Summary of Episode 59: How to Stick to Your Intent Targeting Message
[This is a general summary of the podcast and not a word for word transcript.]
The great Jessica Levenson joins us to talk about how to actually doing what we say we ought to do when trying to create targeted content:
How to take the dream of targeted content and then actually write it
- How to make sure your content actually aligns to your target audience
- Where targeted content is heading as SEO evolves
Plus, we put Google’s relationships on the couch as the search engine has taken yet another entity understanding advancement!
Relationships: The Next Frontier of Google’s Entity Understanding
On February 4th, Barry Schwartz reported on a new “See the connection” button in the Knowledge Panel. The example Barry showed was for someone who searched for French Montana and then clicked on DJ Khaled via the People Also Search For box which produced a “See the connection” button above the DJ Khaled panel. When you click the tab it expands to show a Featured Snippet about the connection between the two celebrities.
This is not the first time Google has done this and the mobile Knowledge Panel is not the only way to access this “connection.” For example, one of Tom Petty’s greatest songs is Into the Great Wide Open and while watching the music video Mordy noticed that a very young Johnny Depp appears in the video.
Anyway, Mordy searched for Tom Petty Johnny Depp and just like that he got an Explore Panel with the header “Tom Petty Johnny Depp.” And this panel talks about the very music video that Mordy watched. Pretty good Google!
So the fact that the format was the Explore Panel is very significant. You see, it wasn’t in a Featured Snippet rather it was in the Explore Panel which is a combo of a Featured Snippet and a Knowledge Panel. Meaning, the content in an Explore Panel is entity-centric so the use of the Explore Panel means Google knows Johnny Depp and Tom Petty together are an entity. Meaning, Google now knows that relationships per se are entities! That is freaking huge!
In other words, we always knew that Google knew the connection between two entities… that part of entity A’s identity was a connection to entity B, but now Google knows that relationships per se are an entity. This relationship is actually a sub-entity formed by the merger of two other entities which is why you get the Explore Panel because the Explore Panel shows for very focused “topics” that fall under another entity’s identity. For example, the keyword JFK Space Race used to bring up the Explore Panel because of JFK’s role in the Space Race. This relationship is its own entity but at the same time falls under the entity we know as JFK.
To cap this all off, the People Also Search For box of this Explore Panel has other entity combos like Tom Petty and Cindy Crawford, Tom Petty and Elvis, etc. Meaning, Google knows that what’s related to this relationship Explore Panel are other relationships.
Mordy has been wracking his brain as to how Google will use relationships to evaluate sites. It could be that Google is starting to use this to determine the identity of a site. Mordy sees this more for commerce sites because here you have the meeting of two entities, the site and the product it sells. The more specific the product, the stronger the identity. Think about it like going to a general practitioner versus a specialist. The fact that this doctor is related to a very specific niche of medicine gives the doctor their identity. Thus, Mordy wonders if Google will use this to give sites that have a very specific niche preference when placeed along sites like Amazon that offer a plethora of items.
How to Actually Create Content that Targets Your Audience: A Conversation with Jessica Levenson
Mordy: Welcome to another In Search SEO podcast interview session. Today, our Women in Search interview series continues with a renowned industry speaker and a highly regarded SEO strategist. You can find her as part of Search Engine Journal’s new eBook on 2020 trends and SEO. She is Jessica Levenson.
Jessica: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
M: I’m really excited that you’re here because you are a Boston sports fan and there’s nothing I detest more than Boston sports.
So today we’re not talking about Boston sports and how horrible of individuals Tommy, Bill, and Alex are. Let’s talk about creating content that actually targets user intent because the idea of targeting user intent and actually doing it are two very different things. From my own personal experience, I will have the best of intentions, I think about my audience, I think about what I want to write, I think about how Google looks at the intent behind what I’m trying to write, but when I sit down to write what it turns out to be is not what I thought it would be. The intent is off, the messaging is off, it’s all a little bit off. And I’m wondering, despite our best efforts, why, in your opinion, does that end up happening more times than not?
J: I think there are a couple of barriers or stumbling blocks. You mentioned research and targeting, and historically, I still see a lot of writers or content creators who don’t actually do that analysis upfront. They’re not checking the SERPs. They’re not understanding the language that customers or readers are using and what problems they actually want to solve. What I typically see instead is a combination of assuming what the search language is as well as thinking that intent just means that you have the right topic without delving into the specifics of what searchers are looking for or the type of content that they need or want because they think that determines a lot of the framing that gets used and that can be severely problematic. I guess what the answer really boils down to is that a nonexistent or abbreviated research cycle is the biggest barrier.
