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How to Do Better, Lazier Keyword Research

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How to Do Better, Lazier Keyword Research

The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

This post is an expansion on something I discussed in my talk at MozCon this year: my view that a lot of time spent on keyword research is essentially wasted.

Don’t get me wrong — keyword research is, of course, important. SEOs and businesses use keyword research to decide which parts of their business to prioritize, to forecast the results of their activities, to appraise possible opportunities for expansion, and of course to write title tags, brief copywriters, or engage in other tactical activity. The point is, if you paid a non-SEO consultant — perhaps a management consultant — for this level of strategic insight, you’d pay a fortune, and you’d listen very carefully.

And yet, in SEO businesses, keyword research is the task most likely to be delegated to the most junior member of the team. It’s considered grunt work. It’s boring, tedious, repetitive, and easy — so we think. I know this, because I have made this (mistaken) assumption many times as a senior SEO, and was on the receiving end of that “grunt work” early in my career.

There are three main ways I think we’re turning what should be an involved piece of strategic thinking into tedium. I’ll cover them below, along with what to focus on instead.

Quantity vs. quality

If you hit up your favorite search engine and look for some guides on how to conduct keyword research, you’ll find that a common theme is to start by amassing the most exhaustive list of potential keywords possible. If you run out of rows in Excel, or cells in Google Sheets, that is seemingly a badge of honor.

Perhaps you’ll use tools like keyword multipliers, Google Search Console, and GA Site Search to add as many obscure variants of your target keywords as you can find.

This is a fool’s errand, though.

The very blog you’re reading right now gets 48% of its daily traffic from keywords that drive only a single click. And it’s not like we’re getting the same selection of low traffic keywords every day, either. Google themselves have said repeatedly that 15% of the keywords they see every day are totally new to them.

In this context, how can we hope to truly capture every possible keyword someone might use to reach our site? It seems entirely pointless.

Why not save ourselves an absolute shit ton of time, and greatly simplify our analysis, by just capturing the few main keywords for each unique intent we wish to target?

Screenshot of a long list of potential keywords to target

It’s easy to produce an enormous list of keywords that contains perhaps three or four intents, but it’s a grand waste of time, as you’ll be producing some small fraction of a vast unknowable sea of keywords, and you’re going to optimize for the main ones anyway. Not to mention, it makes the rest of your analysis a total pain, and extremely difficult to consume afterwards.

Instead, try to capture 90% of the intents for your potential new page, product, or site, rather than 90% of the potential keywords. It’s far more realistic, and you can spend the time you save making strategic choices rather than swearing at Excel. On which note…

Removing automation

Another common piece of advice is to manually use the Google SERPs as a keyword research tool. This is fine in principle, and it’s advice I’ve given, particularly to editorial teams researching individual pieces of content, as it helps to make the research feel more grounded in what they’re actually trying to affect (Google SERPs).

However, for at-scale keyword research conducted by an SEO professional, this is an overly manual and redundant step. Why?

Screenshot of Moz Pro Keyword Explorer "include a mix of sources" option

Because you’re probably already doing this, possibly twice, in other parts of your process. If you use a popular SEO suite — preferably Moz Pro, of course, but it’s not just us — this data is very likely already baked into any suggestions you’ve downloaded. Save yourself the manual data collection (or worse yet, the unreliable and finickety SERP scraping on your own personal computer) and just collect this valuable information once.

Similarly, if you’re mainly looking for keywords you ought to rank for rather than the wide open ocean of opportunity, you’ll get 90%+ of that by seeing who your competitors are, and what they rank for that you don’t.

Screenshot of Moz Pro Keyword Gap analysis keywords to improve.

It really doesn’t have to be some massive ordeal. Again, this is about spending more time on the important bit, and less time on the grunt work.

The wrong metrics

“The important bit”, though, is probably prioritization, which means it’s probably about metrics.

