SEO ·

Making a Hypothesis About Search Intent by Nigel Stevens of Organic Growth Marketing

Bernard Huang

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Nigel Stevens, CEO of Organic Growth Marketing, stopped by for a webinar on making hypotheses about search intent.

Nigel proposed a different way to interpret search intent. Instead of looking at only the SERP, use people also ask, autocomplete, related searches, and internal data to create hypotheses around what searchers want. He offers an example from his work with Hotjar.

He wrapped up the webinar with 3 predictions about the future of search intent.

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Watch the full webinar

About Nigel Stevens:

Nigel is the CEO of Organic Growth Marketing (OGM). Before starting OGM, Nigel was the Head of SEO at BigCommerce, then later the Growth & Community Evangelist.

Follow Nigel Stevens on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nigel-stevens-67218068/

About Organic Growth Marketing:

Organic Growth Marketing helps world-class companies such as  Hotjar, Intercom, Unsplash, and ShipBob build organic growth machines.

Follow Organic Growth Marketing on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/marketingog/

Read the transcript

Travis:

So we have Nigel Stevens of Organic Growth Marketing joining us today. Nigel is the CEO of Organic Growth Marketing, also OGM. Before starting OGM, Nigel was the head of SEO at Big Commerce, then later, the growth in community evangelist. Nigel, the floor is yours if you want to go ahead and share your screen.

Nigel:

Cool. All right, so I am Nigel Stevens. As Travis so eloquently said, I run OGM. We work with SaaS companies to scale SEO and content. These are some of the companies we've worked with. So I'm here today to talk about search intent, a topic that always comes up to the point that you almost start to say, "What does it even mean at this point?"

So I'm going to start with a couple assumptions here. I'm going to assume that people watching this generally know, very, very generally speaking, how to create content that ranks in search engines, all the principles there, and that you're familiar with the concept of search intent. I'm going to go into some of those things. But those are just some of the assumptions. The agenda is, I'm going to talk about search intent a little bit with philosophy, break it up into two parts, and then look at what some mistakes are and what I think the future holds for search intent. And an upfront caveat, this is not about, follow these X steps to be able to rank everything ever, that type of thing.

It's a lot more about mental models and approaches and breaking down a lot of the assumptions we make in SEO. 'Cause from doing this for a while, one thing I've learned over time that's kind of humbled me is to be aware of what I don't know and not be afraid of that. So let's revisit search intent. So what is search intent? Of course, I have to start with the featured snippet for search intent on Google that I grabbed. So what is it? It's just, why is someone searching? What are they looking for? What's the purpose of it? That checks out to me. How do we often classify search intent? There's these different groupings like transactional, informational, navigational. I've heard bunch of very smart people who I trust and respect break this down in different ways.

I think they're all directionally helpful, all make sense. What are some other ways we do it? We look at, should we create a content? Should we create a landing page? You could look at sub-intent. I think that if we want to rank for this, we need to talk about examples. We need to talk about best practices. We need to talk about the different types, all that kind of stuff. So why do we infer intent from SERPs? I think in general, it's because Google is very good at matching people to content. Some could say it's become [inaudible 00:02:41] at this point. Why do we trust it? Google has all this data. I don't consider myself a data historian, but I feel pretty confident saying that Google has one of the biggest data models, if not one of the top few in human history. And they're doing endless experimentation.

If you work in SEO and content, you've probably seen, when you publish stuff in Google test different title tags. They test different content. They test different layouts. They have all this data and they're always experimenting. So that means that we should trust that there's a lot in SERPs that we should look at. I certainly believe so. This all checks out, but I also have a question. Have you ever searched for something and not been satisfied by the results?

This is a rhetorical question because of course you have. And part of this is just the fact that we all have ADHD now. I have it undiagnosed. I'm always looking up things, searching. I'm halfway through an email. I open up a new tab. I'm searching. Sometimes it's very simple things like what time does the Super Bowl start? Other times it's a bit more nitty gritty and I'm not satisfied for other reasons. So why are we sometimes not satisfied? Because the core desire of the deep reason of why I'm doing the search is not getting fulfilled. So granted these are anecdotal examples, but I've picked up a lot of these from talking to a lot of different people. And this is just a random SERP. This is nothing about any of these. But even on the topic of reviews, people that work in tech especially generally know that reviews are not the most objective thing in the world.

There's an incentive behind it. There's affiliates. There's all that kind of stuff. So even if you look at the SERP for one of these and you say, "Yes, this is what you should do," does that mean that people's core desire is getting fulfilled? Another thing is there's a bunch of people that work in SEO and content, you know how it works. So when you search something and you start saying, "Okay, I see the way that people are putting together this content and matching intent." And your brain starts to do pattern recognition and say like, "What I'm really looking for here isn't getting fulfilled. Maybe I'm just a very cynical marketer and no one else is like that." But from talking to other people, I think it's somewhat widespread. So where does all this leave us? It's these two things where on the one hand, we say, "Well, I know that me and people I talk to, we sometimes don't like the search results."

