Being blinded by keywords is easy. Work on a site for some time, and you come to know the broad patterns of incoming keywords inside out. You can work so hard at creating relevant content, and building good inbound links, you become blind to what the searchers actually intended when they were searching.
Accepted wisdom has it that terms like “digital camera for sale” or “Indian cooking course” are high-value with clear intent. You can tell someone wants to buy a digital camera or learn to cook Indian food. You can sell these as goods and services, meaning they’re high-value terms.
So you take a term with a clear ‘buying’ intent, and create a page dedicated to those keywords (and perhaps a few variations). You optimize the on-page content and create some inbound links with the relevant anchor text. You start ranking well for that term and long-tail variations of it. The page sells a product or service that matches the term.
That’s keyword nirvana, right?
Well, not always. I’ll illustrate why not with one of my own recent searches.
Searching to buy something I didn’t want
A relative of mine is suffering from extreme back pain. To help her walk around the house, I thought about getting a Zimmer frame. So I did some searches for “Zimmer frame hire” and buy “Zimmer frame”.
Sadly, it was a weekend and nowhere nearby was open. When I came back soon after to visit, my relative had a wheeled walking frame. That was exactly what I had wanted to get. It had wheels and two trays and was so much more suited to helping my relative get about than a fixed metal frame. But I’d just dived in and searched, leaving a wake of buy “Zimmer frame” –type keywords in the analytics reports of several sites.
So here’s the lesson with keyword intent – you’re not trying to match your page to the keyword. You’re matching the page to the need behind the keyword. And searchers will not make it easy for you. If I was an SEO for the sites I visited, it would be very easy to see my buy “Zimmer frame” searches in analytics reports and go:
Buy “Zimmer frame” is a transactional query, as it demonstrates unambiguous intent to buy a Zimmer frame. I’ll optimize a page which sells Zimmer frames with Zimmer-frame related keywords.”
Where what I should really ask:
“What could a person who searches for buy “Zimmer frame” need?”
Perhaps they’re utterly convinced that a Zimmer frame is the right solution to their mobility needs. But very often, they won’t be, so you’ll need to present them with more solutions. Your challenge as an SEO is to optimize for both situations.
Asking beyond the keyword, figuring out needs
As with all things SEO, talking to people at the sharp end is essential. Members of good sales teams know the vocabulary that people use and what they mean by it. Most industries have a few terms that people associate with them, even if they’re somewhat misconceived. For example, if you offer highly practical self-defence classes, you may need to grab the searches for “karate class in [my town]”. Even if your classes owe little or nothing to karate, it might be the first thing people think of when they want to learn self defence.
Sometimes, the need can be more subtly different. A search for “grammar and punctuation course” might be motivated by a desire for generally improved writing. But the first thing a searcher thinks of is “grammar and punctuation”. It’s one of the major focuses of writing education at school, and so it’s ingrained into people. These are the sort of subtleties that many people outside of an industry will miss.
You can never afford to think of potential customers as using the ‘wrong’ search terms. But you can never assume they always have a clear idea of what they want, either.
Always ask yourself (and if you’re not intimately familiar with the business, a member of sales) what did the person searching need? And you’ll stop being blinded by keywords, seeing them as talismans of pure intent, and recognize them for what they are: the often confused, imperfect manifestations of somebody’s needs.