Typically, the primary metric involved in keyword research is search volume, and that’s probably unavoidable (although, not all search volumes are created equal — watch out for a Whiteboard Friday on this in the Autumn), but even the most accurate search volumes can miss the full story.

The core issue here is that click-through rates for keywords vary massively. The below range is for a random sample from MozCast:

Bar graph shows that only around a third of the keywords in this random set had a CTR close to 100% for all organic results combined

The chart shows that only around a third of the keywords in this random set had a CTR close to 100% for all organic results combined. It also shows the high variance in total CTRs across the keywords in this group.

This is not untypical, and well-discussed in the SEO space at this point. Many SERPs have organic results that start essentially below the fold. What it means for keyword research is that volume is not that great a metric. It’s an important component — you need both volume and CTR to work out how many clicks might be available — but on its own, it’s a little suspect.

Again, this doesn’t have to be a massive ordeal, though, many tools, including Moz Pro, will give you CTR estimates for your keywords. So in the same place you get your volumes, you can get a metric that will stop you prioritizing the wrong things, or in other words, stop you further wasting your time.

TL;DR: stop wasting your time

There’s a huge amount of skill, nuance, and experience that comes into keyword research that I’ve not covered here. But my hope is that we can get into the habit of focusing on those bits, and not just screaming into the void spreadsheet.

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State of Content Marketing in 2023

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State of Content Marketing in 2023

I just pressed send on the manuscript for my book to be released in September. It’s called Content Marketing Strategy (snappy, eh?), and Kogan Page will publish it.

Last week, marketing professor Philip Kotler wrote the foreword. I won’t spoil it, but he mentioned the need for a strategic approach to owned media.

He writes, “(T)he company doesn’t carry an account of showing these marketing assets and their value. As a result, the company cannot show the CEO and company board members a return on owned assets or content.”

Luckily, my upcoming book shows exactly how to do that. Funny how that works out.

In any event, all this struck me that now is an opportune time to look at where the beloved practice of content marketing stands today.

First, let’s go back to 1999 when Kotler published Kotler On Marketing, one of his more than 70 books. The latter 1990s – a time of tumultuous change – fueled most of the thinking for the book. But he knew that it was merely the beginning.

Kotler concluded the book with a section called “Transformational Marketing.”  In the next decade, he wrote, “marketing will be re-engineered from A to Z. Marketing will need to rethink fundamentally the processes by which they identify, communicate, and deliver customer value.”

Well, it’s taken over two decades, but it’s finally happening.

Consumers have changed, but marketing operations are just starting to

In case you didn’t notice, almost every marketing conference these days starts with the same four or five requisite slides:

  • Digital technologies, such as search and social media, empower consumers today.
  • Consumers research, engage, buy, and stay loyal to brands in ways that have fundamentally changed.
  • First-party data and privacy are of the utmost importance.
  • Artificial intelligence begins to threaten the idea of the usefulness of search and pressure companies to deliver better and more personalized experiences.

You get it. Consumer expectations in the age of the social, mobile, and AI-driven web are different than they were.

However, the continuing challenge in 2023 is that content and/or marketing operations in enterprise companies are only beginning to evolve. Most marketing departments have remained as they were when Kotler wrote his book — they still work from mid- to late-20th century hierarchies, strategies, and processes.

Most marketing departments still work with mid- to late-20th-century hierarchies, strategies, and processes, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Content marketing isn’t new, but a content marketing strategy is

For hundreds of years, businesses have used content to affect some kind of profitable outcome. But the reality is this: Whether it was John Deere’s The Furrow from the 1800s, Michelin’s guide to car maintenance in the early 1900s, or even Hasbro’s GI-Joe partnership with Marvel in the 1980s, content was not — and is not for the most part now — a scalable, repeatable practice within the function of marketing. In short, companies almost always treat content marketing as a project, not a process.

That fundamental change will finally take hold in 2023. It could happen because of the digital disruption and ease by which you can now publish and distribute content to aggregate your own audiences. It could happen through the natural evolution that the ultimate outcome – more than the marketing – matters more.

