide. Let’s get started!

Why Should You Publish How-To Guides in the First Place? 

How-to guides naturally require more effort and resources to produce, so you may be wondering if they are worth your while. Let’s briefly touch upon some of the benefits of investing in this type of content:

  • You will put your brand name behind a piece of quality writing.
  • As you provide the ultimate resource on a given topic, you will help readers solve a problem or achieve a certain outcome. Being helpful always pays off.
  • You will attract a lot of organic shares and links with quality content.
  • You will be able to rank for more keywords and rank at the top for longer (at least until someone outdoes your guide).

How-to guides are also more likely to get curated by a large number of readers, which makes them more likely to get read and shared further. You can even use a content curation service to give your how-to guides a head start and ensure a large audience sees them. 

According to a study conducted by Semrush, long-form content with a complex heading structure, numerous lists, imagery, video, and video routinely outperform less complex articles in traffic generation, social sharing, engagement, and backlinks.

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As their main objective is to be as helpful and useful as possible, their inherent value is greater. Remember that value (alongside funny cat videos) is what people like to share the most. 

The Anatomy of a Great How-To Guide 

There are numerous elements that will make up a how-to guide that is useful, shareable, and actionable. Before you read through our guide, however, make sure to take a moment to consider your brand and target audience. While all of the points we cover are applicable across a wide range of niches and industries, you will need to adjust them to your own neck of the woods. 

Create (Niche) Guides that Speak to Your Audience 

The first hallmark of a great how-to guide is relevance. In other words, you absolutely want to ensure that the content you are creating matches the interests of your audience. 

When you take a look at your sales funnel, consider where the how-to guide will fit best. Are you able to write one that will appeal to a very broad audience of people who are still at the widest part of your funnel? Or would this type of content work better if it were niched down to appeal to a smaller section of readers who would be more interested and more likely to convert?

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples. 

First, there’s this article on how to lose weight by Diet Doctor. This is a very broad topic, and it’s something that people of all shapes and sizes will search for. Nonetheless, it can still prove to be a great initial touchpoint for introducing yourself to your audience.

This kind of topic can hardly be considered niche. However, if your industry has a similarly broad appeal or if you are confident that you can provide advice that will be useful to a huge range of individuals, don’t shy away from it. 

Bear in mind that you need to bring your absolute A-game for these kinds of topics. The competition will be great (see the graphic below), and there will be numerous resources available. In order to stand out, you’ll need to offer something others do not. (More on that further down.) 

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On the other hand, your industry might be a lot smaller, so you might be able to create content that is super-specific and that has a lower appeal factor. That might also make it easier to create. You may get fewer readers, but they will be easier to convert, and the content competition won’t be as fearsome. 

Here’s a post on choosing between two different Python frameworks. It targets a more specialized audience – specifically, individuals who already know a thing or two about coding. It’s not “how to get started with Python,” which would be the equivalent to our Diet Doctor example above. But it works just as well, precisely because it has niched down. 

Furthermore, the competition to rank on Google is much less than on a broader topic like the one mentioned earlier, as the screengrab from Ahrefs proves.

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Which route you choose to take will ultimately depend on your industry and the level of originality and innovation (not to mention quality) you can offer. 

Create Readable Content 

Your how-to guide also needs to be – forgive us for pointing out the obvious – easily readable. You can’t expect to type out a wall of text in a word processor and expect anyone to take the time to read it from top to bottom in order to find out how amazing and useful it is. 

You can use visual elements to break up your content effectively. Anything from photos and videos to embedded social media posts and infographics can be a great way to give your how-to guide a format users will like to consume. 

The Express Writers guide on writing guides is a great example of this technique. They’ve used memes and infographics, images, graphs, and Tweets to add an extra layer of information to their guide and make it clunk-free. 

If you prefer not to use imagery for whatever reason, use the layout of the page to make the text more appealing and digestible. 

For example, Time Tackle’s post on effective executive calendar management uses quotes, bullet points, summaries, a table of contents, different font weights, and frequent paragraph breaks. All this helps ensure you can skim their guide quickly and absorb all the information you need.

