Search, both organic and paid, can be a very focused way to reach your customers, but in formulating a keyword strategy, both user intent and the language they use should always be considered. Anthony Contoleon shows us why.

In any organisation with a website, someone has received an email a little like this. It would have been sent from a Gmail address, and the letters ‘S E O’ are in the subject. The copy would mention whitehat, search, optimisation, link building and sometimes there would be a line a little like this: “Your site only ranks 12th for ‘keyword'”; ‘keyword’ being a single word that relates to your industry. There are a lot of variations on this theme, that try a lot of different approaches, but they all fail to make one point. Why is ranking for that one search term worth paying for?

Generic industry or product terms can deliver a lot of traffic and attention, and can also mean the site will rank for other relevant long tail terms. But if the traffic these terms bring does not convert to paying customers, then where is the return? There is little point in investing in a high profile search term just for the sake of it because when it comes to sales, not all searches are equal.

Ranking for ‘bedding’ and ‘tablecloths’

In February the New York Times published an article on J.C. Penney, a large retailer, and their online store. At the time ranked near the top in Google for terms such as ‘bedding’, ‘dresses’, ‘skinny jeans’ and a number of other general short searches. An SEO professional interviewed by the New York Times confirmed that J.C. Penney’s rankings were partially the result of linking practices that violated Google’s guidelines. Shortly after the story was published, the J.C. Penney site was penalised and disappeared from search for many generic product terms.

Losing ranks on those general terms in Google cost J.C. Penney traffic and, it was assumed at the time, sales. At least until the first quarter’s figures were released. For the first quarter of 2011 J.C. Penney actually reported a 6.6% increase in online sales, and during the controversy surrounding their problems with Google, their share price was largely unaffected.

Why was J.C. Penney able to perform strongly online even after losing their high rankings for high traffic, high visibility general product terms? Maybe those terms were not the most important source of customers. After all, typing ‘skinny jeans’ into Google does not automatically mean the searcher is about to buy a pair.

The Most Customers, not Hits, Wins

A paper called ‘A Taxonomy of Web Search’ categorised search queries into a number of groups based on the searcher’s apparent intent. The three groups described in the paper were:

The search ‘bedding’ could be any of these, and still not represent an interest in sheets. A more specific query like ‘white queen bed sheets’ can either be Informational or Transactional, whilst a search for ‘specials white queen bed sheets’ is almost certainly a Transactional query, and the searcher is probably close to spending money. The search terms a consumer uses signal intent and knowledge. More specific searches tend to convert at a greater rate, and hint at a greater knowledge of the product.

In the campaigns I manage for Greyhound Australia, there is always a marked difference, especially in the conversion rate, between those using general travel terms and those who are using specific route, product and price related words in their searches. General terms tend to be used in Informational searches, and rarely convert on that visit. Transactional searches are usually very specific and include additional information such as product names, dates or locations, depending on what is being sold. Navigational searches such as brand or in some cases specific product terms are often return visitors using search as a de facto bookmarking service.

The words people enter into a search engine are a very clear indication on where they are with regard to information evaluation and purchase decision. Search, both organic and paid, can be a very focused way to reach your customers, but in formulating a keyword strategy, both user intent and the language they use should always be considered and incorporated. In paid search, general terms can also bring you into direct competition with other industries chasing a different audience. The traffic you can get from a broad term like ‘bedding’ will be high, but it won’t include just the people who want to buy sheets.

BY Anthony Contoleon ON 29 July 2011
Online marketing coordinator, Aspedia Australia.
My day job involves online marketing and running on caffeine. The rest is spent maintaining a few blogs on things I find interesting about the internet, online marketing and coffee.