In Shopping Search, Keywords Are The End, Not The Beginning

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Imagine you are working at a flourishing brick-and-mortar electronics store. It’s a typical autumn Sunday and a customer walks in. He approaches the counter and says “television.” That’s it. You are not sure what the customer is looking for based on that vague term so you are forced to guess by looking for clues.

You look at his watch and phone to see if he might be an early adopter and might therefore be seeking the latest and greatest television; you check for a wedding ring to see if he wants a TV for his family room or a screen for his bachelor pad. You judge his overall clothing and attire to guesstimate an appropriate price range. Based on your findings, you showcase some of your products that you believe are a match for this consumer’s need.

Thankfully, this rarely ever happens in brick-and-mortar stores. Most consumers come to the counter with a wealth of information from family size and budget to viewing habits and feature requests, and they ask questions to find the right product.

Searchers Provide Fairly Limited Information

However, when you take this to search, things do often start out with a single word like “television” or “gaming TV.” Consumers that searches with those short keywords does actually have a real-world question to ask. They have a need or demand and are seeking further information — so how can they get it?

Many marketers believe (erroneously) that consumers start their search journey with a robust, hearty key phrase, but when you look at what they put into the search box (your digital sales counter) that turns out not to be true.

Yes, consumers start with a long-form question or a specific need and then, based on learned behavior or laziness, they shrink that elaborate question down to a single, brief phrase (perhaps two or three words) to search for it.

So when I really want to ask, “What is the best TV in the Boston area that supports high frame rates for gaming and costs under $1,000?” I go to Google, and in the best case, type in “Cheap gaming TVs Boston,” or in the more common case, simply “gaming TVs.”

So how does anyone get back relevant results? And why do consumers think they’ll find them without asking the question? Seen through the consumer lens, Google is really a question and answer tool that has its own intent interpretation engine.

Intention & Interpretation

Google tries very hard to deliver the desired results. It does a fairly good job of taking someone’s behavioral data, location, and history and interprets their words into an actual question. This happens a lot in any search where Google thinks the user has a local intention.

For example, if I type in the keyword “pizza” Google believes that I am asking a location-specific question. That leads to Google taking my location data and mixing it with local business results. That type of intent translation results in the example you see below.

Pizzas SERP

Brands Need Intent To Be Found On Google

Google establishes intent for a lot of different queries because it is a question and answer engine and an intent translator. In a world where consumers reduce their question to a few words in a search box, Google tries to establish intent and translate those words back into a question (and gives them the best darn search results).

Targeting & Optimizing Against Words

So here’s my question: why are marketers still trying to target and optimize against words?

Yes, consumers are in a word/phrase-centric state of mind when using Google; and no, they tend not to ask the full question they would of a human salesperson. But I believe that in order for brands to win in the eyes of Google and provide the right answer to the consumer, we need to understand what their actual question is — their full intention.

We know that it is not “television”— it is a specific model or type or meets certain needs. In the shopping and e-commerce world, where retailers live and die on closed sales, it is critical to start thinking differently about search data and strategy (especially as that important holiday season approaches).

1. Don’t Start With The Keyword — Consider Questions

I see it every day: a client tells us, “I want to win on [shampoo].” But what does that actually mean? Think of the brick-and-mortar store — what detailed question was the consumer asking the sales rep? You need to put yourself into the mind of your consumer and understand why he/she is typing in [shampoo]; what were they really looking for?

You just can’t win in search by trying to reach everybody that typed in [shampoo]– it is impossible if you’re coming at it from this perspective. Instead, you need to do the research and think about your consumers; then consider, “if they walked up to a store clerk, what might they ask them?” Once you have that list of questions, then you have your starting point for a great search strategy.

2. The Right To Win

Once you have clarified the questions, you need to determine which of these questions your brand has the right and authority to answer. Your shampoo brand could answer questions about how to paint a garage without getting color on your hair. But does the brand really have the right to win on painting or home improvement tips?

Of course not, so make sure you are addressing specifically what matters to your customer. And most importantly, will search engines and consumers see it as a trusted source? I am sure the handyman that looked at it was not in the mindset of shampoo shopping or comparison. So when you are evaluating these questions, make sure you have the right to win.

3. Define Measurements

Now that we have defined our questions and determined we have the right to win, we need to define what success looks like for these questions.

Let’s say we are selling laundry detergent and decided we want to win on questions like “How do I remove grass stains?” or “What is the best laundry detergent for cold water wash?”

Both of these questions have a very different intent; the first one is focused on providing information, so success could mean someone looked for this information, we provided the answer and then they left. Guess what; that’s success (even with it being a 100% bounce rate). However, the second question should lead to a sale or coupon download, as the consumer is looking for product purchasing information.

Success will be measured in conversions or coupon downloads. As you can see, different questions will have different measurements, but as long as you can tie it back to real-world business results and behavior, you can create a powerful and meaningful way of measuring success.

4. Refine/Research Questions

Here is where the keywords come in. Start performing some searches based on the questions. We often ask family members or non-search people to search for “What is the best car for off-road driving” or “What is the most affordable 4k TV.”

By observing non-search practitioners and the ways they translate the questions, you can get a good idea of the eventual keywords users will use to ask questions.

For example, if I ask my wife to search for a shampoo that will not make our little girl cry, she searches for [no tear shampoo].  Although my question is long, my wife  has a very specific intent, and translates it down to its core.

You should also closely monitor the results Google is returning for these queries; as an intent engine, Google does not always return what you would expect for some searches, especially when the search term could have multiple meanings. For example, look at the results when I search for “short cuts”:

Shortcuts SERP

Google provides me with three types of information. Primarily, it thinks I am interested in the movie called Short Cuts, and it also offers me image search results via the blended search as well as Microsoft Windows keyboard shortcuts.

This is a clear example where Google is not quite sure what your intent is. So when looking at the possible results pages, make sure Google is interpreting the intent correctly and adjust your strategy accordingly.

5. Provide Answers

We’ve defined our questions and asked them — now it’s time to think about the answers. This is a challenging stage for a lot of search marketers. They want to optimize the content against keywords, and put the right anchor tags, headers and links in place, and while all of this should be done, it should never be the primary objective; the primary objective should be answering the consumer’s questions – developing  the messaging that answers those questions.

And believe me, if consumers are asking questions through keywords, and you provide authoritative answers to these questions, your answers will perform well in search and you will get the reach you want.

I know that some of this might seem counter-intuitive for some (probably a lot) of search marketers, but as we all know, Google is less and less about keywords, and much more about intent and questions. If we start to focus on what questions our consumers would ask about the product and category, then we can create powerful marketing messages and content that will lead to success.

And trust me on that, if you provide authoritative content on a topic that you have the right to win in, Google will rank your content; and if it’s engaging, viral and relevant, it will rise to the top, even if you don’t have the search query (keyword) embedded in it 60 times.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Benjamin Spiegel is the CEO of MMI Agency, a Houston-based brand activation agency that has been serving Fortune 500 clients since 1986. A digital advertising veteran with extensive experience in advertising, media, data, and technology, Benjamin has developed highly successful marketing campaigns for numerous global brands. Prior to joining MMI Agency, he was the VP of Innovation at Catalyst/GroupM, a WPP agency, where he managed the P&G business.

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