If you write a lot of content, it’s tough not to feel a little like Oprah with your keywords sometimes.
Marketers want keywords. Strategists want keywords. Clients want keywords. Everyone wants keywords.
Except for Google.
Google wants to solve searcher’s problems. It wants to understand what the person on the other end is really after. It wants to build a search engine that’s full of reliable sources of information – not advertisements that are masquerading as blogs.
That’s why we’ve seen an overwhelming shift in valuing user intent over keywords; in valuing the specific over the general. Google’s BERT update builds off of its RankBrain update, which matches keywords with the information users are really after. By improving its Natural Language Processing (NLP), Google is getting even better at understanding what a searcher is looking for.
As a marketer, that helps you if you’re focusing on appealing to user intent rather than ranking for keywords – here’s why.
What is the Google BERT update?
There’s a lot of information already online that you can read about Google’s latest search engine algorithm update, aptly dubbed BERT for Bidirectional Encoder Representation from Transformers. The update with the catchy name is designed to improve Google’s NLP – otherwise known as its ability to figure out exactly what a person means when they search for something.
That’s important because in the English language, there are a lot of words with multiple meanings. Searchers aren’t always explicit in what they’re looking for, even if they may think they are.
That’s why words like cookies (the edible and the digital kind), wave (found in the ocean and the hand gesture kind) and ship (the watercraft and package delivery kind… and even the relationship kind) can cause the search engine some trouble.
When keywords aren’t associated with context, Google can have trouble figuring out which page is the right piece of content to show.
In a nutshell, the Google BERT update will help the search engine interpret the context of certain phrases better than it does now. The company estimates it’ll affect 10 percent of all searches – making this a fairly big bit of news. But it’s also not something that marketers can optimise their web pages for.
So, how do you take advantage of it? By understanding that Google BERT will optimise your audience for you.
User intent in action
Keywords are great in helping us understand what people are looking for but they aren’t super effective in understanding what information they’re looking for.
There’s a big difference between the two.
Let’s say I’m hungry for wings – and it doesn’t look like I’m alone. There are over 1,600 searches a month in Ireland for “wings.” But Google’s a little confused on what these searchers are looking for. It’s rightly showing places to eat wings (my favourite) but it’s also showing results for Paul McCartney’s stint with Wings the band, as well as Wings the 1990s television series.
It’s a great example of what you’re competing with when you’re only focused on keywords. There are over 3.58 BILLION results for that keyword because wings is a common word that has multiple meanings.
But let’s narrow it down with context by giving Google my user intent. We’ll say that I’ve been to all the best places to get wings in Dublin (Wishbone is still my go-to) and I want to try my hand at making my own wings. So, I type in “how to cook chicken wings.” It’s a phrase that gets a not-so-insignificant 110 searches per month in Ireland, all of which are right in line with what I’m looking for.
With this search query, I get what I’m looking for. Recipes, videos and answers to a few questions I didn’t even know I had. But the page isn’t just valuable to the user. It’s also valuable for a few businesses, like:
- Cooking websites: They get to promote their recipes.
- Restaurants that sell wings: They get to promote their business as an alternative to cooking wings in the hopes of getting new business.
- Food outlets and grocery shops: They get to funnel user interest to their goods, like hot sauce or even pre-made wings.
It’s good to remember that if someone is looking up “how to cook chicken wings,” then they’re likely in the consideration phase of their buyer’s journey. In other words, they’ve made a plan and now they’re looking how to execute it.
That’s 110 people per month that are on their way to the decision phase, rather than 1,600 people per month who may be looking for a new wings joint or to watch the TV series.
With Google’s BERT update only making the search engine better at contextualising user intent, marketers should be leveraging it to strategically appear on pages that boast a high value to their business.
If you are the person responsible for promoting a restaurant that sells wings, for example, you’re going to want to have content targeted for “how to cook chicken wings” because that’s where potential customers are, even if that search query isn’t a priority for the business. If you’re just writing content to target the keyword “wings,” then you may never get in front of your target audience.
4 tips for creating content for user intent
Writing content to appeal to user intent-based searches rather than keyword-based searches isn’t massively different from what we as marketers have been doing for years. Where keywords are great for building awareness-level content, user intent is ideal for generating consideration and decision content.
In other words, focusing on user intent gets marketers closer to creating content that’ll convert visitors.
You’ve probably already guessed it, but writing for user intent isn’t all that different from building around keywords. Here are a few tips to get started:
1. Use keywords to find user intent: SEMRush has a handy feature called the Keyword Magic Tool that we’re big fans of here at 256. Not only does it give you the volume of a keyword, but it also shows similar phrases, related keywords and, maybe most importantly, common questions that include your keyword. All of these can be used to figure out what sort of context people are adding to their keywords.
For example: the keyword “content marketing” gets 480 searches a month in Ireland, but our agency would be more interested in the 70 searchers asking “how to develop a content marketing strategy” because that’s something we can build for them.
2. Keep your writing simple: As Ruth Burr Reedy of UpBuild smartly points out for Moz, “…writing content that is easier for Google, a robot, to understand can actually make you a better writer and help you write better content for humans. It is a win-win.”
Write your content using short and snappy sentences to get points across quickly and efficiently. It makes it easier for Google to interpret what the topic is about, what questions it can answer and which content it can feature in snippets. Plus, your readers will thank you.
3. Answer the query quickly: Everyone loves a witty introduction (read: I love a witty introduction), but Google prefers a straightforward answer. The search engine wants you to get to the answer as quickly as possible within your content and then explain that answer throughout the rest of the post.
It becomes a balance then between having quirky, branded content and content that’s designed to get rankings. There’s no problem with having both – we certainly do – but recognise that consideration and decision-stage content is probably better suited for a more deliberate writing style.
4. Mimic the query to establish the topic: Leveraging user intent in the on-page SEO of your content can drastically improve its searchability by reinforcing the subject matter. You should repeat and rephrase the search query you’re targeting in a few places, including:
- The URL
- The title
- The meta description
- At least one subheading
- Alt-text on the images
- Multiple times throughout the body
Remember that user intent needs to be included tastefully; Google can sniff out when you’re trying to game the system.
Build a user intent-focused content marketing strategy
We’re not saying you should drop keywords altogether, but to recognise that they’re not going to be as effective as you (or everyone else telling you to use them) might think. Instead, they should serve as the basis for targeting content that aligns with user intent based on a search query.
Want to learn more about how it’s done? Talk to us today so we can help you build a content marketing strategy that’ll attract visitors and convert leads.