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3 Keyword Research Trends to Get Your Content Seen

Editor’s note: Given the continued importance of keyword research, we updated this post from 2018.

No matter what your content marketing strategy is, keyword research is the fuel.

Keywords inform marketers as to what their audience strives to know, let them monitor their competition, and offer a constant source of content ideas.

Now, the approach to keyword research is different from what it was even a couple of years ago. Search engines are becoming smarter and keyword research tools are getting more advanced. The web is getting to be a better place after all.

Just as the SEO world is changing, so should we. Here are three SEO trends reshaping the keyword research concept and with it the way we brainstorm, create, and optimize content.

1. Being in first place is no longer enough

This is the trickiest and one of the most frequent questions when it comes to keyword research. How much traffic is that top Google position going to bring? Is it worth the trouble?

The short answer: It’s more complicated than it ever was. Search engine results pages provide less visibility than they once did and that should factor in to your keyword optimization process.

Search engine results pages provide less visibility than they once did, says @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

If you want to invest the time and effort into ranking first, here are resources to help you understand how to evaluate your traffic:

General click-through rate for Google’s top position

Through the years, a few studies have shown the breakdown of clicks generated by the top five positions. My company did one a few years ago, 2017 Google Search Click-Through Rate Study, which found the top position attracts 21% of clicks, while the second and third positions generate 10% and 7.5% of clicks, respectively.

CTR for a No. 1 @Google ranking for all queries was just over 21% via @NinjasMarketing study. @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent Click To Tweet

These share-of-click numbers are lower today presumably due to multiple changes Google has introduced to its search results page.

The top position is not always the best

Things have gotten even more complicated ever since Google’s featured snippets got de-duplicated last year.

Previously, the URL in the featured snippet would have shown up again in the organic Google SERPs exactly where it belonged (be it No. 1 or No. 5). With the de-duplication update, the organic listing is removed for any featured URL.

It may not sound like a big deal: It still appears on the very top of Google, right?

Well, not exactly. While organic listings are (mosty) created equal, featured snippets all look different, hence there’s no way to tell if the featured snippet format will trigger any clicks at all.

In fact, featured snippets may have a much lower click-through rate than top organic positions (as old studies confirm):

Gaining a featured snippet position can mean a click loss of over 50% b/c it no longer owns the organic No. 1 listing, says @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Once your page gets featured, you may notice fewer clicks from search results and wish you were ranking inside the organic section even if it is now considered the No. 2 position, below the featured (i.e., No. 1) box.

Google’s search elements

Google long ago moved away from its clear 10 blue links results page. The SERP now incorporates local packs, shopping results, featured snippets, and so much more that distracts users’ attention and clicks.

Here’s one example:

See the full screenshot.

Notice how hidden organic listings are.

These rich, interactive search results produce fewer clicks to publishers (hence the zero-click SERP phenomenon) and devalue top Google positions even further. What’s the point of ranking No. 1 if people would have a hard time seeing your listing anyway?

Consequently, marketers are moving away from only pursuing top Google positions. Instead a new keyword optimization concept is making its way into our industry: on-SERP marketing – working to rank your brand in more than organic positions.

Marketers are moving away from only pursuing top @Google positions, says @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

On-SERP marketing is about ranking your content in as many search elements as possible, including images, videos, top stories, “people also ask” results.

On-SERP #marketing is about ranking for many search elements, not just organic listings, says @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Keyword optimization in today’s search

To sum up: Instead of focusing on the top results position, set goals based on the overall opportunities available on each SERP for your prime keywords:

  • If it uses a featured snippet, evaluate your odds on whether you would like your content to be featured (e.g., Is search intent informational? Then you may want to get featured.)
  • If it includes a local pack, make sure your business is verified in Google and can be listed in local maps on top.
  • If a section highlights Google images, focus on visual content.
  • If it shows video results, create a better video to grab that opportunity.

Creating a single content asset to achieve search visibility is no longer enough because even the top position may not offer the level of visibility you need. You now must approach each search result page differently and come up with more tactics to rank in more sections within one set of search results.

Creating 1 content asset to achieve search visibility is no longer enough, says @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

2. Researching (and optimizing) for things, not strings

A few years ago, search marketers needed a landing page for each variation of the keyword because search engines focused on exact keyword matching. If a keyword string didn’t appear exactly in a page title, the URL would have had no chance to appear in search results.

Well, it’s different these days.

Google is smarter in interpreting user queries. What has changed? Google no longer focuses on so-called keyword strings. It now understands better what a user is searching and gives a variety of more relevant results.

#Google no longer focuses on so-called keyword strings, says @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

As an example, do a search for “good hiking spots” and see related terms in the results, like “good hiking places” and “good hiking trails” – many of which are in bold showing that Google clearly knows those words match the search query well.

Note: In the image above, I cut off local-pack search results to make it more readable.

This trend started many years ago with Google’s update called Hummingbird and was reinforced in 2019 with the well-publicized BERT update, which can interpret a user’s query without relying much on keywords:

Instead of optimizing your site for all kinds of keyword phrases, you need to optimize for concepts.

Instead of optimizing your site for keyword phrases, you need to optimize for concepts, says @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

To identify relevant concepts, use Serpstat’s clustering feature. Instead of grouping your keywords by a common word like “spots” (as in the “good hiking spots” example) and losing important keywords like other clustering would, Serpstat analyzes Google’s search results to find overlapping URLs.

With the hiking example in mind, here’s how Serpstat grouped all the related phrases, allowing us to clearly see synonymous phrases to include in the new content:

Clustering helps make sense of huge keyword lists by grouping them into topics and subtopics. These groups can help you structure your content, turning many of the subtopics into subheads.

Another tool to help you include related terms more than exact-match keywords is Text Optimizer, which also uses semantic analysis to extract related and synonymous concepts to cover in your content:

.@TextOptimizer is an intent optimization tool that helps you create #content that matches users’ expectations rather than matching keywords, says @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Conducting Google searches is another way to better understand how the search engine interprets concepts and identify what your content may be missing. Pay attention to as-you-type search suggestions because they offer clues to related and synonymous concepts hidden behind each query.

As-you-type search suggestions offer clues to related & synonymous concepts behind each query. @SEOSmarty Click To Tweet

3. Taking advantage of the most SEO insight ever available

Content marketers never have had as much insight into audiences’ interests, struggles, and intents as they do now. The variety and depth of tools is unprecedented.

All you really need to do is test them and pick those that suit your needs. Some considerations:

  • Three major SEO intelligence platforms – SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Serpstat – help identify keywords with less competition by including a keyword difficulty metric. They also help in identifying keyword intent.
  • A few text-analysis and natural-language-processing tools like Watson™ Natural Language Understanding can extract entities, categories, and concepts from any piece of content.
  • Social media networks and tools provide keyword analytics opportunities to research natural language, trends, real-time keyword context, and more. A variety of non-SEO tools still give you a good insight into keywords. For example, Hashtagify helps you discover related hashtags, i.e., related concepts to cover in your content. It also provides trend analysis showing the popularity of your core topic.

Use a tool like @hashtagify to help you make informed #marketing decisions, says @SEOSmarty via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

What’s in your keyword research toolkit this year? Please share in the comments.

Please note: All tools are suggested by author. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used). 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute