Digital MarketingSearch MarketingSEO Epiphanies

SEO Epiphanies

Three epiphanies that changed how an expert search optimizer works.

Have you ever experienced a search engine optimization (SEO) epiphany? Newbies and experienced SEO professionals alike have SEO epiphanies periodically. When one occurs, it fundamentally changes the way you approach the optimization process.

Maybe you might not actually change methodologies, as the fundamental core of SEO hasn’t changed in over 10 years. But perhaps the way you phrase paragraphs in a report changes. Maybe the formatting or allocation of screen real estate on a Web site is modified. Maybe you discovered a single word or idea that helps you communicate with clients more effectively.

I love experiencing SEO epiphanies. I’ve been designing and optimizing Web sites since 1995, and have experienced many, many epiphanies. Three of them completely changed the way I approached the optimization process. Here they are.

Use the Users’ Language

The phrase “use the users’ language” is a mantra in both the SEO and usability communities. If you want people to find the products, services, or information offered on your Web site, you must describe it and label it with the same or similar terminology that your target audience uses.

Not rocket science, right? This SEO epiphany hardly seems like an epiphany at all – it’s actually common sense. Truthfully, though, it might be common knowledge to SEO and usability professionals, but it isn’t common knowledge to other professionals, such as brand evangelists, journalists, and others involved in online publicity.

Sometimes, we become so deeply entrenched in our own industry that we forget others do not understand our lingo and our approach to search engine visibility. We understand keyword research as it is often a part of our daily work. Most people have never used a keyword research tool.

I remember experiencing this epiphany in the mid ’90s. I also remember slapping my forehead and saying, “Duh!” Little did I know at the time it was also my first Web site usability epiphany.

Search Is Not a Linear, Singular Behavior

I’m still amazed that many intermediate and advanced SEO professionals continue to believe search is a linear process, even though they’re presented with search behavior data year after year.

In an ideal world, searchers would: 1. Type keywords in a search engine (querying behavior).
2. Scan and read search engine results pages (SERP) for most desired information.
3. Click a link.
4. Land on a page containing desired information.
5. Purchase.

Web analytics data and usability test results show people view multiple pages before making a final purchase. Site visitors aren’t going to hand over personal information (name, address, credit cart numbers, etc.) until they’re sure your Web business is credible and secure. One page view won’t accomplish that credibility.

Likewise, shoppers compare prices, sizes, and availability. One page view isn’t going to accomplish every comparison shoppers make. So why do SEO professionals continue to promote the concept that search is a linear process? The answer may come in an epiphany at a later time.

My epiphany about search behavior was a very specific occurrence. I was in graduate school where an assignment was to read and write an essay about berrypicking. Many SEO experts, including myself, like to believe we’re unique in our skills and talents. Reading Bates’ article on berrypicking made me realize search behavior research was in existence long before the Web, and that I had a lot of catching up to do. Humility was a large part of that epiphany.

Understanding the Search Experience

I confess that every time I hear an SEO professional (especially a black-hat one) make statements about the “user experience,” I wish I could press a mute button and shut them up. The vast majority of SEO professionals don’t know jack about user experience for one simple reason: they don’t usability test prototypes and final interfaces.

This leads to probably my greatest SEO epiphany to date: people don’t think or act like I do.

I’ll never forget my first usability test as an observer. I never usability test my own interfaces because I’m not objective about my own designs, but I do usability test others’ interfaces. Because it was my first usability test, I worked with an experienced facilitator. Maintaining an objective demeanor is no easy task. It certainly takes practice. You don’t want to lead usability test participants to do what you want them to do. You have to observe their actual, unassisted behavior.

It was a good thing usability test participants couldn’t see my facial expressions during that first usability test experience. Everything Jared Spool, Jakob Nielsen, and Eric Schaffer have said about usability testing unfolded before my eyes. People expressed how “cool” something was about the interface, yet none made a purchase. Bam! The difference between a focus group and usability testing — marketing professionals and brand evangelists can preach their focus group results all they want. The bottom line is, site visitors didn’t “Add to Cart.”

I listened to test participants say they were going to click a link, then watched as they clicked a different link. I saw the results of eye tracking. People may look at something on a Web page, but still not take a desired action.

In other words, usability test participants exhibited completely different behavior than I expected. I was an observer. I wasn’t supposed to speak. I couldn’t say, “Can’t you just read this navigation button? There is a keyword in it.” I observed.

That top position in Google became less and less important when I realized positioning doesn’t matter if site visitors have a negative experience. Positive brand impact disappeared. The link development opportunity disappeared. SEO professionals can quote usability experts to make their methodologies seem more credible, but until you actually objectively watch people use an interface, you know nothing at all about user experience. People have limited information about their own behavior. What people say and what people do in actual usability tests are so different. People cannot objectively analyze their own behavior.

This SEO epiphany forever changed the way I approached Web design, usability testing, and optimization. Search behavior became a part of my persona/profile development. On the whiteboard over my desk I’ve written, “Get over yourself.” Search engine optimization isn’t about optimizing for Google, Yahoo, and other commercial search engines. SEO is about optimizing your site for people.


I’ve had many SEO epiphanies over the years, but these three that stood out. Have any of you experienced any SEO epiphanies that made you a better search engine marketer? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Nominate your choice of technologies, companies, and campaigns that made a positive difference in the online marketing industry in the last decade. Nominations end August 3 at 5:00 pm (EDT).


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