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Provide Credible Guidance 

While the internet is home to some amazing advice and you truly can learn a lot there, it also comes with one major downside we don’t always take into account. Anyone can say just about anything and pass it off as gospel. 

For your how-to guide to pack a mightier punch, you will need to prove to both the search engine and your readership that you know what you are talking about.

Search engines take into account the level of expertise that comes with an article. Google will give you a particularly hard time if you are writing about health- or money-related topics. How likely you are to be an expert on the subject matter will matter a great deal in every niche. 

How can you prove you are an expert? Or at least that you are knowledgeable enough about the topic and that you have done enough research to be trusted? 

Here’s how Bubbly Pet does it, for example. They have an about the author box on every page, telling you about the writer and why you should consider him an expert. There’s a much more detailed About page as well, where you can learn more about John and decide whether you trust him. This type of credential can work well on most blog-style websites. 

On the other hand, if you are a business that is looking to establish more trust and profound credibility, take a look at this Transparent Labs post on eating healthier

First, the author’s credentials and degree are clearly shown at the top of the page. There’s also a link to the brand’s advisory board, which showcases the expertise of all the individuals who review each post before publishing. The author’s bio at the bottom of the article is just as detailed. It certainly provides proof enough that Elliot can be trusted when it comes to nutrition. 

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The guide also features links to several scientific resources that back up each of the main claims of the piece. This is where a reader can find further information and confirm that what they’ve read does, in fact, hold water.

Alongside the above, make sure to also double-check your facts and re-read your guide at least twice after completion. 

Include Up-to-Date Information Only 

When writing and updating your how-to guides, make sure to rely on the latest information that is available on a particular topic. Whether you’re citing statistics or recommending certain actions, always check if there might be something new and perhaps better that you can reference.

This can prove to be rather difficult, as there’s simply no fresh data on a whole range of topics. For example, you can’t find anything about the ROI of email marketing past 2018. But as that is the latest data available, reference it. You can also make a note of the fact that more recent data isn’t available. This will help you preempt your readers’ potential misgivings about the credibility of your post. 

For instance, this guide on choosing the best medical alert system shows you exactly when it was updated. This simple line of text will ensure readers remain confident in what they are reading, knowing that the post has been updated each year to showcase the latest alarm systems.

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That brings us to another very important point: always update your posts. Don’t let a how-to guide you published three years ago that has seen some decent traffic start to gather dust. Add in some new information and update your facts. Perhaps give it a facelift, and then republish it. 

A great example of the updating of information is Backinko’s How to Learn SEO post. This particular guide has been around for years, but it is updated every year and thus manages to hold on to the top spot in search. 

Provide Useful Visual Guidance 

Finally, you also want to provide plenty of images that will show rather than merely tell your readers how to do something. It’s what WikiHow does so effectively and what usually makes them a go-to resource. 

Here’s this post on descaling a kettle by Expert Home Tips. It doesn’t show the step-by-step per se, but it does adequately illustrate what the article is telling readers to do. You can leave the post knowing what to do. 

Or, take a look at Preset Love’s guide on installing Adobe Lightroom presets. In addition to expertly written guidance, the post comes with high-quality animated gifs that will show the reader exactly where to click and what to do. Given the complexity of the interface involved, it will certainly be of much more use than merely describing the process.

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You may not be able to provide these visual guidelines for all of your how-to posts. You won’t even need to. Just consider if the post would be better with them or if it’s perfectly clear if you use your words. 

Remember, your goal is to write the best possible resource on the topic. You want to ensure a reader needs no other instructions to help them do whatever it is you’re teaching them. If images or videos can help, include them. 

Final Thoughts 

How-to guides can be tricky to write, and there are plenty of them ranking quite well that don’t help a reader out at all. If you invest a fair amount of effort and ensure you are helpful and easy-to-understand (and if you adhere to our tips), you can help your readers out and gain some trust with your guides.
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About the Author

Travis Jamison
Travis Jamison is an entrepreneur turned investor. After selling a couple of businesses, he shifted his focus toward investing. But he was disappointed by the lack of options for entrepreneurial-type investments - like buying websites & investing in small, bootstrapped businesses. So he started to provide a home for other entrepreneurs turned investors.
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