Rethinking your keyword strategy: Why optimizing for search intent matters

Search engines continue to evolve, but SEO strategies have failed to keep up.

For years, we have relied on keyword research to choose specific searches to target. However, keyword research often prioritizes the wrong goals.

Executed well, keyword research helps you craft a balanced keyword strategy for your target market and personas. It prioritizes keywords that attract traffic that converts into customers.

Executed poorly, keyword research focuses on high-volume, low-intent searches instead of purchase-intent searches that are most likely to convert.

Conversion-focused SEO campaigns aren’t right for every situation. But conversion should be the primary goal for ecommerce, service businesses, lead generation and any other SEO campaign that aims to impact key business metrics.

The keyword research trap

Too often, marketers pursue keywords with high search volume, resulting in a list of keywords that are merely relevant but don’t convert.

This is the keyword research trap – chasing relevant keywords with volume while ignoring the intent behind the search.

Years ago, I worked for a company specializing in corporate team-building events. They offered one program called “Write a Country Song Like Taylor Swift.” The page for this service attracted plenty of organic traffic. However, most organic visitors wanted information about Swift’s music, not corporate team building.

The Swifties visiting the site would never book a corporate team-building event. They are precisely the wrong audience for corporate team-building events.

The disconnect between the audience and the offer is obvious. However, the disconnect is often less obvious or even ignored by marketers.

The keyword research trap will only become more dangerous as consumers adopt generative engines for search, like Google AI Overviews and

Keyword research is overrated

Early search engines simply looked for keywords on web pages – returning a list of pages that mention the keywords.

Modern search engines are much more sophisticated. They understand the relationships between the searcher’s intent and the pages that best satisfy that intent.

It’s time to modernize SEO methods, including keyword research, developed for the first generation of search engines.

For example, we advised a bank offering donor-advised fund (DAF) accounts. DAFs allow wealthy donors to accelerate tax deductions for charitable contributions.

After keyword research, the bank wanted to target the keyword “donor-advised fund.”

This keyword is relevant in a broad sense. But who is searching for this keyword? And, most importantly, what are they searching for?

We did some research. It turns out they are looking for:

General information about DAFs.

A CPA who understands DAFs.

How to file their DIY taw return with a DAF.

A donor-advised fund account.

The bank should target searchers looking to open a donor-advised fund account. These keywords are searched by people who intend to open a DAF account. Instead, the vast majority of the searches the bank wanted to target had no intention of opening an account.

There are better keywords, like “open a donor-advised fund account,” that are more likely to generate high-value traffic. However, they have much less search volume than “donor-advised fund” and higher competition.

Dig deeper: Beyond search volume: Future-proofing keyword research for SEO

Substituting relevance for intent

Many marketers misunderstand the relationship between relevance and intent.

Relevance and intent are both important, but prioritizing intent is crucial for attracting qualified traffic more likely to convert into customers.

Keywords have both relevance and intent. Search intent is related to relevance, but it’s an entirely different concept.

Relevance is the similarity between keywords and the content or products you offer. Intent is the momentum that will carry the searcher to the next step in their journey.

Intent describes the trajectory of the search. It captures what the searcher wants to achieve with the search.

The momentum behind a search is both a blessing and a curse. If your content satisfies the intent, the momentum will push the visitor to the next step in the buying process. If your content doesn’t satisfy the intent, the momentum makes changing the searcher’s direction difficult.

Search intent captures what post-search outcomes are possible.

Understanding the possible outcomes of a search is critical. For example, it’s unlikely that Taylor Swift fans will book corporate team-building events. They’re more likely to purchase a concert ticket.

Keyword research and analytics tools help you choose relevant keywords. However, they offer less guidance on selecting keywords with the right intent.

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How keyword research fails

Like most marketers, you probably start your SEO campaigns with keyword research. You compile an exhaustive list of relevant terms and prioritize them based on search volume and competition.

Let’s be clear. While it’s important to consider keyword relevance, volume and competition, this approach can mislead you and blunt your SEO campaign’s targeting.

How keyword research selection criteria can mislead you:

Relevance: Relevant keywords may not be searched by your best customers with intent to purchase. They might just be relevant. For example, the keyword “skiing” is relevant for an ecommerce site selling skis and a ski resort.

Search volume: Many different intents often drive high-volume keywords. The actual search volume for the intent you are targeting is sometimes a tiny fraction of the total volume for a keyword.

Competition: It’s hard to rank for competitive keywords. But competitive keywords are competitive precisely because they convert well. Conversely, low-competition keywords usually don’t convert well.

Keyword research is more challenging than most marketers think. These metrics can lead you astray if not applied correctly.

You must skillfully balance the trade-offs between relevance, volume and competition to avoid the keyword research trap. Otherwise, you might invest significant resources into optimizing SEO content for keywords that drive traffic but fail to convert.

Fixing keyword research with intent

Many SEO campaigns are doomed from the start, especially when marketers choose keywords BEFORE identifying the search intents that are most likely to convert.

Don’t start your SEO campaign with keyword research. 

Start with customer research.

Before selecting keywords, you must understand your best customers’ search intents and which of those intents is most likely to convert.

The order of operations is essential: Identify search intents, then select keywords.

Use search intent as a filter. Select keywords with intents that align with your target search intents.

Once you understand your customers’ search intent, you can choose keywords and create content that aligns with your customers’ search intent. You must choose intents you can satisfy with content or a product.

Start your SEO campaign by collecting customer insights from customers’ conversations, sales calls, or social media to understand:

The customer journey

The questions your customers ask

The information your customers need

What triggers customers to convert

These insights will help you understand what information your customers search for when making a purchase decision. These are the search intents you should target.

Here’s a better approach to keyword research:

Start with customer research

Map the customer journey

Identify search intents

Compile relevant keywords

Filter keyword list based on intent

Develop content for each intent

Prioritizing search intent over keywords leads to more effective content that speaks directly to your audience’s needs and increases conversion rates.

Dig deeper: How to optimize for search intent: 19 practical tips

Conversion-focused SEO

Traditional keyword research involves optimizing for metrics that can mislead you.

Well-targeted SEO campaigns deliver content and brand messaging to prospects actively researching a purchase. Precise campaign targeting improves conversion.

Focusing on intent has benefits beyond just lifting rankings and traffic:

Higher conversion rates: Targeting high-intent keywords improves organic conversion rates by providing visitors with content that satisfies their query.

Marketing efficiency: Focusing your attention on searchers actively searching for your products reduces resources spent on broadly targeted content.

Cross-channel insights: Search intent analysis provides valuable insights into customer behavior that can be applied across all your marketing channels, not just SEO.

High-impact SEO campaigns optimize for conversions and sales, not just rankings and traffic. They look beyond keyword relevance, volume and competition by targeting search intents first and keywords second.