But also the same people like me, and I've said everything I'm saying in here. This is something I've said many times. Say, "Well, I see this in the SERPs, so therefore we need to do it too." I don't think these necessarily make sense to coexist a hundred percent of the time. So here's my question. Can two things be true at once? Can Google be absolutely amazing at matching, "Okay, we've done all these tests. We have all this data. We know what people generally want on these things"? And can we also factor in that any data model with any algorithm, it's all dependent on the inputs, which isn't just the inputs of the algorithm, but it's what is the actual content that is out there? And then these things don't coexist in a vacuum because what people think is going to work in the algorithm feeds what people create. So it becomes circular. So with all this, I wanted to bring it back to first principles and say, "Here's how we want it to be."

And when I say that, I mean this is even, I think, the way I came up in SEO after it went from, "Here's a bunch of keywords, create content for each one." You say, okay, here's a search query. We have this black box, quite literally here as a Google algo. And then the SERP. And what that is, you're saying, "Okay, here's the keyword. That's the intent for it. That's what the SERP show. Case closed." And even with a concept like fractured intent, it's kind of a funny concept because I find it very helpful and I totally know what it means. But also, what it implies is that some intent is not fractured and that, oh, when it's not fractured, everyone is thinking the same thing. Which again, logically, I don't think anyone would agree that that's the case. Another funny thing here is when companies say... And even people who don't work in search will say, "Oh, like our customers don't search for X. Or our customers searching for X surely wouldn't do this."

And at the same time, on one hand, I'm like, "You know your customers. You've talked to people. You know stuff." And on the other hand, it's like, you're really going to speak for 20,000 people, bottoms up, who aren't talking to each other about what they want from a search? I think what I would call an inconvenient truth, and I don't think this is groundbreaking or anything, but it really comes down to an approach of when you put an extra step in here and you say, hey, before the search query, there's all these different people. And if I view it in the traditional way, it's a monolith because we're saying, again, here's the query, here's the intent. This is what the SERP is. Blap, blap, blap, case closed. And for the record, I didn't actually know the word polylithic. I think I had to Google opposite of monolith.

So that's how I came up with this, is when you're saying, "Look, there's a whole bunch of people searching for this and maybe I could summarize their intent is this for now." Again, as opposed to, this is the search intent, case closed. So again, this is the most I'm going to delve into anything resembling a political analogy. But what you often see around election time is people talking about voting blocks and they say, "You got to get the woman vote, the man vote, this gender vote, that race vote." And it makes sense on paper in a way before you think, "Is it possible that each one of these groups is composed of a bunch of different people who fits into a bunch of different categories and maybe, even though it's convenient in some ways to simplistically group them, it's a lot more complicated than that?"

So I promise it'll get back to SEO soon. I'm going to very quickly get philosophical. So it's about the narrative fallacy. Question, which one of these is more likely that Joey is happily married and killed his wife, or Joey seemed happily married and he killed his wife to get her inheritance? Now when I saw this, I said, "Obviously, it's the second one. That makes sense." In reality." The first one is less specific, but more likely. And the next one is just a good story. And because we have these alligator, whatever, 30,000 year old brains, we gravitate to stories. So what does this have to do with search intent? When people say, oh, people searching this mean this, and I would put myself in the first person in this category, I'd say, "Yes, that makes sense. I get it." But looking over time and looking back at my career, I realized I made a lot of assumptions before that I don't know if they're true.

The problem is humans like to simplify a complex world with one dimensional stories. So if we look at the world as an incredibly complex system explaining why something happens is not this voting block or that voting block. There's a lot of things going on, I would say Google's algorithm plus all the humans in the world searching for stuff, it's very complex. So maybe we should humble ourselves a little bit. I promise this is coming back to search intent. Here we go. So here's my new definition of search intent. It's not supposed to be some world breaking thing. Just search intent is just a means to abstract away what a whole bunch of people, call it tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of people are thinking when they perform a search and remembering that it's always going to be an estimate and an oversimplification.

The best thing that we can do is to make hypotheses about what do they really want and how do we try to satisfy that? So again, this is a very useful abstraction. Let's just remember that it's an abstraction. So a new rule I've imposed is that SERPS do not equal search intent. And again, SERPs are absolutely vital to getting a piece of the search intent, but it's not equivalent to search intent. And the reason I say that, I think that equation is the case is that... And again, I've said this many times. I see the SERPs change and then how do I describe that? I don't say the SERPs change. I say intent change. But if the SERTs are changing and you're calling that intent, then you're basically saying A equals B equals C, which I don't think is the case.

