Information gain: how original research gets you zooming up the search rankings

Michael Metcalf

Chroma Copy | Content strategist & writer for B2B, SaaS, tech and consumer brands.

Imagine this. You’re an aspiring entrepreneur, looking for a tool to help you launch a website.

You search for “best website builder”. You scroll past the ads (who trusts those?) and past the YouTube results (who has time for those?)

Underneath the fluff, you reach the organic results. The real deal. This is where you find answers. The key that opens your door to internet stardom…

‘The best website builders for 2021’

‘How to choose the best website builder in 2021’

‘The 5 best free website builders in 2021′

’10 Best (REALLY FREE) Website Builders in June 2021’

Oh, joy.

You may as well close your eyes and click on a random part of the page. Wherever you land, you’ll end up with the same content. Wading through this tosh is about as reassuring as the financial advice you find in your spam inbox.

Engage the ad-blocker, I’m going in.

Half an hour later, you’ve got 600 open browser tabs and you’re no closer to finding the answer you wanted.

Surely there’s a better way to find things on the internet?

Climbing the search rankings, the ethical way

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer. And you’ve contributed to results pages like that (I won’t judge – we’ve all got to pay the rent somehow.)

You’ve probably been asked to do it by an enthusiastic content manager that wants their site to rank for certain high-volume keywords.

Your process might have gone something like this:

  • note the top results for your keyword
  • open up a bunch of tabs and see what they contain
  • construct your article with a similar length and keyword density to the top performers
  • use the same sources without linking to your competitors
  • rinse your thesaurus and plagiarism checker to make sure you aren’t duplicating content
  • post it, promote it and beg for backlinks
  • watch the article languish on page 8 of the search engine results pages (SERPs) and attract 12 visitors a month

It’s hardly ‘writing for the reader’, is it? Your old English teacher wouldn’t be too proud.

But there’s a better way. Where there’s a dense topic with tons of ‘copycat content’, you’ll actually find an opportunity to take one of the top spots yourself, simply by taking a different approach to the others.

“Even for highly competitive search terms?”, I hear you ask.

Yes, provided your fundamentals are good (decent domain rating, backlink profile, etc.).

Why? You can write an article with information gain in mind. It’s a really simple concept, but one that’s overlooked by the vast majority of SEO content writers today. And it works.

What is information gain?

Information gain is the practice of adding new insights to a topic that’s already been written about online.

It helps you avoid copycat content because you’re not just recycling articles that have already been written, you’re adding new insights.

This is good for the searcher because they’ll find new and useful information they can’t get elsewhere.

It’s good for Google (or the search engine in question) because their user will be satisfied.

And it’s good for the web and humanity in general, because it expands the amount of useful knowledge around a topic, rather than letting it stagnate.

Hold on a sec – you’re just telling me to ‘write new stuff’ Isn’t that obvious?

Yep, it really is that simple. I’m telling you to stop using your competitors as your sources, and start contributing original research, if you want your articles to rank highly.

The term ‘information gain’ is borrowed from statistical mathematics, of which you’re welcome to try to decipher the Wikipedia page.

But it’s been named internally as a search metric at Google, according to Bill Slawski:

“Information gain scores indicate how much more information one source may bring to a person who has seen other sources on the same topic. Pages with higher information gain scores may be ranked higher than pages with lower information gain scores.”

The scores – which are not confirmed to be in use, but nothing really is in the mysterious world of Google algorithms – indicate:

“… additional information included by a page beyond the information contained in other pages already presented to the user.”

Google wants to contribute to an optimal user experience, which means searchers find what they want with minimal fuss. If your content is the ‘end of the search journey’, that’s the ultimate indication that your content is the best.

And that won’t happen if it’s the same as everyone else’s.

Three tactics to write for information gain

Remember: using competitor articles as sources can be dangerous, because as well as the potential for plagiarism (which Google punishes heavily), each article you use will have been written with potentially different business goals to yours.

As Camden Gaspar notes in his tweets on information gain:

“You may be blindly combining multiple conflicting user intents into one article where they do not logically mesh, providing information that isn’t relevant.”

So, to write for information gain, you’re going to have to carve your own path and switch up your approach. Remember the goals for your content, rather than everyone else’s.

To begin, you can use SEO tools that identify content gaps – Gaspar’s own, MarketMuse, claims to offer a feature addressing this. But good old-fashioned human research is going to be the best way to make this work.

Here are some of the best ways you can come up with original content for saturated topics.

Get original quotes from industry experts

This is where you get to flex your journalistic skills alongside your research.

Just reach out to experts in the field you’re writing about. Ask them specific questions like how they solved a problem, or what results they’ve seen from a certain strategy. These are more likely to get a response than generic ‘quote wanted for article’ requests.

The person you ask wins, because they’re quoted as a voice of authority on the subjects, and benefit from a backlink from your content. And you win because you get original content written for you by someone else!

Here’s some ways to get original quotes for your writing:

  • use HARO (Help A Reporter)
  • use Help A B2B Writer
  • tweet your request to #freelancewriting or specific community for your topic
  • reach out directly to sources you already know

Use academic research to your advantage

Bernard Huang from content optimisation tool Clearscope suggests Google is likely to increasingly reward links to primary academic sources in future. It contributes to the overall ‘credibility’ ranking of your content if you’re sourcing proper research.

How do you find it? Here’s my method:

  • visit the Dimensions academic search engine
  • search your topic as specifically as possible (e.g. ‘workplace stress outcomes’ rather than ‘stress’)
  • use the filters on the left to show ‘open access’ research only (‘All OA’)
  • click through to the result, and then to the actual article (the link will take you directly there)

And there’s your opportunity to mine valuable insights from academic research. Make sure you at least read the introduction (abstract) and conclusion to ensure you’re not misunderstanding the study.

(One unanswered question: will linking to academic sources still be legitimate if you completely misinterpret the research and use it to claim false assertions? I’m yet to find out.)

Deploy surveys to mine original customer data

If you’re writing on behalf of a client that has an established customer base, you’ve got access to a goldmine of original insights. Ask your point of contact to query their customers about the topic you’re writing about.

Whether it’s through a tweet, a poll, a newsletter, or one-to-one conversation, you’ll gain insights you might never have found elsewhere online.

These can be used as original quotes in the article (allowing for links to said customer’s site if they wish), pull quotes for distribution, and even inspiration for entirely new works of content if the issue is meaty enough.


16th March 2022

Dan Lever

Great article, Michael. I was relieved to discover I was already implementing some of the information gain techniques described. Some really useful links, too.

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