Results Pages Matter
Actually getting customers to your website is the first challenge of using search engines as an effective marketing channel. When a searcher enters terms into a search box, pages of search results are displayed—usually 10 individual results per page, with the first one naturally being the most prominent. These are displayed in the order of "relevance" to the search term—using algorithms separately developed and closely guarded by each search engine, and always subject to more tuning to screen out spam and irrelevant results.
Until the customer actually clicks a posting from a search results page, they haven't moved into your website's "front door" to be tracked or measured. Search results pages (also known as SERPs in search jargon) are divided into organic or natural results and paid advertising results. Displaying a meaningful organic text excerpt from your web page that is relevant to the customer's search query is the first step in findability.
Given each set of 10 results, how does a customer decide which entries might actually answer the question they have posed in their query? For better or worse, they don't see your web pages with carefully crafted HTML and images; instead they see the content from the HTML "" tag, the URL, and 1-2 lines of description metadata. If the title has been left blank, only includes the company name, or contains coding gibberish, the customer will move on to results that appear to be more relevant to their search—and all of this happens in few seconds.
Let's compare two postings from a Google search results page, keeping in mind that the display metadata is relatively controllable. Which of the following two postings would a customer deem more relevant to locating funding sources for new building construction?
School Construction News School Construction News 2006 | Legal Terms | Console Login. www.schoolconstructionnews.c om/ - 52k - Cached - Similar pages
Buildings Engineering News Record - Engineering News-Record... The New York City School Construction Authority has $3 billion a year to spend for the next three years and it is cleaning up its act to make sure it ...enr.ecnext.com/coms2/browse_ENR_BUI - 93k - Cached - Similar pages
The first record provides limited information, since the same phrase, "School Construction News," is repeated in the title, the URL, and the description. The second record provides more valuable information by providing the state, the funding authority, and the amount authorized, in addition to the source of the information, so the searcher is more likely to choose this webpage for further investigation.
Ensuring that meaningful text is displayed in these three or four lines on the search results page is a crucial step in findability. It's a lot like foot traffic in a retail mall—until the searcher moves into the store, there can be no "conversion" into a customer. Web analytics packages look at user behavior once the customer has actually landed on a web page within the site, but until a potential customer chooses your link from the results page, there is no obvious means to measure lost business from the search results pages.
The Customer's Own Words
Searchers use words to find answers on search engines. Most websites have words written by developers and marketing departments who have their own terminology. But these may not be words customers would actually use to describe your products. To find out the terms customers use for your products, ask the customer service department or the folks who answer your phones. This will help you learn whether your customers are searching for "potatoes," "spuds," or "tuberous vegetables." To be effective as search terms, the words on web pages must match the words that the customer types into a search box so that they can successfully retrieve your web pages. So identify customer words for the ASCII text and dump industry jargon and internal terminology, particularly technical developer acronyms.
Another way to understand how people are finding what they need (or don't need) is to review the keyword report from your website analytics software. All the gory detail isn't necessary—the top 50 keywords and keyword phrases customers use to reach your web pages provide a good starting point. Typically, this analysis will reveal some surprises. It's pretty common to discover that customers use very specific phrases to reach landing pages. There is usually a power curve, with a handful of phrases that are very frequently used, and then a steep drop-off after the 25th term or so to unique occurrences—the so-called "long tail" of search.
At Vanderbilt Television News Archive, weblog analysis showed that searchers found the site by using queries like "tv news," "tv archive," or "television news," which meant they knew such information actually existed. However, the site was "invisible" to queries on the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. After opening its abstracts to the search engines, names of news anchors, celebrities, and other public figures began to show up consistently, and now 30% of Vanderbilt's traffic comes from search results displayed from the abstracts. In five months—from August 2005 to January 2006—with just these improvements, Vanderbilt's income increased by 13% and the News Archive is now self-sustaining.