SEO used to be all about keywords. But that’s changing. 

Here’s how SEO used to work. You research keywords. Pick out a few relevant terms. Integrate them into your pages. Hit publish. Attract links. If the keyword term and the content of the page matched, there was a good chance of achieving rankings.

But Google has grown smarter and the search results are increasingly being driven by a broader range of signals derived from Google’s immense bucket of data. In particular, Google’s data about visitor behaviour is being rolled into the search results. Search is now centred around visitor intent as much as it is about keywords.

Take a look at what intent-driven search means out in the wild. Here are the search results for “temperature in wellington”:

Wellington Weather search
Wellington Weather search

The specific phrase “temperature in wellington” doesn’t appear on the MetService page. Nor does it appear in the backlinks. However, the number one result was returned because it matched searcher intent.

Behind the scenes, Google is looking at phrases, such as “temperature in wellington”, working out the intent that lays behind the phrase, then delivering a result that matches that intent. The keyword phrase, in many cases, is being subordinated.

Google has been looking at synonyms for quite a while, but this behaviour became more pronounced after Hummingbird, and began to affect more search queries. Hummingbird is a Google architecture designed to match search results with visitor intent, not just keywords.

“The Hummingbird approach should be inspirational to anyone managing and planning content — if you aren’t already thinking like Hummingbird, you should be. In a nutshell, think about why people are looking for something rather than what they are looking for. A content strategy should be designed to answer their needs, not just provide them with facts”

The new architecture is thematic. It is intent driven. It is data driven, as well as being keyword driven.

Keywords are still important. They are an indication of levels of interest and intent. They help describe the page content. But we need to go further. We need to get inside the head of the search visitor. What are they really after when they search on keyword phrase X? If a page doesn’t match that intent, the visitor is likely to click back to the search results. The data we’re seeing suggests high bounce rates are a negative signal not just for business, but for rankings. Bing recently confirmed it. Google all but did the same.

In practice, this means building relevant information hubs around keywords. Covering multiple keyword variations that relate to a common theme so Google makes broad associations. 

When the visitor arrives on site, make sure they engage. They should see obvious confirmation the page matches their intent. The content should be relevant, and the visitor needs to grasp this within seconds, else you’re likely lost them. Then the visitor needs to move to action. They should spend some time on that page, rather than clicking back. They should click a link, scroll, watch a video, fill out a form, or otherwise demonstrate engagement.

All this seems obvious. But many sites aren’t getting all their ducks lined up. 

Where Google can’t accurately determine intent, likely due to insufficient data, keyword matching is still happening, so keywords will still be an important part of SEO.  But SEO is increasingly focused on what went on before the visitor used the search phrase (what was their intent?) and what happens after the click (did they engage?). Usability, CRO, deep keyword research, data tracking and strategic, user-focused publishing is all blended into current SEO strategies.

SEO is still about language. But it’s a lot more about intent.