Term Highlighting and Search Engine Optimization
One of the reasons I tend to focus on “organic” search engine optimization (SEO), as an online marketing strategy is that the majority of search results come from the natural spidering process. Admittedly, searchers tend to look at and click on the top results from both the paid and unpaid listings. However, after carefully evaluating Web analytics data and conversion rates since 1995, I find that searchers who are truly interested in purchasing a product and/or service actually dig for information. In other words, they are not impulse buyers and perform a wide variety of searches before making a final purchasing decision.
As part of both the searching and buying process, I found that an organic listing’s appearance in a search engine results page (SERP) is very important. In fact, as both an information retrieval graduate student and an SEO practitioner, I have grown to appreciate how SERP design has evolved to improve the searcher experience and to improve conversion rates.
Term highlighting and SERPs
Plenty of searchers and SEOs see term highlighting every day in SERPs but do not realize how and why it is present. Whenever a person types a keyword phrase into a search box, the query words (keyword phrase) are highlighted in various places in the SERP
- HTML title tags
- Meta-tag description or page snippet
Search engine ads:
- Ad titles
- Ad descriptions
- Display URL
The reason that query words are highlighted in these various places is to help searchers feel more confident that they are being delivered to the most relevant search results. In other words, if a searcher types in the keyword phrase “help desk software” (without the quotes) into Google, he/she will feel more confident that they will find desired information through Google because they see the term being highlighted (in bold type) in various places. Searchers feel more certain that the search engine is doing its job because they see the words “help desk software” in bold type.
This keyword emphasis in search results is commonly referred to as term highlighting. Search engines usability test term highlighting in SERPs all of the time so that they can deliver the best search experience. Too much term highlighting often negates the search experience. The SERP looks too busy. On the flip side, too little term highlighting also negates the search experience because user confidence decreases.
How does term highlighting affect organic optimization? Contrary to some popular opinion, the goal of SEO is not to rank. The primary goal of SEO is to convert qualified search engine traffic into closed sales. Part of this process is encouraging searchers to click on the link from a SERP to your Web site. In order to accomplish this goal, SEOs need to carefully analyze how their listings appear in organic search results and the corresponding click-through rates (CTRs).
Not very different from search engine advertising, is it? The main difference between appearance in search engine ads and organic listings is relevancy. Title-tag content and body text are used to determine positioning in all of the major search engines, whereas meta-tag descriptions and URL structure do not carry much weight in relevancy algorithms, if at all. Nonetheless, all four of these items certainly carry a CTR impact. With an ad, price is the driving factor for ad position, including how much money the ad generates for the search engine.
Professional search engine advertisers carefully measure the impact of various titles, descriptions, and display URLs on CTR and final conversions. Likewise, SEOs should be measuring the same thing. Understandably, these conversion points can be more difficult to measure due to the relevancy factor, but the best results over time come from careful testing, analysis, and implementation.
Term highlighting and search engine algorithms
Perhaps one of the most widespread SEO misconceptions is that term highlighting in SERPs provides a clear indication of a search engine’s algorithm. For example, people honestly believe that if a query word is highlighted in the URL (Web address) structure, then using keywords in a URL will make or break search engine visibility.
Remember, term highlighting is a process that search engines utilize to improve the searcher experience and increase user confidence. I build SERPs all of the time as a Web developer. If I wanted to highlight the word “the” in search results, I can do this whether or not a person typed in the word “the” in the search box or not.
Plenty of Web pages rank well and receive qualified search engine traffic without having any keywords in the URL structure. Plenty of Web pages do not rank at all and have keywords in the URL structure. Instead of obsessing over ranking algorithms, SEOs should focus on the searcher experience and how search engines try to enhance that experience. If a content management system allows for keywords in the URL? Then great! Those keywords will be highlighted in organic search results in the even the page ranks. If not? Using keywords in the HTML title tag, meta-tag description, and body text will also result in term highlighting in SERPs.
In my opinion, to get the greatest impact from organic SEO, optimizers should have a basic understanding of how search engines work. Part of this understanding is to monitor how SERP design evolves to improve the searcher experience. By optimizing a Web site for people who search, everybody wins: searchers, search engines, SEOs, and Web site owners.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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