Have you noticed how traditional approaches to content strategy don’t seem to be as effective as they once were? Once upon a time, you could throw some keywords into the footer of a website and watch as your organic traffic soared. It’s hard to believe, but that was pretty much the extent of search engine optimization.

As search engines became more sophisticated so did the SEO tactics. Suddenly everyone had an opinion on the exact number of times a keyword phrase should be mentioned on a page. Whether it made grammatical sense was irrelevant.

We sell the best white chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies in America. We make our best white chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies from scratch. Visit our store to pick up a box or two of the best white chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies.

Site copy like the example above was frustratingly common throughout the late-1990s and early-2000s. It was good for search engines but painfully bad for humans.

Unfortunately for SEO-driven strategists (but good for consumers), search engines caught on to this plot rather quickly.

Tired of reacting to the vagaries of SEO, some content strategists went in the opposite direction, aiming for a pure topical approach, producing wonderful sites full of user-centric content.

Since these sites were written for humans and not search engines, they were not easy to find on Google. If you stumbled across a topical-driven site, you could easily recognize it by its lack of section titles, article titles that sound cute but are not necessarily descriptive of the article or a lack of internal linking.

In this article, I will discuss the pitfalls of these two diametrically opposed content strategy approaches. After looking at a pure SEO strategy and a pure topical strategy, I’ll offer an alternative that satisfies humans as well as search engines.

Pitfalls of a Pure Topical Content Strategy

Once upon a time, you could get a decent level of traffic by having a sufficient quantity of high-quality content. In reality, approaching content strategy from a purely topical perspective only makes sense if you’re not concerned about organic traffic.

That’s what Marcus Sheridan did over a decade ago. He went online to answer every question a consumer could have about buying a fiberglass pool. His work created a massive resource of content, which attracted an equally large increase in blog traffic. Ultimately, it helped him save his failing pool company and launch a new career.

While this tactic worked for Sheridan, the competitive environment was significantly different than it is now. E-commerce sales were a third of what they are now and few people buying anything pool-related online. Fewer still were writing about pools online.

Unfortunately, Sheridan’s pure topical approach is no longer effective due to an exponential rise in competing content.

Pitfalls of an SEO-driven Content Strategy

At the other end of the spectrum lies the SEO-driven approach to content strategy. The majority of SEO content strategy practitioners rely on keyword research. Specifically, they look at link metrics to judge competitive difficulty and search volume.

One popular approach is to target high-volume keywords with little or no competition. For example, a popular free online keyword research tool reveals that “cookies with cake mix” has a search volume of 3,600. According to the software, “this keyword is easy to rank for. There is a 91% chance you can rank in the top 20.” With a healthy keyword volume and low competition, this is an easy win—precisely the type of opportunity SEO content strategists are looking for.

However, there are three problems with this approach.

First, with so many people pursuing this strategy, profitable opportunities evaporate very quickly.

Second, most sites using this tactic end up with a jumble of disjointed content that doesn’t help their audience and which doesn’t build brand authority.

Third, the whole premise is questionable and the results are often offered without context. Do you really think this website would have an easy time ranking for “cookies with cake mix”?

Historically, SEO has looked to exploit loopholes in search engine algorithms as a way of obtaining favorable rankings. In the early days, search engines relied on title tags and keyword stuffing to rank content on Google.

But times have changed dramatically for the better. Search engines no longer rely on site owners to tell them what their content is about, nor do they try to match keywords on a page to search terms.

Now search engines use machine learning to interpret the content on a page. Google understands topics and has dramatically improved its ability to match relevant content with user intent. Consequently, gaming the system has become nearly impossible.

A Different Approach to Content Strategy

An alternative to content strategy combines topical with SEO, while adding intent segments.

Why should content strategists consider this approach? In today’s highly competitive digital environment, it’s exponentially more difficult to rank. What used to be good enough is no longer so. Chasing short terms wins at the expense of long-term success doesn’t make sense.

Using this approach creates better and more relevant content at all points of contact. That results in a better user experience, improved content performance, and a more favorable long-term outcome.

Be aware that this approach does bring with it the additional complexity of mapping out user intent. However, it’s a small price to pay for sites struggling under heavy competition.

Getting Started With A Topical Intent-Segmented Content and SEO Strategy

It’s time to move past keywords and start thinking like a customer. Instead of looking at the search volume and competitiveness of a keyword, focus on the intent behind it.

Your first step in incorporating intent into your content strategy is to understand the different types of intent and their implications.

Explicit Intent

Explicit intent is the easiest type of intent to recognize. As its name implies, it leaves no room for doubt or confusion. Using the phrase 2018 Dodge Caravan wheel size as an example, there’s no doubt what someone typing in this phrase is looking for. If a content strategist wants to target this keyword, they ought to create content around the consideration stage in the conversion funnel.

Intent Fracture

Intent fracture is more difficult to deal with when creating a content strategy. It occurs when there are multiple reasons people use a specific search term. The term cookie is a prime example. Looking at the search results page (SERP) for this term you’ll see the first page is filled with cookie recipes.

If you look at the “People also ask” section, you’ll notice that people want to know about the different type of cookies (no-bake, fried cookies, etc.), the origin of cookies, and other words for cookie. When dealing with intent fracture, it’s a good idea to cover all intent on a pillar page, filling in the details with supporting pages.

Topic Ambiguity

No to be confused with intent fracture, topic ambiguity occurs when a search term has multiple meanings. However, intent fracture and topic ambiguity are not mutually exclusive. In the example above, there is also topic ambiguity as cookie can refer to a text file that a website installs on your computer as well as the sweet snack.

When faced with ambiguous topics, don’t attempt to create content covering multiple meanings. It doesn’t make sense for a website dedicated to cookies (the food) to talk about the type of cookie (the file).

Favored Intent

Don’t jump to conclusions when determining intent. What Google shows in its results may be the favored intent, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only intent. Looking at the SERP for the search term cookie, you’ll notice that the overwhelming majority of entries are recipes. It would be easy to conclude that the only thing you need to rank is to come up with a better recipe or a roundup of the best cookie recipes. But that would be a mistake.

Underneath the surface lie all kinds of intent that need to be addressed. For example, cookie baking troubleshooting, baking from scratch advice and so on. A better cookie recipe isn’t going to help you rank on the first page.

Next Steps

Working intent into your content strategy isn’t easy, but it’s imperative that you do so if you wish to gain or maintain a competitive advantage is search results. Here are four steps you can take to integrate intent into your strategy.

First, organise intent into groups. By grouping intent, you can make sure that you cover all possible intents with your new content.

Second, find intent gaps. Review your existing content to find what gaps exist. If you haven’t focused on intent in the past, don’t be surprised if you find a lot of gaps. Create new content or improve existing pages to fill those gaps.

Third, look for content gaps. Examine your inventory to figure out what content needs to be added to improve existing pages.

Fourth, look for areas of consolidation based on intent grouping. Audit your inventory to determine whether existing content can interlink in a better fashion.

Parting Words

Gaining recognition as an authoritative, trustworthy website means creating a topical map of your niche, identifying the user intent, and satisfying it.

Try to understand the intent behind your user’s search terms and create content that addresses their motivations. Intent-inspired content creates a positive user experience, attracts organic links, and improves the overall reputation of your site. In the end, it’s the type of content that works better.

The Author

Stephen Jeske is a content strategist for MarketMuse, the content intelligence and strategy platform that accelerates content planning, creation, and optimization. Connect with Stephen on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @stephenjeske.

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