The Death Of The Keyword And Rise Of Intent-Driven Content

The changing search landscape necessitates changes for both paid and organic digital marketers. Paid media marketers and SEOs will need to understand intent to create a better and potentially more profitable experience for businesses and searchers alike.

The death of the keyword and rise of intent-driven content

We sat down with Lauren Beerling, Performance Media Supervisor, and Katie Pennell, Senior Performance Content & SEO Manager, to discuss what the changes to the search landscape mean for businesses in 2019 and beyond.

Let’s Start With A Bang: Are Keywords Really Dead?

Lauren’s paid search perspective: While the idea of targeting language may never die, it appears that traditional keyword targeting is becoming antiquated. As users move away from searching with specific keywords and begin searching more conversationally, it really doesn’t make sense for search engines to rely so heavily on keyword targeting.

Think about it. There are over 3,000 ways to say you want to set your alarm clock. If something as simple as setting an alarm has thousands of keyword variations, there’s not a lot of hope for marketers with multiple products to target based on every single one of those keywords. Moreover, it shouldn’t really matter how people set their alarm clocks – the intent is the same.

Because of trends like this, we see Google using its learnings from organic search and making similar shifts away from keyword targeting in paid. The elimination of exact match types in paid search has certainly been the most prominent example here. While the idea of keyword targeting becoming extinct feels very doomsday at first, it also makes our jobs as marketers easier. We no longer have to focus on optimizing search queries and sifting through search query reports to find the best customers. Instead we can optimize toward ideal customers and behaviors. Google is also making a lot of shifts towards advanced audience targeting, which is an exciting change in paid search.

Katie’s organic search perspective: SEOs love saying “the keyword is dead.” Heck, Nina Hale even claimed the “death of the keyword is imminent” in our Marketing Trends to Watch in 2019 post. And while this is true in some sense, keywords are the backbone of search and will continue to provide foundational structure until we’re well into the future, communicating through images alone. Before I devolve down the path of image search and the future of language, let’s focus on what I mean by “keywords are the backbone of search.”

Searchers and Google alike rely on words to communicate. Searchers use words to articulate their needs, find solutions to problems, and learn more about subjects of interest. Google in turn uses words to understand content on a website, from written articles and alt tags on images to descriptions for videos. Words are how searchers and Google communicate, how we get from question to answer.

That being said, words are no longer enough. Words alone don’t always give us the full picture. To Lauren’s alarm clock example, we need to shift focus from the exact keyword phrase to the intent behind that phrase. As the internet of things and voice search continues to expand, consumers search in increasingly conversational ways. This has given birth to an unprecedented number of specific, long-tail searches.

In fact, according to a study by Ahrefs, 92% of the keywords in its database are long-tail keywords with fewer than 10 average monthly searches. Marketers need to create content that gets to the root of the search intent, answering those hundreds of related long-tail queries without creating hundreds of articles. It’s no longer one keyword, one page; it’s one intent-focused topic, one page.

Keywords aren’t dead, but they no longer make the top 5 ranking factors list. Content marketers now need to focus on the intent behind that query, ensuring that all content best serves the user and provides context clues to help users and search engines know they found the exact piece of content to solve their needs.

It Sounds Like Intent Is A Common Thread. Can You Talk A Little More About What Intent Means For Digital Marketers?

Lauren’s paid search perspective: Intent means we’re going to be able to learn more about the identity of a person and the context they’re in while searching. For example, in traditional search, a user might search something like “best vacuum cleaner”. This search is something that shows high purchase intent but doesn’t give us much context because the word “best” means different things to different people. As marketers, we would generally bid on this search query and then send users to a page that had some sort of filters available, or we would push our most popular product on the consumer to give them our “best” product. 

With conversational search we’re seeing more queries like “best vacuum cleaner for people with kids and hardwood floors”. This search provides much more information about the user. Based on this query, we have a better understanding of what “best” means for this person. “Best” means something that won’t damage their hardwood floors. We also know this person is a parent, and based on the query we could understand that the user is in a situation where their child has just created a mess they have to clean up. With all of this information, we can now match users to a product that best fits their needs, while also being sensitive to the situation they find themselves in.

