SEO: Understanding Audience and Purpose(s)

By , August 12, 2012

I don’t write much about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), despite its importance to the success of every web business. That’s because I view SEO as an integral part of every aspect of online marketing — it just isn’t a discrete function that can be managed separately. SEO is holistic.

I’ve intentionally written only in very simplistic terms about SEO: “Be Relevant and Useful” and “Common-Sense SEO.” Today, I want to emphasize the importance of audience and purpose in SEO and web marketing.

Audience: Every message online has an audience, which usually includes both intended and unintended audiences. A search engine is not an audience, but most “SEO agencies” act as if it is, in part because search engines seek to mimic (through a complex matrix of computer algorithms) the analytical processes of real audiences, in order to determine what is “relevant and useful” to those audiences.

In “Be Relevant and Useful“, I wrote:

“You can’t be “useful” or “relevant” to everyone – only to a specific audience. That’s a huge “problem” for many web publishers: you can’t be all things to all people; you must narrow your focus in order to serve a particular audience.

That doesn’t mean you can’t serve multiple audience segments, either on a single web page or on multiple web pages on your site. It does mean that you can’t serve all audience segments well with a single web page or even a large web site with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of unique content pages.

Conceptually, your audience (and its purposes) can be segmented (“sliced and diced”) in many overlapping ways (keeping in mind that individuals may fall in multiple segments — even multiple segments that might seem “opposing”). Some examples: retail/wholesale buyers; emotional/analytical; age; education level; knowledge of industry-specific vocabulary; benefits/specifications; price/quality; purchase/use/repair; rich/poor; business/government/home/student; intended use (business/education/entertainment); technical knowledge; curiosity/interest/purchase.

Every message that appeals to one audience will be unwanted and unhelpful to some other audience segments; presenting the wrong message to an audience segment isn’t helpful (and may alienate that audience)

One key element of SEO is recognizing audience segmentation and seeking ways to deliver the right content to the right audience.

Purpose(s): It’s critical to recognize three distinct purposes (by role):

  1. Visitor/customer purpose: each member of your audience has a need, desire, or goal;
  2. Publisher/merchant purpose: you want to sell products, provide relevant information, communicate a message, or attract readers who are attractive to advertisers;
  3. Search engine purpose: search engines want to deliver relevant and useful content and links to end users.

Note that each role has multiple purposes, and those purposes change during a single encounter. One way of viewing “purpose” is “define the problem to be solved, or the need to be  met.” If you could trace the consumer’s thought process, you might see this sequence:

  1. I need to print a document, but my printer won’t print;
  2. I need to find out why my printer won’t print;
  3. I need a black ink cartridge;
  4. I need to find out what type of ink cartridge I need for my Epson Stylus CX9400Fax printer;
  5. I need an Epson T69 black ink cartridge;
  6. I need to print my document today, so I need the cartridge today;
  7. I need to find a nearby store that sells Epson T69 ink cartridges;
  8. I need to know if the Epson T69 cartridge is in stock at OfficeMax in Union City, California;
  9. I need to verify the store hours, and get directions to the store.

Of course, if you’re an online merchant selling ink cartridges, your purposes include:

  • Sell ink cartridges;
  • Educate consumers about the benefits of buying from my store (price, convenience, quality, etc.);
  • Reinforce positive attitudes about my company and products;
  • Address negative attitudes about my company and products;
  • Strengthen relationships with prospects and customers;

Now, think about how your purpose and the consumer’s may converge or conflict. If you sell ink cartridges online, you can’t meet the consumer’s need once the consumer thinks, “I need the cartridge today.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish one of your other purposes. (You probably can’t alter the consumer’s desire, but you can still provide information that might help do so; for example, note that “price” isn’t anywhere in the thought sequence, but if you’ve communicated that you offer the product for $11 and the consumer later finds that local stores all charge $26, the consumer might reconsider the “need” to print today. You might also want to shift the consumer’s desire to include other possibilities, such as refilling the ink cartridge, or buy a different printer.)

If you’re viewing the consumer’s thought process from an “SEO perspective,” you’re probably thinking, “which keyword phrases will the consumer type after each thought?” and “how can I help search engines recognize that my content is ‘relevant and useful’ for this query, and thus show links to my content in response to that search?” (Hopefully, you’re also thinking, “do I want my content shown in response to this particular search?”)

And here’s where things get tricky. When the consumer thinks, “I need to find out what type of ink cartridge I need for my Epson Stylus CX9400Fax printer,” she’ll probably type a search query that’s ambiguous, like “Epson CX9400Fax” (maybe adding a helpful word like “cartridge,” or a less helpful word like “ink” or “inkjet” or “replacement”).

If the word “cartridge” isn’t included, the query is ambiguous (is the consumer seeking to buy a printer, repair a printer, re-install a printer driver, attach a printer, or to buy or refill an ink cartridge for the printer?). Google’s response to a search for “Epson CX9400Fax” is to display a variety of different results (these are the titles of the first 8 organic results):

  1. EPSON Stylus CX9400Fax All-in-One Printer, Overview – Product …
  2. Epson Stylus CX9400Fax, Drivers & Downloads – Technical Support …
  3. Epson Stylus CX9400Fax, Documents & Manuals – Technical …
  4. Buy Ink for EPSON Stylus CX9400Fax All-in-One Printer – Genuine …
  5. Epson Stylus CX9400Fax Color All-in-One Printer …
  6. Epson Stylus CX9400Fax Overview & User Reviews – Multifunction …
  7. Epson Stylus CX9400Fax Ink Cartridges and Printing Supplies …
  8. Epson CX9400 Ink | Stylus CX9400 Ink Cartridge

Now, how should we design the Search Engine Optimization strategy for an online seller of ink cartridges? I think the starting point is to identify the audiences and “consumer purposes” which our company can meet, and which match our merchant purpose, and then think about how we can communicates our web site’s relevance and usefulness for each audience/purpose combination, and how we can design our site’s content so that search engines will recognize our relevance and usefulness for those consumers.


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