Working on a recent keyword research project the other day, I noticed a stark contrast in how search engines interpreted the subtlest of differences in some of my keywords. Upon future analysis it was clear that the search results, for these very similar keywords, were being shaped by search engines’ assessment of the search users’ intent.
I haven’t seen this talked about much in SEO keyword research literature, yet it can make a huge difference in the outcomes of your organic traffic.
To place this in context, I spend most of my time in the SaaS B2B marketplace and I see it a lot in these keyword markets. While it may not be quite as common in other places, it’s worth taking a closer look at your SEO campaigns.
Let’s examine a simple instance of this and walk through, first, how to spot them and then, second, what to do with the keywords when you detect this scenario at work.
Similar keywords can yield very different user intents
Too often, when we’re doing keyword research, we bury our brain in the data and don’t reflect on the context of the user searches that generate that data. This is not only dangerous to your final objectives, but might even prevent you from even being in the running to be in the SERPs.
Before we wade too deeply into that discussion, lets build a foundation for understanding this problem by looking at the core types of user searches.
- Navigational Searches – These are searches where the user is simply trying to get to a resource or brand that they are familiar with, but haven’t bookmarked or remembered the URL. These are often high-intent searches, assuming you are the brand or resource they are trying to relocate. However, these are of lower (‘lower’, not ‘no’) value if you intend to simply try to siphon off some traffic from a competitor.
- Informational Searches – I would define these as searches where the user is simply trying to gather information or learn more about the nature of a product/service/company. This is a search we’ll talk more about as it, (at least in the B2B market), can be a very attractive precursor to a transaction or lead generation.
- Transactional Searches – These are the money-makers. This category of searches are typically high-value and indicate that the user is searching for a solution provider or product. We definitely will discuss these–they’re our best lead generating searches.
- Investigative Searches – This category is a hodgepodge of search intent, but are very easy to discard for the purposes of primary lead generation. These are journalists/researchers, students, job seekers, etc. These are often the types of searches you would filter out of PPC campaigns with a negative keyword list. I do the same with my SEO keyword research. Here’s a good negative keyword resource with the kinds of keywords I generally filter out.
If you’re interested in going deeper on different search types and what they mean to your keyword research, I would encourage you to read these articles: Moz’s on Segmenting Search Intent and WordStream’s on Targeting Different Search Types.
For my purposes, I’m typically trying to discern between informational and transactional searches. This is important because I will handle them very differently in the on-site lead generation process. If I can detect this difference in the traffic and keyword/search term-usage during my research phase, I can shape my content to generate much higher quality leads.
How to sort out lead generation keywords
With a general context of how users search, I encourage you to re-look over your keyword research data. During this review, you should look for subtle differences in keywords that the casual observer might assume to be interchangeable.
For clarity, let’s look at a very specific example: “VOIP phone service” versus “VOIP phone system.” The only difference is the use of “service” versus “system.”
At first glance, you might assume that users searching for “VOIP phone service” are pretty much the same as those searching for “VOIP phone system.” But they’re not.
Research how search engines treats similar keywords searches
The simplest way to detect this notable difference in the potential traffic you will get from these kinds of keyword splits is to do a Google search (or whichever search engine you’re focused on).
In this example, the search engine made a very clear distinction between the service and system modifiers in these keyword searches—“services” returns providers and vendors and “system” returns information about the VOIP phone concept.
(Note: SERPs are always a snapshot in time, but the lessons learned should remain relevant.)
Depending on your business objectives, you may or may not want to target both of these keywords, based on this new information. At the very least, I would recommend that you handle the traffic in an intentional way.
I would look at this initial information and conclude that the “service” traffic is going to have a higher buying intent, with a shorter sales cycle, whereas the “system” traffic is likely to be more in the research phase with a potentially longer sales cycle–but is still a good lead.
Targeting your subtly different keywords
Once you have placed your keywords into context from a user search perspective, it’s time to figure out how to get into the running for some of that traffic. The contextual difference in these keywords can make a big difference in your SEO targeting strategy.
My first step is to, again, go back to the search engine and review the existing content in the SERP ecosystem.
Using our example again, I find that the “service” keyword modifier generates primarily provider home pages, whereas the “system” keyword modifier is a mix of “solutions” pages, articles, and blog posts.
Therefore, if I want to bust into the “service” SERP I need to do some work to get my selected pages traveling upward in rankings for that keyword. However, if I am working on the “system” keyword I probably need to have a content-based strategy.
The key takeaway from this example is that you can, in this specific instance, work until you’re broke or blue in the face and never rank for either of these keywords if you apply the wrong strategy. Understanding search context and the existing landing page ecosystem that involves your keywords is critical in designing effective lead generation SEO campaigns.