Mark Williams-Cook tells SEOs in 2023 that it’s important to build most of your content research around zero-volume keywords and intent proximity, rather than monthly search volume and related keywords.
Mark says: “When we talk about zero-volume keywords, we’re not referring to keywords that have no searches a month. What we’re really talking about are the gaps in information that exist in the tools and data we have access to.
When a tool doesn’t know how much traffic a particular search term gets, it will show it as zero. Professional SEOs have been known to discount these, however, that’ll be an ill-advised approach going forward. From an SEO perspective, the bigger, more progressive trend is thinking outside of the individual keyword phrases you’re optimising for.
There are lots of ways to write queries that mean the same thing in Google. You may know that searching for ‘my blue men’s running shoes’ only has a few searches per month, but you could rewrite the same query multiple ways. If each iteration has 5-10 searches per month, you could quickly get to thousands of searches per month for something you may have otherwise completely overlooked.”
What percentage of keywords out there have search volume but no listed keyword volume that can deliver traffic?
“The top line mostly. It depends on what data you’re looking at. Many modern SEO platforms have reported that within around 90% of the keywords they track, there are less than 20 searches a month for many of the search terms. This is partly due to the changes in user behaviour we’ve seen over the last decade. Interestingly, when search engines are a bit more basic, people do a lot more searches around one or two words because the algorithms are a lot more basic at finding that information.
Now people know that if they’re specific in their searches, the technology exists to get better results. When you’re doing keyword research, you still need to look at monthly search volume, especially when you look at site structure and how categories should be structured. When it comes to producing this sort of content, you need to realise that people are doing specific searches, so if you write specifically to answer all of the branching questions that a single intent has, you’re going to satisfy users and rank better.”
Is it easier to rank for longer tail keywords without noticeable search volume? Is it easier to rank for these keywords than trying to rank for keywords with higher volume?
“That’s definitely true at the moment, and partially true over the last very recent timescale. We’ve seen some updates that Google have made like BERT and passive indexing. These have increased the opportunities for these specific key phrases to rank. Since the Google helpful content update, lots of people have been looking at spam sites created around mining Google’s People Also Ask questions and scraping or generating results from them. Some of those websites have gone from zero traffic to over a million visitors within 8-12 weeks.
That would certainly suggest there’s potential to rank very quickly, which is also what makes it an important thread of SEO strategy for most websites. The majority of websites can’t easily rank for big head terms, especially if they’re new. This strategy gives an opportunity to get meaningful search traffic to smaller websites very quickly, providing you can research and produce content effectively.”
If SEOs dive into tools like People Also Ask, they can quickly find themselves drowning in thousands of potential opportunities to rank. How do you suggest that an SEO or content marketer goes about selecting which phrase to write for if they’re all zero-volumes?
“Once you know the topic you’re writing about, you can try to find a root question that might not be zero-volume but just low-volume. There are loads of ways to go about this. If you have things like live chat on your website or a site search, these are great ways to see the specific questions that people who are already engaged with you are asking. You can then make sure you have the content to answer them. There are other tools like AnswerThePublic that use Google suggest, which is different to People Also Ask because it gives a bird’s eye view of a topic where all of the questions aren’t necessarily related to an intent, they’re just thematically created. This is a great place to start and get that root question.
People Also Ask data is great because of intent proximity. Let’s say you put in an initial question that’s specific - for example, ‘does pet insurance cover dog poisoning?’. If you enter this into a traditional keyword tool around pet insurance, it will essentially just give you a list of questions that contain the word pet insurance. They’ll all be thematically related but not close in terms of intext proximity.
Intent proximity means someone has asked a question and to fulfil their search journey needed to ask multiple follow-up questions. If you put this type of question into People Also Ask, you’ll see that one of the closest related questions is something like ‘what does a vet do with a poisoned dog?’. That’ll show that this is what the person wants to know but might also panic the user that their dog has been poisoned. If so they’ll Google whether their insurance will cover it and then look at what the vet might actually need to do.
Once you’ve established a root question, using People Also Ask specifically will give you a mirror from Google about what they are expecting users to ask. Apart from just the raw questions, the most powerful part of that data is the relationships between those questions. Interestingly, the results you get from People Also Ask differs depending on your starting point.
For instance, if you do that search around pet insurance, get four or five questions and click on one of them, you’ll get some more questions. If you started the query from that second level, you would actually get a different set of questions because Google has learned there could be a slightly different intent path and different intent proximity to other questions. This is a great way to determine a starting point with other data points. What should you include? What questions should you answer? What topics should you cover in a particular niche?”
Should you have one question for one page or should you have separate pages for every single question that you try to answer?
“No. You shouldn’t be creating separate pages for every single question. Most of the time, the proximity of the intent means that if you answer three or four of the closely related questions on the same page, that’s better for the user - because they’re going to want to know that next thing.
Don’t place an extra burden on the user. Don’t add extra friction and make them click and wait for the latency of another page load. There comes a sensible point where you’ll stop answering questions, but that’s why it’s good to group pages together based on how related they are.
If you’re using things like header tags, it should be easy for someone to scan through your content. Then, even if they’re interested in the second or third answer, they can easily see that within a few seconds on the page, and that’ll be faster for them than clicking on individual links to each of those pages.”
