Keywords Without Ego

Why is the value of SEO based solely on how well a keyword ranks? While it's hard to ask that without Andy Rooney's voice playing in my head, it's even harder for me to believe that all success should be measured by the improvement of a popular keyword.

High search frequency does not necessarily denote a great keyword. And ranking for a popular term does not a successful campaign make. While search positions give project managers a nice, clean number to report to their CEO, there's more to SEO than just ranking.

SEO involves ranking for the right terms, and campaign metrics should be focused squarely on the bottom line. Let's take a moment to examine the true value of keyword phrases and some common misconceptions surrounding them.

A Snapshot of Keyword Value

For reasons beyond my own recent purchase, the term "digital cameras" provides a fine example of the keyword search process. I used this term in the early stages of camera research, when I needed a quick crash course in mega pixels, anti-aliasing filters, and other digital issues.

Through research, I realized I wanted an "8 mp compact camera," and thus a new search term was born. This term became the divining rod that pointed the way to manufacturers that fit my needs. I eventually settled on the Casio Exilim 8mp, which was also the final keyword used in my digital camera quest.

Following my path to purchase, you can clearly observe three distinct phases -- research, feature search, and brand search -- which used different queries and returned different Web sites. While a camera retailer would want to appear for queries in all three phases, that isn't always realistic due to varying competitors (and levels of site relevancy) for such search results.

Given the choice of only being able to show up for "digital cameras," "8 mp compact camera," or "Casio Exilim 8mp," a savvy retailer would optimize for the final term, the search where the purchase was made. Conversions trump search volume in the world of practical SEO.

Dialing Down the Search Volume

As the popularity of SEO increases, so does the number of people concerned with keyword ranking.

Let's continue with the "digital cameras" keyword. Because this phrase is, perhaps, the broadest term for its segment, it makes sense that it has the highest number of searches. Based on its high search volume, the term becomes the white whale of digital camera Web site owners.

Call me Ishmael, but all of these whale watchers can affect search volume. Google shows roughly 185 million competing pages for the phrase "digital cameras." Suppose that only .05 percent of those pages care how they rank for the keyword. That amounts to roughly 92,500 Web sites. Now let's say that each of those sites has two people who both manually check their rankings three times a week. That's about 2.2 million monthly searches from people who will never buy a digital camera!

This example doesn't even take into account ranking programs that track keyword positions by simulating searches, nor does it take into account people using search to view their paid listings. While my math and assumptions may be off, the "marketer effect" can skew your perception of search volume.

ROI Before Ego

We often present this scenario to clients who understand, but still feel like their site should rank highly for the top search term in their segment. We typically refer to these as "ego words" because, in many cases, it defies basic business logic.

All businesses want to increase revenue, but SEO related decisions aren't always made with revenue in mind. Quite often, people want their sites to show up for highly searched keywords because they think the high visibility will add perceived value to their site and/or brand.

A high rank in Google is somewhat of an endorsement of your brand, but ego words don't always transfer into revenue. And isn't that the point of most client SEO?

What's the Magic Word?

There's an implied belief that each business has a magic keyword that -- if they could just rank for it -- can yield untold search revenue. It sounds farfetched when you say it aloud, but many companies evaluate SEO success by that measure. Typical SEO engagements span the course of a year, and inevitably the end of this timeframe signals the point by which a client expects its site to dominate top keywords.

Not all keywords are valued equally, as competitive data and search frequencies confirm. However, some clients tend to lose sight of this when setting expectations. Certain keywords in a segment can take two to three years of persistent optimization in order to achieve and maintain a high ranking.

Valuing phrases based on conversion helps prioritize the importance of terms and identify keyword rankings to focus on for short-term growth. From a search frequency perspective, these keywords may fall near the bottom of your list, but understanding conversion will help you reevaluate and (hopefully) reconsider them. Lower volume terms are also less competitive, so success can occur in the short term.

Keyword strategies must take both short- and long-term goals into account. If you need your ego words, plan to address them over the course of a few years in conjunction with a revenue-building short-term plan -- namely high conversion terms. While the adage "good things come to those who wait" may apply to top keyword rankings, it doesn't have to apply to profits.

About the author

William Flaiz is vice president of search engine optimization (SEO) and web analytics at Razorfish (formerly Avenue A | Razorfish). In this role, he oversees the firm's global SEO and web analytics practice that services clients across the US, Europe, and Asia.

William manages a staff of more than 30 account services partners, analysts, and strategists, in defining the needs and providing solutions that help clients to measure and optimize their web site investments.

William joined the Philadelphia office of Avenue A | Razorfish in 2002 to establish the web development practice there and, within six months, he led the development of an award-winning healthcare portal for eMedicine. During this time, he managed the creative, user experience, and customer insights groups, growing the revenue and staff dedicated to web development projects, which accounts for approximately 1/3 of the office's revenues today. More recently, William served as vice president of operations for the Philadelphia office, overseeing all agency planning and financials.

William taught classes on web development and the Internet at various universities in Philadelphia, and has served as a judge for the eHealthcare Leadership Awards for the past three years. He has spoken at industry conferences and authored articles for industry publications, including MD Net Guide, the Center for Business Intelligence pharmaceutical series, and the Nashville Advertising Federation.

William earned a B.S. in accounting and finance and MS in information systems from Drexel University.