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For this episode of Ecoffee with Experts, Matt Fraser hosted Tory Gray, CEO and Principal SEO consultant of The Gray Dot Company. Tory unveils the evolution of SEO over the years, along with some unbeatable practices and reliable sources for keyword research. Watch now to dominate the SERPs.
Keyword research is a data set that can help you understand what people are looking for, when, and why.
I mean, starting there, it’s critical to get it right. And you certainly run across people that just accidentally do SEO well. And they do well knowing how to talk to their audience and their needs. So what they’re doing is that they don’t need a data set to know their customers to talk that language. So they’re doing it accidentally, without doing the keyword research, but that’s why they succeed. So they’re creating content that meets a real need for a real human, and they’re searching for those answers. So, keyword research is critical, especially for amplifying your results. Or if you’re new to a category and trying to learn about how you speak to this audience. So it’s that much more critical. It’s a dataset that can help you understand what people are looking for, when, and why and you can dig into it to really make sure that your program is set up for success. Certainly, if you’re actively engaging in SEO and not doing keyword research, you’re doing something wrong. Like it’s the foundation of understanding what we want.
It’s the baseline of your strategy, what do you want visibility for and why. What audience does that align with you. How do you create resources that meet that need. And connecting the dots across all those pieces is what you’re looking to do.
Market Samurai. I remember Si Fu, which is still around, but it was a big one back then, and it was just such an interesting path. There were always much shorter, more like two or three-word phrases. And even worse than the keyword research was the optimization because you were, how many times could you repeat this keyword, just ad infinitum? It was a horrible world, and I’m glad we’ve moved away from that model because nobody won. That was not quality content. So thank God, we have moved past that. I think it’s much more nuanced today, and there’s more competition. So there’s much more work to avoid the noise and stand out. And of course, Google has changed how they define quality over the years dramatically. So there was a day 10-15 years ago, when just more pages meant quality. And then that led to duplicate content because you could copy all your competitor’s pages and put them on your site, and suddenly you are on a big site. So because of that moving finish line of quality, I think we’ve all gotten better at understanding how to meet heaps. So I think user search behavior has also evolved; people are training Google at the same time as Google is training people on how to search and how to search more effectively. So between voice search and all these other mechanisms of how eCommerce searching works and what people look for. They don’t explicitly have to look for, buy Nikes, which used to be such an important keyword, like buy online or buy X to rank for that. Whereas now, there’s often an implied version of what that means. So the new, I’d say trends that didn’t used to exist were maybe like the zero volume keyword research, a stronger, much stronger focus on user intent, and how to meet that and understand what they’re looking for. And so wrapped up in that is hidden intent.
We’ll get into it, but those are, I’d say, the bigger updates. Keyword clustering, I’d say, is also a new trend, relatively. It has been around for a year or two, but it’s getting more pervasive, and it’s happening more often in a good way for more people doing more thoughtful planning. I see a bit of an evolution from the start, like head terms versus the long tail like you have to do this, it’s everything. People have more of a cohesive view across the customer funnel and speak to people all along the way. Especially in the SAS space, you’ve had to get good at that over time. So, there’s always somewhere to start, but less of this is the only playbook and a lot more nuanced in terms of understanding your competitive landscape and developing a plan to reach the right audience, right people, right time.