So what I'm going to do is break intent down into two parts, the intent analysis and then the hypothesis formation. So intent analysis, and again, this is not supposed to be all encompassing. This is a framework. It's a oversimplification. So if I had to break it down into three ways, what are they? Direct, indirect and qualitative. Direct is SERPs. I want to know what the search intent is. The first thing I do is go to the SERPs. Should absolutely be your first step. Next one is all the stuff around PAA, auto complete, all the little snippets that tell you what else could people be thinking when they search this stuff. And then qualitative, which is stuff that's... Maybe it comes from third party tools, but it's not in SERPs, PAA. It's what are the things you know about your customers, whether it's from other marketing channels, from talking to them, from interviews, all that kind of stuff?

So let's look at a very simple example. Customer data platform. So you could look at the SERPs. And again, I'm summarizing even just based on the title tag and at a high level. So what are these? We see some comparison and solution with the reviews. But then a lot of, what is this? What is this? Explain what it is. So if I had to just look at all those title tags and say, what is the search intent here? I would say, it's mostly definition and 101 with a little bit of comparison and solutions sprinkled in. Now, if I wanted to then move on to indirect, that's all the, what does the people also ask? What are the related searches? What is the auto complete? This example is actually kind of illustrative because if you looked at the SERPs and said, "Oh, this is all people wanting to know what it is," all of this is very much related to, not just I want to know how it works, but how does it work with SAP? How does it work versus this?

It's people who are drilling down to the next level. So if you stopped at the first one, you wouldn't even have got the second part of the intent. And then the qualitative. So this would come from segment. So from their own experience, what do people ask their sales team? What do potential customers know? How much education do they need? What questions do they have? All that sort of stuff. So if Segment was making a hypothesis purely based on the intent, it would look based on the content that they said. Well, we want to cover 101 stuff and then move into the comparison solution and then cover all of it. And it clearly worked out pretty well for them. So going back to the semi philosophical side. What does this tell us? Tells us that when you cover the topics and this way you can win when you are Segment.

That's basically all it tells you. Because what it doesn't tell you is if something different might work, and what if you aren't Segment? The key being there about Segment that they are synonymous with CDPs. So if you're a different site doing that, then you couldn't look at SERPs and say, "Well, Segment did that. Therefore I can do it." Because it just doesn't work that way. So I outlined a couple problems of stopping with intent analysis there. Is this sticking? Okay. So yeah, one is that the more your content matches SERPs, the higher confidence you have that it will succeed. This is my complex MBA approved chart here where when the similarity to SERPs goes up, your confidence goes up. And that's a logical deduction because you're saying, "Well, if I want to know what works, I go to the SERPs. That's what they're doing. Therefore I know that that works."

So again, simple logical line. "I want to rank. Here's what's ranking. If I do something like that, I'll rank." Not super complicated, but even that is an evolution on the way it used to be with, "Let me take this CSV export and throw up a whole bunch of pages and hope that it works." So the problem is that the more your content matches SERPs, the higher confidence you have that it will succeed. Which means that, it incentivizes copycat content. And I know that we're on a Clearscope webinar. This is something y'all have talked about a lot and how to not just do that. And the other thing is that it just makes it harder to have a unique point of view when you're working backwards from the intent is the SERPs, and that's what I have to focus on. Because then you're not doing anything unique. Your content looks like everybody else's.

And then we're getting to this thing where in very evolved spaces, and I know we've all seen this, where it turns into banner blindness, where we all say, "Okay, this is the blog post about this where we all do the things where we address these basic aspects of the intent. We did what the other ones did. Case closed. We can rank." So the old question was how do we rank? And the answer was SERPs. The new question is, how do we rank, which requires looking at the SERPs, yet also do something unique? So that brings it to part two, the even more important part, which is hypothesis formation. So my friend Alex Birkett, who I believe is a Birkett, who's a friend of Clearscope. I saw him recently cite this quote. So I'm going to cite him. Secondary citation of, "All models are wrong, but some are useful."

So me right now, all frameworks are wrong, but some are useful. This is not supposed to be an all-encompassing everything you need to know about SEO. One of the difficult things about SEO is to get people to understand it, we have to simplify it. And then every single thing has 10,000 exceptions. So you have to start with what are the basic things? And not go too, too deep. But if I had to boil it down, it's importance, competition, topical authority and information gain. So importance, just simply how important is this to me? And a few questions that roll up to that. What kind of content format do I employ? Is it worth that effort? How much risk can we have of not ranking? Goes back to the confidence. If I want to be more confident, then paradoxically, I'm going to want to do what other people are doing.

