Mastering Search Intent With Brendan Hufford

brendan hufford search intent

Brendan Hufford is the founder of SEO for the Rest of Us, as well as the podcast by the same name. He has a fresh approach to SEO that truly is accessible and understandable by creative entrepreneurs who might just be a few SEO tweaks away from attaining their income goals.

There are several courses you can take, like this one:

SEO rank and convert

One of Brendan’s areas of expertise is his approach to search intent, which is what he’s joining us to talk about today. Listen to this one if you want to make sure the content that you put on your page is matching what customers want from you and read his article on search intent right after. It’s a great way to increase conversions and build trust, things you must do because traffic alone isn’t enough.


The highlights:

  • [1:26] Why the current most common approach to search intent is not helpful.
  • [5:32] Ranking factors.
  • [10:27] Creating high-quality content.
  • [14:44] Marketing funnels vs. customer life cycles.
  • [19:15] Developing a premise for agency marketing. 
  • [23:44] Brendan’s causes.

The insights:

Why the Current Most Common Approach to Search Intent is Not Helpful

Search intent is often broken down into four types: informational searches, navigational searches, transactional searches, or commercial searches.

“I don’t think that’s wrong,” Brendan says, “but I started to feel like that’s not helpful because it doesn’t actually inform what you do. This is an informational search. Okay? So I just put information? And that’s how I rank? Probably don’t.”

To research this theory, Brendan began chasing down links to find out where the original theory of search intent came from. He found a 2007 blog post by Rand Fishkin: Segmenting Search Intent. He said it was brilliant and still correct, but he wanted to make that more accessible.

How do we give people something they can actually use? What the heck do we put on the page?”

To get to the bottom of that answer, Brendan began talking about levels of awareness, a term that goes back to the old school advertising era.

For more on this, see “Creating High Quality Content,” below.

Taking Ranking Factors Into Consideration

Brendan would also survey the top 10 results for several search terms.

“The quality of content is not a ranking factor anymore. I was reading about marketing things. Half [the articles] were unintelligible. There was no narrative to take you through. You could tell each of the sections was based on people also asked. Literally, imagine you think you’re sitting down to a 10-course meal and they’re just throwing random food at you the whole time. Here’s your salad, here’s dessert, here’s a pizza, a piece of chicken: there’s nothing that makes it flow. There’s no craft of writing here.”

He says that this stuff ranks because of backlinks, not because of content quality.

“Yet the same thing that gets you ranking really well and mastering the search intent is kind of also the stuff that makes you stand out when you do outreach when it gets shared. Nobody wants to share another article of The Top 12 Digital Marketing Skills for 2021. But people will share: These 3 Digital Marketing Skills Literally Saved My Life.

He ran the search on “digital marketing skills” and got some dismal results.

digital marketing SERP

“Nobody wants a listicle. What’s going on? It’s just people copy-catting each other.”

So he looked at the Google auto-complete for “digital marketing skills.” When he did it, he saw: “Digital marketing skills 2021,” “digital marketing skills for resume,” “digital marketing skills employers want to see.” 

*Because of Google’s search personalization, not everyone will see these results.

“Oh. That’s the intent. These are people trying to change their lives. You don’t get that by hopping into Ahrefs and doing keyword research. You get that by thinking like a copywriter doing really good audience research. Understand: what does somebody really want when they’re Googling this? Did you spend time thinking about what this person really wanted?”

So, How Do You Create High-Quality Content?

For Brendan, creating high-quality content means bringing in subject matter experts.

“Otherwise, your crap sounds like the same crap that was written by a Jr. Content Specialist at whatever SaaS company. It’s awful. They don’t know anything. You don’t know anything. You’re just farming it out. That’s where you get that sea of sameness.”

He suggests adding a search intent section to the content brief.

“Let’s talk about levels of awareness.”

The first is “problem aware.”

“Are they Googling a problem they have? A pain?” He used back pain as an example. “I know I have a pain. I’m just Googling it to see what’s out there. In that article, in that piece of content, just show you get their pain. Deeply empathize with them.

Don’t try to get them to book a demo. Don’t try to get them to call. They probably don’t want to subscribe for your stupid opt-in bribe, your lead magnet, right? Just show them you get their pain and move them into the second article.”

The second article is for the “solution aware” stage.

“That would be a search like yoga for back pain. I’m now Googling my problem plus a potential solution. And they need to know how your solution solves their pain.

They already know yoga could be a help for back pain. Cool, but how does my style of yoga solve their pain?

All you have to do in that article is good product marketing. Show them how your solution works.”

Brendan calls Ahrefs out as a company that has good product marketing in pieces like these. See how they do it in this piece: 3 Marketing Strategy Examples You Can Use to Create Your Own or check out the screenshot below.


