SEO Writing is Long Dead: Meet User Intent

SEO Writing is Long Dead- Meet User Intent - Hero Image

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article titled “5 Best Content Editors for SEO“. I wanted to see whether different content editors would provide consistent recommendations (they did not), but that was not all.

I ran the article through five content editors to get the highest possible average rating. I wanted to test whether this would make the text rank significantly better on Google than other articles on our blog. 

Due to the nature of Onely being a technical SEO agency, I was confident that all aspects other than “SEO writing” were up to par. 

Many of our articles get tons of external links, which helps them rank higher, but many other pieces don’t get that many links and still get great exposure in Google Search. So I had a decent sample of various blog pages to check against.

While “5 Best Content Editors for SEO” did not do badly, it did not do noticeably better than other articles on the blog, which we did not write strictly in adherence with content editor suggestions.

This got me thinking. Content optimization tools primarily rely on traditional “SEO writing” factors like word count, the number of headings, and, most importantly, keyword saturation.

Does that make any sense?

Bing, Yahoo, and Yandex are all essential, but for most of us, Google is the search engine we want to impress first and foremost. 

And for many years now, Google’s representatives have been discouraging site owners and content writers from using counterintuitive techniques to help their content rank better.

Is it already time to focus on meeting search intent only? And how do we do that?

The goal of Google Search

If we’re optimizing to rank better, we should be focusing on how ranking works – what it’s supposed to do. So what is the primary goal of Google Search?

Google ranking systems are designed to […] sort through hundreds of billions of webpages in our Search index to find the most relevant, useful results in a fraction of a second, and present them in a way that helps you find what you’re looking for.
source: Google

Judging not only from the citation above but from many resources provided by Google and its advocates, we can see that their aim is simple: to provide the searcher with the best possible answer, as quickly as possible, in the most precise possible way.

In the distant past, algorithms did (or, rather, may have been doing) this by identifying keywords and their synonyms to match them with the search query. 

As this was never entirely overt, we focused on the HOW of Google’s aim instead of concentrating on WHAT they want to do.

“SEO writers” began to reverse engineer “SEO writing” techniques. Unfortunately, these techniques seem to fall out of date quickly because of how fast algorithms develop and how sophisticated they become.

What makes writing “SEO writing”

I want to focus on what we, as content creators, do to rank, and whether: 

  • these techniques are helpful to users, or 
  • based on what used to work in the past, these techniques are supposed to make content more visible in search.

The latter would seem counterintuitive when you take into account what the aim of the algorithms is.

To write this article, I needed to discern between writing techniques that are useful for users vs. practices that don’t help users per se but that may be easier to spot by search engines. Experts seem to believe that’s a good way to go:

I think we will continue to head towards content that covers related topics and offers depth being rewarded over content focused on keyword usage.
source: Joel Messner

Keyword usage: the mother of “SEO writing techniques.” If you’ve ever had to write “SEO-optimized” copy, you’ve probably heard of putting the main keyword in:

  • The title,
  • Meta description,
  • URL,
  • First paragraph,

and so on.

But that’s not necessarily the best strategy: 

Just stuffing keywords in titles and headings, as well as text, generates low-quality content that’s painful to read and can even harm your site’s ranking.

And SEO content editors seem to have picked these keyword placement techniques up pretty well. However, they also focus on other things like:

  • Shortness of sentences,
  • The plainness of language (e.g., avoiding the use of passive voice),
  • A good text to subheading ratio,
  • The number of external and internal links, and
  • Accessibility of text (e.g., the presence of alt description).

Those techniques, I believe, do play a part in what Google looks for, i.e., “present most relevant, useful results in a way that helps you find what you’re looking for.”

So it’s not that all text optimized for search is a no-go. But some of these automated recommendations may be obsolete.

(…) Google is constantly innovating and updating its algorithms to become more adaptive, responsive, and intelligent, giving people more relevant and reliable information based on their search queries. Google cares about retrieving the right data from its search index to deliver the best results possible to users

Google’s rankings vs. SEO writing techniques

I performed a small, admittedly imperfect experiment to find out whether top results from Google are focused on SEO writing techniques such as:

  • Keyword usage,
  • Keyword density, and
  • Keyword presence in the title and first paragraph.

Here are three top-ranking random articles I compared with results on the tenth page for the same queries. I wanted to determine whether the phrases they are ranking for actually appear in the text, title, and first paragraph.