And then is this even worth it? Is it worth the effort? Competition, pretty simple. How tough are the SERPs? Are big players competing? Are lots of people doing this? Are they authoritative? Do they have links? Is it crowded? Topical authority, are we established in this topic? So if you're Salesforce, you basically say, "We can do anything around CRM and rank," and they're not totally wrong. And then information gain, this is smushing a few concepts together. But what business outcomes are we working towards? Do we have a unique point of view? How do we do something different? And then how do we tie it into our product? And I'll show some examples of that in a minute. And that's, here the example here that started to birthed framework. This is maybe a few years ago at this point. Well, I guess four now.

So this topic of website analysis was working with HotJar. They came to me and said, "We want to do this." The interesting thing was that I had already in my cursory research come across it and then I said, "Due to a bunch of basic reasons, I don't think this makes sense." I did the typical analysis of all this stuff here. I looked at the SERPs. A kind of interesting thing is it's hard to do this type of analysis because you often don't have a picture of the SERP before and after. I happened to take a screenshot, which is why this will be my example until the end of time I guess. And maybe I should start saving more screenshots. But it was weird because all the results were, it was a whole bunch of tools.

And not only that, it was mostly homepages. Like, here's your SEO checker, website performance. There was some stuff about competitive analysis. And then when I looked at the indirect, again, following my own rules, what is the PAA in all that stuff? And this is an example from right now. But I remember it being somewhat similar where it's really, okay, just show me the output of all this website analysis. So in a vacuum, I looked at this topic, I was like, "There's no point. The search intent doesn't match what we're trying to do. It's very difficult. It's all these homepages. It's all these tools. It has nothing to do with us. It doesn't make sense." Here's the problem. That's the traditional ICO process saying we can't rank for this. But the thing that's missing and the thing I want to drive home here is that there was something else.

HotJar knew something. They said, "We've talked to people and we know that people are thinking about website analysis." And not only that, this is kind of interesting. They had bid on it and paid. And they knew that it converted and paid, which is interesting because it's still Google and it's showing the same things on the SERP. But people in paid are getting one thing, yet the organic results are showing something completely different. So if you just judge the organic results, you're going to say, "Well, this has nothing to do with HotJar. And for anybody who doesn't know, HotJar is a behavioral analytics tool. You can use heat maps like screen recordings. All these different things to try to understand what people are doing on your website. You can survey and that's the whole point.

So bringing it back to this, our bet was, yes, I'm looking at the SERPs and I see all this stuff about website performance and SEO and this and that. But we're going to make a bet that it's not just this monolithic search query. But out of all these people, surely Google is ranking all these things for a reason. But we think some percent of those people are not thinking about performance tests and that the core desire is, I just want to have a website that performs better.

And what does performance mean? It means it executes on the business vision. And part of that is knowing your users. So my question at the time, do I trust omnipotent Google or make a bet? We ended up making a bet. And here's the questions that I asked to form the hypothesis. So again, with that framework. How important is this topic to me? Well, just based on the paid data combined with the search volume, it's important. And again, I wouldn't have known that if we didn't have that and if I was just looking at it from the outside. But just based on that, it's worth the effort. Competition, how tough are the SERPs? This is again, not a historical screenshot. And there weren't these pages that had very few referring domains. But it looked basically impossible. I looked at it and was like, "This is a waste of time."

Topical authority, are we established? Maybe I'll teach you something cool here. So one obvious way to do this is just look at, are you getting clicks around this topic? Open up search console, filter to website and analysis? Not that much. Maybe we don't have a chance. But does Google have other contexts that we are authoritative here? What I did was, and I've done this since, I went to a ahrefs, and this is actually their old backlinks report, because I'm old school. Now, they have a new interface where you can't quite do this. And I just search analysis. Again for the 20th time, this is not a screenshot I saved from 20 years ago. This is from right now. There was a lot fewer, but there was still a decent amount of unique domains. And what this is doing is, it's searching the context of all the links.

So it looks at the page title, the page, the domain, the anchor text, the text around the anchor. And it's a very, very rough proxy, but a proxy nonetheless foreseen, does your backlink profile have anything to do with this topic? And it was enough that I thought, "You know what? Maybe they actually do have some links here and they have a chance." So my takeaways here were, from a page depth standpoint, okay, we're going to need you to do something different and we're going to need multiple pages. And then we're going to need more links to build off page authority.

And then from the information gain perspective, what business outcomes are we working towards? So we want to show users that HotJar helps with a certain type of website analysis. And again, we have a unique point of view and we know that it's important. So our final hypothesis was, let's build a hub that is multiple pages, addresses the broad intent and then creates a funnel to reframe the topic and then we're going to build links around it and it's going to be great. So what we did was we created this hub where each one of these is a unique page. And it does two things. One is these different pages can be optimized for different things like the one at the bottom ranks for website analysis tools. But then it also creates a funnel. And again, it was our hypothesis that some people are looking for this and even the people that aren't are going to need to be reeducated.

