Searcher task accomplishment (STA) is the next big thing in search marketing.
Or is it?
Yes, it’s a new phrase. But it’s not a new concept. In fact, it’s been around for years.
Essentially, STA is another way of saying ‘user experience architecture’, or UX.
It’s about understanding what your user is trying to achieve when they come to search, rather than looking solely at the search term they use.
In this post, we’ll explore what STA is and how to flip it on its head for more effective STA marketing.
What Is Searcher Task Accomplishment?
Rand Fishkin did an awesome job of describing this in a Whiteboard Friday.
STA centers on seeing the user’s end goal; if they search for [how to get a book published], they want to know how to do that.
Simple, right? It’s about knowing the user’s reason for searching, not just what they type in the search box.
Fishkin also goes into a bit more detail about the options of STA, these being:
- Expression of need (the search query)
- Underlying goals (why they’re searching)
- Evaluation of results (when they look at the SERPs)
- Selection (when they click on one result)
- Evaluation of task completion (when they do what they wanted to do… or not…)
- Identification of additional needs (when they find new things they need to know now)
The majority of searchers will follow this journey.
And as Google’s own understanding of user behavior, derived from massive amounts of data in Chrome and Android, continues to evolve, the job of an SEO is increasingly about better serving the user – because that’s what Google’s trying to do, too.
Traditional Use of STA Insight
So the traditional approach to using this STA insight is as follows:
- Identify your target keywords
- Explore related keywords associated with completion of that goal
- Create content
The issue here is that many SEO pros will be making a choice between what best meets the searcher’s requirements and what helps them to deliver ROI. They have to choose to drive conversions, or rankings.
And that shouldn’t be the case.
Goal-First STA Optimization
What if we flip this on it’s head?
Rather than looking at where the user starts their journey, let’s look at where we want it to finish.
Let’s make our website/product/service the answer to their query.
Here’s how that works in practice.
Let’s say we start a new business selling ski gear. It’s logical to think we want to sell to people interested in skiing.
So we start our research with an analysis of existing ski brands and build out a huge list of target keywords relating to all things ski.
There are hundreds if not thousands of search queries relating to ski gear and to skiing more broadly. If we’re just going after traffic, we could choose any one of those and start creating some awesome content to rank for that term. It’s a great strategy and opens you up to an audience of people interesting in skiing.
But it’s not necessarily going to help you achieve your business goal.
Instead, let’s look at what we’ve actually got to sell.
In our imaginary shop, our off-piste range is a core part of our offering so we really want to focus on selling those, because we know it’s a less competitive part of the market, we have a great range and there are good profit margins, too.
Now we’re bringing commercial insight into our strategy, and deciding to focus on the off-piste range of products.
We re-run our keyword analysis and we focus in on keywords relating to off-piste ski products – like ‘off piste skis’, ‘off-piste ski boots’ and so on.
Now we’ve got a much smaller list of keywords, but it’s also much more relevant to our business goal of selling off-piste ski products.
Let’s bring in the STA insight here. Knowing we want to rank for ‘off-piste skis’, we can optimize a page(s) for that term, and also explore the search queries that would lead people to that term.
Working backwards from the end goal of ‘buying off piste skis’, queries along that journey might include ‘what are the best skis to use off-piste’, ‘what is off piste skiing’ and ‘advanced ski skills’.
We can then incorporate those terms into our targeting strategy too, utilising the STA insight to ensure we meet the user’s need along the way, while also helping them along that conversion path.
In this way, we end up creating content which is not only serving the user intent, but it’s guiding that user to our end-goal too – namely, selling more of our product or service.
This is all based on the idea that, while we all want to best serve the user intent, we can’t all be experts in everything.
By choosing to specialize in the things we’re actually good at and investing in creating optimized user journeys that lead to the purchase of those things, we stand a much better chance of our SEO efforts having a tangible impact on our bottom line.
Searcher Intent & the Conversion Funnel
It’s not just a solid understanding of user intent that should shape our strategy. We can make this even more powerful by laying in conversion funnel insight, specifically by categorising queries according to conversion stage.
