It Starts with the Query not the Page

Bob Dumouchel
Search strategies change frequently necessitating rewrites.
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I am constantly amazed by the search engine optimization (SEO) dialog that centers on page content. Statements like, “I want my page to come up first on the search engine” or “My page is first on Google” are signs that the person just does not understand the challenge. Search engine results start not with the page but with the user query, and that is what we have to understand and manage in order to develop a customer-centric Web strategy.

This is not to say that page design is not important, but to design the page well, you must understand what the user query will be. Without this knowledge, you are designing in the dark and guessing at the answer without even knowing the question. Coming up first on a term that customers do not use has zero business value. It might feed your ego but it will not feed your business. What does have value is to come up when there is an indicator that the person is interested in your product or service. Over the years I have heard many claim that they came up #1 on Google only to find out that according to the best research available, nobody ever searches for the term they are so proud of. The objective of all search engines is to provide quality links based on the user’s query, and this objective serves your marketing. You do not need to beat the search engines-you need to become one with them. Professional advertisers have known for generations that message and timing are essential in effective advertising, and the Web has not changed this rule. The objective is not to come up first; it is to come up first at the right time.

One of the first things you realize as you look at the SEO challenge from this perspective is that SEO is not a cross-industry skill, but rather an industry-focused skill. One size does not fit all and the SEO expert must understand the customers, product benefits, and the industry culture. These are the driving force behind the formation of the query in the mind of the customer, which is the single most important place in marketing. Businesses struggle in expressing benefits rather than features, because they are all wound up on developing or producing the product. For example, the benefit of training is learning. Customers want to “learn” Spanish, not “train” Spanish. “Train” and “learn” are the same concept from different perspectives. “Learn” is what customers want and seek to do, but “train” is what the business does and how it thinks. Therein is the conflict that SEO experts have to deal with every day.

typingsmEveryone wants a simple solution, and we can have it just as soon as people start to be simple. The truth is that people are complex, and if you take 100 customers looking for the same thing, you will likely get at least 10 different queries. If you do not believe me, just watch “Family Feud,” a game show is based on people thinking differently. This game is similar in many ways to the problems that SEO experts face. As an SEO designer, you have to assemble these queries, research their business value, then develop and optimize a web strategy based on that knowledge. The business value of a specific search depends how many people form queries like that, how many click through, and how well they convert to customers. Each phase of this sales pipeline must be considered and managed to get business value from SEO.

So how do people form queries? The answer is, of course, “differently,” with the “80/20 Rule” in full force, with 20% of the queries representing 80% of the volume. But volume is not the only business-value metric in play. For example, in the training business, the term “tutorial” has huge volume but it is of marginal value due to the poor response when searching with this term. When a person is looking for a tutorial, they are expecting to find a free tutorial posted on the Web relative to the “subject” that they appended to the term “tutorial.” That is their mindset, and customer minds are nearly impossible to change. So, while “tutorial” is a high-volume word, the traffic it attracts does not match the product; hence its value is marginalized by poor conversion. Another aspect of this is that broad keywords such as “tutorial” are of limited value for the same reason: poor conversion. In this age, your objectives need to be specific terms that clearly indicate a relationship to your product or service. The volume of traffic is much lower, but it is quality traffic.

Once we have boiled the queries down to our target list, we will need to test our assumptions. This is where Google AdWords can become your best friend. Google gives you more than just traffic. They give you real-world business intelligence. In 15 minutes you can be running a structured marketing test of your theories with real people in the real market. This is market research that 10 years ago would have cost thousands of dollars to conduct and would have taken months to test and compile. Using multiple ads groups, you can test the various search terms for volume and response in just a few weeks. The ad Google presents is not much different than the free listing in the rankings, with both having a hyperlink and a small amount of supporting text. My guess is that AdWords and ranked pages will perform in the same relative response ranges. While this statement cannot yet be proven, it does make common sense that people will respond in similar fashion when the environment is nearly identical, with the exception of the reading zone. You will get different populations in different reading zones, but the response should be consistent on a percentage basis. If you cannot get a reasonable response from Google AdWords, then even if your page does come up, your response rate will be poor. Coming up in the search and earning a Web site visitor are two very different things. There is a conversion factor in play here that you must understand and manage toward.

With properly tested concepts and a base strategy, we can turn our attention to page design and all the complexity that is so common in the SEO discourse. The difference is that with professional research, we know what the objectives are and how to measure them. Page design still has to balance the search engine requirements with the conversion of visitors into customers, but that is an art form discussion for a future article. To finish the loop, the SEO expert must either master those skills or find an expert partner in advertising or public relations to join their team.