Yeah, it’s an evolving understanding. Because people evolve and people’s needs are changing all the time. So one of the most concrete things you can do to kick off, if you’re not sure, Google it and see what happens. Because Google has a lot of data, go figure out what people are looking for because they’re attempting to deliver them the right solution. So if you’re unsure about an audience or a keyword, and if that’s the right fit, you need to google it and see what else comes up. What sorts of results, what sorts of formats is Google showing? What kinds of questions are they answering? What are the people who also ask questions that are variations or ways? I don’t remember who said this, but someone pointed out that it’s perhaps a way for Google to disambiguate a broader query. So if you search for something broad, what are the next steps? What do you mean by those words that you say? It’s not always obvious when you look for this that what you mean is this. So an example there, I’m going to steal this from Bernard from Clear Scope, which is a great tool. So he gave an example of understanding user intent, which is for the query, I think it was around bone broth. So I think it was how to make bone broth? What is bone broth? Rather, that was the query. So if you Googled, what is bone broth, if you take that sentence on its face, what you’re going to hear is okay, they want a definition of what bone broth is? If you Google that statement, you’ll find a variety of things. There are actual recipes. There are definitions, but then there are recipe variations. People also want to understand the benefits of bone broth. So when you Google a phrase, like what is bone broth, you’ll see there are many different layers to what people are looking for because people can be looking for more than one thing and different people have different needs. So looking at those search results can help you understand Google’s most up-to-date version of understanding what that means. The caveat to that, though, is sometimes there’s just no content out there answering that question. So Google can’t deliver it. So the caveat that I bring here is, if you know your audience, if you’re in touch with your customers, and you know that they’re asking questions, and when you Google that, no one’s answering that question, but this is the word that your customers are using. And this comes into either the zero search volume or the hidden search volume. Sometimes, they go together. Taking a chance on creating something even though the data isn’t necessarily there to show that that is there. I encourage you to create that content if you know your customers. So my example here of me doing this is that I get questions from clients. So we tend to work with clients with budgets, they are bigger brands, might have more than one brand, and might have more than one product line they want to focus on. So this semi-common question I get is like, for this X, new brand, we want to introduce or this existing brand, we want to feature it, we want to specialize it. Should I make it a microsite or split it into its brand with its domain? So what do I do with that? So I know people are asking this question, so we’re talking about a multi-domain SEO strategy. When would you want to do that? So when I went to write this post, because a lot of our content, frankly, comes from Okay, well, I answered this answer or this question from a client three times, okay. It’s a trend, we’re going to turn it into a blog post, or I see it asked a lot in Slack communities. People are asking this question, and I have the answer. And maybe now I have this email that I can repurpose into a blog post. So we would have this concept, and I went, and I did this research, and everyone was answering how- how to set up multiple domains, how you’d split it apart? Everyone was covering the how. Nobody was covering the why. But we were discussing why you would want to do this. And why would you not want to do this? So you can determine if you want to have this play. Do you want a different domain? Is this a useful thing? Or is it better to keep it consolidated? So I created a post about multiple domain SEO, which I’m discussing. Here are the scenarios in which it makes sense to split that out into separate pieces versus when I recommend keeping it together. Because, again, that’s the conversation I keep having with clients. So within two weeks, we were on page one because that’s an example of the hidden intent. People were looking for this information, but it wasn’t out there yet, so Google couldn’t deliver it. So if you know your customers, I would say don’t let the data limit you. Data is data, it’s useful, and it can help you maximize an opportunity. So if it’s there, answer it, but also make strategic bets about what you think might be there that the data is not yet caught up with. Yeah, it would help if you made a strategic plan.
Lifetime value or your average value, if you’re talking SAS, if you’re talking big picks, like ticket items. So if you’re selling cars, I don’t care how niche it is. I don’t care if someone searches for it twice a month, and that’s it. If that means the difference between a sale and not a sale, that’s worth it. So I mean, there are certainly business models where if you’re selling trash cans for ten bucks a pop, then maybe it doesn’t make sense unless there’s scale. But there are plenty of situations where you’re either the lifetime customer value or the average order value is enough to make up for that. Or certainly like the ongoing subscription model for the SAS world where this will always be there. So it’ll just continue to deliver again, lifetime value.
Customer service in sales is a hugely under-leveraged part of the business. I mean, especially on SEO teams, because SEO content came about, and then we had all this data. So we wanted to create all this content. But everyone can do that, and now everyone’s gotten over the hump. Not everyone, but lots of companies. And now they have their junior copywriter, who is just trying to spin up new variations. They see people are looking for this, so they create a version of what’s already out there. And the problem with that is that it’s recycled, there’s no inherently unique value because they might not understand the business that well and know the nuances of the customers. They might not understand the nuances of the customer’s needs and how to fulfill that. Or their unique pain points. What pain is that person experiencing that your product can help solve? If you’re looking out there in the world’s competition, that’s the problem of competition research. From my perspective, everyone starts to look at it to see how I replicate what they did. And that’s not the goal. The goal is to see what they did to see what you want to do differently and better. So you’re looking for gaps in what they’re doing. You’re not looking to spin up a new version of what they have. Because if you do that, all you’re going to do is end up in position on page two. You’re going to be lower on page one. And that assumes there’s only one person that’s doing this well. If you want to rank highly, you have to bring something new to the table. So that sort of old model of SEO departments being mostly a bunch of junior copywriters, then someone doing optimization, and then just pumping out content used to work effectively. But it’s creating noise and more competition, and it’s not helping you stand out in ways that it used to. Certainly, bigger, more established brands can get away with that much more than smaller ones that you’re introducing new to the market. And as we spoke about before the call, the rise of AI-driven content. Now we can spin up a new version of here. This is just a new way to write a new word for a variation of what you already said. But again, it doesn’t bring that new value. So you can go back to the basics, go back to traditional marketing, and understand your customers, their needs, and how you meet them. What are their pain points, and how do you resolve them? Or how can you showcase how your product will meet that need and resolve that pain so it’s worth their money to buy your product or service?
