Search Engine Optimization

Here’s How to Create a Modern SEO Strategy That Works


Let’s get real for a moment. Content marketing, lead generation, lead nurturing—if any of these words are in your job title, chances are you either love SEO, hate SEO, or hate SEO with a passion. Most marketers that hate SEO hate it because it can be far more complicated than other marketing channels, and it can be difficult to measure direct results.

With 61% of B2B buyers starting their research process with a generic web search, the need for effective SEO is clear. But let’s be honest: SEO is the only type of “advertising” where marketers are often at odds with their advertising platforms (search engines), and these platforms can and do change the rules whenever it best serves them, with or without notice.

It’s been argued that SEO hasn’t really changed much, and I would agree with that. But tactics, best practices, and recommended strategies definitely have. If you’ve invested time and energy into black hat or grey hat tactics (aka SEO practices that go against Google’s guidelines and which Google now quickly notices or even penalizes), it’s only natural to have at least some hate burning inside you…come on, admit it.

If you fall into the “hate” or “hate with a passion” category, I’d like to see if I might change your mind by re-introducing you to some modern techniques that you may actually enjoy, and which I imagine probably won’t go away anytime soon. How can that be possible? The days of “weird” and black/grey hat SEO actually working are pretty much over. The new SEO millennium is all about tactics that actually make sense.

Shift to a Keyword Topic-Based Content Strategy

One of the major changes in SEO over the last few years has been the shift away from strategies that rely on the (over-)use of keywords.

The logic seemed sound: want to rank for a keyword? Write a page about the keyword! Make sure the keyword is in all the important places—titles, metas, headers, etc.—and, of course, watch your keyword density. Use the keyword just right, and Google will assume you’re the expert on that keyword!

Sure, it worked for a while, but times they have-a-changed! Search engines (especially Google) have learned that pages about keywords don’t necessarily delight users, but authoritative pages about topics typically do. Ah-ha!

Building an SEO content strategy around topics (which definitely still involves keywords as well) requires a mindset shift away from, “be sure the keyword is EVERYWHERE” habits. But for most marketers, this change is a welcome relief. Instead of trying to build content to appease obscure search engine requirements, we can finally focus once again on building content focused on meeting our users’ needs and expect to see some SEO benefit in doing so.

So, marketers, listen up! In a topic-based SEO content strategy, each topical hub should:

  • Be “optimized” to answer users’ questions for a given topic, and include a group of tightly related keyword synonyms.
  • Help the user accomplish a task(s) quickly and easily—to either do something (e.g. a purchase) or to know/learn something.
  • Not overuse the target keyword or any keyword in a way that feels unnatural.
  • Authentically discuss related sub-topics and the sub-topics’ keywords in appropriate sub-sections.
  • Earn a reasonable number of social shares. Why? Because it’s just that darn good. This is a sign of content quality and engagement, not a direct ranking factor.

Understand the Intent of the Organic Search Visitors You Want

Creating effective topic-based content means understanding not just which keywords your audience is searching, but also what they’re actually looking for when they use those keywords. If a user types in “marketing automation”, is he looking for a definition? A free download? Does he want to hire someone to do marketing automation for him, or does he want software he can install himself? The answer to these questions tells you the user’s intent.

Trying to understand what a user is thinking might seem like an impossible task, but fortunately for us, we’re not the only ones interested. Google is heavily invested in providing the best user experience they can, and they continue to do the heavy lifting. So, as with most things, we can just Google it!

How to Discover User Intent

As you study the SERPs (search engine results page) for your keywords, you’ll notice multiple user intents because different users are searching the same keywords with different goals in mind. There may be one that really stands out from the rest, or there may be two or three that seem to earn equal weight in the results.

Where do you find the user intent(s) for any given keyword? It’s actually quite simple: study Google search results. The search giant has curated massive volumes of data to deliver highly tuned search results to provide users with exactly what they are searching for. The exact variety (or lack of variety) of search results are signs of what real users want (this is the “intent” behind their search.)

Consider a couple of examples. Below, a depersonalized search for “running shoes” returns these top three results:


The first and the third are retail landing pages, but the second is a review of several brands and styles. You want to keep scrolling—past the ads and image blocks—to consider all of the results on page 1, but based on this small sample you could assume that the primary user intent for “running shoes” is purchasing, and a secondary intent is informative—specifically, an interest in reviews. (As a bonus insight, it’s interesting that the third result is for women’s shoes, in particular. If I’m selling running shoes, I’m going to highlight our collection of women’s shoes on our site.)