Another barrier I see are writers or editors who are coming from traditional schooling backgrounds, either journalism or business writing, who have inherent writing styles that don’t necessarily translate as well in search. That can be problematic because they get hung up on things that are old fashioned in terms of how people digest content today. People today want quick content that’s easy to scan and get through.
A third barrier is overthinking optimization and turning out content that is just horrible to read. Another barrier that I think really trips people up as well depending on their background is what I call marketingese. Marketingese refers to marketing jargon or lingo that can be really difficult to parse where it doesn’t match the language that people use when they’re searching. Very often the only people who understand this jargon are the marketing individuals of that brand.
M: Yeah, it’s so easy to fall back on what’s easy to do. I speak from experience where if I think I’m doing this I always have somebody outside read it, someone who has no idea about the product or no idea about whatever it is I’m writing about. And I’ll ask them can you clearly and quickly understand this?
J: Exactly. That’s a really great way to look at it. The way that you market yourself as opposed to the way people think about the problems or issues they’re having are often vastly different.
M: I’m wondering, what do you do when you sit down to write something from the research process to the writing process? How do you go about making sure that you’re aligned to your strategy and you’re aligned to the actual writing itself?
J: First things first, I need to understand my goal and who I’m targeting. Once I get beyond that point, one of the things I do, before I start crafting, is to take an inventory of what I have in place already. By that I mean I’m going to look at the content that exists and I’m going to make sure that I’m not rewriting something that doesn’t need to be rewritten or just really needs an update. Next, I realize what my gaps are, what needs to be rounded out in terms of my coverage because all these things should be interlinked as part of a journey of working together. Then my subject matter expertise or my experience in the space is going to give me a rough skeleton idea of what I need to create.
I’m going to have some gut expectations and then I’m going to do some competitive research by looking at what my direct and search competitors are doing. I’m going to use tools like Keywords Everywhere, Keyword Tool IO, SEMRush, Moz, the list is really endless. I like them all for very different reasons. I’m going to use that data to support my next steps in my final plan.
Once I select keywords, I’m going to start looking at the SERPs in an incognito browser. I’m going to look at the SERP features on the page. I’m going to make notes about what I’m seeing before I actually dive into the links themselves. Do the results look ambiguous? Are they a mixture of things? Does Google see there are different needs versus one centralized focus? Are they specifically decision awareness or consideration? And then I’ll go again back to the features and I’ll take note. I’ll see if there’s a video carousel and I’ll consider whether I need to create a video for in addition to my text-based content. Or maybe there are images or a People Also Ask box and I’ll add that to my outline.
I’m going to look specifically at the top-ranking pieces, what they have, how they’re covering it, and what they may be using for conversion tactics. In addition to that manual review, I like using tools like Market News, which happens to be my favorite at this point, to pull together some of that competitive data beyond my notes, including the target length of my content. Again, not all of this is exact, it’s really just there to give me a guideline as I’m not going to always hit that number exactly. These tools are going to help me gauge what I need to do to beat the competition and ultimately build out my content briefs. I’m going to work with my team and then we’re going to iterate. And, obviously, after that point, reporting and analytics are going to be important which involves watching what that content does and coming back and addressing anything further as necessary.
M: You know, it’s so funny that you actually go to Google and look at the SERP. I feel that so many people don’t do that. And there’s really no substitute at this point for just going and seeing what Google prefers. What does it prefer? What other intents are being met? To what extent are other intents being met? What is above the fold & what’s not above the fold? It’s really valuable and people just don’t do it.
J: I know, it’s frustrating because very often whoever you’re working with will say, “I don’t understand why my content isn’t working” and then you go in and you do that inventory research process and you can see these massive gaps. If you don’t nail that you’re not going to be seen and then you may have a great piece of content that you’ve crafted but it’s just not doing anything for you.
M: It’s ironic as it’s probably the easiest, least time-consuming thing you can possibly do.
J: Absolutely. And once you’re used to it, it’s a rote exercise. Even when I’m outside of my SEO persona I’m immediately able to tell on the surface whether the search is feeding my needs or not. And it’s useful in terms of doing this research and it’s kind of hard to understand why somebody wouldn’t.
M: We just love tools. We’re a tool obsessed industry which is good for us because we’re a tool… Wait, that didn’t come out right.
J: Yeah, that’s okay. And tools don’t replace humans, they benefit humans. I love having an arsenal of tools, but the reality is there’s a human element there that matters and you’re serving a human. Why wouldn’t you expect to have that additional layer to make sure that you’re satisfying your buyers or your readers?
M: Speaking of things that tools can’t do. You mentioned CTAs and it got me thinking that often enough we’ll run a nice piece of content that let’s assume that it’s targeted towards a particular intent that makes sense or a particular pain point. And then we write the CTA which is something as generic as “Get Started Now” or “Buy Here” here or “Click Now,” and we don’t create a CTA that’s actually aligned to the beautiful content that we’ve written. I’m wondering what your approach is to make sure that the CTA is aligned to what you’re doing for your audience and to what you’ve already written.
