Stop talking to robots and start talking to humans. Emma Nassuada Ayres explains why SEO is about people, not algorithms.
When you’re getting started with search engine optimisation (SEO) as a content writer, one of the first things you learn is how important keywords are to the performance of your content.
After all, a series of solid keywords can help you gain new readers, make more sales, or elevate your brand reputation to new levels. But, this comes with a caveat:
You also have to understand the person who’s searching for those keywords and what they need.
SEO isn’t just for algorithms
SEO can best be compared to an iceberg. As SEO professionals, we’re constantly learning about the bit floating above the water, continuously studying its planes and peaks and using that to try and understand what’s happening below the surface. And, just like an iceberg, what we can see above the surface is constantly changing.
What we do know is that, at its core, SEO is about what users want. We understand that good keywords are ones that users are actively searching for, good content addresses issues that users might have, and good advertising contains value for the user.
When I started learning about SEO, the first thing covered was what the algorithm likes. You learn right from the start that by doing what the algorithm likes, you’ve got a better chance of ranking.
But, what you don’t learn until later on is that the algorithm is entirely based on user trends and encouraging the growth and production of meaningful content.
Unfortunately, the fact that this is rarely covered in SEO basics means that so much SEO content is written for the algorithm, rather than the reader.
Understanding the reader
As a content marketer, the Buyer’s Journey is often touted as the most important thing you need to learn and carry with you. And, honestly, that’s not too far from the truth.
After all, knowing which stage of the Buyer’s Journey your target audience is at should help you understand which keywords you need to use.
For instance, in the Awareness stage, you’ll create content around keywords like “why is my puppy always itching”. That’ll lead to Consideration, like “the best shampoo for puppies with allergies”, and, finally, Decision with “shampoo A vs. B for puppy allergies”.
You know that your reader wants different sets of information, but it goes deeper than this.
Emotions in decision-making
In your daily life, you’ll follow this train of decision making without even thinking about it. But, as you’re probably already thinking, that decision train looks and feels different depending on what problem you’ve got.
Let’s take a look at two common problems as an example.
A: “Ugh, the top shelf of my dishwasher isn’t clean AGAIN”.
C: “Hmm, it’s probably because the filter needs cleaning. It’s either that, or I need to top up the rinse aid”
D: “I’ll fill the rinse aid and run it again, if that doesn’t work then I’m going to have to deal with the filter”
Primary emotions: Annoyance, frustration, but overall a very minor issue.
A: “My boiler’s making a weird noise…”
C: “Well, either my boiler’s getting old and it’s time for a new one, or it’s about to explode”
D: “I’ll book my boiler in for a service and hope it survives until I can get someone to look at it”
Primary emotions: Anxiety, fear, and chances are a constant worry until a professional diagnoses the issue.
Sometimes you come across a problem in your life and you don’t give it a second thought, because it’s not a pressing issue. Other problems leave you feeling sad, scared, anxious, angry, or even exhausted. And, unfortunately for us content writers, there’s no easy way of predicting what someone will feel for certain when they face a problem.
However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t be writing content and using keywords with emotions in mind.
Talking to the human behind the keywords – a case study
Every search is done for a reason. Whether curiosity, anxiety, sadness, joy, love, or fear, there’s always someone behind the words that are typed into a search engine. So, there’s always a prevailing purpose or emotion behind the keywords we choose.
This is what I’m talking about when I say we need to humanise keywords.
As an example, here are two articles that appear on the first page of Google when you search for “what does my dashboard warning light mean”. This, to me, shows that they’ve both been optimised to appear for this keyword, so they’ve been written for the same purpose.
My reader profile
While this isn’t a search I made because I was having trouble with my car, as a car owner, I already know that if I was to be searching for this, the main emotion I would be feeling is anxiety. I’d want to see the information I need quickly without having to click through too many pages or sources.
The information I’m looking for isn’t just what the warning lights mean, but what I need to do about it. I already know that I’ll have to do something, but I want to know if it’s something I can try to fix myself or if I need to take my car to a garage.
However, I am also a car owner that, admittedly, doesn’t know all that much about how to maintain a car at home. So, I’m also looking for links to further information about doing these things at home or clear information in the article about how to diagnose issues.
Comparing the content
Source: The AA
Taking a look at the first article from the AA, this article is very clear about if it’s safe to drive with that particular warning light on, and what to do if it is. It also briefly talks about why I might be seeing that warning light, but it doesn’t tell me whether this is something I can try to fix or diagnose at home or if it should only be dealt with by a professional. The inclusion of a ‘contact us’ link gives me the impression that they’re trying to sell their breakdown service instead of helping me.
As a conclusion, I feel like the only thing I should do after reading this is call my garage immediately and book a repair, or use the AA to recover my car.
Source: Jardine Motors
In comparison, when I read the article from Jardine Motors, it was immediately clear to me whether I had a problem that I could diagnose at home or if I needed to take my car to a garage. Not only that, but it gave me clear and succinct advice as to how to diagnose and repair the problem, and when I should contact a professional for repairs.
