SEO Personas as the foundation for keyword research

The idea of building elaborate customer personas is very popular on design and in various marketing teams, but so few people actually use them in their daily work life that the investment in creating them is hardly worth it. Many times, when companies build out these personas, they go overly deep into developing exactly who these customers might be and all of their character traits.

Personas for SEO

Personas might be passé, but when it comes to SEO I think that some sort of persona research must be the foundation of any good keyword research. Too many people begin a process of keyword research by firing up their favorite keyword tool and then picking keywords off the list with high monthly search volume that are relevant to their business.

Starting with keywords sorted by volume puts the emphasis on the wrong metric and leads to creating content that might not match the intent of a user or the needs of a website. In my opinion, it makes the most sense to prioritize exactly the kind of content that is needed to help a website monetize. Some keyword tools might show this after the content has already been written by doing a “keyword gap analysis” vs a competitor, but it is a lot easier to just determine what content is necessary at the outset.

The easiest way to figure out exactly what content is necessary is to go through a persona exercise to understand exactly how, why and what users want from the website. Only then once the users’ needs are taken into account does it make sense to distill those topics into precise keywords.

Persona research should answer questions such as where in the buying funnel a user might be. This will guide the depth of content a user expects to see. It is also important to understand the devices that a user will be using to access the website. Is it a desktop? A mobile device? Or maybe the user can be served just with a voice enabled device. Knowing this can quickly help decide whether long form or image heavy content is even appropriate.

Before embarking on this effort, it is worth acknowledging that existing personas likely will not be detailed enough for you to use for SEO and it is not a wasted effort to build personas from scratch just for SEO. The current personas that the company might be using will have details that are not necessarily helpful for SEO like age, gender, and career details.

Steps to build SEO personas

With that in mind, here are the best practices on developing personas specifically for SEO.

  • Identify all potential users of a website or product
    1. This is where keyword research as a start of an SEO effort typically falls short. Just because a website or product exists doesn’t mean that users will automatically want to search for it. Taking a step back to think about who the users of the website might be gives a good foundation for what kind of content and keywords to focus on. For example, an ecommerce website might want to target people that have a specific need and the focus of SEO should be on solving that need rather than just optimizing the product page. A SAAS product might have a similar phenomenon and targeting the problem rather than the solution would yield more search traffic.

  • Determine how the users might search based on where they are in the funnel.
    1. Again, traditional keyword research would only identify the popular terms for a vertical but not how the targeted users will search. Users very high in a funnel will be searching for a solution to a problem while users at the very bottom will be looking for the brand plus pricing info.


  • Slot them into the type of content that they might expect.
    1. There is a lot of advice around what kind of content is best for SEO, but none of that advice considers the granular needs of a specific user. If a user wants just a price or a list of features, they will be ill-served by a long form piece of content while a user that wants a detailed product review would similarly not be helped by a quick list of bullets.

  • Match them with a specific call to action that is relevant for the place they are in the buying funnel.
    1. Search traffic is a means to an end and is rarely the end itself. Even on a media site that targets readership, an increasing user count is of no benefit if the users don’t do a follow on engagement action. Where the users are in a buying funnel should determine the appropriate call to action (CTA) for the content. A reader that is very low in the buying funnel might be looking for a way to contact a salesperson while a user high in the funnel should be encouraged to just read more or maybe subscribe to a mailing list. When content is written for users rather than keywords it becomes a lot easier to have a targeted action type for users to take.

  • Classify the types of devices they would be using to access the content.
    1. While we constantly hear the refrain that the mobile web is dominant, this is not necessarily carried forward into executing SEO efforts. If it was, long form content would have fallen by the wayside in favor of short punchy shareable bits. Even though nearly every web user has a mobile device, there are some things that will always be done on a desktop. Buying business software or expensive shopping is probably going to involve a bigger screen somewhere in a buying cycle. Writing content to where the users are in a buying cycle should play a key factor into the screen size they will be potentially using to access the content.

  • As a bonus, pigeonhole them into a precise language or culture for internationalized content
    1. One last thing for sites that have international audiences, its critical to know what language they might expect to see content in and if there are any cultural nuances that should be addressed. What many people that have never done international marketing might not know is that its OK to have just English content for an international audience. They might not expect a translated page, so it is better to just give them content in English that contains the international options they need like shipping or currency. Understanding the users will prevent a website from creating language specific content unnecessarily.

With these best practices in mind, hopefully you will be able to develop SEO specific personas that will guide keyword research. Keyword research like everything in SEO should be targeted at real users – not search engines – and a persona exercise will go a long way into knowing who those real users might be.