You can’t stand out, and yeah, it’s impossible. So pick a model of more senior people who understand the subject matter experts who maybe like editors might be the model for the future that they can carry. These are the topics that we want to cover. And this is unique because you want the basics covered as well. But you also have to have a unique value. So as the next step for how I see things evolving, that seems like the way to go.
It does, you need to have insights, or you need to be willing to do the work of talking to your customer service teams. You can do customer surveys, you can talk to your live customers. I mean, like, God forbid, you can talk to your customers, did you know that?
It’s amazing. So you can take your SEO dataset, but you can also talk to your sales teams, they know what closes the deal. And they know what you want to emphasize and what they don’t if they’re actively selling the product. So your customer service team, we were talking about pre-sales and post-sales. So your customer service team knows where they were happy with that and where they were not. So how do we create content to support those needs? How can we answer those common questions? If there’s a misunderstanding about how something works, how do we clarify that? They understand what those pain points are, and because they tend to be numerous, I keep repeating this because it’s important. Like what about this use case, and what about this use case? And you can speak to that and make it very specific. So we just released a process around how to do allegedly zero volume keyword research this week. And the basics are to talk to your sales team, talk to your customer service teams and come up with your ideas. If you have account managers, certainly they’re talking to your customers so they can see these repeat patterns. So you can go to Reddit and look for trends that people are asking this question in this; these are the variations. Slack communities are a great place for that as well. There are lots of sources for inspiration. Then you can go to your data to find validation. But the tools might not show any volume. But if you see that question asked often enough, especially in the B2B space, or when you’re localizing for internationalization, especially if you’ve got a country with multiple languages, you’re bifurcating the volume. So everything looks artificially smaller than it is, and there might not be volume or like that 0 to 10 range. So those are great topics because there’s much more volume typically than tools would lead you to believe.
They’re there. But all of our data sources are what people are willing to share with us. Or they’re modeling and using machine learning to understand what it is. So that’s the SEMrush and Hrefs. So they’re making assumptions about what Google is. But Keyword Tool planner used to tell us stuff now, it’s pretty obfuscated. Google search console is probably your best source of data. But it’s also what Google is willing to give you. I mean, I think H refs just put out a study over 50%, you don’t see what they are. You have these clicks and impressions, but you don’t know what they’re associated with because Google’s only willing to give you so much data. So they don’t want to, they’re not incentivized to, and yet, in these niche use cases that we’re talking about, like in the B2B space, where inherently you’re talking to a smaller audience because it’s not business to consumer. So there are just a lot more consumers. So it’s a smaller pool of people. So it’s harder to quantify those things, and I see more volume regularly in Google Search Console for the particular keywords I’m going after than I would see in Hrefs or in SEMrush or whatever your keyword tool of choice is.
I mean, Google’s a corporation. They’re here to make money. They’re looking out for their bottom line. They could use the excuse of privacy, but they were willing to sell that data when it was not provided and kick in anyway?
But now they’re starting to take that away from paid search advertisers too because the next frontier at this point, it used to be, you can’t get it for organic, but you can pay to get that access in paid search tools. But now, over time, they’re limiting your ability to do match types, changing the definitions of what match types are, and they don’t tell you what all the keyword queries are because they want you to spend more money. There are not enough people worldwide for more internet users, for there to be more companies, and for them to spend more on AdWords or ads. So they change it every two to five years. So, there’s not enough of them to continue growing as a company. So they have to have these creative means. So at first, the finish line was okay, well, now they have to buy these keywords, so they’ll come here to buy them. And now that’s the only limited source. So they know like, this is my apples. Never actioned this. Now they have this, and now everyone’s stuck there. And they’re now starting to take that away because now there’s no other source so that they can take it away from you there too. So I mean, yes, you have third-party tools, but they’re modeling based on what they think Google’s doing.
