User-Centric Keyword Research: Find The Topics Your Audience Wants

User-cen­tric key­word research helps you pub­lish con­tent designed for your audi­ence.

Charlie Williams By Charlie Williams from Screaming Frog. Join the discussion » 4 comments

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?

User-cen­tric research.

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.

Semantic Search

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.

So, How?

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).

Keyword Ideas

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?

Key Long-Tail Terms

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.

Crossover Keywords Between Two Competitor Sites

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?

User 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.

Clear User Intent of Looking to Book a Holiday

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.

Different User Intent Local Business and Info

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?

Charlie Williams

Written by Charlie Williams

SEO Manager, Screaming Frog

Search veteran and content enthusiast, Charlie is a regular writer & speaker on SEO and content. He specialises in content development, technical SEO & keyword research. He also runs Optimise Oxford, a meetup on SEO, social media & PPC. Passionate about helping websites communicate with their audience & how everyone can improve their SEO, he finds inspiration in the potential being online gives us all to deliver outstanding content experiences. You can find him talking SEO, content & food on Twitter, or in the kitchen.


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