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6 min read

SEO & Keyword Research: Voice Search, Intent & Topic Clusters

A lot has changed in the world of content marketing over the last 10 years. From the rise of social media to the prevalence of mobile phones, there are a lot of new strategies, channels, and tactics that we need to take into consideration today.

At the core, the rules of SEO haven't changed THAT much. I'm still amazed, however, at how few companies are really taking advantage of keyword research to drive their content strategy.

While many companies understand the importance of knowing your high-level keywords that are based on your core products and services, many businesses have yet to understand that they can drive real traffic through an expanded keyword research strategy.

As we kickstart another year, it's important that you and I reset our ideas and make sure that we are set up for success.

The Basics of Keyword Research for SEO

I still have conversations with far too many marketers and business owners who have no idea how the basics of SEO work. So, here's a quick overview to help you get started.

If you're already familiar with the process, feel free to skip ahead to read more about how algorithm updates, machine learning, and voice search affect SEO.

  1. Understand Your Buyer Personas: Before you can get started with keywords, it's important to understand your buyers. If you haven't done buyer persona research already, spend some time interviewing customers and clients to understand their pain points, goals, and hot-button issues. Make sure to pay attention to the words and phrases they use.

  2. Identify Your Keyword Research Tool: Simply understanding keywords and common phrases is important, but there are a lot of tools and software that exist to provide you with quite a bit more data. Tools like Moz, SEMRush, HubSpot, SERPS, Ahrefs, Keywords Everywhere, and Google Keyword Planner all have specific tools to help you get smarter about which keywords you are targeting.

  3. Get the Data on a Broad Set of Keywords: It's important to expand your keyword research beyond the 10-20 phrases that represent your core focus. Do the research around common questions, high-level pain points, industry trends, localized keywords and more. At a minimum, start by running the data on 500 keywords. Depending on your industry, you might need to dig even deeper to get the results you need.

  4. Check Your Website Authority: If you don't already know what your website's domain authority is, this is the perfect time to check it out. Use tools like the MozBar or the SEO Review Tools Website Authority Checker.


    Website authority or domain authority is a sliding point scale from 1 to 100. A brand website will always start with a score of 1. The closer you get to 100, the harder it is to gain more points. While there aren't "good" or "bad" numbers, it's important to take this number into consideration when you are starting to prioritize your keyword strategy. (More on that below)

  5. Analyze the Data and Look for Opportunities: Spend some time looking at the data trends. This is a great way to better understand how your audience uses terms and phrases. Do they search via questions or just short phrases?


    Finally, sort your keywords by difficulty (from lowest to highest). Look for keyword opportunities that are low difficulty but have high monthly searches. Generally, we recommend going after keywords with a difficulty below 50. However, if your website's domain authority is high, you may be able to go after more difficult keywords right away.

How Things are Changing

While the basics of SEO have stayed pretty constant, the specifics of SEO have grown increasingly more complex as searchers, search engines, and search optimization experts continue getting smarter. As content marketers, it's important that we understand all of the contributing factors and how to leverage them to get more traction.

Algorithm Updates

In November 2021, Google made its latest changes to its algorithm that affect the organic traffic for many websites. Ultimately, the major shift harkens back to the March 2017 change that centered around favoring content quality over quantity. Google continually tweaks its algorithms using machine learning to adapt and understand what quality looks like. Most recently, this includes a better understanding of how to identify fake news sites and a larger emphasis on a website's E.A.T. (Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness) rating.


How This Affects Keyword Research: Make sure you are choosing topics you can write about well. Leverage your subject matter experts and internal resources to create compelling content that will resonate with your searchers online. Take a look at the existing pages that are ranking on the first page of Google and figure out how you can create something that is more helpful, more trustworthy, or more user-friendly.

Return to Shorter Meta Descriptions

In November of 2017, SEO companies started to notice that Google was testing out longer meta descriptions on certain search engine results pages (SERPs), but that has dropped back down in 2021. The old length averaged around 300 characters, but best practices in 2021 are to maintain a meta description of between 60 to ~155-160 characters.

What You Can Do: Check the SERPs for your targeted keywords and look at the average length of the meta descriptions on the first page. If your ranked web pages seem to have a meta description that is a noticeably different size than the rest of the results, spend some time updating your pages to more closely reflect the other pages on that SERP.

Important note: Google started experimenting with grabbing some of the text from the page or article, so some results might show elongated meta descriptions even if you haven't done any updating. Use your best judgment to understand whether or not the meta description would be better if you updated it manually.

The Role of the Featured Snippet

I'm sure by now you've noticed the increasing number or snippets or knowledge boxes in your search results. While these boxes are super helpful as a searcher, they can really cannibalize the amount of traffic that's actually making it to your pages. That said, there is still a lot of value in owning the space for the snippets.

FeaturedSnippets copy

These boxes often occupy a large percentage of the real estate on the first page of Google. So, there is definitely a value in being the brand that dominates that spot, even if only from a branding and recognition standpoint.

What You Can Do: Optimize your content to align with search results that feature snippet boxes. Look closely at the content that is filling that space right now and try to create something better.

SEMRush published an amazing post that dives deep into the content, length, and styles of featured snippets. If this is a tactic you are going to try in 2018, be sure to check out their post.

Machine Learning is Helping Us Understand User Intent

One of the most drastic SEO changes in the last 10 years is the search engine's power to better predict user intent. By using machine learning, algorithms are better able to identify terms and phrases that are semantically related. This process is called Latent Semantic Indexing or LSI.

For example, let's say that you search for "royalty free pics." Any of the following results are also relevant to the search:

  • Royalty Free Photos
  • Royalty Free Pictures
  • Royalty Free Photography
  • Royalty Free Images
  • Free Stock Photos
  • Free Stock Photography
  • Etc.

What This Means for Keyword Research & SEO: Back in the early days of SEO, marketers created different web pages and blogs to match each one of these almost identical terms. And, unsurprisingly, the content they created for each page was almost identical.

Do an audit through your content and see what posts you have that might be too closely related. Do your best to combine similar blogs together to create one longer and more thorough post/page that best aligns with the group of terms you are going after.

Start by choosing your highest performing post or page and add the information from your similar posts and pages, then unpublish those pages and redirect the URLs to your long-form post.

The Role of Voice Search

Speaking of semantics, the way we search has been interrupted by the introduction of voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant. When we use a search bar, we tend to use short words or phrases that are the shortest path to the answer we want. When we are using voice search, the majority of searches tend to be phrased in the form of a real question or more semantically natural. With the growing presence of home speakers and assistant apps, it's no surprise that the number of searches via voice is on the rise.


What This Means for Marketers: Consider adding "What is..." sections to your content to align with the phrasing of your prospect's search queries. But before you change what you are doing, take some time to consider how voice search might change search habits for your content. 

The Importance of Topic Clusters and Content Pillars

Readers want quality answers to their questions, but they also want them fast.

Topic clusters and content pillars provide a framework for creating independent sections of your website that allow search engines to crawl your content together as a whole instead of individual pieces scattered throughout your site.


This structure also allows search algorithms to better understand which are the most relevant pages even when users' search queries don’t match the optimized keyword phrases directly.

What You Can Do: First read this blog post, it's a great resource to help you get started with content pillars. Next, spend some time mapping out your website's content with this template. Finally, create a structure that helps logically organize similar topics together in a functional way.


While the basics of SEO have remained the same, optimizing your website for success in search engines is becoming increasingly more strategic and complex. As marketers and SEOs, that means we need to continue getting smarter and changing our tactics to get the best results.

Editor's note: This blog originally published in 2018 and was updated in 2021.

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