The Most Dreaded Keyword Phrase

In website usability, one of the hardest obstacles to overcome is the mentality of “This is what I would do.” Whenever we hear Person A (or B or C or D, etc.) say this phrase, it means that Person A is not focused on users. It means that Person A is superimposing his or her personal beliefs and characteristics onto users. Alan Cooper developed the concept of personas — to get the team to focus on user archetypes and not the opinions of individuals.

In search usability, we also dread hearing this phrase. Whenever we hear, “Well, this is what I would do,” then we know that Person A (or B or C or D, etc.) is not focused on searchers.

However, if you tell Person A that he/she is not focused on searchers, the immediate response is typically denial or defiance. Of course Person A is focused on searchers! If Person A were not focused on searchers, then he would not be implementing search engine optimization (SEO) strategies in the first place.  Search usability professionals must deal with these preconceived notions about search all of the time. Here are some guidelines to help other SEO professionals effectively respond to this somewhat misguided mentality.

Focusing on the searcher persona

Whenever you design, write, code, and program a website, you always have to remember that you are doing those things for people other than yourself. Person A is not going to spend thousands or millions of dollars on his own products and services. But his target audience will. Therefore, Person A should always design, write, code…and optimize…his site to accommodate searcher goals and expectations. Person A should understand searcher goals and expectations before he even creates or redesigns his website.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. We search usability professionals often have a difficult time getting Person A, and members of his team, to temporarily not be so self centered. This self centeredness is precisely why

  • People who fit a demographic or market segment
  • Statistically average users
  • Actual people (like the CEO’s wife)
  • Themselves

In search usability, the focus is on searching behavior, or more accurately, querying behavior. The word “I” is a clear indication that Person A’s focus is not on searchers.

Of course, website usability (including the search usability portion of it) is not only designing and writing for users. In order for a site to be successful, there should be a balance between business goals and user expectations. However, if website owners are too focused on business goals, then they are not really listening to users. They are not objectively observing their users’ search behavior.

Actions speak louder than words

There are slight variations to the most dreaded keyword phrase, such as:

  • “This is how I would do it.”
  • “This is how I search.”
  • “These are keywords that I use to find ____________.”

As a usability professional, I hear people make these statements all of the time. (Notice the appearance of the word “I” in all of these statements.) But when I actually sit Person A down and observe his querying behaviors, Person A rarely does what he says he is going to do.

I have been keeping keyword diaries from a number of advanced searchers to not only see how they are formulating keyword phrases, but also why they are formulating keyword phrases. In usability, we do this by encouraging test participants to think out loud. Query formulation is an important area of search usability.

Eileen is one of my advanced searchers. She no longer uses the yellow pages to look up phone numbers. She is perfectly content using Google. Every few weeks, she refills a prescription for insulin because one of her family members is diabetic. When she was thinking out loud, she made the statement, “I have to get more insulin.” Her resulting keyword phrase was:

osco drug dundee il main street

She was not happy with search results because she did not see the phone number in the search results. She said, “It really ticks me off to see this, because I know that this is the pharmacy that I use to refill this prescription.” Then she reformulated the query to:

osco drug dundee il

And this set of keywords got her the desired telephone number. Eileen promptly picked up the phone and called the pharmacy.

Not once did Eileen say any of the keyword phrases she typed into the Google search box. She didn’t even type in the word “refill” or “prescription.” She didn’t want to go to the Osco website (though these keyword phrases might indicate that she wanted to go to the official Osco pharmacy website). Her query words did not have a direct one-on-one correlation with “thinking aloud” keywords.

Trust me. We usability professionals see this happen all of the time. So when we hear Person A say, “This is what I would do,” we know that Person A is not objectively evaluating his own search behaviors. third-party observation, free of personal bias, will more likely yield the most accurate search behavior data.


Usability professionals know how difficult it can be to get people past the “This is what I would do” mentality. SEO professionals should listen for this dreaded keyword phrase during their consultations and evaluations. If the focus isn’t on searchers and their search behaviors, then website owners might be going down the wrong (and more costly) path.

Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.

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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