Google’s two most important ranking factors are content and links. But even the highest quality content — with an abundance of authoritative, incoming links — can fail to rank in search engines. When this happens, it can feel like Google just hates your site, but there’s usually a more logical solution: you’re doing keyword research wrong.
Effective keyword research in the era of RankBrain and A.I. is more than just finding phrases to embed into content. To earn high rankings in 2017, keyword research must be evolved and expanded into a process that guides overall content strategy.
Modern keyword research breaks down to five main steps:
Step three is what defines the winners and losers in organic search. Traditional keyword research fails to earn high rankings because it neglects user intent, so conducting keyword research without also gathering user intent insights is a waste of time.
To get a detailed discussion, examples, and step-by-step instructions on all five stages of an effective, modern keyword and content strategy, fill out the form to the right to download the ebook.
User intent is the question behind the keyword—the answer users are seeking from search. If content doesn’t answer that question, it doesn’t rank.
Keywords are just questions written in shorthand. When searching for the keyword “content marketing,” a user might be asking:
These are all very different topics.
If users are most commonly seeking content marketing tools when using this keyword, an article that details solutions to common content marketing problems will not rank highly—regardless of the depth of coverage and quality of inbound links—because it doesn’t satisfy the core question users are asking.
Even the best content will never rank well in organic search if it doesn’t satisfy user intent.
Google uses engagement signals—click-through rates, time on page, bounce rate, etc.—to identify which results satisfy user intent and which don’t. And RankBrain—Google’s machine learning program—is always on. It collects data on the factors that affect user engagement and satisfaction, and makes constant tweaks to organic rankings based on its findings
The result: Content that doesn’t satisfy user intent fails to engage searchers, and content that fails to engage users gets downgraded by RankBrain. No amount of on- or off-page SEO will solve this problem. The only solution is to identify and satisfy user intent.
User intent research is crucial for improving organic rankings, but high rankings aren’t the only benefit. Ranking well in organic search requires creating the very best content for both users and search engines, and user intent research provides the insights you need to do it.
Keyword research is the process of discovering the sequences of words people commonly use in search engines when looking for information related to a business’ offerings. It provides insight into what information your target audience is looking for, and how they’re looking for it.
Keyword research starts with compiling a list of basic topics that are related to a brand and its industry, services, products, or other offerings. A list of general topics can be expanded with keyword research:
While compiling a list of keywords, make sure to include long-tail keywords—keywords of four or more words.
A list of hundreds of keywords can be overwhelming, but it can be somewhat condensed by grouping related keywords into keyword families.
Grouping keywords saves resources that would be wasted by creating separate content for keywords that Google consider synonymous, and helps inspire the creation of topically authoritative content.
To group keywords into families, find similar keywords on your list, open a browser tab for each keyword, conduct a depersonalized search for each, and review the results. If the same results appear for each keyword—even if the ranking order is different—those keywords should be grouped into a single keyword family.
But be careful: You might find that similar keywords produce different results. This is because Google understands some of the nuances of different queries. If results are inconsistent, keywords should not be grouped.
Using Google searches to group related keywords also allows for removal of irrelevant keywords.
An international business development company looking for keywords related to “global market entry services” may discover the suggestion “world market entry table.”
At a glance, this keyword seems related. However, conducting a search for the keyword shows definitively that “world market entry table” isn’t worth targeting:
Google classifies user intent into four micro-moments: “Know,” “Buy,” “Do,” and “Go.” Go is not usually relevant for B2B brands because is signals navigational intent—the user is trying to physically go somewhere. The other three micro-moments can be used to classify user intent into one of two categories:
To identify user intent, study the organic search results from depersonalized searches:
Review the results, and document the intent alongside targeted keywords and keyword families. Don’t be surprised if most keywords have learn intent—that’s fairly common for B2B queries. You may also find that some keywords display both learn and purchase intent. In these cases, document intent as primary and secondary intents:
Documenting user intent information has dual benefits. First, it enables the creation of content that caters to user intent. Second, it allows brands to discover what keywords users are searching for at different stages of the buying journey.
This information can be used to optimize content for more effective funneling.
User intent research can also be used to plan the format and length of content, to identify the persona that’s most likely searching for specific keywords, to determine subtopics that need to be covered, and to discover additional opportunities for ranking on page one.
Once you have a list of relevant keywords and understand the intent behind those keywords, prioritize the list. There are several considerations that factor into prioritization:
Priority is something that each team must decide on individually based on business goals. Core and high-volume keywords will have a lot more competition and will take more time to earn high rankings, but if they’re important, they should still be priorities.
Low-volume keywords with poor existing results may not drive as much traffic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a poor investment. In some cases, a purchase intent keyword with 10 average monthly searches can drive significantly more ROI than a learn intent keyword that brings in 1,000 top-of-the-funnel visitors each month.
You can’t tackle an entire keyword list at once. Balance priorities between core business terms and low-competition/high-conversion opportunity keywords for the best foundation and the quickest possible impact.
User intent research provides many valuable insights that can be used for content planning:
User intent research enables the creation of detailed content plans that provides exactly what your audience is looking for, helps nurture decision-makers through the buyer’s journey, and delivers content in the format your target audience prefers.
Conducting user intent research is an excellent approach to content planning, but it can also be used to improve existing content. If current content isn’t ranking well or engaging visitors, research the keywords used, make sure the right intent is targeted, and optimize based on new insights.
Keep in mind that intent can change over time. RankBrain constantly monitors searcher behaviors to revise and refine results. If user intent changes, formerly high rankings may decline, so set up a process to periodically review user intent on your most important keywords. And if you notice organic rankings starting to slip, make sure user intent is part of the review process.
Technical industries can me more prone to intent changes due to increased familiarity with new technologies and changing vocabularies. As people gain a better understanding of the technology, “know” queries can shift to “do” and eventually “buy.” For this reason, it is good to reevaluate user intent every six to nine months in order to make sure it hasn’t changed.
Adding user intent analysis to traditional keyword research activities adds time and effort to the process, but that extra effort is a necessary part of an effective content strategy. If marketers neglect intent because of the added effort, content marketing resources are wasted and rankings are relinquished to competitors.
Start by conducting user intent research on existing, underperforming content. Search for targeted keywords, review page-one results, and optimize your content to cater to the appropriate intent.
For even more insight on how to do modern keyword research and create a content strategy that drives business goals, download your copy of A Modern Guide to High-Impact SEO Content today.