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When Keywords Don’t Deliver

Nick Usborne
When Keywords Don’t Deliver Nick Usborne

If you’ve been working with keyword optimization for a while, you know there are times when some great keywords drive tons of traffic to your site, but the resulting conversion rate is terrible.

I have spent many an hour scratching my head, wondering how it is that I’m pulling in tons of visitors with a very relevant keyword or phrase, but just not getting the results I was hoping for.

After all, relevant keywords are meant to do the job. Right?

The keywords people use can be misleading...

Let me talk this through with an example.

Let’s say I’m tired to the bone and need to take a couple of weeks off. I just want to lie back in the sun, feel the warmth of the sand, sip on some ridiculous tropical drink and relax.

As it happens, a neighbor just returned from Mexico and says the beaches are great. So I go to Google and type in “mexico beaches.”

I am delivered a lot of results. They all look much the same, so I click on the top one. What do I get? I get to see some vast, ugly warehouse of a hotel just south of Cancun.

I’m disappointed. So what went wrong? Google did its job. The people optimizing the pages for the hotel did a good job. But I didn’t get what I wanted.

We optimize for the brain, not for the heart.

And that’s a mistake.

Here’s what happens. When we optimize, we optimize for two audiences... search engine spiders and readers. If we do a good job, we write in a way that appeals to both audiences.

However, because we have the spiders to consider, we take a pretty left-brain approach. Spiders are very logical, and people can be logical too... so it seems to make sense.

But if you have anything to do with sales, you know that in most cases, people buy as much with their hearts as they do with their minds.

Even your prospect conspires against him or herself.

Let me take you back to my computer as I figure out what to type into the Google search box.

I typed in “mexico beaches.” But that’s not really what I wanted. If I had typed in a phrase that was true to what I wanted I would have typed, “I’m tired to the bone and want somewhere warm and sandy where I can lie down and relax.” Well, I just tried that and got zero results.

That’s not how search engines work and, as a user of search engines, I know that. So even though I have an emotional need to relax and drink that silly drink, when I use a search engine, I do some pre-filtering in my mind, because I have a sense of how search engines work. And I know I need to feed Google some specifics if I want anything close to a relevant result.

What is a search engine writer to do? I think there are a couple of things you can do.

First, create more landing pages.

Don’t drive “cancun hotels,” “mexico beach hotels,” “mexico beaches” and “beach hotels” all to the same landing page.

Consider each keyword carefully. Understand that there could be a significant difference in the needs of a reader who types “mexico beaches” as opposed to “cancun hotels.”

As it happens, there are some beautiful, quiet beaches quite close to Cancun. You can still get that customer. But first, satisfy the need he or she actually has -- a place to relax. Then sell him or her on the hotel room that is only a short bus or cab drive away.

Second, appeal to the heart.

People are not search engine spiders. They don’t follow logical paths. They don’t think, “Hmm, this page is very relevant to the keyword I just entered, and they did a good job of getting my attention by repeating my keyword in the page headline. No doubt about it, I’ll book a room in the delightful Kram-em-In Hotel right away.”

People don’t buy with their heads. They buy with their hearts. At least, that’s how it starts out. We see something, our heart says, “I want it!” And then we use our heads to persuade ourselves that it’s a good and reasonable idea.

Write like a good direct marketer.

Direct marketing copywriters understand the heart thing. At least, the good ones do.

So when you build that landing page for folks like me who type in “beach hotels,” don’t open the page with copy like:

Just minutes away from the Kram-em-In Hotel, this beach offers sailing, wind-surfing and scuba-diving from 9:30 to 4:30.

Save that for the spiders, and the "more details" section of the page.

If you want to appeal to my emotions, write something more like:

Imagine the hot sand between your toes, a cool breeze coming in off the sea, and the warmth of the tropical sun on your skin. Best of all, imagine leaving your watch and cell phone locked away in your hotel safe.

Does that sound a little soft and soppy to you? Maybe you are too much in cynical-marketer mode. That is precisely the kind of copy that makes people say, “Yes!”

First, you reach them in their hearts. Then you give them the information they need for their heads to agree.

Some concluding thoughts...

Optimizing the text on your site pages for the major search engines is a very demanding skill. Until now, a great deal of effort has gone into creating text that appeals to search engine spiders and results in high listing. And that’s a good thing.

However, I don’t think enough effort goes into understanding the human side of optimizing that text. And I believe that higher conversion rates will be achieved as soon as search engine writers understand how to write to the emotional needs of the reader, as well as the logical needs of the spiders.

To appeal to the readers as emotional beings, there are a couple of hurdles to get over.