Katie’s organic search perspective: Relevant, intent-based content is all the rage in content marketing these days. And for good reason! Matching the exact right content with a search query has always been the gold standard – Google’s algorithm just finally caught up. Google is now able to rank content based on industry, stage in the consumer journey, and content type. Essentially, Google can finally understand intent and ranks content accordingly.

Let’s continue to run with Lauren’s “best vacuum cleaner for people with kids and hardwood floors” example. This searcher clearly knows what information they’re looking for. They want a comparison of some kind with a clear winner. That winner must be a vacuum that is efficient on hardwood and that can handle all kinds of messes, from spilled milk to Cheerios and beyond.

From a content perspective, we need to address these concerns explicitly. What is the brand of vacuum they should look for? Which model? What makes this vacuum better on hardwood than others? Does it have any features that keeps the hardwood from being damaged? How does it handle liquids? Small particles like dirt? Large chunks like a stray Lego? The searcher will likely want an image of this magical vacuum and a link to be able to purchase. There might even be a video illustrating the vacuum in action.

Google and searchers alike expect answers to all these contextual “micro-questions” that help truly answer the question “what is the best vacuum for people with kids and hardwood floors.” Sure, it’s a little more work for us as content marketers, but creating this relevant, intent-based content is the only way to really win in today’s search space.

With This Shift Away From Keywords Towards Intent, How Should Digital Marketers Be Updating Their Strategies To Be Ready For 2019 And Beyond?

Lauren’s paid search perspective: Marketers need to shift their mindset to be prepared for what quality content will become. In paid, Google’s quality score is primarily focused on keywords. Is the keyword on the landing page? Is the keyword in your ad copy? Do your ads get clicked when this keyword is searched?  But with Google shifting its focus away from keywords, we need to pay attention to what Google is saying about quality. I’ve heard Google talk about the importance of helpful content, personalized content, and frictionless content. In my mind, this will become the focus of Google’s quality score.

Google is already putting precedence on helpful content with the rise of the branded cost per click (CPC). Google is telling us that just because someone is searching for your brand, that doesn’t mean your brand has the best content. In fact, according to Google, 56% of smartphone users have purchased from a company or brand other than the one they intended because the information provided was useful. So even though from a current quality score perspective you should have the highest quality score for your brand, there is evidence supporting this may no longer be the case.

When it comes to personalized content, it’s no secret that marketing has been shifting that way. Users expect brands to remember who they are and the preferences they have. Despite this, there hasn’t been a lot of movement to propel or reward brands who are doing this. As the focus shifts away from keywords, it makes sense that search engines will start to put recognition behind the brands who are bringing users the most personalized experience.

The idea of being frictionless is also something that Google has been pushing for a long time, but mostly on the organic side. I think the efforts that technical SEOs have been making will start to manifest in paid search as well. Brands with fast websites and seamless UX should reap the benefits in paid as well as in organic rankings.

Katie’s organic search perspective: Gone are the days of simple keyword mapping, optimization, and fast page 1 rankings. SEOs in today’s search landscape now need to truly understand their audiences and be able to meet them with appropriate, intent-driven content at all stages of their consumer journey. This impacts everything from site structure and internal linking to tone and questions answered in each piece of content. Content needs to be specific, addressing each topic individually, rather than broad, shallow pieces.

To Lauren’s point, the way consumers engage with search continues to change. People expect a quality, correct answer to their questions immediately and they don’t care which brands provide those answers. This is a huge opportunity for savvy content marketers to position their brands as go-to resources far before and beyond purchase.

If you’re not using the search landscape as a data source in your content strategy, if you’re not considering how each new piece of content interacts with your site as a whole, if you’re not answering those “micro-questions” in new or optimized content, if you’re not considering how you can make the experience as frictionless and as helpful as possible, then you’re missing the mark. Helpful content that meets intent is the only way content marketers will find success in 2019 and beyond.

How Intent-Driven Content Will Impact Digital Marketers

Both paid and organic results have shifted towards relevant, intent-based content that understands the unique needs of individual audiences. Successful future marketing efforts will require collaboration between paid and organic. Organic initiatives should support paid initiatives, creating content that adequately answers “micro-questions” to improve quality scores. Paid learnings should inform content strategies, flagging new keywords and themes that perform best to create new content or optimize existing pages.

Overall, digital marketers need to focus on creating helpful, frictionless experiences that keep users and search engines coming back for more.

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