21 Nov 2018 21:22 IST

Search strategy: A marketplace approach

Search volumes help pinpoint target keywords, while intent influences web page design and content

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a powerful digital marketing tool. Most practitioners of SEO focus on the arcana of the practice – keyword density, tagging, recursive URLs, and so on. These are important. However, often SEO is implemented after a website has been created, missing out on strategising the search plan, which should be the basis of its implementation.

Moreover, the implementation is performed by technically qualified specialists who, very often, jusy use the material they have and automated tools to take decisions rather than look at consumer behaviour as a key factor. For the most part, this seems to work, as search traffic to the site is robust and digital interactions seem to be happening, but do these beg the questions:

1. Are the interactions creating value in any meaningful way? And,

2. Do visitors have a positive experience?

For example, when visitors arrive at a page from a search request do they interact with the marketer? Do their views on the brand or product and the way it’s marketed become more favourable? These are possible only when the website addresses the needs and wants of visitors, instead of just being a megaphone for the manufacturer.

The search marketplace: Foundation of strategy

Why is search important at all? After all, brand marketers spend large fortunes on advertising to ensure consumers have a favourable purchase intent for a brand. Indeed so. However, in a changing world, consumer needs evolve, marketer communication is not always trusted, and consumers have doubts.

The promise of the Internet is its ability to present transparent information so that users can judge for themselves. Second, even if consumers are aware of brands, it has been amply demonstrated that search is the source of traffic for over 70 per cent of visitors to successful websites.

All strategy is based on a thorough analysis and understanding of the marketplace. In the real world people behave in certain ways, so marketers study consumer behaviour and habits to formulate their strategies. Thus, marketers’ retail strategies are based on the stochastics of awareness, trial and usage in the product market.

In the digital world such measurement has little value, since consumers are not making purchase decisions based on awareness and experience of brands they know of, but based on solutions to requirements or problems they have. So, the marketplace in the digital world is the search environment — search terms, search intent, etc. — and not brand stochastics.

Developing search strategy

The starting point of search strategy is keyword analysis to identify the right set of keywords to optimize the website on. Typically, targeting strategies are based on the keyword volume. The aim being to reach out to as large an audience as possible. This approach misses an important ingredient in search strategy as, while it might lead a visitor to the website, there is no guarantee that the visitor will be satisfied with the visit. And, a dissatisfied visitor is an unhappy one.

To ensure satisfaction, the keyword strategy should be aligned to the visitor’s search intent. Analysis of search traffic has shown that web searches can be classified in three broad groups – informational, navigational and transactional.

To ensure a satisfactory visit to a website, the search strategy should include not only the keyword, but ensure the page visited is designed keeping the search intent in focus. For example, consider a search for ‘cheap running shoes’; the intent is both, informational — cheap shoes — and transactional — potentially purchasing a pair of shoes. It follows, then, that the information should help the visitor decide whether or not the shoe is indeed cheap and, if so, enable purchase. Shown below is a page of a website for cheap running shoes — readers can determine whether or not this will help the visitor and make a meaningful difference to the marketer.

 

Analysing search terms: Unexpected benefits

Analysing thousands of keywords is potentially time-consuming and arduous. To simplify this, keywords can be converted to a word-cloud and categorised in the cloud for intent. This will make the task of matching keywords to intent easier. An example for fabric-washing products is shown below:

 

 

In the above word-cloud, the terms in orange are navigational, as they refer to brands or products, and people are most likely looking to find where they can get them; words in red are transactional, as they relate to processes and people may want to know how to do things; words in green are likely to be informational, as they describe features and characteristics of the fabric-washing products.

This search pattern throws up some interesting insights:

1. The relatively fewer navigational or informational keywords suggest that consumers are likely very familiar with the brands and methods of washing, so optimising a website on these terms is of little value.

2. The larger number of informational keywords are not related to fabric care per se, but point to environmental concerns, safety of use, applicability to newer types of fabrics, and so on.

3. Advertising for most major detergent brands rarely addresses these concerns. This could imply that the digital consumer has different needs and wants, or that the needs and wants in the category, in general, are changing and it would do well for brands to start heeding them, lest they be disrupted.

4. Clustering the informational keywords in a manner aligned to the underlying consumer needs may well lead to a website design and structure different from the one that would be based on a typical advertising brief.

Search intent is a key factor

In summary, therefore:

1. SEO can be far more effective when it is aligned to a cohesive search strategy.

2. Such strategy should be done before the web asset is developed, and not be post facto.

3. Search strategy should examine keyword volume as well as search intent to be meaningful to visitors.

4. Search volume and intent combined contribute to a more satisfied visitor. Search volumes aid in identifying target keywords, while search intent influences the design and content of the web page.

5. Patterns in search terms could signal evolving consumer needs and opportunities.

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