First, you need to understand that searchers pre-filter their search terms. They don’t type in: “I’d like to earn some more money, maybe part-time from home, but I’m kind of scared and have no idea where to start.” They type in something more like, “home work opportunities.”

A skill we need to develop is to better understand how particular search phrases flag a deep emotional need in the searcher. When we understand more in that area, we will be able to create landing pages that better address those more emotional needs.

Second, search engine writers need to learn some lessons from good direct marketing copywriters. They need to understand that a huge component of any purchase decision is emotional, not rational. And yes, this applies to many business-to-business purchases as well.

Over the last two or three years a huge amount of progress has been made in understanding how to write optimized pages that get high listings in the major search engines.

Our next challenge is to increase our conversion rates by writing those pages in a way that recognizes and addresses the real needs of our readers.

Nick Usborne is a leading authority on the subject of writing for the web. As a speaker, trainer and consultant he has worked with dozens of companies and organizations, including Yahoo!, J. Paul Getty Trust, Intuit, Walt Disney Attractions, Merck & Co and the National Cancer Institute. He is the author of "Net Words," a must-have reference for both copywriters and writers of content online. Information about his speaking, training and consulting services is available through his site. Nick is also the publisher of the Excess Voice Newsletter for web copywriters and content writers.

Lesson 2: Turn the chairs inward (and take a seat)
It's become a marketing cliché: Your consumers are talking, and your brand is the topic of conversation. In an effort to show that they understand this, Skittles decided to bring that conversation to the fore in the guise of its official website, which it replaced with an unsupervised Twitter feed that showed every tweet mentioning the Skittles brand. At the same time, the brand allowed website visitors to switch between its Wikipedia page, YouTube account, and other social media outposts using a simple widget. Within 48 hours, the messages on Twitter were littered with expletives.

Skittle's parent company, Mars, had a great idea, but while it exposed conversations around the brand to the bright, harsh light of day, the company neglected to participate in it.

By participating, Mars could have managed the conversation around its brand, instead of letting it spin out of control. Consider what Pepsi did with the "Pepsi Cooler" on FriendFeed, a social media aggregator now owned by Facebook. Pepsi managed the conversation through multiple social media channels partly by taking a seat at the table and participating as an equal contributor.

Lesson 3: Behave Yourself
My iPhone is the most personal of personal technology devices. It's always on my person, it's always on, and it contains my contacts, calendar, and music; it's my life in my pocket. It makes perfect sense that a smartphone app can be a great way to increase engagement with consumers.

But remember, when in the personal space of your consumers, it's vital that you follow their rules of etiquette. Pepsi released an iPhone application to support its AMP energy drink that was designed to help make male customers more successful with the ladies. The app categorized women into types, and it offered pick-up lines targeted to those types. The backlash was so great that Pepsi yanked the risque app from the App Store and offered a public apology.

Mobile apps have been a great way to create a service out of a brand. Molecular worked with Nikon on an app that helps its consumers take better photos, regardless of whether they own a Nikon camera or not.

When you engage with consumers on their turf, on a device as personal as their mobile phones, make sure that service is helpful. To Pepsi's credit, it admitted the mistake, but it could have been avoided by understanding how far it could take the joke without offending its audience.

Lesson 4: Keep the circle of trust intact
Reaching out to influential bloggers is a great way to generate buzz around a new product launch. The best bloggers will give a fair and honest review of the product, thereby extending the trust that these folks have established with their loyal audience to your brand.

When ASUS reached out to bloggers to review the new Eee PC 901 laptop, it was counting on that trust. But instead of simply letting the bloggers review the product, they made it a competition. They chose six bloggers to write a minimum of three 200-word posts a week about their laptop over the course of four weeks. The blogger with the most readers would win the laptop.

ASUS didn't expect what happened next: The blogger with the most readers wrote a review that, while honest and fair, wasn't exactly favorable to the product. So ASUS changed the rules. Instead of the most readers, the winner of the laptop would be chosen by a vote taken by the six bloggers themselves, resulting in another blogger winning in the end. The readers revolted by posting scathing comments on the announcement of the winner.

Product ratings and reviews work because they are written by the folks consumers trust most: other consumers. When a brand tries to game the system, this breaks the circle of trust. Instead of changing the rules, Asus might have been better off thanking the winner for his review, acknowledging (or defending, when necessary) the product's limitations, and working the feedback into future products.

There are so many new ways of interacting and engaging with consumers today. Their conversation is fragmented, their attention span short, and their tolerance for BS is low. Without well-established roadmaps for success, it is inevitable that we will sometimes fail when attempting to engage with consumers in new and innovative ways. But by learning from failure, we are left with enormous potential to provide exceptional brand experiences that do succeed.

Bryan Maleszyk is an experience design consultant for Molecular.

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