Celebrate the Holidays with some of SEJ’s best articles of 2023.
Our Festive Flashback series runs from December 21 – January 5, featuring daily reads on significant events, fundamentals, actionable strategies, and thought leader opinions.
2023 has been quite eventful in the SEO industry and our contributors produced some outstanding articles to keep pace and reflect these changes.
Catch up on the best reads of 2023 to give you plenty to reflect on as you move into 2024.
The concept of search intent and the recommendation that marketers pay close attention to it when targeting organic keywords is well established in SEO.
But while a lot of SEO writing has described search intent (for example, these two excellent articles on SEJ on creating content that satisfies search intent and understanding how people search), most stop short of clearly prescribing how brands should prioritize keywords.
Specifically, most discussions of search intent state the fact that search queries range from informational (people looking to learn about a topic), to comparative (people comparing solutions to their problem), to transactional (people looking to buy).
This is often visualized as a marketing funnel.
But regarding recommendations on how to use search intent to your advantage in SEO, the most common advice is to ensure you have a variety of content to “cover” the full spectrum of search intent; have some informational, some mid-funnel, and some transactional content.
Specifically, we’ve found in working with dozens of brands over many years in creating SEO-focused content that the vast majority of companies should not create an even spread of content across the funnel, but rather prioritize bottom of funnel content and slowly work their way up.
Because SEO resources are finite and bottom of funnel content (e.g., search queries with “transactional” search intent) generates tremendously more return on investment (ROI) on SEO spend than everything else.
In this article, we’ll explain our reasoning and share data supporting this thesis.
SEO Resources Are Finite: You Can’t Target All Keywords Well
The general recommendation that you should “make sure you have content for all stages of the funnel” (aka all search intents) would be fine if companies had infinite SEO resources – meaning unlimited writers to produce content, unlimited SEO strategists to pick keywords and do SERP analysis, and unlimited budget for link building.
But no brand has this.
Even the idea of AI-assisted writing making producing massive amounts of content easier doesn’t negate this fact.
Sure, AI tools can produce thousands of pieces in a fraction of the time it would take a human, but that doesn’t mean they will all rank or be good enough to impress prospective customers and convert.
If a bunch of sites are all producing similar AI-assisted content to target the same keywords, Google will have to differentiate somehow to decide who to rank – and two safe bets in how it will make this decision are content quality and backlinks.
In terms of content quality, it’s quite likely that the best pieces for a given keyword will be the ones with the most originality and specific personal expertise, traits that Google has clearly stated it prefers and which require human input.
And backlinks have been a known ranking factor forever in SEO. In a world where many sites produce similar AI-produced pieces targeting the same keywords, it’s safe to assume it will be just as, if not more, important.
So regardless of how content is produced, SEO resources for everyone are finite. There are a finite number of employee hours, a finite number of writing budgets (regardless of if writers use AI), and a finite link building budget.
That means you have to prioritize the keywords you will target.
In our experience, that is bottom of funnel, transactional, keywords.
Bottom Of Funnel Keywords Convert Significantly More Than Everything Else
To conclude, as we have, that bottom of funnel content converts significantly more than any other type of content, the first step is to actually measure and track conversions from SEO.
This sounds obvious, but the reality is that most SEO and content teams don’t do this; they just assume the more traffic, the better, and their entire strategy is focused on growing traffic.
You can measure conversion from SEO in different ways via different analytics tools, but in general, the process will require the following steps:
- Define a conversion. This is typically a lead form fill or trial start for SaaS or sales-based businesses, or an actual transaction for ecommerce businesses.
- Create a goal in your analytics platform to measure this conversion event.
- Generate reports of which landing pages on your site resulted in how many conversions. This can be done via different attribution models like first or last click, depending on the analytics platform, but any data here is better than no data.
When you do this, you’ll inevitably find what we have found over 5+ years, dozens of brands, and hundreds of SEO pieces.
Specifically, pages on your site that rank for bottom of funnel keywords convert at multiple single digit percent (1% – 5%), whereas pages that rank for top of funnel, informational keywords typically convert at a fraction of a percent (0.01% – 0.5%).
In other words, the difference in conversion rate between bottom and top of funnel keywords is not 10%, 20%, or even 50% – it’s multiple fold.
This is exemplified in this data across 60+ content pieces for a software client of ours, where the content ranking for bottom of funnel queries converted on average at 25X higher than articles that targeted mid to top of funnel queries.
Bottom of funnel posts had a 4.78% conversion rate versus 0.19% for top of funnel posts. Based on 60+ posts for a client.
