Writing well-optimised informational content is no longer just a way of ranking for long-tail keywords. While going after the long-tail is certainly still a valid strategy, we’re thinking too small if that’s the only purpose behind our informational content. Increasing demand for good voice search results, Google’s improving understanding of semantics and an expanding range of informational SERP features are all opportunities for SEOs to gain more visibility for their sites through informational content.

Optimising for these different goals presents a new challenge. It is not enough to identify one or two primary keywords and mention them a few times in your tags and copy if you want to maximise your content’s exposure. We need to think broader in our keyword targeting, be better at identifying and meeting search intent and get savvy with the structured data that Google supports. All of the above needs to be underpinned by a solid understanding of where your content fits into your site’s conversion funnel and how you’re adding value by creating it.

Accommodating the shift from keywords to topics

Keywords aren’t dead, but neither are they king. Developments in Google’s ranking algorithms – including RankBrain – mean that SEOs now need to think beyond keywords in their content optimisation. Google is better than ever at recognising semantic relationships between phrases and understanding the different constituents of a broader topic.

Topicality and RankBrain

Understanding semantic relationships between words is a core function of RankBrain. This function helps Google to understand queries that it has never seen before. We have further evidence of Google’s confidence in its ability to identify semantic relationships in the recent changes to exact match targeting for ad campaigns.

Rather than causing a problem for SEOs, I think the shift from keywords to topics should be seen as an opportunity. It means that well-optimised content can rank well for a broad range of search terms, instead of one or two primary keywords.

Tips for topical optimisation

What’s more, we don’t need to do anything particularly special to give our content this boost. You can find countless posts about ‘optimising for RankBrain,’ but the simple truth is that you just need to write well. By creating content that discusses your chosen topics in depth, you can demonstrate to Google that it has the authority needed to rank well for a range of semantically related keywords.

That said, structuring your content clearly with a logical heading hierarchy certainly doesn’t hurt. It also helps to be aware of the language you’re using and to incorporate different ways of talking about your target topic.

Finally, while tracking how well your content is ranking across topics is difficult, it is not impossible to get a good sense. Start by tracking your ranking performance across a handful of primary keywords. If you start to notice page 1 rankings for these, use tools like Search Console, Ahrefs or SEMRush to give you an idea of what other keywords the content might be showing for. Moz’s Keywords Explorer can also help you find topically keywords if you generate a list of keyword ideas and group them by low or medium lexical similarity.

Optimising content for a range of SERP features

SERP features are increasingly dominating search results. We are familiar with featured snippets and People Also Ask (PAA) boxes. These stalwarts of the SERPs are soon to be joined by additional features such as multiple-answer snippets and snippets with expandable subtopics. These will push the regular ’10 blue links’ lower down the page at the same time as providing more ‘real estate’ for the sites that they feature.

It is also worth noting that Google’s featured snippets and PAA boxes are closely linked to voice search results. I would expect this trend to continue, with the content shown in the new kinds of SERP features also finding its way into the Google Assistant.

Changes we can expect

I doubt that the new features will require a seismic shift in how we optimise for the hallowed ‘position 0.’  The basic process should remain the same: identify the features within your topic and ensure that your content caters for them with relevant subheadings and short, self-contained passages of text.

The emergence of the new features ties in further with the topical considerations that I have mentioned, as they will broaden the amount of information that Google will be able to show in a single SERP. By making sure that your content is well-researched, logically structured and coherently written you will put it in a good position.

None of this is meant to sound revolutionary; the reality is that the advances in Google’s intelligence are only meant to bring it closer to a human-level understanding of search queries. As marketers, we should never lose sight of our goal: to appeal to human customers. As Google gets smarter and adds more featured snippets, we will only be rewarded more for our attempts to write content that humans want to read.

The rise of structured data and considerations for voice search

Structured data presents an opportunity for good content and technical optimisation to overlap. Google supports an increasing number of structured data categories, many of which are also having a significant impact for voice search.

In fact, I would argue that good structured data markup is one of the best ways to help your content succeed in voice search, and the opportunities presented by this channel are only increasing.

Case in point: recipe markup

Recipe markup is a clear example.  Back in May, Google announced that recipe markup required four new properties. Their announcement of the update was called “Send Your Recipes to the Google Assistant.” The article I’ve linked to suggests that we must start to consider Google to be a ‘voice first’ search engine, not simply ‘mobile first.’

The example of the recipe schema shows how structured data can have a direct impact on the visibility (or audibility) of our informational content. It may seem odd to include technical SEO recommendations in an article on content, but the distinction is blurred to the point of meaninglessness in this instance, especially if Google provides more opportunities. I recently read about ‘how to’ markup up for ‘How to X’ articles. It is conceivable that this structured data could be used in the near future to provide more support for voice.

The title of this article says ‘2018 and beyond.’ I don’t think the kind of markup that I’ve talked about in this section is a big concern for now, unless you work on a site that publishes recipes. This is very much a consideration for the future of content. Keep an eye on Google’s announcements regarding structured data and remember that you lose nothing by getting in early and marking up articles with relevant schema that may already exist.

Don’t forget your content’s commercial impact

No matter what is going on with Google, content should only be produced if it has a place in the website’s wider business strategy. The increasing importance of topic authority and a SERP feature-led strategy might make it seem difficult to track traditional metrics. After all, it’s not easy to track keyword rankings across a whole topic and accurate tracking of SERP features is even harder. However, it is certainly not impossible.

Keyword tracking

Primary keyword tracking is still necessary and useful. Even if you are optimising content for topical rankings, it is helpful to have a handful of primary keywords in mind that you really want it to rank for. These keywords should represent either valuable or high intent search phrases that you know will bring the right visitors to your site. Often, good rankings for your primary keywords indicate that the page will be achieving broader, topical rankings as well.

SERP features can be trickier to track, especially as new features pop up all the time. We like to use powerful tools like STAT, in which we can set up dynamic tags to monitor current SERP feature opportunities and identify new ones. A tool like Ahrefs can also identify the SERP features that a given page is ranking for.

Monitoring commercial impact

The ability to track keyword and feature rankings is only half of the puzzle when it comes to recognising and tracking your content’s commercial impact. Those rankings need to match up to increased organic traffic for them to be worthwhile, and that rise in traffic will hopefully lead to a boost in conversions. This can all be tracked through standard behaviour views in Analytics.

If you’re not seeing a commercial impact from your optimised informational content, it may be time to reevaluate your strategy. Are you writing about topics that bring in visitors who could go on to convert in the future? Is there enough of an association between your content and your products or services? Are visitors who are engaged with your content aware of the commercial side of your business? Is it easy for them to make a purchase or enquiry?

Good internal linking and a clear navigational structure are both essential to have in place if you want traffic to your informational content to be meaningful in a commercial sense. Other strategies, such as paid remarketing to site visitors or the opportunity for an email sign up, can also help to get value from this traffic.

In sum, don’t be content (pun intended) with keyword rankings and increased organic traffic. Ask the hard questions of your content and put it to the test to see if you’re getting a good financial return on the time you’ve spent creating it.

Ben Garry

SEO Account Executive

I'm an Account Executive in Impression’s SEO team. This means that I work to make our clients stand out in the crowded online space through on-page optimisation and original, high-quality content.

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