The importance of optimising for people
Videos and articles with this name, or similar, appear pretty much every year – they’re about as routine as walking into M&S and buying your mum a Christmas cardigan whilst Noddy Holder plays over the speakers.
I’m going to do something different. For more than 20 years, marketers have been optimising content for algorithms. They’ve forgotten algorithms are supposed to connect people to information. And that algorithms are supposed to improve the experiences and lives of our audiences.
It seems that before machine learning, came machine thinking. Marketers have been so focused on these inhuman algorithms, they’ve forgotten 60 years of industry best practice – forging connections with living human beings.
Three ways to increase organic traffic
Rather than talk tactics, I’m going to give you three steps to increasing your organic traffic in 2019 and, furthermore, how to build robust foundations for sustainable SEO success. This is how RocketMill works with its clients and it’s aligned by what Google cites as its plans for the next 20 years of search.
Step 1: Target people throughout their search journeys
Let’s start with how to target people throughout their search journeys. The key takeaway here is you need to empathise with your audience and deliver the information they need, in the way they want it, at the time they need it.
Google is helping users do this with features like activity cards. These help users retrace their steps around the web by highlighting content they’ve previously viewed that is related to a new search.
Furthermore, Google has improved its collections experience, which now recommends content related to a theme. This has transformed search from a ‘pull experience’ – in which you ask for information – into a ‘push experience’, where you’re given what you need to know next, even if you didn’t really know you needed it.
So, how do you target people throughout their search journeys? I’ve broken this down into six steps:
- Define tangible goals that your business can help people to achieve. For example, if you work at Ford, you want people to buy cars. If you work for eharmony, you want people to fall in love
- Break down those goals into journeys
- Break those journeys down into steps
- Identify what a person would think and feel at each step of that journey
- Create content to heighten the high points and lift their mood during the low points, by addressing questions and concerns
- Finally, help people move from one step to the next
In its 20-year vision, Google specifically calls out the importance of creating evergreen content to answer people’s questions throughout a journey. One of the best ways to identify the goals of your audience, and how they will feel as they work towards them, is with user journey mapping.
Start off by dividing a whiteboard into 36 spaces. Along the top, you identify the steps towards a journey or a goal. Down the side, you identify groupings for what a person would do, ask, think and feel at each step. Then, you plaster it in Post-Its, working from left to right, top to bottom.
Soon, you will understand what the person is doing at each step: questions they have, their uncertainties, how they’re feeling, and opportunities to empathise with them and, importantly, support them through your content, website, and other digital touchpoints. This exercise allows you to empathise with your audience, rather than just chase keywords.
Step 2: Optimising for organic search intents
Next, you need to optimise for search intents, not just individual keywords. I will caveat this by saying keywords still matter; many organic search journeys will begin, or at least touch upon, a traditional keyword.
What is important is that you optimise for them in groups and analyse them by sentiment, monitoring trends and not just mere fluctuations. Again, Google is improving its interface to serve content for intent-based search. So, when you search for a topic, you will find it is starting to dynamically organise featured snippets from related search results into miniature encyclopaedias.
If you’ve watched my series on building an Amazon Alexa skill, this will start to ring true, because you’ll know smart speaker skills convert voice inputs into distinct intents. Therefore, this approach works not just for traditional organic search, but for cutting edge voice search.
So, how do you optimise for search intents? You will need to match your content to the way people want to consume it. For each piece of content you need to create or improve, determine its core theme, then identify the group of search queries your content must address:
- What is the most popular head term keyword?
- What keywords with medium search visibility – that might be a few hundred or few thousand, depending on your niche – should appear scattered throughout the copy?
- What questions must be addressed by the subheadings or FAQs on that page to touch on long tail keywords and, more importantly, empathise with users’ needs?
A key step is to analyse search engine results pages and spot ways to enhance your presence. Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to be visible when people are searching for “how to make pancakes”. To do that, you’d best make a video because it dominates the search results. If you don’t have the resource to make that type of content, plenty of people want to print out recipes, so you could target the featured snippets and use semantic mark-up, like a subheading, to cover off the keyword: “how do I make homemade pancakes?”
With so much competition on this set of search results, if you’re going to gain any traffic whatsoever from a traditional blue link, you’d better add some structured data mark-up to pull out the picture, the rating, number of votes for time it’ll take to cook, and the calorie count. Include lots of useful information that will convince a user this piece is trustworthy, your page is going to be insightful and beneficial to their needs and, furthermore, boost your click-through rates.
Step 3: How to optimise your site structure
Finally, let’s discuss how to deliver an excellent experience on your website. Now you have identified the people you want to target, and the best ways to reach them, you’ll need to deliver upon their needs with a truly compelling experience. Don’t forget, this extends to your other digital touchpoints, such as your app, too.
How to optimise your site structure. You need to provide excellent primary, secondary, and on-page navigation. That means a clear navigation menu on all devices, not just desktop. Helpful photo links, possibly internal search, and jump links to help users quickly find what they need on a long page.
Then, align your URL structure with journeys around the site. In terms of what that means for your URLs, ensure every page’s URL signifies what the page is about and where it sits within the wider context of your website.
Next, use internal links to navigate forwards, backwards and sideways. Instead of just trying to build external links and putting yourself at risk of an algorithmic penalty, concentrate on the internal links to improve journeys around your own site, and enhance the visibility and number of routes into your most important content.
This is not just a theory. We worked with our client, Kimberly-Clark, to improve the Depend website, and converted a flat site structure into a hierarchy. This increased organic traffic to the advice pages of their site by 345%, and took overall visibility ahead of competitors, Always, Discreet and Tena.
Next up, optimise your page information. How? Start by writing a compelling page title and description. While these elements do matter for algorithms, it’s more important they convey the message of your page, they reassure potential customers you will have provided information that will be helpful and will encourage them to click-through.
You should then structure your page using semantic headings and subheadings, that means one h1 tag and multiple h2 tags, nested together like a nicely formatted essay. You should use bullets, numbered lists and tables to earn featured snippets.
Enhance your content with structured data mark-up, going after star ratings and stock status, so they appear in the search results and, again, encourage people to click-through and know they’ll get what they want when they hit the page.
It’s important you don’t deliver a bad experience. Firstly, check your pages and critical assets aren’t blocked to crawlers. You can check this via Google Search Console, which is free.
You should tidy up 404 errors and other crawl problems around your site: the 301 internal chains etc. It’s not only search engines which will lose trust, your audience will too. You should combine or canonicalize similar or duplicate pages, just as you should target one search intent per page. Likewise, you should have one page per search intent.
Ensure pages load quickly on all devices. Speed is a ranking factor on Google desktop and mobile results. Again, more importantly, it influences whether visitors will trust your website.
Finally, serve everything on your site using secure https. This is the ultimate trust factor and, according to MozCast data, 92% of first page of Google results are served via https, so it’s crucial if you want to have the highest level of visibility.
Optimising your website for organic traffic
To round up, over the next few months you are going to be hearing a lot from RocketMill about people-first marketing. This is a pivotal, actionable concept, that is applicable to every online and offline channel that forms part of your marketing strategy.
People-first means empathising with customers, empowering consumers, increasing trust, and enhancing interactions with your audiences, no matter where they happen to be. A people-first approach to SEO is crucial for long-term visibility in organic search for 2019, and beyond.