How To Use Personas & Scenarios In SEO

Keywords keywords keywords. As SEO and search engine advertising professionals, we live in a sea full of keyword phrases. One of our jobs is to come up with keyword lists and apply them to websites. A search engine advertiser will use a keyword list to determine ad purchases, ad copy, and landing page content, and an SEO professional might use the keyword list to architect a website and generate future content ideas.

There are a number of free and paid keyword research tools at our disposal. Of course, as a search usability professional, I use many of these keyword research tools all of the time…but not in the way one might think.

earch-magnifying glassKeyword research tools provide data. They tell me what web searchers type into the text-entry fields in the commercial web search engines. The data and corresponding graphs from these tools can help me discover patterns which might not have occurred to me, which can be very helpful when architecting a website and determining potential scenarios for usability tests.

However, keyword research tools do not tell me why a web searcher formulated specific queries. I have listened to many colleagues present their reasons for keyword usage.

A search engine advertiser’s opinion? Well, then I am listening to the mental model of  a search engine advertiser, not a web searcher. A search engine optimizer’s perspective? Now I am hearing the mental model of an SEO professional, not a web searcher. And don’t even get me started on the mental model of a web developer or even a search engine software engineer. Seriously, does your target audience share the mental model of a Google software engineer?

I do not solely rely on data from keyword research tools when I come up with content, architecture, and optimization strategies. Keyword research tools do not provide context. However, data from usability testing and diary studies, in conjunction with keyword research data, can provide SEO professionals with a clearer picture of web searcher behaviors.

Personas, Scenarios, and Usability Testing

According to Kim Goodwin, author of Designing for the Digital Age and a well-known UX (user experience) professional:

“A persona is a description of an archetypal user synthesized from a series of interviews with real people. Each persona provides goals that drive product design and strategy, from the original conception and feature list, all the way to the visual interface design.” (Source: The User is Always Right:
 Making Personas Work for Your Website.)

As a search usability professional, I also use personas to get all stakeholders (marketing, design/development, copywriting, management, etc.) on the proverbial same page. Because when you architect, design, and optimize a website, you should ultimately architect, design, and optimize the site for your target audience, carefully balancing user expectations and business goals.

When you perform usability tests on a website, you present the same scenario to each test participant. According to

“A scenario is a short story about a specific user with a specific goal at your site. Scenarios are the questions, tasks, and stories that users bring to your Web site and that the Web site must satisfy. Scenarios are critical both for designing Web sites and for doing usability testing. (Source: Create Scenarios.)

I believe SEO professionals should understand search environments. Are web searchers at home or at work when they perform web searches? Is a keyword query a repeat query that occurs on a regular or semi-regular basis? Or is the query a quick-fact informational query done on a mobile device during a lunchtime conversation?

These search environments are potential scenarios for usability testing.

Search Scenarios

According to, usability test scenarios should not include information about how to accomplish a task (in our case, a search task). Usability tests will reveal how participants go about accomplishing the search task, roadblocks encountered (if any), and whether the website facilitates completion of the scenario.

Personally, I have observed test participants come up with creative, convoluted ways of finding or locating desired content via the commercial web search engines. Many times, they do not go directly to the destination website. They might:

  • Remember a site that provided the best guide to content
  • Use Google (or another web search engines) to go directly to the guide site.
  • Locate the desired link on the guide site.
  • Click on link on the guide site.

I know that isn’t exactly the most efficient way to pinpoint desired content. However, I observe this behavior. I see how important browsing is as much a part of search behavior as querying. And these observations reinforce how aboutness and information scent are a big part of search engine optimization.

When you write scenarios, it is incredibly important not to lead test participants into your way of thinking. You want them to use their keyword phrases, not ones you put into their heads. Observing web searchers in their natural search environments, using their own language and tools to locate and discover desired content — it is amazing what you can learn.

Over time, your test scenarios will evolve, as search interfaces and searcher behaviors evolve. Ultimately, these scenarios can help you better understand the needs and goals your target audience…and you can build better websites that both searchers and search engines love.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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  • prestonvandyke

    Shari – Great advice and insight here. Honestly understanding the target audience and not how marketers perceive that audience is much more difficult than you would typically think. Often we really do go about our content creation with our “keyword blinders” on.

    Although I have found it can be good to separate functions into different teams that each play their own niche role. Meaning:

    Keyword Research & Optimization Team
    Content Creation Team

    This way the SEO expert can be their to ensure correct optimization while the content creators and specialists can worry solely about what the audience is actually going to benefit from.

  • Walter Whitley

    I enjoyed you article and was wondering if you have more on the subject. I started a SEO business and with all the reading I didn’t even think of this until I read your article.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi guys-

    Thanks for your feedback. I do things very differently than many SEO professionals. I think I always have.

    I absolutely do NOT keep the Keyword Research & Optimization Team, and the Content Creation Team separate. I see what happens every time: the proverbial blame game.

    “My article didn’t rank/convert because the SEOs didn’t do their jobs!”

    “Your article didn’t rank/conver because you didn’t allow us to use keywords appropriately in your articles.”

    And so on and so on. And you know (sarcasm coming), it’s also the tech team’s fault that they didn’t do something either. I see the blame game being played at large companies all of the time.

    So none of this blame game nonsense when people work with me. Findability/search is universal. It’s a part of everyone’s job whether he/she realizes it or not. Personas are a great tool – when used properly, they get all teams to focus on the user instead of their personal mental models.

    To Walter, I suggest taking usability classes. Personas and scenarios are usability and information architecture (IA) tools. I observe SEO professionals misinterpret these tools all of the time…usually in the name of the user experience. Kim Cooper is a wonderful instructor and has more knowledge about these topics than one might imagine.

    Information architects and usability professionals are not off the hook, either, in understanding web searchers. I would honestly like to see them create test scenarios where the point of origin is a Google/Bing/Yahoo search listing. Maybe those groups might understand SEO better if they did that.

    End of rant. :-)

  • Shari Thurow

    Sorry about “convert” typo.

  • Kim Krause Berg

    “This way the SEO expert can be their to ensure correct optimization while the content creators and specialists can worry solely about what the audience is actually going to benefit from.”

    Like Shari, I do SEO far differently. The myth is that SEO is just for search engines and content development targets people. However, people are the ones doing the searching, so therefore, what they want is the most important factor. Sadly, when an SEO doesn’t factor in what benefits readers and customers, all the rank in the world isn’t to create conversions or buzz.

  • Dewaldt Huysamen

    Hi there.

    Before I do keyword research, I search forums and sites like yahoo answers and even do research on books that are related to the niche in question.

    This way you at least get an idea of what type of persona you are working with and what people are looking for when it comes to the niche in question.


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