Taking the example above, let’s say our ski brand ranks for a wide range of ski based queries (because we’ve done some pretty awesome SEO already) and we know we’re receiving traffic for all these juicy terms like:
- Learn to ski off piste
- What are the best skis to wear off piste?
- Buy off piste skis online
- New season off piste skis
We can categorize these terms according to where they are in the conversion funnel:
- Awareness: Becoming aware of the product/service/brand
- Education: Understanding why they need the product/service/brand
- Conversion: Getting them to buy the product/service/brand
- Retention: Encouraging loyalty
In the awareness section would fit keywords like ‘learn to ski off piste’; education would be ‘what are the best skis to wear off piste’; conversion would be ‘buy off piste skis online’; retention would be ‘new season off piste skis’.
By cross referencing search query to funnel point, we can start to structure even more effective journeys, where each step of that journey takes the user closer to the conversion.
Rather than creating a hub of content on how to learn to ski off piste, we’d want to internally link that content to related searches that serve the intent and progress the user through the conversion journey – so we avoid creating non-converting pages and instead see users following the paths we’ve laid for them, meaning every page plays an important role in reaching the business’ goals.
Feeding the Funnel by Creating Intent
This is all good, providing there are searchers out there who want what you have to offer.
But what if, like many companies, you’re offering something that isn’t necessarily already in the public consciousness?
We never knew we “needed” iPhones before Steve Jobs made them, and you may be selling something that people don’t know they need until they get it. What then?
This is where top of the funnel channels like PR and content marketing come into their own. These channels are all about creating intent by feeding that “awareness” portion of the funnel.
Basically, they should focus on creating the need in the market for SEO and lower funnel channels like PPC and CRO to then fulfill.
As an example, one of our clients sells water softeners – which have an array of benefits to their users and the homes they’re installed in.
While the SEO strategy focuses on responding to searcher need and moving users through the conversion funnel very successfully, the PR and content strategy is therefore to create that need in the first place – achieved through campaigns like that which landed our client in Harper’s Bazaar as the next big anti-ageing product, or the one that recognised the softener as a dry skin treating device.
In every case, the PR and content strategy hones in on a specific use case, highlighting the benefit and showcasing it to encourage increased search interest and to drive the intent.
How to Do It
Though the nuances of STA optimization are many and varied, there are some basic concepts that will help you better understand your audience and apply that insight to your SEO work.
The first step to effective STA optimization is to understand your audience.
Like, really understand them.
We’re not talking your traditional keyword research style understanding, letting Google’s Keyword Planner or the like show us how many people search for a term and using that as the basis of our strategy.
No, no. Rather, we’re talking about taking a very human approach, combining data analysis (funnel analysis, landing page analysis, engagement tracking on a page level) with real human interaction, such as customer surveys, social media analysis, focus groups, and user testing.
It’s much more closely related to user experience architecture and less to SEO, in many ways.
What we want to extract from this is the answer to one question:
“Why do people buy from us/our client?”
Why is it that people want to install a water softener in their home, or buy off piste skis, or invest in SEO services? What specifically drives them to choose our brand over any other?
User Goal Mapping
You should be able to map each one of these goals against a product/service or a specific facet of your product/service.
If users buy water softeners because they want less limescale in their home, that maps clearly to one of the core features of that product.
If users buy from you because they want a stronger ROI on their AdWords campaigns, that maps perfectly against your high-ROI AdWords service offering.
In this way, the end point of the user journey is always one of your products/services. You are the answer to their query.
User Journey Architecture
The next step is all about joining the dots between what the user originally wants, and the end point they get to (i.e., your product or service).
What are the steps they need to take to get from point A to point B, and therefore what do you need to do to help them along that journey?
That could be as simple as targeting a specific keyword and creating some great content around it.
Or it could be more complex, such as putting on webinars to answer questions that typically crop up at one of the steps, winning awards to differentiate you from other providers, or using remarketing ads to bring people back to a particularly challenging part of the funnel.
Whatever your tactic, it’s all about helping to join the dots between the searcher’s initial intent and the end point conversion.
SEO will continue to evolve, but by keeping our focus on what searchers want, as well as what we’re trying to achieve, we can ensure we continue to drive tangible value and grow our business’ bottom line.
More SEO Resources: