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The Message Is: Keywords Are Just Needs

February 17, 2012 · 5 comments

in SEO

Long Tail Keywords for SEOBeing 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.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Preston Schumacher February 17, 2012 at 8:09 pm

hey Kostas,

not trying to blow smoke up your you know what, but this is one of the best posts I’ve ever read on keywords.

I took away so many golden nuggets from this that I feel I should pay you for this information 🙂

finding the needs behind keywords that I try to optimize is something that I have been missing a bit. You’re definitely right when you say people focus solely on the keyword way too much.

While having the correct words optimized on your site is important, if you don’t have the content the searchers are looking for then it is all wasted effort in the end.


Jacob Funnell February 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Hey Preston,

Really glad to hear you liked my post.

It’s really easy to forget that when you’re dealing with human beings, complete understanding is impossible. Humans are difficult to predict and driven by innumerable causes at the same time. That’s why the best marketers always test and learn, and are always thinking about the users/searchers. Keyword research can give us an illusion of how easy it is to match our site to our potential customers.

The first question people ask when coming on to a site is not ‘is my keyword here?’. It’s ‘am I in the right place?’.


Michael February 18, 2012 at 7:39 pm

I think this post tells why it’s important to focus on a particular market instead of trying to set up a bunch of thin, keyword specific domains. These are real people searching on the internet for solutions to their problems, not a keyword manufacturing machine.

People type in wrong spellings all the time or they think a word means one thing and in reality it means another but they only find that out after they have done some searching online. And those search results are still tabulated.

A great post and a clear explanation of how real keyword research is done.
Michael recently posted..A Sign From the UniverseMy Profile


Jacob Funnell February 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Thanks for that! As I said in a comment above, our real job is to make people think they’re in the right place for whatever it is they want.

Getting searchers to get to you by optimizing for the right keywords is the first step, not the last.


Perry Davis February 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Excellent illustration that the message is important more than just keywords The message must help the visitor to see why this is the place they need to be. Thanks for reminding us to keep this question, what did the person searching need?, at the forefront when optimizing pages.


Perry A Davis Jr
Music City
Perry Davis recently posted..Network marketers what is your most valuable ammunition for improving your relationships?My Profile


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