Keyword Research in the Age of RankBrain

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The world of digital marketing is constantly shifting and changing, but one thing has remained true over the past ten years. Having a presence in search engines is essential to growing your influence and business.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the art of growing your visibility in the organic listings of a search engine. This means all the links that are not labeled as an “AD.”

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How Did We Get to Where We Are

Over the years, SEO has changed quite a bit. As Google continues its work to deliver the best results possible, they have had to fight back against black-hat tactics and spammers. This has led them away from simple algorithms and towards developing some of the most sophisticated technology to deliver the world’s information.

What makes SEO confusing is that there is a lot of “noise” in the industry. There are many who claim to know how to “beat” the system and get results overnight. There are others that claim “SEO is dead” or “content marketing is dead” or “something else is dead” just to drive clicks. Then there are those who really do provide great information that is actionable.

The assessment above is not unique to the SEO industry. Dozens of industries are saturated with low-quality sites and content. Just adding to the noise isn’t going to help you or those searching for answers online. Today’s Google not only can understand the query a searcher types in, but it knows and understands context and intent.

How Google Knows What You Want

Have you ever asked a search engine a question and before you could finish typing it predicted what you were going to ask? That’s called “suggested search,” and it’s only scratching the surface when it comes to what Google can do.

Today with the power of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP), Google’s search algorithm can deliver more targeted answers faster than ever. While we won’t get into all the details, it is helpful to have a basic concept of how they all work.

While the terms AI and machine learning have become very trendy, what do they mean? Nidhi Chappell, head of machine learning at Intel, has a very good and simple explanation

“AI is basically the intelligence ~ how we make machines intelligent, while machine learning is the implementation of the compute methods that support it.”

So, for a machine to have “intelligence,” it has to “learn.” There are many different ways to train a machine and the one Google uses is called “Deep Learning.”

In 2015, Google began rolling out a deep learning system called RankBrain that helps generate responses to search queries. Today, RankBrain plays a role in “a very large fraction” of the millions of queries that are asked on the search engine each second.

This means that with each search that is performed, Google gets smarter and learns more about the user, what type of content they are looking for and if the content they were shown satisfied them or not.

Ok, But What About NLP?

The internet and search engines are fueled by content. What has been very difficult for search engines over the years was determining what a piece of content is about and whether or not it was any good. Natural language processing reveals the structure and meaning of a text by using machine learning models.

Using NLP they can extract information about people, places, events and more, that are mentioned in text documents, news articles or blog posts. They can understand the sentiment of that content or analyze intent. This allows Google to deliver much more contextually appropriate results to the user.

What Does This Have to Do With Keyword Research?

If you want your site or content to be found online, you have to adapt to the changing landscape. Using outdated strategies and tactics are not going to get you results today. While the keyword research still plays a big role in SEO, the way it should be approached has changed quite a bit.

For the past few years, you have heard many SEO’s preach the necessity of going after “long tail” keywords. While these still play a role in content marketing, the impact on SEO is not what it used to be.

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If you look at the image above you’ll notice a something. One of the searches is for a very broad term “keyword research” and one for the long tail term “how to do keyword research.” While placement for the links is slightly different, you’ll notice that both results are almost identical.

With Google’s ability to better understand intent, it no longer makes as much sense to create tons of pages focused on specific long tail keywords. They now take into consideration what the content has to offer as a whole and its relevance to the end users.

This isn’t to say long tail strategies don’t matter at all. At the top of the long-tail search you’ll notice both a “rich snippet” and a “people also searched for” knowledge graph. These are very powerful if you can get your site listed and having the right terms plays a role.

How to Approach Keyword Research

When it comes to optimizing your pages, and ranking for terms that will drive engagement, choosing the right keywords is paramount. As I mentioned above, long tail keywords just don’t have as much power as they use to. So instead of long tail terms, you should focus on, what Brian Dean calls “Medium Tail Keywords.

A medium tail keyword is exactly what you think it is. They sit between a very broad term and a long tail term. They typically are more competitive and have a little more searches per month.

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In the image above you’ll see some terms we uncovered quickly when searching with our keyword research tool. The medium tail keywords are the terms that are around three words.

The cool thing about how Google understands content today is if you rank for your medium tail keyword you will also most likely rank for a number of other relevant terms associated with your main term. Ahrefs did a very in-depth study on this and here is what they found.

“It looks like the average #1 ranking page will also rank in the top 10 for nearly 1,000 other relevant keywords.”

So when doing your research, look for terms medium in length, that have good traffic and then optimize your core pages around those terms. Of course, you’ll need to make sure that your content is well written and adds a ton of value.

Using Our Keyword Research Template with This Approach:

In order to help decide which terms are most valuable, we created a simple excel template you can use when doing keyword research. While we created the template with the MOZ keyword explorer in mind, it can be used with any keyword tool.

A few others we recommend are:

These tools are all free and will give you the key data points you’ll need to get your research started.

Before we begin, it might be helpful to download our keyword research template and follow along with us.

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If you look at the template you’ll see six columns. Below is the description of each column.

  • Keyword: As you’d expect, put your keyword here.
  • Relevance: On a scale from 1 to 10, rate how relevant that term is to your site or goals. (This is the only input you’ll have to adjust yourself.)
  • Min Volume: The minimum estimated traffic per month
  • Max Volume: The maximum estimated traffic per month
  • Length: How many words are in the keyword phrase. (The template will fill this in for you.)
  • Results: This will show you the score and heat map the results.

The first step is to log in to your favorite keyword research tool, enter your keyword and export the results.

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Take the results you’ve exported and copy and paste them into the template. At this point you’ll need to adjust the “relevance” column and if you used a tool other than Moz, you might need to adjust the Min/Max columns.

As you’ll notice as you fill in the template, the results column will begin to populate. If you get an invalid result, check your data. Some Min/Max data comes back as “n/a.” If that is the case, just put a “0” in and the results will look right.

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Looking at the results, we can see that some keywords are green, some yellow and others red. Green, as you might guess, means these are terms you should consider optimizing around. This template is meant to be used to help you sift through the tons of data to find terms that are more focused for your business.

In Conclusion

While SEO is changing, keyword research may be more important than ever before. Today’s Google is driven by context and intent. The sites that will rank and attracted relevant traffic are the ones that have content optimized around their users’ needs.

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