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What Are Your Customers Thinking? Search Secrets Hiding in Plain Sight

customers-thinking-search-secretsWhat would you give to read your customers’ minds? In his talk at the Intelligent Content Conference, self-proclaimed “search guy” Wil Reynolds shared some tips for getting as close as possible to mind-reading by using resources – some timeless, some modern – that are hiding in plain sight.

“If you look just at the keywords people search for, you’re missing out on many of their actual needs,” says Wil, who serves as director of digital strategy at his own company, Seer Interactive.

This article sums up some things Wil urges marketers to do to become more empathetic – “to understand the people behind the searches” – so that we can focus “not on being ranked but on being thanked.”

Marketers need to focus not on being ranked, but on being thanked, says @wilreynolds. #SEO Share on X

Talk with people

Wil’s first piece of advice is so obvious that it might seem to go without saying: Talk with people. Why start here? Because marketers “have ruined some parts of our jobs because we haven’t taken the time to understand how to sell things to people. We have all these cool tools and platforms that we can just throw stuff into, and they tell us what to do.”

Having worked as an SEO professional for almost two decades, Wil describes his “rebirth” this way:

One day I woke up and I looked at all the years and all the time that I spent trying to understand how Google ranks things. I was so out of whack. I had spent all this time chasing what Google wanted and where they wanted the words and never tried to understand how people make the decisions they make.

Wil cites the example of Michelin’s travel guides in the early 1900s when travel by car first became a possibility. Michelin tapped into a widespread craving for trustworthy travel-related information. The company somehow identified that need and filled it without the help of the internet.

Referring to Claude Hopkins’ book Scientific Advertising, published in 1923, Wil reminds us that we could learn a lot from yesterday’s door-to-door marketers who learned about their customer’s concerns through conversation.

We say, ‘Oh, I have to optimize for the word SEO blah, blah, blah so I can rank for SEO blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ We forget that there was a need that somebody had before typing in that word. How do you understand the need if you never talk to people? The answer is you don’t. You make assumptions, and that’s a mistake when you can just talk to somebody.

We lose something important when we act as though moving into the digital age means abandoning the human connections that have always made marketing work.

Listen to people as they search

To discover the things behind the words people search for, Wil recommends that you sit with people as they search online, encourage them to voice what’s going through their minds at each click, and listen.

Sit w/ people as they search, ask them to voice what’s going through their minds at each click. @wilreynolds Share on X

Wil points out, for example, that Chinese-American people who follow the principles of feng shui often base home-buying decisions on factors that keyword research can’t tell you. Certain aspects of a house – like location on a dead-end street, stairs facing the door, front and back doors that line up – are deal-breakers.

If you had a real-estate business, typical SEO keyword research might result in a decent Google ranking for your website, and yet, if you didn’t know about these feng shui criteria, a portion of the people clicking through to your web pages might not rent from you … and you might never know why. If you don’t sit with some members of the Chinese-American audience, listening to their thought process as they click through a search experience, you have no clue about the concerns that determine their decision-making. You can’t know how to adapt your content to address their needs.

You’d be getting ranked but not getting thanked.

Another example Wil gives comes from conversations he had with people as they searched online for moving advice. Two people he talked with clicked through to the same BuzzFeed article, which had seemed promising but disappointed them. He listened to why they were disappointed. One person found the advice “lowbrow.” Another said that the information would have been more helpful in a checklist format.

If you were in the moving business, that kind of insight could help you see what content people want and don’t find. That’s the kind of content all of us want to create.

How much better would your content strategy be if you asked potential buyers of your product or service to search, and you watched how they search and asked them what they like and don’t like about the existing content that’s already ranking? You could then build content that answers people’s questions better.

Wil observed, to my surprise, that people often skip over the top-ranked search results. Your page might rank in the top five, but that doesn’t mean people will click it. Someone looking for a recent report, for example, may skip to a title that cites a year. In the example illustrated below, the searcher who skipped to the bottom link was drawn to blue text that included “2016.”

That’s the kind of information you need when you create your content’s title tag – and you get it when you sit with people.


Marketers can waste a lot of effort chasing a ranking that, in the end, fails to deliver clicks. Better to chase an understanding of the human beings doing the clicking by sitting next to them and opening your ears.

Let Google tell you what people want

Search engines are getting good at understanding what content people want and what content they find disappointing. The good news for digital marketers? Search engines lay out, for all to see, much of what they learn. Our task is to know what we’re looking at. “I’m showing you things that have been staring you in the face,” Wil says, “things that you were blind to.”

Search engines lay out much of what they learn for all to see, says @WilReynolds. #SEO Share on X

Here are some of the ways search engines reveal priceless information that enables you to discover what people want.

Discover the types of content people typically search for

Google, for example, often pulls a bunch of related information onto the results screen based on the things people predictably search for on a given topic. Here are the results that came up when Wil searched for surf information on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The five red circles represent five types of information Google knows many people find valuable.


If you were putting together your own content on the Outer Banks, you would want to know what content people have voted for with their clicks in the past. The search engine knows – and leaves its knowledge in plain sight.

These are the things that people want when they’re looking to do a surf trip in the Outer Banks. It’s staring you in the face, people. The data is right there. Google’s predictions are staring you in the face every day, and 99% of content marketers haven’t changed one thing based on this.

Are you among that 99%?

Discover the questions people are asking

Certain search phrases bring up Google results that include a section called “people also ask.” You won’t get any closer to mind-reading than this. Here’s an example:


When people click through to your website, you want them to find answers to lots of their questions. For one thing, if your visitors go back to Google quickly, the algorithm may decide they found your content unsatisfying. Google doesn’t jump to this conclusion, though, since lingering on a page may also indicate confusion. “Google is trying to get smarter at telling the difference,” Wil says.