How can you help Google to perceive your answer as authoritative for that particular question, or to feature your answer as a featured snippet within the SERP?
“There are lots of tactics you can use for the actual optimisation of the content, especially where you’ve got advice that goes against the grain. However, do you want to have a succinct answer that’s good for the user or should you write a really detailed answer to show expertise? You can achieve both of these things by taking heed of how newspapers write stories. If you have a particular question, you can give a one-paragraph summary of the answer and go into details below that. By doing so, you’ll be giving search engines an easy job to understand this is the answer to the question. It’ll also be small enough to show in a featured snippet, and you’ll have the longer answer there to cover other search terms and to inform users that want that answer.
You can use structured data too. FAQ page schema gives you a better chance of getting rich results. Also, you should think about the format that is being used to answer those questions. Google is really helpful when you put in a question.
For example, let’s consider a tourist website where people are searching for things like the height of The Shard. When you delve into the question, some people will be searching for how high it is in feet, others in metres, and a whole host of people searching for how tall The Shard is compared to the Eiffel Tower. ‘300 metres’ as a statistic doesn’t mean a lot to some people, but maybe they’re a tourist from France and they know exactly how tall the Eiffel Tower is. Showing this in an image format can be really helpful for them. Using multiple different types of format - and the right format for the answer - can increase your chances of ranking high for those kinds of terms.”
As an SEO, how can you justify spending time on zero-volume keywords? Also, what sort of ROI do you look for from people landing on your pages from top-of-funnel questions?
“Firstly, examine the traditional strategy - of looking at certain keywords because they’ve got X search volume, and if you rank position one, two, or three you’ll get this much traffic which contributes to our target. Visually demonstrating to people how they are targeting a minority of search terms is helpful. Show them that they are leaving the majority of searches on the table, and that those search terms are in a way zero-sum games.
If you’ve got a 20,000-a-month search term and manage to knock off whoever is ranking position one, they’re not going to say ‘oh never mind, that was nice when we ranked one’ - they’ll fight you for it. Realistically you need to budget for the fact that competitors will up their game and input to win that ranking back. This can become an expensive way to compete.
You should then think about how you’re going to do things like build links to these pages. In nearly almost all the cases I’ve encountered, it’s difficult to do things like build links to pages that are commercially driven because you’re asking people to sell for you or link to very commercially focused pages. The strategy you can adopt at the top of the funnel is using those pages to internally link to our commercial pages and increase those rankings.
The final part of all this is in terms of strategy and the bigger marketing picture. Where does SEO fit in there? The gold standard of marketing is around brand building. The idea is that, rather than people googling your product or service, they’ll be googling your brand, then your product. Why? Because they know you’re number one and therefore they want it from you.
Most people wouldn’t just google ‘running shoes’, they’d Google ‘Nike running shoes’ because they know they’re the best. One of the ways you can do that is through helpful top-of-funnel content. You’ll be getting that brand exposure, winning that affinity with customers, and helping them with that. When they panicked about their poisoned dog, you relieved them and thus they’ll be motivated to share that answer in the future. Start to build that affinity with them. In terms of measurement, you’ll see results from zero-volume pages much faster than you’d expect. You can sometimes see results within weeks of publishing content, and it’ll stack up nicely as you start seeing links coming in.
Then you can start measuring if you’re going to link to a specific set of your commercial pages and look at how that’s impacting the longer term there. There are lots of very good commercial reasons to go after this which aren’t as obvious when you’re putting everything into a spreadsheet - though there is value in doing that.”
What shouldn’t SEOs be doing in 2023? What’s seductive in terms of time, but ultimately counterproductive?
“Regular disavowing links that some third-party tools label as toxic or bad links. This is still happening - some practitioners assess and disavow links on a monthly basis. They have intentionally bad links, and Google tends to deal with this by ignoring those links rather than applying a negative weighting to them. That’s understandable because if Google applied some kind of negative weighting to a ‘bad link’, they would create a very easily manipulatable system. It’d be very easy to damage your competitor’s websites by sending spam links to them rather than adding value yourself. By simply ignoring them, Google doesn’t create that kind of bad economy that’s going to make all of our jobs harder. They negate any easy ways to buy or spam links and know if they’re not working.
Even if you buy links (though this can still work in some cases), the difficulty is those links may get ignored and you won’t know because you won’t get a notice saying ‘you’ve got a penalty for these links’. SEO is all about building equity over the long term. Everything we’ve discussed today is user-centric. If everything you’re doing is user-centric, you’d still be adding value to your website/brand even if search engines didn’t exist.
There are other cases where there is a kind of one-off bigger disavow. This is less worrying, but some people have shown some anecdotal results where they’ve seen an uplift that’s reversible. You can put things into disavow, take them out again, and notice varying results. Google says you can just take stuff out of the disavow file and it’ll go back to being counted. Some people run experiments where they disavow all links and then remove the disavow file and notice things not returning to how they were. Disavowing is something that isn’t worth touching unless there’s a known problem, like if you’ve had a message from Google saying you’ve got bad links that need to be addressed.”
Mark Williams-Cook is a Director at Candour and you can find him at withcandour.co.uk.
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