Certainly. So Also Asked is a good one. So there are tools that leverage the people also ask technology, yeah, so it can find the variations of those. So rather than you going and doing that manually and clicking all the buttons because you know when you click, people also asked things, like three new questions pop up. And if you click this one, then three new variations of that pop-up will go three levels deep. And you can get x many searches for free per month, but if you pay for it, you can get that three-level deep. And you can export it to your phone. So that one’s use. I think it’s Answer the Public, a very similar tool. It’s been around longer. I think they sold it to Neil Patel. So they’re using the autocomplete functionality to assume this. So I like to use those. I also like to use those sort of side by side and then see, okay, if I’m looking for something, how many are the results accurate? Do I, if what I’m looking for aligns to. Okay, these questions make sense. So, this is the right subject matter. It’s not okay. Sometimes something with the same name can overlap. So is it accurate? How many variations are there? And can I see patterns across the tools? So is it asked over here, and it’s also asked over here? So you’re looking for like breadth and depth of patterns across keywords to say like, Okay, I think even though my tool tells me there are no searches for this, or there are only 0 to 10 searches for this, I can find this and also ask if I can find this and answer the public. There’s lots of variation. Chances are there’s a lot more volume there than you think.
The best SEO is having a great brand. SEO can be an execution, but if you do a good job understanding and meeting your customer’s needs, SEO follows. There are limitations and things you can do to optimize and improve using data, but if you don’t have that piece right, you are so screwed. You can draw a lot of traffic, but what’s the point if you are not driving conversions to your business? The ROI and the value are not there. So you have to talk through that meter.
We do have an SEO template post. In terms of finding and sorting those, we bring machine learning scripts to help us do that. I think Lazrina’s story has some content, and I cherish some of those versions. I can’t share specifically what we are doing and how we are doing it. We can’t publicly share, but I encourage people to explore that. That action will take the keywords and help cluster them. You need to experiment with that. There are plenty of templates with keyword clustering tools and usually get a bunch of keywords. It can be a data studio report that you copy and paste in there and cluster them according to its logic. The results may vary as you would expect. Sometimes I ask, why do you group that with that? It makes no sense. How close is the keyword? How many characters match? So that is not always a useful way to do it. So different models use different ways to do that. So I will encourage you to explore multiple times and see what they come up with. So the state we are in now with machine learning and AI, you need human curation. Don’t think you are going to run it through the script, and magically, everything is going to work, and you save twenty hours and now go forth and growth hack. That’s not how it works. The reality is you are going to try a lot of models, and most of them are going to fail. This one may work okay, but then you have to go through and manually curate. Ultimately it will save you time, but if you find one that does work, you save a lot of time. So instead of creating everything from scratch, whether it’s your alt-tags or meta description. You can have it make something for you, and then you can edit manually, human curation. So it may take a twenty-hour job down to seven to a ten-hour. Think of the cost savings instead of thinking of it as a binary. Either it works, or it doesn’t. What we have right now, the technology we have today, is not that good yet.
It’s incredibly important. But, again, this is a thing you can accidentally get right because you understand your customers. But if you don’t know that, you need to start understanding if you are new to a business or an SEO that’s being hired into a business. Starting to understand this nuance is hypercritical. Otherwise, you are not going to rank. So again, going back to that analogy, what is bone broth? If you create a post that answers what bone broth is, you will not rank on it, even on page 100. So you are not meeting the needs, so Google is not going to show your content.
No. Right now, I feel like we are driving to the finish line of, often longer does help because it means you are being comprehensive. SEO ruins everything. What I mean by this is that we take everything and beat it into the ground. We started with five hundred, and then Google feeds longer. This is why we have the classic example of the recipe post, where you have to read the five thousand-word essay about your Grandma on Sunday afternoon to get to the recipe, and it’s infuriating. It’s a terrible experience, yet that’s what fed the algorithm, so everyone kept doing it. And even after it stopped being effective, people kept doing it because that is the wisdom and what people were taught, and they are just working the system, so they just made it longer and longer and longer. So I feel like we are still in that world, but maybe at some point soon or in some places, we are starting to see a tipping point. So I would also encourage people to explore different mediums, and by this, I mean a blog is not the answer to everything. Content is broader than a blog post, not every blog post has to be five thousand words. It’s hilarious that I say that because that’s what we create. We also do videos, but mostly we create very long in-depth content. It does work, but it depends on your subject matter and the question you are answering. If you are answering a simple yes-no question, that’s not the right forum. You already see the rise in Reddit results, where people ask for Q&A or the stack exchange if people ask and answer. The Quora of the world. Because content is in a very different format, it’s in a Q&A with the threading. But that may be the better response if you have a short quick question. So part of understanding search intent is, what is the useful way to format this answer? Is it a video? Is it a blog post? Is it a social media thread? Is it a Q&A forum where you answer this? There are lots of different ways. Don’t be limited by SEO blog posts.
