How to write a really good roundup.
How the Zapier team wrote software roundups that brought in millions of views, every year.
You don’t want the second best, the runner up, the thing that’s good enough but not quite great. You want the best.
So we Google “best this” and “best that.” The teams that answer those questions stand to profit, with Wirecutter’s $30 million New York Times acquisition, NerdWallet’s billion-dollar market cap, and Zapier’s millions of monthly visits and a nearly-free business software sales funnel.
All of that, fueled by curiosity, research, and writing.
Here’s how to pull it off—how to write roundups like my team and I did at Zapier.
First up: What is a roundup article?
A roundup is a detailed article that summarizes research around a product or service category and recommends one or more best items based on detailed testing and criteria.
How to write a roundup
Try everything. Become an expert. Share your expertise.
That, in a nutshell, is how to write roundups.
I started with software reviews. I’m infinitely curious, sign up for every beta possible, install way too many apps. I’d try everything, see what made one app feel different from another, dig into Inspect Element and Mac software package contents to see what fonts and frameworks went into a program, chase down competitors and companion apps to see how the app fit into real-life workflows.
Then I’d write reviews of the best stuff I found. I preferred not to be negative and write reviews of software I didn’t like; there was enough great stuff that I could recommend, and that was what readers were looking for, after all. And, I often found that software that was worse at one thing was better at something else, that there were always tradeoffs involved in being best.
That led me into writing roundups. For here, the nuances come through, as you describe how a lineup of software performs and which tool is best at which thing.
Here’s the system.
Which roundups should you write—and which are best to skip?
What products are people searching for, who would also be interested in your product?
Complements. That’s what you want to write about, the things people are looking for that they’ll use with your product. Help them find complements, and you’ve got a chance to sell them on your product, too.
Wistia focused their writing efforts on tools that’d help you make better videos. You’d need a great camera and microphone and lighting setup to shoot great footage, so they tested everything and rounded up the best tools. If you made great videos, you’d likely want to host them somewhere great, like Wistia, or so the logic goes.
The same for Zapier’s software roundups. You’d need great software—project management apps and newsletter tools and CRMs and accounting software and more—to build an effective business CRM. And if you used a ton of software, you’d eventually want to connect them and build automated workflows with something like Zapier.
If you help people find the thing they need, and the thing you’re selling goes along with that thing, you can help them find the former without bias, and recommend your product along the way.
That led us to a golden rule of roundups: Never write roundups about your product’s category.
Zapier could be unbiased about most software—but not automation tools. Wistia could be unbiased about video equipment—but not hosting those videos. Stripe could be unbiased about running your startup and managing equity and more—but not about how to process payments.
Talk about your product’s key selling points all the time. Just don’t talk about them in comparison to your competitors. You’ll always be biased—or at the very least appear so—and that removes any credibility your other writing might have had.
So Zapier didn’t write roundups comparing Zapier, IFTTT, Workato, Microsoft Flow, and more. Someone else could do that. We instead wrote about adjacent products, built trust around our detailed recommendations, and trusted it’d pay off eventually (and it did).
Make a list of things to round up.
List your product’s complements, things that people who want your product would also want. A running shoe brand might cover running trails or marathons. A toaster oven brand could find the best breads and spreads. Find your thing, dig in, see how deep you can go. Or, if like Wirecutter and Nerdwallet, your sole product is roundups, then find your category, the things you want to stand for, and focus on owning that category. You don’t even have to round up things; you could round up templates and workflows that people might want to create in your product, like Airtable, or locations people might like to visit and perhaps use your service while there, like Airbnb.
Write them all down, ideally in a spreadsheet or database, so you can add more detail later on.
That’s your list of what to cover.
Check it twice, prioritize by top searches.
All of those ideas are likely great, and you’ll want to cover each eventually. But at first, you’ll want to focus on the most impactful ideas.
Take your list of ideas to a search tool (Google Trends for cursory research, Google Ads Keyword Tracker for a free peek at search volume, Moz or Ubersuggest or Ahrefs for more detail), check the search volume for each idea, and see which make the most sense to target. Focus on two things: Search volume (how many people search for that thing each month) and Difficulty (how hard it will be to rank on Google’s first page of results for that topic). Paid search optimization tools will typically list difficulty themselves; you can infer difficulty based on the average ad price shown on Google Ads Keyword Tracker. You can then decide which to target, or a ratio between them; I always try to find ideas with over 2,000 monthly searches and a difficulty of 50 or less.
Along the way, you might think of some extra roundup ideas—or discover keyword ideas you might have overlooked. Whenever I’d research software roundups at Zapier, it was hard to overlook how many people searched for free along with a software category name. That gave us an idea for a way to extend our research: We could write one roundup of the best options, another detailing the free options which might not be the absolute best but would be the best for a budget of $0.
List everything, sort it by search volume or difficulty or a ratio of the two. Now it’s time to grab the first idea off the list and start writing.
1. Research the options.
You’ve got the category to target. Start by listing exactly what you want to cover. Do you want to write about the best vacation spots in Vancouver, or the best vacation spots for children on Vancouver Island, or … how deep and specific do you want to go? That gives you the criteria to start your research.
Then research what people are looking for here. Wirecutter goes deep, talking to experts about what one should expect from a product in that space. Zapier’s team tended to write about business software that we’d already used in work, so we’d lean on our team’s experience and look around to see what customers tended to look for in the space.
Now, start building a list of everything that could go in your roundup.
So, say we’re going to write a roundup of the best to-do list apps. You’d first list all the apps that come to mind: Todoist and Microsoft To Do and Apple Reminders, perhaps, for a quick start.