So what we did was, we addressed the direct intent, which is based on the search results, we know the people are looking at SEO audits, speed, competitive analysis, all that sort of stuff. And we addressed it. And we talked about it. But then we said, ultimately though, what you're forgetting is that you need to get in touch with their users. And that's a core tenet of everything HotJar does and why they've been successful. And the [inaudible 00:22:08] I was skeptical that this would work. And it actually ended up working and it taught me a lot. In total, all these pages got traffic. This is a screenshot from before. It still ranks very well and they've updated it several times since. So it's easy in hindsight to say, "Obviously this would've worked." But the truth was that wasn't the case.

When I started, I said, "This is difficult. We're not an authority. The intent is off. This is a waste of time." Then when we launched, I was like, "Eh, it could work, but I don't know if it will." And then when it did work, I wanted to say, "Obviously this just means that I'm an SEO genius and I knew that it would work." But that's just not true. I didn't think it would work. And in reality, the only reason we even tried it is because HotJar, the content team at HotJar, who has since gone on, that core team to do other things and they're some of the sharpest people I've ever worked with. Is they said, we're okay with this not working because it's important enough to us that we want to take a [inaudible 00:23:03] and worst case scenario, we have this content, we can use it in other ways.

So what did this teach me? It taught me that the SERPs can have a huge intent gap. And in this case, it was very big. Because clearly what we did worked. And if you search this now, there's more content like that. So what I learned retroactively is there was this intent that people weren't creating content to satisfy part of the intent, because people would look at SERPs and say, "Well, there's no point in doing it." And then we happened to be the first ones that did it and opened up the fact that there was a gap there. And then you can find that intent from non SEO sources. Again, based on all the SEO sources, I wouldn't have done it. But they had paid data plus qualitative data, which said, this makes sense. And then it's not just making the hypothesis. It was executed.

They wrote really good content. We collectively built links and it was a lot of blocking and tackling. But a reminder, not all hypotheses work. Similar HotJar thing where we wanted to rank for user testing tool, and publish this landing page and it just didn't do that well. So the hypothesis was, is it important? And the answer this time was like, "Eh, it's not as important." You want to rank number one for everything in a perfect world, but you only have so many times, so many resources. And we didn't have the conviction to devote some of the content bandwidth to it because that was limited. So the hypothesis was, let's take no more than an hour, take a landing page template in the CMS, very quickly create a page and see what happens. And it's okay that it didn't crush it because we just didn't have the resources unless we could really justify it.

It wasn't that important. And once again, it's that willingness to fail. And looking back, one of the things is as marketers, we want to be able to say, "Look, I have this idea. It's going to work no matter what." But the truth is, some of the things that work the best, you need to be willing to risk and you can only take a risk when you're in an environment where people are okay with failure. And it's okay to be okay with failure in one instance when you do other things that work and people see what you're doing. So here's my bad SEO joke about a title tag of common search intent mistakes and definition and examples. So one common mistake I see is the intent is for a landing page. So we got to do that. And this is again, looking at intent from, these are the pages I see. That's what it is.

And let me ask you this. Has this ever happened, where a human says, "Let me look for a landing page on this topic?" I think the answer is no. People are not looking for landing pages. They have a core desire or something that they're trying to fulfill, a core question they're trying to answer whatever it is. So what is that? It's like, I'm interested in buying software to help me solve the problem, help me make that decision. And there's a bunch of different ways that that could be served. So this query of e-commerce platform. And again, I wish I had taken screenshots of everything in my life. But I remember the SERP used to be, it was a mix of weird affiliates and stuff like Shopify, Big Commerce, Magenta, their homepages. And then what it evolved to be with companies like Big Commerce is these very in-depth comparison reviews where Big Commerce says, "Here's how to evaluate this. We're going to write a review. Of course we're going to talk about ourselves and position ourselves in a way that's beneficial to us, but that's the way we're going to do it."

And then they had this in-depth review. Now everybody else does it too. Like Shopify does it. Other platforms do it. Other people do it. But if you had just looked at the SERPs at the time, you would've said, "Well, I need a landing page because SERPs are intent and the SERPs says landing page. Therefore I do a landing page." But that wasn't the case. The inverse can also be true. Where on this one, you see, accounting automation software. Here are these listicles and Ramp had a hypothesis where... Again, also relative to resources. Let's optimize this page we have because, A, it takes less work, and B, if we can get the landing page to rank, we're going to get more conversions and it takes a lot of resources to write this comparison review post.

