Julia-Carolin Zeng encourages SEOs in 2023 to ask themselves: What is the intent behind the keywords that you are creating content for? What is the user actually trying to do when they are typing it into search?
Julia says: “My number one SEO tip for the coming year is to look more at intent when you create content. Don’t just say, ‘This is my keyword, so this is what I write.’ Really ask the question: What is the intent behind this keyword? What is somebody trying to find out when they type this into a search engine?”
How do you go about defining what intent is?
“By looking at the search results.
Initially, I identify keywords using the standard tools. Majestic and Ahrefs are my go-tos, and I sometimes use Keyword Planner as well - depending on the client and the industry. Once I have identified the keywords, I will put them into Google to see what actually gets brought up for that keyword, and what the intent really is. What is the question behind that keyword? When somebody is typing a keyword into Google, they are usually not looking for that particular word – there is a question that they want to be answered.
The search results can give you a lot of information on what your content should be about. You can look at the title tags that are displayed there, the meta descriptions, the Featured Snippets, the People Also Ask boxes, etc. All these are hints that Google is giving you as to what it understands about what is behind the keyword, and what it thinks the best answer is for somebody searching for this particular word. Then you can get good ideas for what your content should be about to fulfil that intent, and to answer the question.”
Do you believe that manually determining intent will give you higher-quality results than relying on software tools to guess what that intent might be?
“Yes. A tool can help you to start classifying whether a keyword has informational intent, transactional intent, etc. You can classify your keywords and decide that, for example, certain content should sit in a glossary because it is informational intent and other content will be for product pages because it’s all transactional.
When it comes to the stage where you are actually writing the content (or in my case, creating a content brief for a writer), it is important to look at the actual search results. You want to see, what is the question here? What is the information that needs to be provided on this page (for longer-form text content)?
It’s not about using the keyword hundreds of times anymore, it’s really about: What is the searcher trying to find out and is that content actually answering that question? If it does, you can rank the content without even mentioning the actual keyword - if you meet the intent and provide the answer.”
Can you target a keyword without incorporating it within the text?
“Yes, you can. What I always say when I brief somebody is that we want to make it easy for Google to understand what your content is about. In my opinion, that’s what it’s about these days. Make it easier for Google by using things like structured data, even if they’re not displayed.
You can have the greatest FAQ schema on your page, and I will still hear from clients, ‘It’s not displayed on Google!’ Yes, but it still helps Google to understand that this is a question/answer type of content. It might appear in certain contexts, and it helps you rank better because it makes it easier for Google to assign an overall topic, determine what the content is about, how it’s structured, etc. The same is true for things like bullet point lists.
I still recommend using the main keyword - in the title tag, the H1, and so on - but just to make it a bit more obvious what it is about. It does depend on competitiveness and which industry it is, but you can still rank that content if you don’t mention a keyword at all, as long as you are meeting the intent.”
Are there other buckets of intent that you use, besides informational and navigational?
“Commercial intent. That’s a keyword where somebody is ready to buy a product. The page that should rank for that keyword needs to make it easy for the user to actually buy, otherwise it won’t work. I’ve seen pages where there’s not even a ‘buy’ option.
You know what the user is trying to do, and you are still sending them through three to five more clicks before they get to the point where they can buy the product. It should be easy and straightforward for the user.”
What do you incorporate in a content brief to try to ensure that the content writer targets the correct intent?
“Usually, I give a little summary in a bullet point list. It will say: ‘These are the paragraphs that should be on the page. These are the things you should mention.’ Then, I include something like, ‘We should have FAQs on this page’ and if it’s not necessary I don’t mention it. I can determine this by looking at what comes up in the search results. What are the top-ranking pages doing? What are the subtopics?
I also give the writer keywords, but not just one keyword; I give them all the synonyms or other words that should be targeted as well. That could be a long-tail keyword, where the answer is just answered in one sentence or one short paragraph. Those are useful because Google now does something called ‘passage indexing’, where it will pull out one paragraph from your content and display it on the SERP and, when you click on it, it brings you directly to that paragraph. You don’t need to create a separate page for something that is answered in one sentence, you can include that on a page where it fits in topically.
I will include all of these things in the brief that I give to a writer: ‘These are the paragraphs that should be there. Here are the keywords - use them as inspiration, you don’t have to use all these words on the page.’ I also give some competitor examples or pages that are ranking for those keywords that I think are good examples of what I want the content to be. That will mean that the content the writer is creating is a bit of a mix of what the top competitors are doing.
I will also include anything else that I think could be useful. These could be examples of images or graphs that somebody else has. If I expect the piece of content to become quite long, then I tell a writer that I want a table of contents early on so that we can add page jump links. With passage indexing, it’s not really necessary for SEO anymore, but it makes it easier for Google to understand the structure and which passages to take out for passage indexing.”
Do you give an indication as to the kind of length that you expect or is that up to the writer to decide?
“I usually don’t give word counts unless somebody really needs a word count. Sometimes the client might need one for payment reasons - so that they can pay the writer or so they know how much to put on the PO. Then, I just take an average of what the competing pages are doing and say, ‘Let me know if you need more’.
If I can avoid it, I don’t give a word count. I don’t want a writer to feel that they need to fill it with more words if they’ve said what they need to say in the content. I also don’t want a writer to have to cut it short. Sometimes they just want to add two more sentences to really explain something, but they need to cut words. That’s not what we’re trying to achieve.
I’ve never experienced content becoming super long or super short if there is a detailed brief of what I want. I’m also getting great feedback from the writers, saying that they know exactly what is expected and what they should write.”
Do you ever map multiple intents to a single keyword and try and deliver on multiple intents on a single page?
“No. I try to deliver on multiple keywords if the keywords have the same intent, but not on multiple intents. If the intent becomes different, then it should be a different page.”
Is it possible for a singular keyword to have multiple intents? If so, do you try to rank for those keywords on separate pages?
“That does happen. I think we need to redefine how we look at keyword cannibalization in SEO. I sometimes have clients that say, ‘I use this tool to track my rankings and I constantly see the pages swapping, is this keyword cannibalization?’ and it kind of is, but you have to think about the person searching for that keyword.
It could be that they are trying to find different things under different circumstances, which means it is actually a good thing that Google swaps out pages to better match the intent for that specific case. People are concerned about data, but Google knows so much about the individual. It knows: where is this person? What is this person doing? What are their personal circumstances? What have they been searching for before? So, if they now type in a particular question, Google will decide what it is that they probably want to see, and it might decide to display a different page.
In your data, it might seem as though keyword cannibalization is happening but it’s not, really, because the intent is different - even though the word might be the same. It’s language; one word can have different meanings and people can be after different things.
This is also true with click-through rates. I had a client a few weeks ago who asked me, ‘Can you look through our click-through rates in Google Search Console and see what we can improve?’ I looked at the data and I said, ‘Those keywords where your click-through rate looks bad, on paper, are actually keywords where Google provides the answer in the search results.’ You see this with these featured snippets, answer boxes, etc. Somebody just needs a definition or wants to find the age of an actor, and that is displayed in the Knowledge Graph. You don’t even need to click on anything to get this information anymore. The click-through rate for these keywords will always be a bit lower than for other keywords.
What I say to my clients is that it’s still brand visibility. If you get that featured snippet, the user in front of that search engine will still notice who is giving them that answer. It’s a good thing, so it doesn’t mean you should not go after these keywords.”
Are click-through rates the best KPI for measuring how well you’re serving intent?
“No, because of these instances where some keywords don’t even require a click anymore. One good indication is to look at bounce rates and, of course, conversions - all these numbers together. When you’re analysing the data, you need to think about the reason why somebody came to the page.
When I have a product page where I tried to sell something, it’s very obvious what the measurement should be: did I make the sale? Did somebody sign up for my newsletter? The conversion numbers are a good indicator.
Content groupings will help. If you have a bucket of informational keywords, and you are looking at a glossary, all of that traffic is not intending to purchase anything. They’re so early in the funnel, that you just want to get them to your website. You want brand visibility, and maybe you have a newsletter signup but maybe not.
A lot of marketing psychology is involved to really understand what the person wants. Why did they come here? Does the data suggest that they found what they were looking for or does the data suggest that we’re doing something wrong?”
What shouldn’t SEOs be doing in 2023? What’s seductive in terms of time, but ultimately counterproductive?
“We already mentioned it and, for lack of a better word for it, I still call it keyword cannibalization. I often see websites that have already created the same type of content in the past, that meets the same intent - they were just thinking about a different person.
For one client of mine (a software product), they were trying to map one page to somebody in HR who might need the product, and then somebody at C-level, and then the line manager, etc. In the end, they all have the same question. It’s a problem of internal communication. You don’t need to create a separate SEO page for all these different personas if the intent behind the question is the same.
That’s something I would really advise everybody who has a website to stop doing. Stop publishing the same piece of content five times, delivering the same answer. That is the kind of keyword cannibalization we’re trying to avoid.”
Julia-Carolin Zeng is a Freelance SEO Consultant and she writes at charlieonthemove.com.
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