Then Google their competitors. Search
todoist alternative and you’ll come across Trello, Asana, and OmniFocus; add them to your list. Then repeat;
trello alternative gets you Monday.com and Basecamp and JIRA. Here you might reassess: Looks like Trello’s alternatives are aimed at businesses, so perhaps it’s not the best fit for your to-do list roundup if your goal is personal task management.
Search for other similar roundups, too, and make sure you’re not missing anything. Perhaps check Product Hunt and the App Store for newer task management tools you might have overlooked, or search Twitter to see if anyone you follow has recently mentioned a to-do list app they love.
List everything you find and their links. Remove anything if it doesn’t pass the “sniff test” and seem like it would be worth your time testing.
Keep going until you feel confident you’ve found most of the popular options in the space and uncovered some promising newer options.
2. Try them all.
This step will take forever, but it’s the only thing that makes your roundup authoritative: Try everything.
For software roundups, I would sign up for or install every app on the list. I’d set them up, and try to do the same tasks in each app to get a feel for what made that program tick, what made it different from its competitors. I even came up with a fake persona—Bob Tester, who lives at 123 Main Street with a
bobtester@ email address—to simplify testing.
If you’re writing about things you can’t test—enterprise software, say, that you can’t get access to without a multi-year contract, or gear far beyond your budget, you can get there halfway by reading reviews from others and averaging them out. That works—but it’s not going to give you the absolute best, industry-leading roundups.
If possible, test absolutely everything possible yourself, as you need that hands-on experience to rank them in your roundup.
Take notes as you’re going: How much does it cost, are there any “gotchas” as you’re signing up, is there anything that feels notable and unique about this tool? If this app has a unique feature others don’t, make sure to try it and note if it’s a worthwhile improvement. You can start writing now, if you want, detailing what’s great about this option. Or you can wait, keeping detailed notes so you’ll be able to write authoritatively about the product without going back and trying it again.
Take screenshots as well, clipping the full window of the most important screens to make sure you get something that looks great for your article.
You’re going to get so many welcome emails and have to unsubscribe from way too many lists. But you’ll also have some of the best insight into the space, and after trying a dozen or so programs should be able to easily tell the key differentiating features.
With that done, you’re finally ready to start rounding things up.
3. Pick the best for specific reasons.
Here, perhaps, is the hardest part: You need to declare something the best, and pick which other products to include in your roundup and how to order them.
And this is when it’ll hit you: There’s no single best thing in the world.
There’s no best software. There are only the best tools for the job at hand.
In my earlier Zapier roundups, I’d hedge my bets. I’d cover the 49 best team task apps, removing only the apps that weren't quite great.
In those roundups, I’d mention what each app was best at. Trello might be best for simple Kanban boards; Basecamp was best for focused work since you could snooze notifications, and so on.
That then led to simpler roundups, where we’d cut deeper and pick only a handful of apps out of the dozens we’d tested. Perhaps you’re writing about form apps; Google Forms is the best free form builder for most use-cases, then a handful of other apps also have a usable free plan worth recommending.
Wirecutter has a clever strategy of recommending one product for most people, another as an upgrade pick, and a third as a budget option. That—or another set of criteria—might help you choose which products to include in your roundup.
You’ll get pushback. Vendors will ask you to reorder your list to prioritize them, so you’ll need an answer on why your list is in the order it is (which is one reason to sort the non-top-picks by pricing or alphabetically).
Then it’s time to start writing.
4. Write your roundup article.
This, believe it or not, will likely be the easiest part. You’ve put in the hard work, internalized what’s great about each of the products you tested, cut out the products that didn’t meet your standards. All that’s left is to get those ideas on paper.
It’s helpful to form a system for roundups to make things even easier. Zapier roundups would list:
- The product name, linked to their website
- A one-line description of what that product was best at
- A screenshot
- A few paragraphs describing the product and what it does great
- Closing bullet point details about pricing, features, supported platforms, and Zapier integrations if available (one tiny plug for the product alongside the research).
Find what works for your content and style, list everything and build the skeleton of your article, then fill in the details from your notes.
Then add an intro and conclusion, something to grab readers' interest and tie it all together. If you get stuck, write three intros, and get your team to vote on their favorite. Don’t forget the title, too—and for whatever reason, we always found an odd number of product recommendations like 7 best email apps would perform better than a round, obvious one like 10. Your mileage may vary.
5. Share, tagging every product you mentioned.
Don’t hit publish and stop there. You’ve put too much work in at this point to leave your article’s future to fate.
So share it far and wide.
Tweet your article, and tag every company that you mentioned. There’s a good chance they’ll share it, too.
While you’re at it, write each of the companies and let them know you picked them for your roundup. Ask them to share it, or feature it on their press page. Can’t hurt to ask.
Dig in deeper, if possible. Check Twitter for people who are asking for a recommendation in your category, and reply to share your thoughts based on your research. Check Quora and Reddit and other forums for similar questions, and share your best answer—include a link if they’d like to read more, but make sure your comment fully answers their question, too.
Then set a reminder for a year or two in the future, and check back on your article. It’ll take time to get traffic, even longer to get popular. And over that time it’ll start getting dated. Check to see if anything’s changed, if any app’s hit the deadpool or changed their pricing or added something that was missing a few years ago. That’s your chance to keep your research relevant for years to come.
And that’s it. That’s how to write roundups the way the Zapier team did.
If you picked a broad category and tested every product, odds are you’ll pour dozens of hours into each roundup. But it’ll likely be worth it. You’ll know exactly what to recommend next time someone asks—and odds are they’ll ask Google, and it’ll recommend your roundup for you. That’s when the magic happens.
Then it’s time to pull up your roundup ideas list and start again.