Asking the Right Questions

  |  August 31, 2010   |  Comments

Questions from the search industry and how to shift their focus in the right direction.

Questions are interesting things. As a society, we like to ask questions. As a father, I’ve watched it start at a young age. The questions start as simple as “Why is the sky blue?” and gradually get harder to answer and more pointed. Questions are our way to get the information that we want; some use it as a way to get the answers they’re looking for. Either way, there is no dismissing the importance of questions.

Everybody remembers in school how teachers say, “There are no stupid questions.” That’s actually not true. Let’s face it, there are stupid questions. We’ve all asked them or heard them before. Nobody sets out to ask a dumb question, however. These questions are the product of a general lack of understanding in the search industry and a resistance to seeing digital as its own unique channel with its own nuances.

When faced with a dumb question, you really have two options: answer the question or figure out what the real question is. Make no mistake, one of the worst things you can do is answer a dumb question. When you choose to answer a question you indicate that the question made sense. This pulls the conversation away from where it ought to be and into a world of irrelevance.

Handling an irrelevant question is an incredibly difficult thing to do. For one, you have to avoid insulting the person who asked the question. If your CMO asks a dumb question, laughing is not an acceptable answer. You have to dig deeper and redirect him to the right question, the smarter question. In search, it’s your job to educate and bring the focus of the conversation to where others can ask useful questions. Here are some questions I’ve encountered over the course of my experience in the search industry and how to shift their focus in the right direction.


How much does my competition spend on search? If you can tell me that then I can budget better.

This comes out of old school offline media. Companies are used to looking at reporting tools to determine how much TV or print is being bought by their competition and creating a comparable budget.

Smarter Question

How many queries are there for my keyword set?

This question thoughtfully takes the conversation away from trying to mirror what your competition is doing and pushes it towards meeting demand. If there are 500,000 searches per month for “facial cleanser,” why would you care whether or not your competition is live on those words?


How do I stop people from appearing for my brand term?

This is about so much more than trademark protection. Search has thrown a serious monkey wrench into the marketing works by providing multiple choices during the discovery process. In the offline world, this really doesn’t exist. Let’s say you want to buy a specific pair of sneakers. You head out to the local sneaker store and ask the employee for blue Nike AF-25, size 10. They go to the back, get your sneakers, and you can be on your merry way. Imagine if when you asked that question, the employee presented you with similar pairs of Adidas, New Balance, and Saucony. This is essentially what happens in search and it drives marketers to think too narrowly about this issue and how to solve it.

Smarter Question

How can we own as much real estate as possible?

Now you’ve opened this up to a more marketing-focused conversation. You can discuss how to leverage organic product videos, as well as shopping and local feeds. You can also have a conversation around re-sellers and surrounding, related strategies. Lastly, you can have a much broader conversation around consumer choice. Your client may want to keep transactions on their site, but we may not be able to enforce that. People want choices. If I want a selection of multiple sneaker brands, then is not going to be the answer I’m looking for. However, Nike may influence my decision and bolster loyalty by providing a universal coupon code or creating a loyalty program.


How are my keywords performing?

When you hear this question, it’s a clear sign you need to educate the client and bring them to a point where they can ask more targeted keyword questions. A client who focuses on just keywords is so deep in the weeds that you will almost always fail to meet expectations. Individual keyword performance fluctuates and changes for so many reasons.

Smarter Question

How profitable are our categories?

A good search program is broken into categories. This allows you to maximize demand, customize messaging, and more importantly, manage based on segments. If the entire category of Swim Wear is performing well, does it really matter if the term “bikini” isn’t? Let me be clear; I am not saying poor performing words should be ignored. You certainly want to optimize them, but you should look at your entire category performance because that is what truly tells the story of success.


Why am I not ranking number one for keyword X?

With so many sites that have a poor analytic set-up, people focus on the ranking question as their SEO measure of success. This often forces you to chase the algorithm instead of the actual goal.

Smarter Question

Which words should I give more attention to organically?

This is a trick question because it requires the analytics to be configured properly (let’s assume that it is). With this question you can now investigate which words are driving the traffic you want. Once you have that list, you can overlay the rankings to determine where to focus your efforts first. If you have important terms that rank in the top five – that's a good place to start.

I have more questions, but a limited word count, so I will add more in my next column. I encourage you to submit your favorite questions and see if we can’t find better ways to focus our teams and clients. It’s not easy to move some clients out of these types of questions. However, there is a payoff. You’ll have clients and teams that are thinking more intelligently about business challenges and begin to have conversations that will keep you in the camp of trusted advisor instead of vendor. Vendors get fired – trusted partners stay with you forever.


Joshua Palau

Joshua Palau is the vice president of Search for Razorfish. In this role he is responsible for the global strategy, product development and operations of their paid, organic, and feeds offerings.

He helps clients to understand how search fits into the overall marketing plan and constantly researches the rapidly changing industry to help clients anticipate, and respond to, changes in the landscape.

Joshua is an active writer who has authored several Razorfish POVs on topics such as managing paid and organic search, reputation management, and social search optimization. In addition to writing his SEW column, he serves as the editor of Razorfish's weekly newsletter, Search Marketing Trends.

Joshua began his digital career in 1996 and has a diverse background working on the publisher, client, and agency side. Prior to joining Razorfish, he has worked for Hearst Magazines,, and Johnson & Johnson.

His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.

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