They could have made the other hypothesis and then it's weighing the resources and the confidence with the various options. Another one, another HotJar example where if you looked at heat map tools and you just looked at some of these, you would say, "Based on what I know, the only way you could possibly rank for this is to have this comparison post." Here you are with HotJar having that landing page. That doesn't prove anyone else could do it. HotJar is an expert on this. So they are more able to do it. But again, if all you did was base it on SERPs, you would say, I have to do it this one way. Another thing is the intent for these keywords is the same. So I might as well do one page. Now, there's a very valid reason this principle exists. Which is, back in the day, collars for dogs and dog collars, you would've had a page for every variation of this.

The old school stuff with dog collar page. My dog collars page. My collars of dogs page. Absolutely atrocious. So this principle exists for a reason. It makes sense. But here's an example of where you should question it. We look at two queries. One is website tracking tools, one is website tracking. Again, back when we did this, if you looked at website tracking, the top result was this medium article that was the best tools for website tracking. So you know that comparison review thing. So if all you did was look at this, you would've said, "The intent for website tracking is to have a listicle like this." There was a lot of SERP overlap. There's a concept that I'm a wholehearted believer in, which is, you want to compare SERPs. If there's overlap, it indicates that maybe these concepts are the same thing. You can tackle it with one page."

So we kind of had two choices. We could go for all of these with one page or we could divide and conquer. And the first one is the typical, I would call it clustering best practice. And you could've done that and maybe it could've worked. We'll never know because we didn't do both in some universe where you could do both and find out what happens. What we did is the divide and conquer method. Again, we took a hub approach and we had multiple pages. And then we had the main page that ranked for website tracking, and here's website tracking tools and it ranked for both of them. Why did we do it this way? Again, it comes down to forming a hypothesis that, once again, we have paid data. We know people talk about it this way. It has a lot of volume. And due to the fact that we know that it converts, it's so valuable that we're willing to use the resources to create two pages.

And we also think that we should build our topical authority. But it could totally make sense in another case where you could look at the same situation and say, "This is not as important to us. We are just going to create one page and hope for the best." So I'm going to end my session here with three predictions about the future of search intent. These are going to be very quick. So one is that experiences to solve core problems will win. If the current way is to write content that directly addresses in text all the sub-topics, I think the future is going to be creating experiences that satisfy the subtopics. And what that distinction means is, right now, if you want to say I'm an expert on whatever, customer data platform. You want to in writing, say, look, Google and people, I am including all these things. I am the expert.

But as Google gets more and more... And they've announced this and we see evidence for it, that they care about experience more and more. Then if you can satisfy that core problem without talking about all that things, I could see a future where you fire up your Clearscope report. And it doesn't mean I have to include all these in text. Maybe it's even in my video or something like that. I want to talk about all these things and Google can understand it. Which an example of this principle, and this is a pretty simple example, but Ramp's pricing intelligence pages where they don't just have, "Here's the pricing for all these different things." They actually solve the core problem of not only do I want to know the pricing, which is what most of them answer. It's, "I want to get it cheaper." And that's something they offer.

So I didn't do the screenshot where it shows you moving stuff around. But this is a toggle where you could toggle it up and down and it changes that input on other places on the page. And it's pretty cool. Again, this is not too [inaudible 00:30:58]. It's a basic tool strategy, but I think a lot of stuff is going to go in this direction where it's more interactive and if you solve the intent based on the experience, then you're going to win. And a subset of that is, the video will take over SERPs. I took this exact screenshot from my friend John Henry Shirk, who's included in a separate writeup he did. Because it's also a principle I believe. That video is going to get more and more important. And again, this is not a revolutionary prediction. How do people consume content? A lot of it is TikTok, YouTube shorts. When you want to learn stuff, you search on YouTube.

There are all these stats about YouTube is whatever, the second biggest search engine or third biggest in the world. And just, again, from a solving the core problem standpoint, video is often just better positioned to solve the core problem. I know personally, there's certain things when my coffee grinder, my bougie coffee grinder broke, I didn't want to read a description about it. I was like, "I want to watch a video that shows me how do I fix this thing?" And I did.

The last thing is that we end up going in this circle of search being democratized and then winner take all. A democratizing force on one hand is experience because it means that the best content can win because Google isn't just looking at who can build the most backlinks. You can win by getting tested into the SERPs. But I also see a world where with everyone doing AI content and creating the same blueprint with everything, Google's going to have to go back. The pendulum will swing back to authority. And then it's a combination of, does my experience reduce bounces and solve the intent? And does Google trust me? Because there's going to be a lot of sites popping up that build topical authority by publishing a bazillion pages on all these topics and Google's [inaudible 00:32:44] a way to separate the fat from the whatever. What is the real content? And what is the stuff that just regurgitated from everything else? That is my presentation.

Travis:

Awesome job. Yeah, you nailed it. We do have a couple questions. And definitely agree with all your predictions at the end. But starting off, going back to the HotJar example, when y'all made that bet, did your bet change the SERPs? Did people start copying you with the website analytics or analysis?