Don’t place too much stock in the time people spend on your pages. Instead, focus on providing satisfying answers to people’s burning questions. To this end, when you discover a “people also ask” section in search results related to topics you want to own, consider that a blueprint from Google. Go down the list of questions, and create answers that people will value – maybe even enough to point others to your pages. Google will reward you for those backlinks. As Josepf Haslam said at last year’s Intelligent Content Conference, backlinks “serve as digital word of mouth”; search spiders “have their sticky feet all over backlinks.”

Focus on providing answers to burning questions. Use @Google’s “people also ask” section. @WilReynolds #SEO Share on X

Are you answering all the top questions your visitors are likely to have? To find out, use Google to search some key phrases your audiences are likely to use, and look in the search returns for “people also ask” questions. If you find some, incorporate them into your content strategy. Create answers that your visitors will want to share.

Discover the most popular relevant search strings

The autocomplete list that Google displays under your search box tells you, based on the characters you’ve typed so far, what search strings are most popular – another peek into people’s minds.

By default, your browser displays four predictive search strings. To make it 10 search strings, change the settings:

  1. Navigate to any Google search-results page.
  2. Click Settings > Search settings.
  3. Under “Google Instant predictions,” select “Never show Instant results.”

This is how it looks on my system:


Now when you enter search text, you’ll see 10 predictive strings, giving you more access to what’s in the minds of millions of people:


Go ahead and search for some strings your target audience uses. Once again, the outcome of Google’s vast machine learning is right there at your fingertips, as if to say, “Here you go. This is the content your people want.”

Discover the words that perform well in your paid-search ads

Reading people’s minds, with Google’s help, pays. Here’s an example. One of Wil’s clients saw the click-through rate for a page on wedding dresses jump 307% –  triple the traffic, with no boost in search ranking – simply because of a word change in the page’s meta description.

How did Wil know to change that word? He noticed that his paid-search team had written ad copy to trigger emotion. The ad spoke to future brides using the term “gorgeous,” whereas the page’s meta description used the term “lace.” The meta description had not been written for brides as much as it had been (supposedly) optimized for Google. Since the paid-search ad copy was getting high clicks, Wil made the meta descriptions sound more like the high-performing ad copy.

What might you change in your page meta descriptions to mimic the wording of your high-performing paid-search ads?

How could you change meta descriptions to mimic high-performing paid-search ads? @MarciaRJohnston Share on X

Discover related search terms

At the bottom of the search-results screen, Google lists popular related search terms – terms that tell you a lot about the people who have searched on a given keyword.

Let’s say you work for a company that sells water coolers to businesses. You might assume that you would want to rank for the term “water cooler.” Search for this term, and, in seconds, you discover that people who search on “water cooler” are not typically your customers; they’re retail shoppers who want to buy a home water cooler from Lowes, Walmart, or Home Depot. Optimizing your content for the keyword “water cooler” might get you ranked; it won’t get you thanked.


Google has millions of data points on the term “water cooler,” and it has some of the world’s smartest minds in machine learning. When Google tells you that B2B sites have no business trying to rank for this term, believe it.

When you search some phrases you want to rank for, check out the lists of related search terms at the bottom of the results pages. What mind-reading clues do you find?

Discover tough topics you need to address

If your company is up against controversy or crisis, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. Lumber Liquidators, for example, was in the news for a lawsuit related to formaldehyde in flooring products. People searched Google to find out what was going on.

If your company is up against a crisis, the worst thing to do is ignore it, says @WilReynolds. Share on X

The company could have known about the negative related topics that popped up when people searched for the brand by reviewing the autocomplete terms that showed in a search test. Lumber Liquidators could then have addressed the topic head on. Instead, the company chose to leave it to others to fill that information gap.

“They did nothing,” Wil says. “They helped no one.”


In contrast, look at Airbnb, which created content to address controversy and even advertised that content. When racism by Airbnb hosts made the news and inspired the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, the company immediately created content that left no doubt about where it stood. Here’s one Airbnb ad that appeared at the top of a search-results page:


Like it or not, people will hear about your company dirt. You can let Google help you get in front of the content storm, or you can let others generate the content storm while you hide out and take your chances.

Explore other intelligent search sites

Wil points to a site called Answer the Public, which uses machine learning to create an on-the-fly visual of questions related to a given keyword phrase. Wil’s example below shows the questions that people type in to search boxes about North Face jackets.


Here’s a close-up:


Try it. Go to this website and type in any phrase. A dandelion of questions – real questions that people have typed into search boxes – instantly appears. 

You can also view the questions in list form. For example, here’s the list form of the questions that appear when I enter the phrase “content marketing”:


Click to enlarge

If you want to know what people want to know, an intelligent search site like this will help you find out. Keep your ears open for other websites that offer data-based insights. I have to believe that many such experiments lie ahead.

Use a tool like @answerthepublic to help you find out what people want to know, says @WilReynolds. Share on X


“I’m not trying to be a better SEO professional anymore,” Wil says. “I’m trying to just be a better marketer.” In his experience, the information you need is often sitting right there, waiting for you to open your ears and eyes.

What are your favorite ways to get into the heads of your customers?

Wil is a presenter at Content Marketing World 2017. Register today to hear in person more insights from the self-proclaimed search guy. Use code BLOG100 to save an additional $100.

Sign up for our weekly Content Strategy for Marketers e-newsletter, which features exclusive stories and insights from CMI Chief Content Adviser Robert Rose. If you’re like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to reading his thoughts every Saturday.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Please note:  All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).