As we roll through 2023 and beyond, content — and the exponentially increasing quantities of it produced by every organization — deeply affects not just your marketing strategy, but your business strategy. Content in marketing is now bigger than simply content marketing, and it should be dealt with as a component of that business strategy throughout the enterprise.

#Content in marketing is bigger than #ContentMarketing. Treat it as a component of the business strategy, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

In 2023, the No. 1 focus of my consulting and advisory practice these days: help companies transform content into a repeatable, scalable, and measurable function that drives value through a multi-channel strategy. It’s bigger than publishing a blog, creating a lead-generating resource center, or sending an email newsletter. Today’s content marketing team is being absorbed into marketing because marketing and its various operations are fundamentally transforming into a content-producing machine.

It is not good enough to produce content “like a media company would.” The goal must be to operate as a media company does. Your job is not to change content to fit new marketing goals. Rather, your job in 2023 is to change marketing to fit the new business content goals.

Your job in 2023 is to change #marketing to fit the new business #content goals, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The unaware builds a case for the aware

The term “content marketing” continues to evolve. Even today, I run across those who still call it “brand publishing,” “custom content,” or “inbound marketing.”

My take matches with what Kotler described in 1999. I always thought the term “content marketing” would become part of “marketing” more broadly. In 2023, that happened. So, returning to the lexiconic debates of 2013, 2014, or 2015 doesn’t seem terribly productive. Content marketing is just good marketing, and marketing is just good content marketing.

That said, two kinds of companies do well at the broader view of content marketing. Some of them, such as Cleveland Clinic, Red Bull, Arrow Electronics, HubSpot, and REI, have purposely devised content marketing strategies as differentiating approaches to their marketing. They are succeeding.

Others, like Amazon, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, and Peloton, backed into a smart content marketing strategy. But executives at those companies probably don’t recognize it as such. If asked (and some have been), they would say acquiring or launching a media company operation was just a smart business strategy to diversify their ability to reach their consumers consistently.

They’re right, of course. Many have yet to read books about content marketing, been influenced by the Content Marketing Institute, or even recognize content marketing as a separate approach (as far as I know). And they are also succeeding.

Consider this proof: As I write this article, six companies have a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion. Four of the six wholly or partially use the business model of media creation to further marketing and business strategies. Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon are all, in part, media companies that also sell products and services.

Why would you not avail yourself of that same model?

The future looks cloudy and bright

As for the overall state of enterprise content marketing, it’s in transition, as all marketing is. As a focused project-based approach, working in ad-hoc ways across a business, content marketing appears to have proven its worth. Hundreds of entries every year to the Content Marketing Awards feature myriad case studies using content marketing techniques in strategic ways to profitably affect business results.

And yet, it remains to be seen whether you can make content marketing a scalable, repeatable, measurable function within marketing.

As to what the discipline’s future holds? At last year’s Content Marketing World, one of my favorite events, the Executive Forum gathered senior leaders from brands succeeding with content marketing. As we talked about the future, one participant said: “The only certainty is change. I can’t tell you where or when, but I do know there will be change, and this is the principle we build on now.”

As for my take, Kotler’s idea of transforming the marketing function seems to have gotten lost along the digital road traveled by marketers. In so many cases, marketing – and especially content – remains just an on-demand service function within the business. Its sole job is to produce ever more voluminous amounts of content that describe the value of the brand (or its products or services) so that sales can sell more efficiently, customer support can serve more effectively, and all manner of customer interfaces are more beneficial to both sides.

However, and maybe because I need to rationalize now that my book is finished, I passionately believe it’s finally time for marketing to reclaim its ability to create value — not just reflect it in the polished shine of your traditional products and services.

Almost 27 years ago today, Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote an essay called Content is King. In it, he said that “(C)ontent is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.”

It certainly was one of his more prescient moments. Nearly three decades later, his words have proven true. The essay title has become the rallying cry for thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs who now make their living on creating, managing, optimizing, and measuring content on the internet. (A Google search for “content is king” nets more than 1.7 million results.)

But it’s the last line of his essay that I find the most visionary: “(T)hose who succeed will propel the Internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products – a marketplace of content.”

That’s what content marketing is for me in 2023. It’s just marketing – optimizing the value of ideas, experiences, and products in a marketplace of content.

Time to get to work.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Get Robert’s take on content marketing industry news in just five minutes:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries

Watch previous episodes or read the lightly edited transcripts.

Subscribe to workday or weekly CMI emails to get Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox each week. 

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT:

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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27 Best About Us and About Me Page Examples [+Templates]

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Your about page summarizes your history, values, and mission — all in one place. That’s a tall order for just a few paragraphs. If you’re feeling stuck, turn to these about-page examples for inspiration. 

about us page example: laptop held in palm of hand

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MARKETING

MarTech’s marketing operations experts to follow

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MarTech's marketing operations experts to follow

Marketing operations is what makes the magic happen. These are the folks who see that your martech stack doesn’t get stuck. They are the maestros, modelers and makers who make sure the trains run, the data is digestible and that you have the programs you need. Where would we be without them? That’s too scary to think about. Here’s our list of MOps experts who have the ear of the profession.

Darrell Alfonso

Darrell is director of marketing strategy & operations at Indeed and the former global marketing ops leader for AWS. He’s the author of “The Martech Handbook: Build a Technology Stack to Acquire and Retain Customers.” In addition to speaking at many conferences, Darrell was named one of the Top Marketers in the US by Propolis 2022 and among the “Top Martech Marketers to Follow” in 2020 by Martech Alliance. He’s a regular and popular contributor both to MarTech and the MarTech conference; you can find all of his articles at this link.


Eddie Reynolds

Eddie has been in business a long time, starting his first company when he was 14. “A pretty minimal enterprise,” he told one interviewer. “I had a tax ID number, a legal entity, and a company name. I even had the IRS coming after my dad for sales tax that I failed to report properly.” Today he is CEO and revenue operations strategy consultant of Union Square Consulting. He publishes The RevOps Weekly Newsletter and the podcast RevOps Corner. Eddie’s large LinkedIn following attests to the quality of the insights he shares there on  sales, marketing, service, and admin roles. 


Sara McNamara

Sara is an award-winning marketing and sales operations professional whose work has been recognized by awards from the likes of Salesforce (Pardot), Adobe (Marketo), Drift, and LeanData. She is a Senior Manager, Marketing Operations at Slack and a martech stack (+ strategy) solution architect. That and her passion for leveraging technology and processes to improve the experiences of marketers, sales professionals, and prospects, explains why she’s a regular guest on MOps podcasts.


Ali Schwanke

Ali is the CEO and founder of Simple Strat. The firm specializes in helping companies get the most out of HubSpot — from CRM strategy and setup to marketing automation and content creation. She is also host of HubSpot Hacks, “the #1 Unofficial YouTube show for HubSpot Tutorials” and has been a guest speaker at the MarTech conference.


Mike Rizzo

Mike’s career in marketing operations showed him that there is a real and significant MOps community. That’s why he founded MO Pros/MarketingOps.com, the fast-growing online community for people in marketing operations. He is also co-host of Ops Cast, a weekly podcast. 


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About the author

Constantine von Hoffman

Constantine von Hoffman is managing editor of MarTech. A veteran journalist, Con has covered business, finance, marketing and tech for CBSNews.com, Brandweek, CMO, and Inc. He has been city editor of the Boston Herald, news producer at NPR, and has written for Harvard Business Review, Boston Magazine, Sierra, and many other publications. He has also been a professional stand-up comedian, given talks at anime and gaming conventions on everything from My Neighbor Totoro to the history of dice and boardgames, and is author of the magical realist novel John Henry the Revelator. He lives in Boston with his wife, Jennifer, and either too many or too few dogs.

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