SEO Niches and the Big Picture

I love my job. I love building search-friendly Web sites. I love implementing SEO (define) on client Web sites. And I certainly love the research and development necessary to understand searcher behavior. To me, SEO is a giant moving puzzle just waiting to be solved.

A puzzle comprises many pieces. All too often, SEO professionals become consumed with finding the one puzzle piece that fits perfectly. Result? They lose focus on the entire puzzle. The obsession with eye-tracking data is no exception, which is why I want to revisit this important topic in this week’s column.

SEO Niches

All search engine advertising and optimization firms should have unique selling propositions (USPs). Some SEM (define) firms specialize in search engine advertising. Their USP might be to create software to monitor click fraud. Other SEM firm USPs might include link development, keyword research, and copywriting, usability, and design. These SEO niches are necessary not only from a sales perspective but also from an R & D perspective.

SEO is constantly evolving, so the people who dedicate their time and expertise to an SEO niche are certainly worth watching. Nonetheless, there’s a problem with SEO niche specialists. They become so obsessed with that one area, they lose sight of the big picture.

This situation occurs regularly with the Google Toolbar and PageRank. Link-development SEO professionals sometimes drive me insane. PageRank takes on more importance than actual search behavior. I’ve removed the Google Toolbar from my browser so it doesn’t distract me.

I’ve even made a rule that no one’s allowed to say the word “PageRank” or its abbreviation in my office. I have a mondo squirt gun. Say “PageRank” in my office? You’ll leave soaking wet. I have a smaller squirt gun for those who use the term “link bait” and its derivatives, and I have a special squirt gun saved for my fellow Search Engine Strategies speaker and colleague, Rand Fishkin.

I understand link development is part of SEO’s fundamental core. I implement link development on every Web site I optimize. Nonetheless, I don’t obsess over a number from 1 to 10. Plenty of Web sites generate thousands or millions of dollars in qualified leads and closed sales with a low PageRank, and plenty of Web sites generate little or no income with a high PageRank.

Web positioning metrics present the same scenario. Plenty of Web sites generate millions of dollars in sales with no top search engine positions, and plenty of Web sites generate no income with top search engine positions.

That brings me to my favorite group of SEO specialists: search usability professionals. As much as I read and admire their research, they, too, often don’t focus on the big picture.

Eye-Tracking Data and SEO

User-centered design (UCD) is a core component of any SEO strategy, and a search usability professional is certainly worth her weight in gold. Personally, I tend to learn the most about search behavior from usability testing and analysis.

Eye-tracking data is always fascinating to observe on a wide variety of Web pages, including SERPs (define). As a Web developer, I love eye-tracking data to let me know how well I’m drawing visitors’ attention to the appropriate calls to action for each page type.

Nonetheless, eye-tracking data can be deceiving. Most search marketers understand the SERP’s prime viewing area, which is in the shape of an “F.” Organic or natural search results are viewed far more often than search engine ads are, and (as expected) top, above-the-fold results are viewed more often than the lower, below-the-fold results. Viewing a top listing in a SERP isn’t the same as clicking that link and taking the Web site owner’s desired call to action.

Remember, usability testing isn’t the same as focus groups and eye tracking. Focus groups measure peoples’ opinions about a product or service. Eye-tracking data provide information about where people focus their visual attention. Usability testing is task-oriented. It measures whether participants complete a desired task. If the desired task isn’t completed, the tests often reveal the many roadblocks to task completion.

Eye-tracking tests used in conjunction with usability tests and Web analytics analysis can reveal a plethora of accurate information about search behavior. But eye-tracking tests used in isolation yield limited information, just as Web analytics and Web positioning data yield limited (and often erroneous) information.


Moral of the story? Look at the big picture. Take a holistic view of the entire search optimization process. An SEO niche is a great USP, but that one piece won’t solve the entire puzzle.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

Related reading

Brand Top Level Domains