Updated on June 25, 2019, to include current research tools and resources.
One of the first tools I fell in love with when I started mountaineering was an ice axe. An ice axe probably doesn’t sound like something you could love. It’s certainly not warm and fuzzy. You can definitely use it as a weapon. But hear me out! It’s essential for scrambling and climbing on snow and ice and is jaw-droppingly versatile. You can use it as a walking stick to keep balance, for self-arrest if you fall, and to maintain control when glissading down a slope. It’s literally a lifesaver.
Thinking about how much mountaineering tools make my adventuring life easier and how I enjoy suggesting that other people use them, made me realize how many content research and ideation tools make my process way more efficient and that I should probably share those with people, too.
Why Do You Need Content Research Tools?
One of the main reasons for using tools for content ideation is to understand what your users are searching for, so you can deliver the most engaging and useful content to them.
In Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach write:
“Great content meets users’ needs and supports key business objectives. It keeps people coming back for more.”
When you’re coming up with content ideas, it’s essential to think about what’s going to make people return to your site. One way to do this is by answering people’s questions. Not only is this a great way to engage with people on your website, but writing blog posts in this way can help you drive a lot of organic traffic, especially if you grab the “featured snippet” or “people also ask” sections of the SERPs.
A Few of My Favorite Research Tools
If you currently write content but need some new methods for finding topics for your blog, read below for my favorite content research tools (some free, some paid).
1. Free Content Research Tools
Content topic research is more of an art than a science. There isn’t a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach. It’s best to pick a starting point and then see where you end up from there. To begin to get a feel for what people are searching for, I suggest starting with one of the free content research tools and then dive into the paid tools to find out how viable your ideas are (I’ll talk about my favorite paid tools later on in this post).
One fantastic place to start is Quora. Quora is a website where people ask, answer, edit, and organize questions. Its sole purpose is to solve people’s problems by responding to questions, just like you do with the content on your website.
Let’s pretend your company sells matcha. If you search “matcha,” it pulls up questions people asked around the topic. The inquiry below is an excellent potential topic to explore on your website or social media platforms:
Try typing in different keywords and seeing what questions come up—some will most likely be potential content topics, or at least help you verify your current ideas.
Reddit may seem like a place where you find trolls, not new content ideas. However, 330 million unique users are discussing different topics on Reddit, all which you can use for ideation research.
Reddit is also made up of thousands of communities called “subreddits” where users post links, stories, and videos. Users vote to determine which posts rank the highest on the subreddits.
Let’s go with a similar beverage themed query, but “coffee” this time. If you go to Reddit and search “coffee,” you’ll find the coffee subreddit and topics such as:
- Can I collect pour over coffee in any regular glass container?
- Can water hardness affect flow rate in pour over?
- Does coffee get better with age? (Answer, no! Compost that immediately if it’s too old!)
You could turn these results into content topics such as:
- “Coffee Accessories You Need to Own Now”
- “DIY Pour Over Coffee Containers You Can Find In Your Kitchen”
- “How Long Does Coffee Stay Drinkable?”
Explore the different subreddits and see what ideas you come up with. As of 2017, there are 1 million subreddits, and you’ll likely find some that are relevant to your industry.
A search engine’s goal is to match up a searcher’s intent with a quality piece of content that satisfies that purpose. When someone enters a query into the search bar, the engine will attempt to find the most relevant pages to display in its search results.
An excellent tool for discovering what potential customers are searching for is the Google Ads Keyword Planner. This tool allows you to research new keywords and ideas, and you can access the tool without running a campaign—I just recommend following some instructions.
Although Google will hide info for certain terms with extremely high volume, the Keyword Planner tool provides the average search volume for specific terms and phrases, and it can show you how competitive the market is for that query and how expensive a paid search bid might be.
One of our favorite ways to use the Keyword Planner is to find the Wikipedia page for your topic and then plug that into the “Your landing page” field. For example, some of the keyword ideas from looking up the Wikipedia page for “Hiking” are:
- “hiking boots”
- “walking holidays”
- “backpacking gear”
Once you uncover what people are actually searching for, you can either optimize your current content for those keyword phrases or create new content.