Nigel:

Yeah. Obviously, I can't speak to did people copy that exactly. All I can say is, the SERPs looked one way, and then they started to look more and more another way. And you can just search those terms now. And you see there's a lot more of just people writing blogs on website analytics, different aspects of it, tools, all that sort of stuff. Yeah, and again, I've seen that in multiple different places where it's this thing where no one wants to be the first mover, and then when someone's the first mover, you suddenly see other people popping up and doing that because they need proof to be able to do something. Which both makes sense and shows why you need to be able to take risks sometimes.

Travis:

Yeah. Totally agree. So Harry says this is the best webinar he has been to. Super cool. Thanks Harry.

Nigel:

I'm humbled. Thank you.

Travis:

Another question. So you're making a bet that Google has it wrong based off all the data that's collected in the SERP. How do you find these opportunities and then there's an information gap or a big value key where how do you go about making this bet or identifying opportunities for this bet?

Nigel:

Yeah, that's a good question. And there's not a very simple answer. Again, I think one thing, if you go back to the HotJar example, I would've never found that. The way that it ended up getting surfaced was because it came from paid. So one thing is, you can learn from other marketing channels. So again, if you just look at SEO in a vacuum, you would say, "You know what? This isn't worth it."

But they actually knew that it converted. So that's one thing. And then another is just qualitative insights. And you often find this with nascent categories where it's a new category. So no one's written about it much. And then all of the information out there is just kind not what it is. So again, there's not exactly a scientific way. It just comes down to, do I have an insight or a strong reason to believe whether it's quantitative like paid data or qualitative like talking to customers and sales data that the current results are not capturing the intent? And it's also looking at it from the standpoint of, as long as you can do something else with that content, it's not like the sky falls and the company collapses because your bet is wrong. Because again, I've made bets before that didn't work out. But in totality, they tend to work out.

Travis:

Nice. And you have limited time on the content side as far as building new pages. How do you prioritize when to make these bets versus just making a better piece of content for the existing intent?

Nigel:

Yeah, for sure. So part of that comes down to even, do you think that the current intent... Is your just bet that we can address this intent in a better way and that it will serve people well? Versus do you have conviction that like, "I just think all of this is off." And then it also comes down to what your business is. Because if all of the SERPS [inaudible 00:36:16] it's time to say, this is the way to approach this, and you're working for a company that sells a product that stands in contrast to that, then it tees it up to say, you know what? We're going to go about this in a different way. And again, maybe that is answering intent in a different way. And maybe it's just, we're going to take a swing at a different type of intent and see what happens. So I feel like that's not the most actionable answer. But it just is what it is.

Travis:

No. Yeah, completely agree. And then are there any tools... You recommended a couple doing some of the analysis. Are there any tools to help with this decision making?

Nigel:

So there's one thing. I referred to clustering tools. I think those are very helpful for even having a process. So if you say, "I'm going to throw all these keywords in and see how they're clustered." The only thing I'd say is don't take all of that at face value. Use it as an input in the same way that SERPs are an input. I see what's ranking and I'm going to use that as an input. So I think clustering is one aspect. Again, there's all the tools around looking at these different aspects of intent. But I don't think there's a tool answer to this where it's... And that's why it's so hard, is because whenever there's a tool... Like with Clearscope, it's such a good tool that ends up even creating the con where now a bunch of people have the blueprint of what to do. There's not a blueprint of how to do this, which is why a few people do it and there's reputational risks. So yeah, once again, I don't have a great answer there.

Travis:

No, I agree with that. And this actually might be the last question. Not really topically relevant, but you've been in the game for a long time, so I think you might have some recommendations. But an anonymous asked, "What's the best way to learn SEO? Talking about courses, certifications. What blogs should people read?" There might be other people that might be interested in that as well.

Nigel:

Yeah. Really good question. One of the things that I think is very tough is that there's sort of a difference between SEO theory and SEO experience. And all the reading and stuff you do, it's very helpful. But there's a difference between having experience in reading that and contextualizing it and reading all that and saying, "Okay, I know about SEO." The really hard part is I firmly believe the only way to truly learn about SEO is to have a website you can tinker with. Whether that's as a job, your own affiliate site, your own blog. Because nothing replaces that feeling. And I think a lot of people here can relate to it of, you have a piece of content. You see it in SERPs. "Wow, I created content in Google. That's amazing."

And then you tweak something and you see it go up or down. And nothing can replace that because then you realize, "Holy cow. Like I did this thing and it went up or it went down." And you can talk to other people about their experiences with that, but at the end of the day, nothing replaces doing it yourself. So there's a whole bunch of lists of blogs and people to follow. I don't think I add any unique value in those. You should go do that. Kevin [inaudible 00:39:05] is great. There's other really smart people. AJ Cohen has a great blog. But I think those are only truly helpful if you have something to tinker with and balance with your own learnings.