This left me feeling more confident about both my ability to take care of my car and taught me something valuable about how to keep my car in good condition while saving myself money. Most importantly, I didn’t feel like this article was trying to sell me anything, particularly because it was advising me on steps I could take to diagnose and repair a problem before I was sure it needed to go to a garage or call roadside assistance.
While, thankfully, I didn’t have a real issue while I was building this example, it was clear just how much difference it made to me to have an article that understood my emotions.
While the AA was clear, I wasn’t in a position where it felt appropriate to be immediately sold a solution. Of course, I know how serious car issues can be, but as I was simply trying to find out what my options were, it wasn’t helpful to read that my only option was to take my car to a garage.
I know as a reader that if I was already anxious about my car having a problem, I would now have more fear about calling a garage and having a potentially expensive repair on my hands.
On the other hand, the content from Jardine Motors helped me to quickly understand what I needed to do and if it was something I could try to fix at home. The content wasn’t trying to convince me I had to take my car to a garage ASAP, but rather encouraged me to check the problem at home and call a garage if I couldn’t fix it myself.
So, I finished the article feeling confident that I could potentially fix an issue myself, but also that if I had to take my car to the garage, I’d also know exactly what to expect. While the repair might end up being expensive, I’d undoubtedly feel more accepting of this because I’d know it’s something that needs a professional’s attention.
Not only that, but I felt that the Jardine Motors article was significantly more helpful. So, I might send it to my friends if they have the same issue, and I’m also likely to recognise the brand in further advertising and have a positive association with it. In this case not pushing a sale, could lead to greater advocacy, which has greater sales potential.
Going beyond the Buyer’s Journey
As my case study shows, going beyond the Buyer’s Journey is key to humanising keywords. Contrary to popular belief in marketing circles, not everyone wants to be sold to all the time. And, in some situations, creating content for the sole purpose of selling can be detrimental to the reader’s perception of that brand.
That’s why I like to break down the Buyer’s Journey to determine what readers are actually looking for.
The emotions behind keywords
As we just saw, when a reader has a problem, they want to figure out why they have that problem and what options they might have available.
But, more than that, their problem will likely result in a major emotion that needs addressing.
So, in the example above, I as a reader would be feeling anxious about my car and the costs of repair, but I’d also be feeling determined to solve the problem as soon as possible. Other readers might be feeling fearful that they’ll be left without a car for work or school, or that they can’t afford a costly repair but they’ve got no other choice. However, we’ll all be looking for clear, concise information and what to do next.
Imagine I then search “why do my friends keep forgetting about me”. I’ll be feeling sad, upset, and I’ll be looking for reassurance and support.
Both are examples of Awareness topics, but each has different key emotions attached to them. Most importantly, both will come with different levels of tolerance for being marketed to.
Empathy in marketing
Once you understand the emotions behind searches, then you begin to understand when people are willing to listen to marketing pitches and when they just want information or even entertainment.
Looking at the car example again, it’s clear that people in this situation are willing to drive to a garage, however, the chances are that they already have a garage that they use. While there is the argument that some car issues require you drive to the nearest garage, and you can use widgets to direct users to the nearest garage in that brand’s network, it’s also just as likely that the user will go to a brand that they are already familiar with.
So, they may be willing to spend money if they need to, but it won’t necessarily be with that brand.
However, going back to the friend example, while the reader wants to understand why they feel the way they do about their friends abandoning them, they might be in a position where they’re more willing to hear about a product that relates to their problems, such as a self-care box, mental health journal, or even a self-help book about adult friendships. While this may not necessarily be a solution to their problem, it offers some reprieve, and so they may be more likely to make a purchase.
Of course, it all depends on what you’re marketing and who you’re marketing it to. These two examples aren’t exactly parallel comparisons because car maintenance can be expensive, while self-care boxes and books tend to be more affordable. The cost of something does factor heavily into the emotions surrounding that product – but that’s a whole different topic.
Humanising your keywords: In summary
To truly humanise your keywords, you need to be empathetic towards your reader and open to understanding the range of emotions they’re feeling.
Researching keywords is one of the most important things you can do for your SEO, but as content marketers, we need to remember that behind every keyword is a human being who’s making that search for a reason.
Yes, some keywords might perform better than others in the algorithm for a whole variety of reasons, and there’s no real harm in using that data to determine your primary and secondary keywords. But, it’s what you do with that information that matters.
To create better content, you need to understand a reader’s emotions and factor that into what you’re creating. Quite simply, not marketing when your audience is open to it can lead to lost sales, but marketing when they’re not open to it can lead to your brand reputation plummeting.
The key thing is to align your content with your reader’s needs, but go past what they want from a marketing perspective. As a content marketer, you need to put yourself in your audiences’ shoes and look at what you create as if it was you doing the searching.
Not only will this lead to content that’s more engaging for your audience, but also content that elevates your brand’s reputation and even drives additional sales. It’s a fantastic way to show your audience that you care about them and appreciate their needs, which in the long run will generate brand loyalty and recognition.
The marketing industry needs to be more empathetic, and it’s up to us to make sure customers feel heard.