In contrast, here are the first three organic listings with a depersonalized search for “carburetor”:


Two of the three provide information, not products, which would indicate that the primary user intent for the keyword “carburetor” is informational. This is why a good content strategy is important: if an auto body shop or a parts dealer wants to rank for “carburetor”, they’ll have better success with a solid topical page that provides answers to the searcher’s top questions.

This type of Google-based research shouldn’t be kept in a vacuum. Your own knowledge of your industry, plus any customer or marketplace data you may have, should also be leveraged to polish off a user intent-based content strategy.

Now, Build a Framework for Content

Analyzing SERPs for user intent is an enlightening exercise, and when combined with other elements of keyword research, it can quickly build out a framework for a killer content strategy. Here’s how to build a framework for content:

  • Create composite keyword groups: If you have a long list of keywords, some of them will likely be similar, or bring up similar search results. Rather than considering each individual keyword, start by grouping them into closely related composites—“New York lawyer” and “New York attorney”, for example.
  • Google: If you have several keywords in each composite, open a few browser tabs and do that SERP research on a few of them side-by-side. You don’t need to do every keyword in every composite, but try out a few. You may catch some surprises. You’re looking for the general user intent for the composite group.
  • Prioritize user intent(s): As in the examples above, there will probably be multiple user intents for each keyword composite. If one intent dominates the SERP, we call that a Dominant User Intent. If two or three seem to balance the results, we call those Common User Intents. If there is one that is represented in two or three results, we call that a Minor Intent.

A spreadsheet for this purpose will have column headers like this:

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 1.09.50 PM

This research then provides a prioritized framework for your content strategy. To improve ranking for the first keyword group, we started with two (topical) pages based on Common User Intents 1 and 2. To maximize ranking for keywords in the second composite group, we started with one page of content focused on that Dominant User Intent. Similar user intents can also be combined to one authoritative page when appropriate.

This simple exercise and spreadsheet will help you understand and visualize the user intent behind the keywords that you want to rank for,so you can create content that will provide the best user experience possible, and thus have the best chance at earning Google’s attention.

Leads! Capture First-Time Visitors by Casting a Broad Net

One of the biggest “complaints” about organic search traffic is that it “doesn’t convert” as well as other channels. Whenever this comes up in a consulting situation, my response is always, “Are you doing enough (or anything at all) to actively convert SEO traffic?”

You don’t own those organic search visits the instant they hit your site. This may be the first time they have even been exposed to your brand, and, most importantly, they know that hundreds of additional search results are at their fingertips, just one back button click away!

You want to, of course, keep those users on your site as long as possible. You do so by helping them accomplish the specific task (or “user intent”, as described above) at hand. Most often, especially in the B2B environment, that means answering their questions clearly and succinctly.

It’s also important that their experience with your page or site is intuitive, easy to navigate, and focused on their immediate goals (and not necessarily on your marketing goals.) That means all page content needs to start above the fold, navigation should be simple and helpful, and user tests should show that they are able to accomplish what they came for in a relatively short amount of time.

Now, even your best first-time visitors—that spend five to ten minutes (or more) browsing your site—may not return a second time. Studies have shown there are several factors that play into brand preference, not the least of which is the mere-exposure effect, which explains how people unconsciously develop a preference for brands just because they are familiar with them.

That means you need to earn the opportunity to reconnect after that first visit. There are several ways to make subsequent connections:

  • Wildly appealing (and highly relevant) gated content
  • Remarketing
  • Social follow buttons that don’t require visitors to leave the page
  • An effective SEO strategy that puts your site in the results of their next Google search
  • At the very least, a generic email newsletter sign-up

The tactics discussed here have been all about content. What about the code? Technical factors are still important, however they no longer provide much of a competitive edge in SEO. Think of technical SEO factors as barriers to entry into the SEO world, while content and user experience factors are what drive high rankings and meaningful traffic.

The world of SEO sure has changed, even in the last year. But I’m glad it has, and you should be, too. Studying the user’s interests and building relevant, topical content can do much more to build a brand (even without the SEO benefits). And, it’s a lot more rewarding, too.