SEO needs to keep it real – how the way people search on Google is changing

Jun 9th, 2017

It’s time to start thinking of SEO as search experience optimisation, not search engine optimisation – or you’ll lose traffic to competitors and never maximise conversions on your site

When you’re searching online, you expect to find exactly what you want quickly and easily.

We’ve become much more savvy over the past decade or so in terms of how we search. People have got so used to using search engines, they’ve learnt how to get what they want out of them.

It’s also increasingly likely that you’ll use conversational, natural language, and use ‘what, where, who, why, how’ phrases.

For example, “When did Ramadan start?”, rather than just “Ramadan”. Or, “Where’s my nearest tattoo parlour?” rather than “tattoos Wirral”.

This is only set to rise as more and more of us use voice search.

And Google has evolved to meet that need, with the ability to identify the context and intent behind each search, and return specific, personalised results. This was the principal behind the Hummingbird and Phantom algorithm updates, as well as Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) system, RankBrain.

Why is this important for marketers?

It may sound obvious, but it’s something many businesses seem to overlook: you need to optimise the content on your website to provide what people are actually looking for, not just for the keywords Google Keyword Planner tells you have high search volume.

Your visitors will only stick around – and hopefully convert – if you’re offering them genuinely valuable content that meets their needs at the time of searching – whichever point they’re at of the customer journey.

While identifying relevant keywords remains an important, ongoing exercise, you need optimise web content for user intention and experience (UX), rather than concentrating on keyword volume alone. Your traffic may increase, but your bounce rate will too – and it’s unlikely you’ll see any impact on conversions.

Go for relevance over ranking

Getting your website featuring at the top of Google search results (or as close as possible) is the Holy Grail of SEO. The more visible you are, the more clicks you’re likely to get. But considering only the volume of traffic in isolation means you’re probably missing a trick; it’s a classic ‘quality over quantity’ scenario. You need a good volume of the right kind of traffic, and to do this you need to know the intent behind your target audience’s searches. Look at why they’re searching, not just the keywords without context.

Understanding what makes consumers tick and what compels them to buy is your ticket to maximizing your ROI. Get inside the heads of search users, and you can mount an effective strategy that can not only bring in leads but also get a sizable portion of them to convert


Online marketing expert and entrepreneur, Neil Patel

Internet users access search engines for different types of searches that can be broken down into three categories:

  • Transactional (‘do’) – Here the user wants to get to a website where there will be more interaction, eg, buying something, downloading something, signing up or registering etc. They show greater intent to convert.
  • Informational (‘know’) – This is when the user is looking for a specific bit of information, possibly researching a future purchase. Where, how, when, etc.
  • Navigational (‘go’) – The user is looking to reach a particular website. They’ve already identified the company or product they want and there’s only one likely destination that they’re looking to reach. Such keywords are usually helpful when the brand of the site is well-known and popular.

This type of categorisation allows you to better understand the user’s motivation for a query and create content that satisfies user intent focused on the anticipated user intent, using long tail, conversational keywords .

Forget fat heads and chunky middles

The move towards conversational search means that around 70% of searches now use long tail, highly specific keywords/phrases with three to five words, rather than short, generic, popular keywords (‘fat head terms’).

long tail traffic


The more specific the search, the clearer the searcher’s intent and therefore the higher the likelihood of conversion. So, while short, fat head terms may generate more traffic, long tail will bring you more value – and this is where you should be focusing.

long tail seo conversion


A further benefit of long tail keywords is that they are usually much less competitive. After all, targeting keywords with high search volumes won’t help you increase your ROI if the people using those search terms aren’t looking for what you offer.

How do I understand customer intent?

You don’t need a crystal ball. The points below will help you to refine your SEO strategy by gaining an understanding of the context of your target audience’s searches, and feed into a content strategy that’s relevant to their needs.

Use online tools

Google offers free tools for keyword research which generate variations of keyword phrase, as well as quantifying search volume. The most commonly used are Google AdWords Keyword Planner Tool and Google Trends. There are also paid tools, such as SEMrush and Searchmetrics that offer insights.

Focus on long tail keywords

Making sure you have content which satisfies your target audience’s queries as closely as possible will put you in a good position when it comes to answering the user intent behind them, as well as increasing the likelihood of ranking well. The more specific you can be with your long tail keywords, the less competition you’re likely to face.

A simple way to discover common long tail searches is to use Google Autocomplete – the suggestions that appear in the drop-down menu when you start to type in your search. Google bases these predictions on how often others have searched for a term (although it can also be influenced by your own search history) and they can also provide you with a hint of the motivations behind them.

Answer the Public provides visualisations of popular long tail queries that relate to your keyword or topic, using the same autosuggestions as Google Autocomplete. For example, having searched for ‘make slime’:

make slime

It’s important to note that the long tail queries suggested in this tool do not always have search volume when checked using Google Keyword Planner. However, it’s an invaluable tool when combined with Keyword Planner as it can then be used to determine what questions are being asked, giving you a starting point for insightful, quality content.

Put yourself in a searcher’s shoes

Don’t assume your audience will search for the same terms or jargon you use to refer to your product or services internally. For example, you may refer to your business offering as ‘bespoke HR solutions’, whereas as someone who needs your service might be more likely to type ‘reducing employee absence rate’ into a search engine.

Get into the mindset of a customer, who is more likely to use natural, casual language than industry jargon or the terms you use to refer to your business.

Find out what’s already ranking for the keywords you’ve chosen

In other words, check out your competitors and learn from them. The reason that they’re ranking strongly suggests they are satisfying user intent as Google is viewing them as highly relevant and authoritative. What are the pages that rank offering customers? How are they satisfying the query? If your site aims to sell and the high ranking results for your term are offering information, this could be a sign you’re targeting the wrong terms and may need to refine your keyword choices.

ethernet search

For example, a company selling business ethernet solutions may assume that focusing on the head term ‘ethernet’ will help their website to rank well. However, a quick search of this term shows that Google interprets it as informational. In other word, it returns results relevant to those looking to find a definition for ‘ethernet’, rather than those looking to actually purchase:

A keyword better suited to this business’ objective – to sell – would be the more specific ‘business ethernet’, which returns transactional results:

Look for terms with enough volume to justify ranking for

However, be wary of terms with very high volume unless you think your site has a realistic chance of ranking for them (taking into the competitiveness of your industry/sector and market position). It might be better to go after terms that that have less volume, but may bring more targeted visitors to your site. As mentioned earlier in this post, the focus should be on quality as well as quantity: not ‘how many?’, but ‘how many of the right kind?’.

Get input from client-facing employees

Account Managers and Business Development Managers will know the queries that customers (or potential customers) ask most often and what language they use.

For example, a search for ‘cake’ returns 500,000,000 results on Google, whereas the long tail search ‘buy birthday cake online delivery’ only returns 4,060,000 results – and shows a much greater intent to buy!

buy birthday cake search

Find out what people are searching for on your site

You’re getting visitors to your site – but what are they doing when they get there? As well as using Google Analytics (GA) to track which pages people visit on your site, you can also look at the terms they’re searching for once on your site, giving you a detailed insight into their intent, in their own words.

To monitor what visitors are typing into the search box on your website, set up site search in GA. Here’s how to set it up.

How does conversational search fit into an SEO strategy?

As a marketer, you need to understand your audience’s objectives more closely than ever and adapt your approach to focus on delivering the right content at the right time.

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