 

Query: free britney
Top result 1st result from the tenth page
How many times the exact keyphrase is used 2 12
Is the keyphrase present in the title? no yes
Is the keyphrase present in the first paragraph? no yes
What is the word count? 6280 1024

 

Query: pregnancy symptoms
Top result 1st result from the tenth page
How many times the exact keyphrase is used 0 2
Is the keyphrase present in the title? no yes
Is the keyphrase present in the first paragraph? no yes
What is the word count? 577 183

 

Query: javascript errors
Top result 1st result from the tenth page
How many times the exact keyphrase is used 0 4
Is the keyphrase present in the title? no yes
Is the keyphrase present in the first paragraph? no yes
What is the word count? 1300 311

Of course, keywords such as “pregnancy symptoms” and “symptoms of pregnancy” (the latter of which is used in the second example from the first page) are interchangeable. But the fact that the text above ranks for both proves: you don’t need to use both to rank for both. Algorithms have long ago figured this out.

While the results won’t look exactly like this for every pair of results, copy from the tenth page is generally more consistent in using both exact keywords and their variations in recommended places.

This doesn’t mean they flood the text with keywords. So it’s not that they are receiving penalties in ranking due to keyword stuffing. Instead, they provide a worse user experience, and including these keywords is not overweighing that. 

Of course, you would also have to consider hundreds of other ranking factors, confirmed or otherwise, to make strong claims about this. For example, the top result might have many more external links than the one on the 10th page. But running a test like that would be extremely difficult and volatile even if you worked at Google and had full access to all data.

What’s the conclusion? I don’t believe that worse-ranking results concentrate on outdated optimization techniques too much, but it’s rather that top-ranking results don’t seem to be concerned with using keywords in the “right” places at all.

Let’s see what Onely’s SEOs had to say on the subject:

Keywords in titles are still important but they are definitely not enough. It’s better to focus on the overall quality of content on the page; its uniqueness and accessibility, for example. If you keep on rewriting what has already been said, chances are no one (including Google) will find value in it. However, if you produce insightful content presented in a way that is accessible for all, you can have a chance to earn your spot both in Google’s rankings and people’s memory.
source: Aleks Zarzycka
Testing different keyword densities can be an interesting idea, and you can play with that, but never at the expense of content quality. Just create a tailored piece of content responding to your user’s expectations and add keywords naturally.

So if not keywords, what is the best way to ensure you rank for a given topic? 

Search intent.

It isn’t easy to measure user experience or whether the intent for the examples above was met. I can, however, subjectively conclude that the results found on the first page were generally more pleasing to peruse than the tenth. 

And I am almost sure that you can say the same for many if not all experiences you’ve had using Google. When was the last time you got to, even, the fourth page and came back happy?

Again, I would need a massive dataset and an automated process for this experiment to have measurable results. Unfortunately, that’s not in my scope of possibility, so the arguments presented in this text remain speculative. 

I did, however, have some experts weigh in with their observations:

You may spend long hours optimizing your content, rephrasing the meta titles, but your efforts are useless if Google won’t be able to discover a given page and see the content. Issues with rendering or internal linking may prevent indexing of your content. The website should work like a well-oiled machine – content creators should write valuable content focused on users’ needs and intents. At the same time, technical SEO should make sure that Google can discover and index content quickly.

What’s the direction for ranking algorithm updates

While exploring the thesis that algorithms will keep getting better at guessing the user’s intent and recognizing how well pages answer it, I also researched what experts had to say on this topic. 

I scoured the web and asked our in-house experts for their opinion on future algorithm updates. 

I think that Google will keep focusing on natural language processing. With more people getting impatient with literally everything (we get used to good, very fast), understanding the language subtleties and surfacing adequate results will be key to speed up the user research process.
source: Aleks Zarzycka
Google crafts its algorithms with user experience in mind, and I’m pretty sure they will go even further in that direction. And the user doesn’t want to read the same thing all over again, only with synonyms.
By looking at the history of the updates and with the content being the main focus for so long, the next big algorithm update will be more likely to address user experience.
source: Sahil Gumber

The main areas the experts mentioned above touched upon were:

  • Content quality,
  • The uniqueness of content,
  • User experience, and
  • Natural language processing.

Can you spot the pattern? It’s all centered around making helpful content, both when it comes to merit and usability. So, as long as you create content for the searcher, not the search engine, you should be fine. The paradox here that we need to embrace is that you help the search engine achieve its goals by satisfying the user!

How to create content for your users

If we are not to focus on keyword placement, how do we develop a strategy for “SEO writing”?

Well, the key thing here is user intent. Instead of worrying about whether keywords appear in strategic places, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do users want from my piece of content?
  • Am I explaining the topic fully?
  • Will the users need to do further research to get their answers?
  • Am I presenting the information in the best possible way?

Keywords should appear wherever they come naturally, thus, serving user intent.

With the aim Google has for their algorithms (focus on what the user needs instead of what’s easy to understand for search engines), we should stop focusing on measurable things like keyword density and placement, but think about the user, first and always.