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How to do user-first topic and keyword research for SEO

Updated: March 31, 2023

a graphic of a blog post with user comments from various channels. There's also a photo of author Crystal Carter in the bottom-left corner

Millions of web pages are created every day, making it more and more difficult to find original ideas for content marketing campaigns. With many SEOs and digital marketers using similar keyword research and AI content writing tools, the process of discovering truly unique topics for blogs and web copy can get tough.


What if we could simplify the ideation process? What if we could uncover free sources of content ideas that will improve search engine optimization, serve your audience, add brand value, and build trust in your business?

In this article, I outline how speaking with your team, thinking consciously about your own search experience, and listening to your customers can help you identify original ideas for user-first SEO content topics and keywords phrases. I also share a Google Sheet template to help you organize it all.


How does user-centric content help your SEO?


SEOs should look to create content in order to add more value to their websites for users and for search engines.


With the introduction of it’s Helpful Content algorithm system in 2022, Google announced changes that incentivize publishers to “create content for people, not for search engines.” In the documentation, the company explained that its goal is to ensure that when users visit a website, they encounter “original, helpful content written by people, for people,” and that the site offers a “satisfying experience” for visitors.


While the overall impact of the Helpful Content update was not as extreme as many SEOs predicted, it is clear that the update is part of an initiative to help surface content that is “made for humans” and not primarily to attract people from search engines. This follows previous updates (like the Panda and the Passage Ranking update) to surface web content from more diverse, primary sources.



For SEO specialists, this may call to mind the question, “If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?” Or, to put it another way, “If I don't make content for search engines, will anyone ever see it?” Well, if you are making content that is responding directly to user needs, then yes, they will.


The SEO benefits of creating unique user-first content


Digital marketers that make user-first content based on research, ideas, and interactions with their audience can:


  • Be certain their work addresses users’ needs.

  • Share content directly with the users that requested it.

  • Assess the value of the content with users before publishing more widely.

  • Build robust, conversational relationships between the audience and their brand.

  • Discover unique long tail keywords that engage with high-intent users.


In this article, I outline how speaking with your team, thinking consciously about your own search experience, and listening to your customers can help you source ideas for user-first SEO content.


What are the best sources for user-first keyword and topic research?


If you and your team are regularly engaging with your target audience then you can find user-centric content topics for SEO by:


  • Speaking to sale teams

  • Reviewing customer care queries

  • Identifying training gaps

  • Identifying research gaps

  • Addressing client/industry concerns

  • Creating a resource for your team

  • Reviewing site searches

  • Answering GBP questions

  • Answering Amazon product questions

  • Replying to user comments

  • Addressing reviews

  • Asking your audience directly


Blogs, videos, podcasts and other brand assets that are created from user-first sources are more likely to contain the kind of fresh approach that will help you to stand out on search.


Speak to customer-facing teams to identify content gaps


Stakeholders from across your brand understand the content gaps that shape their conversations with current and potential clients. To create more user-first content, you can take inspiration from a few sources.


Sales teams

The salespeople in your business work directly with customers everyday. They are all too familiar with competing brands and the content gaps that dissuade potential clients. Their proximity to users with transactional intent means that their insights can be particularly useful for discovering unique, high-conversion content.


I usually ask the sales and customer service teams to record the questions they get from prospects and existing clients . . . . This, for me, is one of the best ways to create content without relying on volumes and, at the same time, create content that converts and generates leads.Veruska Anconitano, international and multilingual SEO manager at Momentive.ai

In my experience working with salespeople at businesses large and small, this team is likely to be very proactive in terms of providing ideas and ongoing feedback. They will also be able to offer insights into the content formats and SERP features that are most likely to connect with your audiences.


To connect with this team, external SEO project leaders (like freelancers or agencies) may wish to book some time for qualitative interviews with sales team members using transcription software, like Otter.ai or even Zoom, to record the interviews for future reference.


In-house teams and those managing enterprise SEO projects may be able to access CRM (customer relationship management) archives in order to surface this information at scale or to coordinate with sales teams to strategically manage content recommendations.


“I usually ask the sales and customer service teams to record the questions they get from prospects and existing clients,” Veruska Anconitano, international and multilingual SEO manager at Momentive.ai, said, adding that she reviews the questions on a quarterly basis to identify customer-focused topics.


Next, she identifies relevant existing content that can be refreshed and creates new articles to address any outstanding customer needs. “This, for me, is one of the best ways to create content without relying on [search] volumes and, at the same time, create content that converts and generates leads,” she said, noting that since the subject matter tends to be a fresh response to customer needs, “the majority of the topics coming out of this approach have zero or extremely low volume, but they have proven to have an incredibly high CTR and incredible conversion power.”


Customer care and front-of-house teams

Like your sales team, your customer relationship team handles real-time questions from a range of clients. This team will have a good understanding of content opportunities that can help you retain clients and build long-term trust.


Discussions and questions from members in a community of practice or product [are a great place to source user-first content ideas]. If the company has its own community, the community manager is a great person to work with since they spend a lot of time engaging with members and have a pulse on topics of interest. —Shivani Shah, senior copywriter at Commsor

Depending on the size of your business, this team may include dedicated customer care professionals, but also those who work closely with customers. Teams working on the shop floor, those attending promotional events, and community managers will be able to distill some of the common concerns they encounter.


“If the company has its own community, the community manager is a great person to work with since they spend a lot of time engaging with members and have a pulse on topics of interest,” said Shivani Shah, senior copywriter at Commsor. And, involving your customer support teams not only helps you source user-first content ideas, it also shows those teams that you’re working to facilitate them with resources that they can share when clients express a pain point. Simply put, engaging your front-of-house team(s) as part of the marketing for your SMB can help you add value for customers quickly and effectively.


Training for juniors

Training and educating junior talent is incredibly rewarding but can often be time consuming. Why? Because interns and new recruits don’t know industry jargon and they don’t know the historic context behind certain tactics, and so they ask questions. Lots of them. The questions that they ask will be very similar to the ones that new customers are likely to have and help you to address content gaps in your marketing funnel.


If you don’t have an existing blog or content that you can reference when training juniors, then you should consider creating this content yourself and sharing it with your users. Keep track of these questions on a document then review them for keyword search volume to see if there are opportunities to add value for other users. Answering these questions could prove helpful for juniors, for your business, and for the wider web.


An image of a user-first keyword ideation worksheet. The text reads "Develop razor-sharp content informed by search data from user touchpoints."

Draw from your topical search experience


Your user-first content can also be shaped by your experience as a user. The content you are able to find, the communities that you connect with, and the questions that you have can be a ripe source for original content that connects with similar audiences.


Content you wanted but couldn’t find

Have you ever ventured down a rabbit hole because you couldn’t find the information that you needed from your initial search? Did you have to read and understand multiple sources in order to get a complete picture? Congratulations, you’ve found a content gap.


Me reading things or learning things and not ‘getting it’ [helps me identify potential user-first content gaps]. Once I do understand it, that's a prime content opportunity: help other people fill that same gap. Tory Gray, CEO at The Gray Company

Creating new (and needed) content that addresses the query will enable you to help your audiences while giving Google the content it needs to potentially point searchers to your brand.


And, if the content is present but overly complex or full of jargon, then crafting something more readable from your findings can also be genuinely useful. Tory Gray, CEO at The Gray Company, uses this tactic regularly, explaining her content ideas often come from “reading things or learning things and not ‘getting it.’ Once I do understand it, that’s a prime content opportunity: help other people fill that same gap.”


In some cases, identifying missing content based on a genuine connection to the topic can form the basis for an entire online project or website (as shown in the example below).



Common client/industry questions

Sourcing content from questions that people commonly ask online is something that Google, itself, does often.


In John Mueller’s Ask Google Bot web series, he begins every episode showing that someone asked him the question he’s about to answer.


A screenshot of Google’s John Mueller from one of the Ask Google Bot web series videos.
Image: Google Search Central YouTube channel.

In the example above, the question comes from a user on YouTube, but for the series, Mueller regularly takes questions from Twitter and other channels.


You can also identify these kinds of queries on:


  • Industry web forums

  • Quora

  • Reddit

  • Slack communities

  • Discord

  • Facebook groups


To hone in on the kinds of answers that best satisfy such questions, become an active member of your industry’s communities before you start crafting longer-form content like blogs or videos.


Furthermore, many Q&A forums include options to “upvote” or “like” replies, so you can gauge responses before you invest resources towards making content. And, if you are replying to existing questions, then you can post your content to a grateful audience once it’s complete.


Content you are likely to use again

Have you carried out significant research and, as a part of that process, created a document with your findings? If you or your team use this document frequently, then it is a tried and tested piece of content. Sharing this with others via a blog, guide, or template can help drive organic traffic because it is satisfying a need.


A screenshot of website badger trust’s badger guide, with sections on how to feed badgers, injured badgers, lawn damage, etc.
An example of a reusable, and thus highly bookmarkable, reference for individuals that deal with badger encounters. Image: Badger Trust.

Listen to your customers


Whether directly or indirectly, your customers will happily tell you what information they need or cannot easily find.


Internal site searches

When users visit your site and enter a query into internal site search, this may be a signal that you have content that is either difficult to discover or yet to be made.


If you create content based on these searches, then you will absolutely be saving time for your customers and directing them to the answers they need. You won't even need an external third-party tool to provide you with this data, as you already own it.



In the example above, we can see that Amazon took advantage of its position as the dominant platform for product-related searches by using that search data to inform decisions, such as launching its own line of skin care products.


Google Business Profile questions

When you create a Google Business Profile, you are also creating a means for the public to contact you directly, ask questions, leave reviews, and engage with your business. This is an incredibly valuable asset for local SEO keywords.