Travis:

I cannot not agree more. That's one of the biggest recommendations I make to people is just create your own site. A lot less risk than making tests with your business.

Nigel:

Do something weird.

Travis:

Yeah, exactly. We do have another question from Gabriel, say, "I remember you said backlinks. Do you know if the new version offers an analogous feature?" Actually, I'm not sure exactly what this question's asking.

Nigel:

I think I get what he's getting at, if I can make an assumption. So I was talking about trying to estimate your topical link authority with ahrefs. It's, no offense [inaudible 00:39:52], you have a confusing UI. But on the left-hand rail, I'm not looking at it. There's like legacy reports towards the bottom and then everything towards the top is the new one. If you scroll towards the bottom, once you're logged in and you're looking at a site in site explorer, and you go to backlinks, then you can search it there. And I think you can do that in the new one, but it just doesn't return results the same way. And now I feel like an SEO old man. So I just do it the way that I'm used to. But it's still there to answer the question.

Travis:

Yeah, thanks for the save on that. Have another question from Valley. It says, "A website attempted to create a central HubPage for the topic Japanese swords and included information about various related sub talks such as Japanese sword types, Japanese sword history, and Japanese sword characteristics. However, the main article ended up ranking for types of Japanese swords rather than the targeted main keyword. And it appears that Google considers the page more relevant to a secondary topic. How would you avoid such problems when you create hubs and clusters?"

Nigel:

My question would be, what's the problem? Are you ranking and are you getting an outcome [inaudible 00:40:56]? So this comes back to the confidence and effort. So with that website tracking tool example, it's like, you could just publish one and if it turns out you rank for everything and it does a good job of fulfilling your business intent, great. But if you want to hedge your confidence and say, if we create more and we think that each one of these pages have unique value, worst case scenario, I build my topical authority and just one of these pages ranks and everything's working together to rank. And then best case scenario, like that other one I showed, one ranks for one and one ranks for the other. But a quick lesson I'd say there is, everything doesn't have to be choreographed the way you want. So if you say, "Here's my hypothesis about what will work, everything's a hypothesis." And something else ends up ranking, that's okay. Unless, I don't know what the downside is, I guess. Other than you use more resources. But maybe the other way wouldn't have worked.

Travis:

Very interesting take. Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. And then Abby wrote in, "How do you find a balance between a top of the funnel piece of content that guides a reader to a middle of the funnel piece of content like a white paper versus fulfilling different search intents by mentioning your product, selling to the customer within one piece?"

Nigel:

I'd say I wouldn't really endorse a view where there's like... I don't think we live in a segmented world where there's top of funnel, where all you can do is say, what is this? Three examples of this, say nothing about a product and then a bottom of a funnel, which is, "Here's my product. I'm awesome. Here's why you should get it." And I think an example that gets cited a lot, I think, for good reason is ahrefs, where... Again, throw out the concept of the funnel for a sec. What is the core problem? If people want to do keyword research or people want to learn how backlinks work, they have good informative content that I think is good at educating, going back to the other question of what you could read. But then they're not just shamelessly plugging it. They're saying, "You want to know how to do keyword research? Here's how you do it with a tool." And I get where the question is coming from. But I wouldn't necessarily segment it into top of funnel, nothing to do with a product, and down funnel, this is my product pitch.

Travis:

Nice. Yeah, I agree with that. And then [inaudible 00:43:10] when I asked, can I change the whole niche of a website, which has garnered authority in a niche we later lost interest in and still restart building authority in the new niche?

Nigel:

Well, I think the technical answer is, like very SEO answer, is the only way to do it is try it and find out. But I have seen sites do that. Again, every one of these SEO concepts and heuristics, they're helpful. But they're not absolutely true. So topical authority, if you take it as the gospel is like, you have to be an expert on one thing and that's all you can ever do. But I've seen so many sites that publish content on a whole bunch of... Look at HubSpot. I don't know. I guess they have topical authority on everything. And if you just logically extend that, you can build topical authority on everything. And these concepts are useful for having an understanding, but there's always exceptions.

Travis:

Yeah, completely agree with that. Awesome. Well, thanks for your time, Nigel. Everybody definitely give Nigel a follow on LinkedIn and give him a shout. Let them know how much you appreciate it today. Before we give everybody their time back, Nigel, do you have anything you wanted to share with the audience?

Nigel:

No. Maybe I'm supposed to have a good answer here, but no. I hope this was helpful. Feel free to hit me up if you ever want to talk, shop or have any questions.

Travis:

Awesome. Well, thanks again and everybody have a great rest of your day. Bye.

Nigel:

Thanks everyone.


Written by
Bernard Huang
Co-founder of Clearscope

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