We often preach about creating answers to searcher’s questions. As Google refines results to better interpret the intent of a search query, and their understanding of which pages may answer it, we can add a user-centric layer of analysis to our keyword research to target topics more relevant to our audience and help build far better website content.
Ah, humble keyword research. A rudimentary building block of most search marketing and content development campaigns.
In recent years it has been taken up a notch, with the call to research and optimize for keyword topics rather than individual terms.
But keyword research can, and should, aim higher.
Conducting user-centric keyword research helps you put together more successful campaigns and build better websites (and we don’t get to say that often enough about SEO). Instead of the prosaic, monotone SEO content, the evolution of search engines, and search marketing as an industry, presents us the opportunity to understand the content our audience wants, and to be more relevant than ever.
It’s a chance to put the consumer at the heart of our research. To publish content designed for user queries, not keywords.
Building Content For Our Audience
Many of us have already moved to a model of researching keyword topics rather than isolated keywords, creating groups of terms (I often refer to them as buckets) that are semantically connected.
The use of these buckets allows us to develop tightly-grouped, thematically-related topic ideas, often using a single page to target potentially hundreds of terms. This has helped us stop creating reams of cookie-cutter URLs for minor variations of a search term.
So, how do you take this to the next level, to start building content your audience is interested in?
Informed by data, insight, and user intent, I’m digging for keywords that bridge the gap between my audience and my website.
My keyword research process has become more expansive in the sources I use and results I present, but much more focused in why I want to target them. I used to present maybe tens of keywords for a website, several per page, but now it’s in the hundreds or thousands.
What Is User-Centric Research?
What we seek is user-centered topics in our niche; what language, questions, and thus search queries, does our audience use?
Instead of targeting the fat-head generic keywords that are vague in intent (and highly competitive), which direct search queries can we answer with authority.
User-centered design aims to “optimize the product around how users can, want or need to use the product” – with a user-centered approach to keyword research, we can do the same building our keyword buckets.
This is thanks to the rise of semantic, or contextual, search, and Google’s power to interpret our search queries.
As stated by Christopher Baldock from the Content Marketing Institute, “semantic search is how search engines discern context and user intent to return more definitive answers, rather than [a] hierarchical list of guesses.”
The application of topic modeling and Google’s desire to understand the nuance of a search query (and every search is a query) allows us to rank for many variations on a topic without the need to explicitly create separate content.
Google seeks to understand:
- The context of your search.
- Your language.
- Which sites have historically answered search queries on the same (interpreted) subject in the past.
Google’s aim is to understand what a searcher is asking because Google’s business is selling answers.
It’s only through taking advantage of semantic search and embracing user intent that we can understand what our users think they are looking for, and develop, as Paul Shapiro puts it, a command over user language to build those answers search engines want to show.
We want to demonstrate a deep understanding of our subject so want to know all the different intents possible in our keywords. What do users want when early in the buying cycle and looking to solve a problem? What language do they use when familiar with our industry?
There’s usually more than one question or intent in each of our topics, hence why we can build such useful, actionable content as a result (through copywriting and UX).
This is a fantastically exciting opportunity for smart marketers. We can focus on the consumer, using their needs as the catalyst for our content.
Combine keyword research with user intent and content development and you have the future of keyword topics.
Listing all the methods available to find user-centric keywords is a long post in itself, but here are some examples of how you can start adding this extra layer of analysis.
The first action is to take a step back, and think of common questions about your topic, much as you would for any deep keyword research, but this time, apply user-centered design principles. Some classic questions to get you going:
- Who are the users of the document?
- What are the users’ tasks and goals?
- What functions do the users need from the document?
- What information might users need, and in what form do they need it?
- How do users think the document should work?
Replace document with your site or landing page. You can then extrapolate these into questions to ask of your audience, looking at potential searches/intent they might make at each stage of the buying cycle. Such queries aren’t static, but we can consider what problem they are looking to solve.
For an ecommerce site selling a product, we might consider:
- What decisions do they have to make to narrow down their choices?
- What criteria needs to be met in order to for someone to choose?
- What are the advantages are they looking for? What common issues arise time and again?
- What language do they then use to find your product and service – something specific due to knowledge and research, or do we need to cater for a variety of terminology?
Some of my favorites for revealing this information are the sales team (they speak to real users everyday), internal search queries, industry FAQs, and user testing or research (a quick survey can unleash a lot of data, and asking test users what questions they’d have can be a real eye opener).
The advantage of keyword research is that it’s a huge source of audience research itself. Data from all our traditional sources of inspiration can prove highly valuable.
Once we have an idea of some important topics from our experts and user research, we can mine keyword tools for search queries that match these angles. There are many out there, and even more advice, but one that’s perfect for this is SEMrush.
Either by using SEMrush’s competitor data or your own analysis, you can use SEMrush to generate a list of all the terms a key rival ranks for and steal their ideas.
Examine this list and look for the middle and long-tail terms which resonate with your audience. What should you be speaking about as an authority? Which queries can you create better content for?
Even better, use the Venn diagrams within the domain vs. domain tool to find those subjects that other sites appear for and you don’t. Of particular interest is the segment where your main competitors overlap without you – if there are topics that all your rivals have content on, there’s a good chance it’s relevant to your audience.
Once you have found such topics, it pays to look at the content that’s visible. Has it been specifically created? What segment of your audience does it appeal to? Does it appear for synonyms and variations? Does your expertise allow you to create something more helpful by addressing intent?
We have our keyword ideas, influenced by product expert insight and search data on queries and ranking content. The final stage of the seed-list process is to examine the user intent behind the query.
What intent(s) can we infer from this search? What solution(s) do we deliver?
To answer, we can use the world’s biggest intent analysis tool: Google. They have an army of PhDs, unrivaled user data, and powerful machine learning to decipher search intent, so let’s use this analysis.
Grouping your keywords into topics (or buckets!) as usual, simply conduct a depersonalized search for some of the most important variants.
Take a note of the answers you get. These reveal not only if this is a tight bucket of terms which can all go together in one resource or requires multiple pages, but also if your current content actually matches the intent Google has interpreted.
A quick example. A search for “holiday to new york” brings up a list of some of the UK’s biggest travel names and their New York hub pages. Searching for “travel to new york” brings back similar results.
A search for “new york travel”, however brings back a map of local travel companies in New York as well as official tourism sites and guides to traveling within the city before those big names appear. A small change in language brings back an entirely different user intent, one suddenly less suitable for a UK business, and which non-user-centric research would target.
Putting It Together
As always, we then look at comparable volume data for our user-centric keyword ideas. Once we have this, examining the feasibility of creating content, then the potential return on investment (such as potential click-through traffic from the search results and your site’s conversion rate and average order value) decides what your priority targets should be.
This data can then be mapped out to your site content. In most cases, there’s two potential avenues for content development at this stage; either adding greater depth, a sub-section or even child page to existing content or creating fresh resources.
Either way, you should feel more confident of creating something of real value to your audience, while still enjoying the principal benefits of keyword research.
To get some ideas on how you can start this, take a look at this excellent post by Cyrus Shepard.
User-centered keyword groups lead to user-centric content. The kind that will directly address user need, thus move in the same direction as Google.
We’re moving beyond keywords for their own sake. However, keywords still provide the data we need, in the form of search queries, to develop great content.
Do you put consumers at the heart of your keyword research, using their needs as the catalyst to develop relevant content that people want and need?