Even after accounting for top of funnel pieces getting more traffic, the raw conversions from just 20 bottom of funnel pieces were 3 times more than those from 40 top of funnel pieces:
20 bottom of funnel posts generated 1348 conversions while 40 top of funnel posts generated 397 conversions.
To emphasize, the 1350 conversions from BOTF content above are from only 22 pieces, whereas the 400 conversions from TOF are from 42 articles.
In addition, we should mention the articles we labeled as “top of funnel” in this study still had some buying intent. We went after them only after exhausting most bottom of funnel keywords and chose the keywords strategically to ensure they still had some chance of a conversion.
In that respect it’s fair even to call them “mid-funnel.” For many companies, the majority of their content and SEO efforts are directed exclusively at top of funnel keywords that will convert to leads or sales at or below the conversion rates above.
That’s a tragic waste of SEO efforts, in our minds.
Why Are Informational, Top Of Funnel Keywords So Low Converting?
The argument for chasing top of funnel keywords is typically that their search volumes are high.
So, the story goes, you can get your brand in front of a large number of people who, at some point in the future, are likely to need a product or service like yours.
But as the data above shows, and our collective experience confirms, it requires so many steps to get to a conversion from top of funnel traffic that the conversion rates are minuscule.
Specifically, the journey from someone Googling a top of funnel informational query to becoming a customer is:
- They Google the query.
- They click into your results.
- They read the article.
- Some fraction of these users either return to your site on pure memory or give their email to download a white paper or gated resource.
- Some fraction of those users open subsequent drip emails.
- Then at some point, some fraction of those users will need your product or service and reach out.
Each of these steps has a small conversion rate, so in combination, the entire journey has an absolutely minuscule conversion rate.
So much so that, as per the data above, a possibly higher search volume of these top of funnel queries compared to transactional queries does not make up for the tiny conversion rates.
There Are More Bottom Of Funnel Keywords Than You Think
So if you buy into this notion that targeting bottom of the funnel keywords is a better use of finite SEO resources than evenly spreading SEO content across the full spectrum of search intent, the next important question to tackle is: “Which keywords in my space are bottom of the funnel are high converting and how many of them are there?”
We’ve noticed that many SEO pros and marketers have a limited view of which keywords are bottom of funnel – that is, have some level of transaction or buying intent.
In our experience, there are three common buckets of bottom of funnel keywords, only the first of which is commonly considered as bottom of funnel.
1. Category Keywords
Yes, those are very high-converting bottom of the funnel or transactional keywords that any SEO software brand should absolutely target.
Most SEO and marketing teams are aware of these keywords and do target them, usually with the homepage or one or two landing pages.
But what we’ve found is that many teams consider this to be the entirety of bottom of funnel or transactional keywords. They target a few category keywords and spend the rest of their time creating blog content to rank for top of funnel search terms.
But there are actually a lot of other high-converting search terms that we notice most brands don’t think about and ignore in favor of producing content to go after extremely low converting top of funnel keywords.
2. Comparison Keywords
Specifically, another extremely high-converting category of keywords is what we call comparison keywords.
These are keywords that show the searcher is comparing multiple options, such as “salesforce vs pipedrive” or “adidas vs nike womens running shoes.”
Many discussions of search intent categorize this as a mid-funnel query because, they say, the searcher may not be ready to make a transaction but is simply doing product research.
But in our measurements of conversion rates of hundreds of pages ranking for comparison keywords, they often convert just as high as the category keywords discussed above.
As a result, in my view, companies that want to maximize ROI from SEO should aggressively target comparison keywords.
They should identify every comparison keyword stemming from their top competitors that has any semblance of search volume and ensure they have a dedicated page on their site to rank for each.
3. Jobs To Be Done Keywords
The final of our three categories of keywords that we have found can generate conversions from SEO are jobs to be done keywords.
This is the largest of these three categories of high-buying-intent keywords, meaning there are usually a lot more jobs to be done keywords than category or comparison.
This category is often ignored or not prioritized by brands as being conversion-generating, though, because these are queries where the user is not overtly looking for or comparing product options but is indicating that they have a problem that your product happens to solve.
In our SEO software example, this would include queries like “how to do competitor keyword research,” “how to know search volume of keywords,” or “how to track which keywords a site ranks for.”
If you have an SEO software product with features that lets people do those things, then, in our experience, ranking for keywords like these will generate conversions.
Typically the conversion rate of these keywords is slightly lower than category or comparison keywords.
However, they are still much better than top of funnel queries like “SEO strategy,” “best SEO tips,” or even “digital marketing strategies,” which are typical top of funnel keywords companies go after but which have very little buying intent.
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