It’s time for search engine optimization (SEO) professionals to stop doing keyword research… or at least stop doing it the way that too many SEOs “do keyword research.”
Traditional, old-school keyword research produces long lists of words and phrases — with their relative search traffic figures — that can dramatically improve nothing about an SEO strategy.
Worse, a black and white list of keywords and traffic numbers can actually be misleading. Content producers focus on the words on their lists instead of on their audiences. Executives interpret those numbers as raw, immediate traffic potential instead of long-term opportunities.
That writer will create terrible content, that exec will be disappointed in the slow traffic increase, and both will quit SEO because “it doesn’t work.”
The problem with traditional keyword research is that it is still rooted in PPC: identify target keywords, examine the level of competition, place a bid. That’s not how SEO works. Starting an SEO campaign based on the wrong research is a recipe for low rankings, low traffic, and Google penalties.
It’s time for an updated strategy that goes beyond “doing keyword research.” Here are four new moves to add to your SEO fighting database.
1. Listen To People
I just returned from a B2B marketing and sales association annual event. (Who says SEOs don’t know how to party?) After speaking about the basics of SEO to a room full of semi-digitally-savvy marketers, I heard two questions repeatedly:
- What should I expect from an SEO campaign?
- When can I expect to see results?
These obviously represent huge content needs for my company (an agency specializing in SEO), yet traditional keyword research doesn’t find them:
I know that my audience is asking these questions. I very literally heard my audience ask them over and over again. But Google doesn’t recognize them.
It’s no surprise that there isn’t huge search traffic for “what to expect from an seo campaign.” (Talk about long-tail keywords!) What is surprising is that the “relevant” keywords Google suggests aren’t very relevant. Either Google is trying to sell me the keywords it wants to sell me (because this is still a PPC-based model), or there isn’t enough existing, high-quality content on the web for Google to associate with the search term.
The latter is a huge opportunity for me.
Lesson learned: Don’t over-trust keyword research for your content.
2. Analyze User Intent
A keyword is a code — a series of characters strung together in a search box to draw out information and answers. Google knows this. Google also knows that the key to its success is in deciphering that code accurately and delivering the information/answers that the user actually wants.
If a user, for example, conducts a simple search for, “payroll,” does he want a definition? A payroll service? An accountant? Software? Behold: user intent.
Search engines exist to guess the right answer. They invest untold hours and dollars developing algorithms and monitoring stats, like bounce rates and time-on-site, to get it right. All of this makes Google a kind of keyword decoder ring for SEOs trying to translate their own target keywords.
The two basic intents to sort through are “learn” and “purchase.” Which is the user trying to do? Search your keywords and look at what Google has decoded.
If the most common intent for a keyword is to learn, start creating sales-pitch-free informational content to attract those users. If the most common intent for a particular keyword is to purchase, optimize your sales pages.
3. Group Keywords
The keyword list will naturally develop and grow, but we can think more strategically about those keywords by grouping them into composite categories.
Every brand will target some keywords that are closely related and — you may notice as you analyze user intent — return very similar search results.
The “relevant” keywords that Google suggested for my SEO questions above, for example, are almost identical. Search results for “search engine optimization companies” and “search engine optimization services” yield many of the same results.
Combining similar keywords into composite groups will make planning a content strategy more efficient, and it will go a long way to prevent the development of thin, keyword-stuffed content.
4. Provide Clear, Actionable Context
Keyword research for SEO should always have the end goal in mind. Whether the finish line for your SEO-based content strategy is increased sales, more qualified leads, brand awareness, etc., the home stretch is developing the absolute best content in your industry.
Decoded and categorized keywords will inform specific content recommendations that will add value (and be an evergreen resource) for your buyers.
If you are presenting to a client or the C-suite, those recommendations can easily be organized into an executive summary that outlines specific, actionable recommendations based on very thorough research.
Never Quit Keyword Research
Okay, so maybe it’s a slightly sensational title. Guilty. As long as people use words to communicate with search engines, keywords will be a pillar of good SEO. As search engines update and user expectations shift, however, effective SEO rolls with the punches.
Yes, keyword research is still important — but it’s time to change the way we think about it. Start decoding what your audience is really looking for, and win them over by providing better answers than anyone else.