“By the end of the article, I can’t solve my pain without your solution. After you’ve shown them how your solution works, move them to another article. Now they know how your solution solves their pain.

It’s time for product aware. Now they’re Googling: Garrett’s Yoga for Back Pain. Right? This is how it ties in with the search intent, but it’s just good customer lifecycle marketing. It does a lot of people. Your salespeople can use this content. Everybody. It makes you more valuable to the organization. It’s not just SEO content. Third-level deep, you just have to prove you’re the best option.

Now you can write an article about how Brenden cured his back pain with yoga. It’s really about your yoga system and how I used it.”

Finally, go fourth level deep. 

“You just show them the deal. Here’s how much it costs. Here’s how to get going with it. I think those things are a better match for the actual human heart of hearts intent of search vs. kind of high level – they want some information.”

Distinguishing Marketing Funnels vs. Customer Life Cycles

Marketing funnels, according to Brendan, are an outdated way to think about the entire process of drawing customers in. 


“Just think about it in terms of a life cycle, more of a circular thing vs. inputs and outputs.

I think the way I would execute on it if I was an agency and I was doing content, I’ve had really great experiences having outside people work on the content, subject matter experts both within the client-side or hiring someone: Hey, you wrote about, hey, that was a great article you wrote on Tech Crunch, do you freelance?

Spoiler: everybody does. Everybody freelances.

Very rarely are they like: No, I’m really happy not making more money for the work I already do. They’re already an SEM, it takes the burden off the agency. The agency [becomes] a neutral intermediary.”

In that, if the client doesn’t like the writer the agency can say, fine, we’ll find someone new.

He also cautions about being too quick to move to the call to action in content pieces.

“I talked about empathy and showing them how your solution works. A lot of times you’ll have a solution-aware article and they don’t mention their product at all, but at the end, it’s like: Register for a demo.

Why would they? Wait, what? There’s a big misalignment.”

He also talks about the fact that many “strategies” aren’t so strategic.

“A lot of people I’ve worked with tend to go for big traffic. They do the old school: get all their keywords from a tool, they sort the columns from most traffic and lowest keyword difficulty. That’s like: Boom, boom, boom, just knock them out.

That’s not really a strategy. It can work. But what you end up with is you’re just going after traffic numbers, not actual business.

Let’s instead take all our keywords and sort them by levels of awareness. And then start with the things closest to the money.”

By this, he means starting with the content pieces that are at the end of the customer journey.

He also suggests having all of your pricing on the website, right where customers can find them, without forcing them to go to a salesperson first. If you do custom quotes, he suggests going ahead and putting your pricing strategy on the page and then letting people know you will give them a quote.

Developing a Premise For Agency Marketing

Garrett asked for Brendan’s strategy for agencies who want to market their own company.

“Have a premise. Make a show instead of making a podcast. You can’t just copy the tactics.

Hot Ones works. We’re going to ask hotter and hotter questions as we eat spicier wings. Because it’s on a channel called First We Feast, which is the intersection between pop culture and food. And all their shows tie in pop culture and food. And it works.

You can’t just do Hot Ones + Marketing Questions. It doesn’t work. It’s not part of your premise.”

He says often marketers are tempted to copy things that they know work.

“You end up with a very hollow product. You get 10 episodes and nobody cares. Why are we doing this? That’s a big thing you have to establish for your premise.”

He says that SEO For Everyone has a premise: The only way to win at SEO long term is to become somebody’s favorite. 

“So how do we become their favorite blog to read? How do we become their favorite blog to write for? How do we become their favorite most shareable resources that they bookmark? How do we become their favorite passively?

You can explore so many things, and it’s all under this premise.”

He also says it’s vital to show off your talent, though if you do that you have to keep that talent so that you’re not having to change the website in six months. He also says this works better if you’ve made sure your talent is more than a bunch of white guys. 

For examples of how to do this, he suggests following Carrie Rose on Twitter.

What’s your right now cause?

Brendan is passionate about diversity in the marketing industry

“Anything I can do to promote that, I will. I will use my platform for it, I’m currently using your platform for it. I’m a sponsor of WomenInTechSEO. SEO for the Rest of Us pays them money to do what they do because we believe it’s very important.” 

He’s concerned about anybody who has been gaslit or excluded by the SEO industry.

“Marketing can’t change the world. Marketing reflects the world. But the script is flipped. Marketing runs the world.

If the only ones telling brand stories are of one gender, one ethnicity, that’s problematic. That’s not what our world looks like. It’s also not the most effective way to work. That’s something I’m extremely passionate about.”

Connect with Brendan Hufford

Want more of Brendan’s insights? 

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Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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