Author: Grace Frohlich
Trust paves the way for conversion. One of the best ways to earn your target audience’s trust is to be there for them, answering their questions time and time again.
For SEOs and site owners, this means creating content. The most effective way to accomplish this task at scale is to map out the topics and potential questions that are relevant for your audience.
User journey mapping is a technique that helps businesses visualize their customers’ journey—from the moment they start searching for a solution to the point of conversion. This technique accounts for relevant topics, questions, and even user search intent to help you create a true full-funnel content marketing campaign.
In this article, I’ll cover:
What is user journey mapping for search?
You may have heard of the “buyer/customer journey”—a user journey map is similar. It is a model or visual representation that illustrates the stages a customer goes through, from the moment they start searching for a solution to when they actually become customers.
The main difference with user journey mapping is that the touch points exclusively relate to online search.
For example, in the SaaS customer engagement industry, a user journey may look something like this:
01. The user starts their search by typing how to improve customer retention into Google.
02. They may then click on a blog post about customer engagement strategies, leading them to a software company’s website.
03. From there, they may browse the website and eventually convert by signing up for a free trial.
User journey mapping is a crucial component of full-funnel content marketing, as it helps align website content with user search intent, which I’ll expand on in the next section.
How search intent contributes to user journey mapping
Search intent refers to the “why” that drives a user to search a given keyword , and it is not always reflected in what they type into the search bar.
For example, let's say you’re a B2B SaaS company that sells CRM (customer relationship management) solutions. Along their journey, a user searching for CRM products could make their way through the following search intents (and corresponding search terms):
Informational intent (e.g., CRM management tools) — The user is researching possible CRM solutions on the market.
Comparative intent (e.g., best CRM tools) — The user is comparing different tools to see which one best suits them.
Transactional/navigational intent (e.g., [company name] CRM) — The user is ready to buy the product from your website.
By mapping search intent to each stage of your user journey, you can create a strategy so that your brand appears in the right places at the right time, meeting users where they are with relevant content. This not only benefits potential customers, it also helps search engines find and rank your content more effectively.
One of the reasons why search intent plays such an important role in this process is because many keywords can have the same intent. For example, the keywords CRM for small business and customer relationship for small business have the same search intent.
In fact, Google has claimed that 15% of search terms have never been searched before. And, Google processes trillions of searches every year, which means hundreds of billions of searches are completely new.
For SEOs, this means that it’s much more important and efficient to track search intent rather than chasing keywords. This is why understanding the real intent behind searches is essential if you want to target your audience with the right content at the right time, and ultimately, drive conversions.
How to build a user journey map
The process of building a user journey map starts similarly to a UX customer journey map, except that you will predominantly use Google data. Here are the steps to build a user journey map for search:
Step 1: Define your user persona
Your audience and their pain points can serve as a clear roadmap for your user journey map to expand upon. For many brands, this means building out personas (if you haven’t already).
When defining your user personas, go beyond the demographic and behavioral characteristics associated with search (i.e., users that tend to search on mobile versus desktop) to also include user goals and motivations as they relate to search and your website or industry. Spend time to identify who your target audience is and what their search habits are. Find out what types of problems they face. User surveys, focus groups, and interviews can provide critical insights into what your potential customers want and what they’re looking to avoid.
If you don’t have this type of data (as is the case with many small businesses), I have found that there are AI tools, like ChatGPT, that can help generate user motivations and pain points to build a user persona.
For example, if you’re a B2B SaaS company looking to generate user motivations for CRM solutions, you could feed ChatGPT a prompt like “List the most common user motivations for searching CRM solutions.” The tool will generate something like this:
You can then dig into each line item to find specific pain points.
Let’s look at one of the user motivations ChatGPT gave us as an example—“Improve customer retention and loyalty.” To get more granular and identify specific ways to help your audience, you could type in the prompt:
“My company is a SaaS customer relation management company. I’m researching my customers’ problems and pain points about customer retention and loyalty. What are the most common pain points for my customers around improving customer retention?”
ChatpGPT will generate a list like this:
Repeat this for each line item until you have a comprehensive list. Then clean your list by combining similar items, removing duplicates, or simplifying some items. You will end up with a full list of all user motivations and pain points.
Step 2: Create a user journey
Next, you need to use your personas to map out the user journey into “stages” and “milestones”:
Stages are top-level steps in the user journey.
Milestones refer to more specific steps that fall under a specific stage.
I will demonstrate this process using the example for “improving customer retention and loyalty,” using the user motivations output from ChatGPT as our stages.
(Note: While I am listing out the user journey in chronological order to help us visualize it, the reality is that user search behavior is non-linear and is more like “the messy middle.”)
Start by arranging your list of motivations and pain points chronologically. Next, copy and paste the pain points (your own list or the ones ChatGPT provided) into a spreadsheet.
Pro tip: It helps to categorize each item with stages in the marketing funnel: awareness, consideration, and conversion.
Then split the list into two columns where the colon is. The first column will be your milestones, while the second column is a brief explanation.
Tweak the wording for milestones so that they are action phrases. Now, you have specific steps in your user journey. Repeat this process for all of your stages until you have a full user journey. Again, you can assign marketing funnel stages if that helps visually (as shown in the example below).
Step 3: Build a keyword list
Now that you have your user journey, it’s time to get to the “mapping” part.
You’ll need to compile a comprehensive keyword list to feed into the user search journey. Your list should include currently ranking keywords and aspirational keywords (terms that you would like to rank for and that make sense for your product/service). This will help you formulate business goals and uncover gaps in the user journey.
To start, export ranking keywords from Google Search Console (GSC).
You can supplement this list with a keyword research tool, like Ahrefs or Semrush. If you don’t have a third-party tool, you can use Google Keyword Planner to find keyword ideas.
Next, pull competitor keywords and add them to the list. Again, you can use Ahrefs or other third-party tools to get competitor keywords. Otherwise, it may be a more manual process. You can either use tools that offer free trials (although many have usage limits) or you can even leverage ChatGPT to expand on your keyword list. This article shows you AI prompts for how to do this.
Step 4: Assign milestones to keywords
Once you have a full keyword list, assign each keyword to a milestone in your user journey. For example, below I have listed keywords to place into each milestone for improving customer retention.
improve customer service for retention
how to keep customers engaged through communication
customer service tips for retention
customer retention through personalization tactics
increase value for customer retention
value-based customer retention tactics
customer communication strategies for retention
personalize customer experiences for retention
improve product quality for customer retention
customer retention strategies for better products
Categorize each keyword into the most relevant milestone. I’ve formatted as above to show a visual representation, however it’s much more efficient to format your data following the example below. This will help you filter, sort, and organize your data down the line.
Pro tip: It also helps to assign milestone code numbers as a quick reference.
Step 5: Categorize keywords into search intent and topics
The last step is to categorize keywords by search intent and topic groups. This gives you a high-level view of topics per journey stage, and helps you spot content opportunities. This can be a time-consuming process, but using an AI tool like ChatGPT can significantly speed it up. I have detailed one method below:
First, enter your list of keywords into ChatGPT’s text input field and specify what type of intent or topic you want to categorize the keywords under. For search intent, you could input the prompt:
“Categorize these keywords into one of these search intents: Informational, Transactional, Comparative, Navigational”
If you want to categorize keywords by topic cluster, you could enter a prompt such as
"Categorize these keywords by topic related to customer retention."
ChatGPT will then generate a list of topic clusters and suggested search intents based on the keywords you provided. You must review the suggestions and group the keywords accordingly. Repeat this process until all of the keywords are categorized into their relevant topics and intents.
Once this is done, you’ll be able to identify common themes and topics that are important to your audience at different stages of the customer journey. This can help you create highly relevant, valuable content for your target audience, which can ultimately lead to better site performance.
How to use your user journey map for better SEO
Now that you have your user journey map, I will explain some key insights that you can get from it.
You can monitor stages and milestones to pinpoint areas that need improvement. The example below shows average monthly ranking by user journey milestone. This helps you identify specific milestones that consistently underperform and create a plan to further optimize them.
Another key benefit is better site content alignment: In the previous section, you mapped your user journey according to journey stages, search intents, and topics. Take it one step further and map specific pages on your site to each keyword and intent.
Let’s say you notice certain pages have been underperforming over the past few months. Look at which user journey milestones those pages are mapped to, as well as target keywords. Check if the pages satisfy the search intent. If the intent is informational but it’s mapped to a transactional page, you will have to either map to a different page or create a new page.
If your pages rank well for each of the mapped keywords and stages, it means that you’re on the right track. This insight can help you determine if your targeted content resonates with customers at each stage of the journey and help you identify pages that need retargeting or optimizing.
What if you don’t have a page that ranks for keywords you want to target? That’s an opportunity to investigate more or even create new content. You can then create targeted content to fill these gaps, ensuring that your brand is relevant and valuable no matter what pain points the user might currently be trying to resolve.
User journey mapping also provides an easier way to track content. By mapping specific pages on the website to stages, you can see performance by site sections or groups. In the next section, I’ll explain tracking and reporting in more detail.
Tracking and reporting with user journey stages
You’ll need to track and report on your website’s performance to evaluate how well your user journey map is working. But, tracking keywords to measure performance is (or will soon be) outdated. Google’s MUM update aims to reduce the number of searches needed to satisfy user intent, which means we need to change the way we track and measure traffic to our websites. Instead of focusing on individual keywords, monitor user journey stages and topic groups to better understand the performance of your content in relation to user intent.
Instead of tracking keywords individually, monitor user journey stages and topic groups to better understand the performance of your content in relation to user intent.
I highly recommend using a keyword tracking tool for this (I use STAT Search Analytics). When you upload your keyword list into the platform, you can tag each keyword with the user journey stage, milestone, and code. This way, you can track performance by sections.
You can filter your data by user journey stage, milestone, or topic group and drill down on the data. For example, the ranking data in the image below was filtered by one specific milestone. We can then investigate keyword performance within that milestone. If you spot certain keywords that have not been ranking well, reevaluate the search intent for these terms. Check the keywords in the SERP to see if you can switch them out for other terms that better satisfy intent.
The screenshot below is an example of a user journey in STAT. You can see keyword performance by milestone, which makes it easier to make optimizations in batches, which in turn helps you work more efficiently.
As your content grows, so too will your user journey map
User journey mapping is an ongoing process that requires continuous monitoring and refinement. As you update and add new content to your website, it’s important to regularly review and adjust your user journey map to ensure that it remains aligned with user intent and behavior. I recommend doing this user journey mapping exercise annually to keep your data up-to-date.
The initial research and set up will take time, but the reward is an invaluable resource that you will continue to use and adapt. Plus, you will find deeper insights about your current and potential customers. So, start mapping out your user journey today and take your SEO strategy to the next level!
Grace is a consultant at Brainlabs SEO (formerly Distilled), and has extensive knowledge and experience in SEO fundamentals. She enjoys sharing strategic processes and insights, and has spoken at BrightonSEO and SearchLove. Linkedin