A screenshot of a question in a restaurant’s google business profile. The user asks “do they have peach cobbler,” and the local guide responded “yes its fire!”
An example of a question asked by a user on a restaurant's Google Business Profile.

Questions that users submit here can serve as recommendations for content that should be added to your GBP profile, GBP posts, long tail keywords for your website, or even a new business offering.


Amazon product questions

Amazon is a major player in eCommerce product search. One of the reasons why is that Amazon has always provided an outlet for users to ask questions and review products directly. This interactive relationship helps to build trust signals for brands and products. This also means that brands are expected to reply to customer questions.


A screenshot of a question asked by a user on an Amazon product listing. The question is answered by the manufacturer’s customer support team.
An example from the questions section of an Amazon product listing.

In the “Customer questions & answers” section of Amazon product listing pages, you can see some of the queries that users have about your product (and potentially similar products from competitors as well). By creating content that is optimized for these queries, you can empower users to make better decisions about the purchases or services they are considering. The questions asked here can help you add value to your eCommerce SEO efforts when you use this information to create effective copy for product pages and blogs.


Content comments and UGC

If you have UGC (user-generated content) on your blog or an engaged audience on social media, then make note of the questions that they ask to identify common keywords and phrases. Comments and questions on your existing content can offer incredible opportunities to pay service to an audience that has high informational search intent. When done correctly, this can become source material for content refreshes and topic cluster-related content.



With some practice, savvy content creators can anticipate the questions that are most likely to arise and support users before they ask. For instance, the comments section on a recipe blog is often filled with questions about substituting ingredients. So, savvy recipe bloggers will build notes about substitutions into their copy before they publish (as shown in the example above).


Reviews

As well as helping to improve SERP visibility for local SEO and demonstrating EEAT, customer reviews allow you to understand what your customers genuinely value about your products. Reviews will tell you what information your customers require to be successful with your products or services. Sometimes negative reviews will talk about the product’s deficiencies, but many times they will include comments about customer service, delivery, and product instructions.


I remember working with a client in the leisure industry where I was tasked with creating a strategy around golf. Though I have limited personal experience on the fairways, by looking at the reviews, I quickly learned the things that patrons really valued and saw as unique about the course. This helped me shape the kinds of content to recommend to clients in this industry while allowing me to find opportunities to refine keyword intent to better serve users.


Example of a customer review that could inspire new keyword positioning for an ecommerce product.


Chima Mmeje, founder of Zenith Copy, audits reviews to shape long-form content based on the problems that people repeatedly bring up about competing brands. This lets her differentiate her content while shaping it to also serve as a sales enablement asset. She explains that, for sales prospects, product comparison content can be “more valuable than a quick answer because it touches on the problem they faced with a competing brand.”


For the purposes of SEO, user reviews can be particularly useful when the reviews contain requests or issues with something for which a solution already exists, but has not been communicated clearly. If you know how to solve some of those pain points, then you can improve your review ratings by making content that will help users get better outcomes. Then, you can reply to these reviews with a link to a blog or documentation created specifically based on their feedback. This can build trust with your customers and create an authentic relationship with your brand.


Ask your audience

There are a few ways to do this, but this most public example of this tactic comes from YouTube. Successful YouTubers do this all the time.



Once viewers have been asked to “smash that subscribe button,” YouTubers look straight into the camera and ask their subscribers which topics they should cover next. Channels like Screen Junkies will often include the replies they received on older videos to frame the content of new videos (as shown above). Demonstrating that your brand listens helps to establish a relationship with the audience and encourages more recommendations, which ultimately means more ideas for user-first content.


If you are not a YouTuber, then consider using more traditional methods of gathering customer insights, including:


  • Customer surveys

  • Client interviews

  • Feedback forms

  • Focus groups


Each of these sources will help you assess and prioritize the content your customers need right now.


JJ Nato-Pascasio, senior SEO strategist at Balsam International Unlimited, uses customer surveys to get “insights on what is currently working and is not working well with our customers.” Where they discover information gaps, Nato-Pascasio uses the notes to “create content, usually in an FAQ form or a full article with video and image guides, depending on the complexity.”


Combine primary sources with keyword research tools to help more of your audience


The primary sources that I have shared here help you create content based directly on user needs. This is not to say that third-party keyword research tools are not valuable—they are, but they should be used in tandem with more qualitative, user-centric sources of information.


A screenshot of google’s tweet from February 15, 2022, that reads “fun fact: 15% of all Google searches have never been searched before”

Keyword tools use historic data to show search volumes, and historical data can’t help you predict new ways your customers may be using your products or how your industry may evolve. So, taking this combined approach can help your brand serve customers now and in the future.


 

Crystal Carter

Crystal is an SEO & digital marketing professional with over 15 years of experience. Her global business clients have included Disney, McDonalds, and Tomy. An avid SEO communicator, her work has been featured at Google Search Central, Brighton SEO, Moz, DeepCrawl, Semrush, and more. Twitter | Linkedin

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