J: This is just a slight difference, but I think it’s helpful in terms of giving better value to the user. I actually like to focus on call-to-value versus call-to-action. What is someone getting from the content if they click through? It’s the difference between giving them something valuable versus asking them to do something. I think that language can make a really big difference. Are you giving them a template? Are you giving them a trial? Are you giving them the knowledge that ultimately helps them make a decision? Is it something exclusive that cannot be found elsewhere? I think that’s actually the bigger win here and the bigger opportunity and ensuring obviously, that tone automatically is more specific versus generic because you’re focusing on what they get versus this vague Click Here, Learn X, or, Fill this form out, which nobody ever wants to do. Instead, you’re saying grab this trial that will help you monitor your whatever. Whatever the tool or the application there’s a better way to get them and it’s all tied to the value that you’re offering them.
M: I never thought of it like that. I like that a lot. Could you offer an example off the top of your head? It’s so hard sometimes as a free trial is very generic. What are you going to say? How do you write something valuable that really piques the user’s interest when it is something that’s not really dynamic?
J: It depends based on what your application is of your target audience. I think a good one is something that helps you position your value for your department. Let’s say you have an application that really helps you with robust analytics and maybe your target audience is SEOs then it could be something around getting your CMO bought into SEO by using this robust platform. I know this is not crafted well because I’m doing it off the cuff here, but that’s the kind of targeting I would expect. The value-added isn’t just the tool, but maybe it’s the fact that you’ll get your CMO totally bought into SEO reporting.
M: Let’s talk about what you mentioned before about tone and CTAs on the page. I’m wondering, as a writer, a lot of these questions are coming from me as a writer and not as an SEO and I think of it like Murphy’s Law. If I focus too much on intent, I lose the clarity of my message, but when I focus too much on the other ancillary things like tone, design, and so forth, I lose intent a little bit. Do you think there’s sort of a problem in doing one batch of writing metrics versus SEO metrics or is there a way to balance both? How do you balance both at the same time?
J: I think the first thing to understand is to not lose sight of your audience because the reality is that if the page is a poor experience with the way that it reads and the way people are able to interact with your page, then they’re going to bounce.
I think that SEO will happen naturally if you’ve done that research phase and you’re informing your writing team ahead of time. That’s not to say that it’s always going to go off without a hitch as it’s not always going to be easy, but taking into consideration all those user experiences like bullet points, making sure that it’s easy to read, that it’s easy to navigate through, that readers can easily scan and get to what they need, that you’ve integrated subheadings, you provided links to other supporting content, and that the call-to-value is present.
It’s funny that you mentioned this earlier because I had this as a specific note, but have you had other people, including people from your audience, weigh in on your content pages? Obviously, you can’t do that all the time because you’d be caught in a never-ending block of waiting for feedback and everybody’s not going to do that. But those are the things I think that work well. Having that iterative cycle versus writing the whole thing and then shoehorning a bunch of stuff in. It’s more like doing the research and analysis upfront, craft some really great content, and then go back and tweak it and make sure that the experience on-page with that content is good. I think those are the ways that you can make sure you don’t lose sight of both a positive experience and miss out on intent as well.
M: That’s a really good point. You shouldn’t look to a third party or third person all the time because a lot of people are very opinionated and at the same time, it’s time-consuming. There’s a lot of back and forth and I think content marketers need to be self-aware and say to themselves, “Okay, this piece is pretty much fine, this piece I think is missing something, somebody should look at this piece.” That awareness to make those decisions is not only going to save you time, but it will help you write better content.
J: Exactly and that stuff starts to happen even more naturally as you progress through the other pieces because you’ve had those conversations and you’re retaining that information hopefully and applying at a later time as well.
M: I guess you could say that the ultimate skill for a writer is being self-aware, sort of like life.
You mentioned ease of navigation and that sort of got me thinking. I always feel this happens to me. I hit a landing page and there’s always something missing about it. I don’t know what it is. When I’m looking at landing pages, I just find the whole experience doesn’t work. I feel in an age where there’s so much indirect interaction on web pages there should just be more. The epitome of this would be Google’s travel site. You go to the Local Finder, you look for hotels in New York City, you look for more hotels, you see the whole list there and after the first four in the local pack, you get an entire website of hotels or travel options. There was so much interaction there between the user and the website and it was so much more so than say, Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, etc. I feel that Google’s onto something with that. When I hit a landing page and all I see is your message and I can’t really interact with it and there isn’t any media, then I feel like it’s falling flat and not connecting with users because we’re doing things the old way because we don’t have a better way. Am I crazy is there something to what I’m saying? Don’t answer the crazy part.