Plain Old Google
Don’t get so sucked into using tools that you forget to look at the actual search engine results pages. Plugging a keyword into Google and seeing what comes up via Google Suggest can be a simple, but effective way to kick off your content ideation process.
You can use Google Suggest to go down a kind of keyword rabbit hole. Start by inputting a simple query, such as “jogging” and see what Google pulls up.
You can then choose one of the suggestions, plug it back into Google, and see what comes up in Google Suggest this time.
For example, if you sell jogging shoes, you could write a blog post titled, “The Top 5 Jogging Shoes for Flat Feet.”
Paid Content Research Tools
Free content tools are fantastic, but they can only give you so much information and data. In addition to free resources, I like to use a few paid tools as well. Most of them have free trials, so you don’t have to be afraid of commitment.
Answer The Public is a tool that collects questions. But instead of using questions from users within its site, they’re provided by Google & Bing. These questions are put in a shareable, visual list and the data is shown in question, preposition, or alphabetical form, and then exported to a CSV file or as a PNG.
For example, if you search for “cherry blossoms,” it brings up questions such as “Are cherry blossoms edible?” and “How to cherry blossom bonsai?”. You can then mold these questions into potential blog posts or content hub pages such as, “Top 10 Cherry Blossom Recipes” or “Cherry Blossom Bonsai Tree Care Guide.”
See the little green circles next to each query? If you click on them, they take you to the SERPs. Quickly reviewing the user intent of the query, the various content types (answer box, videos, links, etc.), and the competitors will allow you to determine whether or not you have a chance to rank for this particular piece of content.
One of the best ways to generate new content ideas is to take a peek at what other people are writing. We’re not suggesting you copy what you see. Instead, use your findings on Buzzsumo to initiate a brainstorm.
Buzzsumo shows you what content performs best for any topic or competitor without having to search the web yourself. You can also sort results by social network to figure out what topics performed best on each platform.
Since clearly, I love the outdoors, I’ll use that example again. This time, imagine you work for an outdoor gear company based in Bend, Oregon. Type in the search query “hiking,” and you’ll see topics such as:
- Doctors Explain How Hiking Actually Changes Our Brain
- 10 California Hiking Trails with Insane Paranormal Activity
- “Camping With Dogs” Instagram Will Inspire You To Go Hiking With Your Dog
Here are a few examples of how these search results can turn into ideas for new content just by changing a few words in the previous article titles:
- 5 Reasons Why Hiking is Great For Stress Relief
- 5 Ghost Town Hikes in Oregon
- Follow These Oregonian Instagram Accounts for Hiking Inspiration
Ahrefs is a robust keyword and competitive research tool with many different capabilities.
There are so many things this tool can do, but one of the best and most straightforward functionalities is the “keywords explorer.” You can type in a query such as “space exploration,” and it will show you keyword ideas under a few different categories: “Having same terms,” “Questions,” “Also rank for,” and “Newly discovered.”
I like using the “Having same terms” functionality. If you click on the full list of results, you can see the keyword difficulty and volume, and get tons of ideas for not only great topics but topics that you have the ability to rank for.
For example, the query “space exploration” is difficult to rank for, but by using this tool you can get different ideas such as “space exploration games” and “history of space exploration,” which are both easier to rank for.
If you want additional data about your queries directly in the SERPs, you can install the Chrome and Firefox plugin, Keywords Everywhere. The tool will give you data such as Google keyword search volume, CPC, and competition data of keywords.
They also pull “related keywords” and “people also search for” and display them on the right-hand side of the SERPs, which you can export to a CSV file.
There are other sites that pull articles from across the web. Try paper.li, which allows you to enter keywords or an article URL to discover similar articles on the same topic. If you don’t want to keep revisiting the site, they will collect and send you content via email. Alltop is another site that gathers content from across the web. Type in a keyword related to your industry and see what surfaces. We also have our own Content Idea Generator that’s fun, but will also give some unique ideas.
As you can see, there is a variety of content research and ideation tools out there, and I hope you’ll experiment with some of them the next time you’re staring at your screen trying to come up with your next blog or article topic. And if you need ideas for non-promotional content for your social channels, some of these work well for that too.