Yes. It could be the best answer is on Quora. You can get uploaded, and you can work Quora as a system to have it be your expert to answer questions, and then you as a brand can earn trust and start ranking for that term. You may even be able to relink to your blog post within the Quora post; the answer is this in longer form. So our blog posts tend to be long and cover multiple intents. But there are different smaller needs within that. Then you can point to a specific thing, like here is the anchor tag. Or a hash to jump to the right place in the article, this is the relevant part of this article.
There is a broader context that you can read too if you want. But if you only want a quick answer, here it is.
We have to, and all our content is long. So we sometimes have a long table of contents with seven to ten items.
It is so easy to make it long now. That’s why Google changes the finish line. They have to because we keep getting the same, and then we ruin it, so they have to keep exploring what’s next. So a good SEO or brand team is trying to stay at the forefront. Like what is Google aiming for and how do we get better at that today, so by the time Google is good enough at that and they start rolling it out, we are in a position to benefit.
We can discuss the multi-domain post. So this is how I recommend optimizing when you think you have an angle and will go for it. So, I strongly believe that people were looking for this and weren’t getting the information they needed on page one of these results. So, I did my keyword research and called it Multi-Domain SEO or Domain SEO. Multi is the angle I went with; there were zero to ten searches or zero. I don’t remember. There were like two or three keywords with a little bit of volume. So, you follow your normal process for the keyword research, where you try and validate if you can’t find the data, you do it anyway and do the normal optimization, but you put it out there. And then the key is to return to it three to six months later. So you are reoptimizing now that you have first-party data in the Google search console about the performance of that post. That is when we realized people were calling this Multi Domain SEO or Multiple Domain SEO or Domain SEO. Like domain strategy for SEO. So that was a variation of we tried something, then you get data, go into Google Search Console, and look at an individual page’s performance. You may look at impressions or clicks and then organize them by rank. You can click the headers in the Google search console to reorder things. So do that and see what you are getting a lot of impressions or clicks on with the harder, relatively low ranking. Those may be re-optimization opportunities. Should we pivot this post to going after this broader keyword? Does it make sense? Is this a good keyword or not? Like certainly, content ranks for irrelevant stuff. Ignore those, I don’t care how high volume it is if it is not a good fit. But if it is a good fit and it’s a bigger opportunity, I think that’s a way where we now reoptimize things and bring in more of that domain SEO language. That’s an optimization opportunity. So, pulling the threads, trying things like coming back to it and reinventing, and being thoughtful about that. So quantity and length are not necessarily the way to get more in the future. It might be today, especially in some verticals that aren’t played out. Again going back to the example, don’t just do what your competitors do. Once the thing works because it has not been overdone yet or because it’s not completely saturated, what often works is doing something different to stand out from what others are doing, making you stand out.
Yes, So your questions about the long tail versus the bigger head terms, I don’t have a single play that we do. We don’t always start in a long tail. We don’t always start with the head terms. We look at what the opportunity is and how competitive it is and identify where the gaps are. What are other people not doing effectively? Are they tackling this stage of the customer funnel, but are they doing a crappy job here? Get your foot in the door somewhere. Execute that very well and then start to diversify.
Understanding your keyword research but understanding the competitive atmosphere of your keyword research.
You don’t want to talk about things you are good at. Match those things together.
I would love to be back on the show, but let’s do it.
There is so much great content out there. Learning how to do these things. The trick of the SEO road map is a great resource. I would join the Slack communities of SEOs. You can join women in Tech SEO, that is my favorite. Personal shout out to that team, I love them. I think it is an awesome resource, but you have to pay to get access, but it is a good one.
Yes. It’s another Slack community. TOFU is a great one, Top of the funnel. They specifically talk about content marketing and also Google things. Go on Twitter, SEO Twitter is a thing. It’s a fascinating eco sysytem.
Trying things goes a long way. Start where you start. It is a very effective means, and it has worked for me. I also understand that not everyone wants to work overtime in their off time, and I respect that. Or find someone willing to spend time with you to help you learn. A mentor is a huge thing to help you grow.
You can find me, Tory Lynne Gray, on Twitter, Gray.co as well, and our website is the gray. company’
You can Google me and find me.
Thanks for having me, a ton of fun.
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