J: Absolutely, I think it harkens back to the static dry landing pages that you would see in the old school days which would drive people to either pay per click campaigns or newsletters and your whole focus, beyond getting them to convert, was to make sure they never go anywhere else. I think that became a bit pervasive and I think you’re on to it. I think you need to make sure you’re incorporating other elements like video or other storytelling elements on the page. Something that’s engaging and has some level of value for the people that you’re trying to help. I think the thing that sticks with me a lot and I really liked how they position themselves is actually how HubSpot focuses a lot on delight. It sounds a little bit corny on the initial pass of that word, or maybe it’s just me, but I think that is a really good thing to apply to the way that people interact with your content on the landing page. So, depending on how they’re getting there, what are you doing to keep them there? What are you doing to give them a positive impression of who you are and what you’re offering? Again, coming back to things, add elements like visuals, rich media, video, and maybe a link to a podcast that gives them a better idea of what you have to offer them is a positive experience and it’s going to start to build something with the people that are hitting your content.
M: Yeah. I’m so guilty of not doing that. I think everyone’s sort of guilty of not doing that to a large extent. Hopefully that will change.
J: Absolutely. Everybody’s got an umpteen number of tasks and five minutes to get it all done. I think instead of doing fewer items better, we get trapped in this cycle of doing a million things and messing them all up.
M: I think that describes my life in every aspect of it from writing to child-rearing.
J: Right. We’re all there.
M: That’s right. At least I’m not alone. Before we end off, what are some of the aspects of considering or targeting user intent that you feel content creators are just missing the ball on?
J: As I mentioned earlier, I think they don’t get deep enough into the analysis of what is resonating with users by looking at those SERPs. I don’t think they grasp the value of having content that builds that brand affinity or awareness and takes advantage of people who aren’t yet ready to purchase or convert.
Two other things that I see quite a bit is a misunderstanding of how serious or how dry content sometimes is and that it doesn’t need to be that way. People can be serious SEOs or serious technologists and not be boring. Having that middle ground where you’re offering things of value, but are still coming across exciting I think is a hard balance but something that gets missed a lot.
The other piece to this is, unless you’re in a tiny company where there are only a few people in total, missing the boat on understanding that the group of decision-makers often ends up being larger than the person you think you’re targeting. Have you created an experience or content that is going to resonate with them? With SEO platforms maybe it’s the case of crafting some items for the CMO or helping people talk to the CMO. Maybe it’s your CFO, or just your controller, and then your content creators too so that you can get everybody on board and do that easily. It also makes it easier for, in this instance, the SEO to communicate this out to essentially create content that supports all of the parties and the entire journey. I know we say funnel a lot and I get it, I like funnels, except that it’s really not that linear. It’s often more of a tangled mess of research and analysis before the purchase is made. I think those are some key items.
M: That’s literally why we created this podcast because we can say there are a bunch of podcasts out there that are good, but we haven’t really seen one until now that talks about SEO and gives it a little bit of life and has nothing wrong with a couple of jokes here and there. I don’t mean you should put jokes into your content and especially not if you’re talking about the cure for cancer. You should write serious content. But you can put life into it, you can put personality into it. At the end of the day, the other person looking at the content listening to the content, watching the content is a human being and most human beings, other than Bill Belichick, have a personality.
J: Absolutely. At the end of the day, it’s about being human and making that a priority.
Optimize It or Disavow It
M: In a zero-sum world, would you create a landing page with a clear and crisp message that was not aligned to user intent or would you create a messier page that wasn’t polished, well designed, or well-formatted, but at the end of the day sort of kind of aligns to user intent?
J: Because I don’t know the point of content that doesn’t align with intent I’m going to have to go with that messier version and hope that they can get through it because, otherwise, the content will never be discoverable anyway. Unless its purpose is something like a second click, a landing page, or a newsletter inclusion, it’s just senseless to me.
M: Thank you. I really appreciate you coming on. It was a lot of fun. Thank you for putting up with my ribbing of the Patriots, the Red Sox, and Boston sports in general.
J: You got it. Thank you for having me. It was great. And we’ll see you on the field.
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Search Console Tag Manager Verification Bug Fixed: A bug that prevented you from verifying a property in Search Console using Tag Manager has been fixed.
Are Google Posts Experiencing a Bug?: Rumor has it that Google is experiencing a bug that is rejecting a lot of Google Posts. It appears though that the issue is related to creators not following guidelines around images, such as not using stock photos. We talked about this with Greg Gifford on a previous podcast episode.
Google Maps Updated for 15 Birthday: Finally, Google Maps has gotten an update in honor of its 15th birthday. New changes to the app include user-generated info on public transportation and more tabs at the bottom of the map to make accessing information easier.
Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.