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How To Understand Keywords In Searcher Context

Is it possible for search engine optimization (SEO) professionals to understand searcher context based purely on keyword research data?

Keyword search image

When it comes to keyword classification and context, it is far too easy to inject our personal opinions onto keyword phrases. On our websites, we should use the users' language. We should to relate to, engage, and connect with our target audience on their terms.

As search optimizers, we sincerely hope that searchers' mental models of desired content matches the content we have on our own and our clients' websites.

Nevertheless, the ability to be objective about keywords is vital in order to truly understand web searchers. As SEO professionals, we not only need to understand the words and phrases that our target audiences type in to search engine, we also need to understand the context of keyword phrases.

As information architect and usability professional Eric Reiss says. "Context is King. Context is the Kingdom."

In This Article

Searcher mental models & search conditions

By context, we are referring to a searcher's mental model and the conditions under which he or she is searching. We try to understand their language, environment, and circumstances.

Questions to consider:

  • Environment. Is the search being conducted at home or at the office? Both at home and at the workplace? Or elsewhere?
  • Device. Is the searcher using a desktop computer, tablet, or mobile phone?
  • Urgency. Is there a time constraint on the search query, such as needing to change ones hotel reservation due to a delayed flight?
  • Duration. How long does the search session last? Does the search session one that lasts over a period of 2-3 weeks, such as when a person is researching a product before purchasing?
  • Query types. For example, if the search session is long, are the keyword phrases repeat queries, possibly re-finding queries?
  • Experience and aptitude. Is the searcher a newbie, experienced, or expert searcher?

Some context can be gathered via web analytics data and other types of software. But not 100% of searcher context. All too often, web searchers do not type in their keyword context in a search box.

Keywords without context

Here is an example from some usability tests our firm conducted recently. We presented over 100 participants with a search box with a single keyword. The first word we presented was the word gas.

Here are a number of images that came to their minds (not presented in any particular order):

Mental models of test participants - gas
Images associated with the word gas

Figure 1: Usability test participants' various associations with the word gas.

Most participants immediately thought gas meant the gasoline that they put in their cars. We observed facial expressions of amusement when participants were thinking of belching/burping or farting.

Then, we changed the context. We told participants that the context was a medical/heathcare context.

None of them thought of natural gas or car fuel. Some participants thought of oxygen. Some (again) thought belching or flatulence. And a couple of participants thought of Group A Streptococcus (abbreviation is GAS). So even though the context was more specific with the second question, the keyword associations were quite different.

We next used something possibly simpler than a word: the letter K.

Here are a number of images that came to their minds after being shown the letter K in a search box (also not presented in any particular order):

Mental models of test participants - letter K
Images associated with the letter K

Figure 2: Usability test participants' various associations with the letter K.

We can tell you our immediate association with the letter K. It was file size, as in kilobytes. Our firm consists of web designers, developers, and SEO profeessionals. We regularly optimize PDFs as part of our jobs. So our personal mental model is K = kilobyte.

Is our mental model the same as our target audience mental model? Let's look at some of the results of the usability tests.

Approximately 10% of test participants associated the letter K with Vitamin K, which can be found in some of the foods shown above. Keywords associated with Vitamin K include: vitamin(s), diet, supplement, vegetables, food, and so forth.

If you put a number in front of the letter K, it can completely change the context:

  • 401(k)
  • 18K or 14K

What are the words associated with 401(k)? They are probably words associated with savings, retirement, financial planning, and money.

What are the words associated with 18K and 14K? Probably jewelry, metals (gold, silver, platinum), gemstones, and so forth.

Notice how something as simple as a single number or a single word affects context. Notice how users/searchers expect to see different words on web pages based on their search conditions and mental models.

And, as mentioned previously, searchers do not often type in their context into search queries.

The untyped context

Labeling is an area where the areas of information architecture (IA) and search engine optimization (SEO) overlap. Part of our jobs, as information architects and SEO professionals, is to understand how a client's target audience organizes and labels content on a website.

One of the most eye-opening and humbling experiences as an information architect was to recognize that web searchers do not organize content based on keyword research data. With every card sorting and other usability tests, we heard (and recorded) comments that were contrary to keyword research data.

People do not always categorize insurance, travel, real estate, healthcare, food and recipes, etc. by topic but via other means. For example, they might first categorize themselves as a part of a group and then search by topic.

Searchers don't type in their personal information (What group am I in?) in the search box. But they expect to see their context in search results and corresponding landing pages. They expect to see text, images, and even color associated with their context.

Web searchers do NOT organize content based on keyword research data.

Yet we constantly observe SEO professionals and website owners use volume of queries to architect a site when users/searchers organize content by less common keyword combinations.

In the examples above, look how a single word or a single letter changed the searcher context…and you might not see these words in analytics data or in the right volume.

We are not saying to discount keyword research tools or the data. We have used numerous keyword research tools since 1995. They provide useful data, particularly for labeling. Nevertheless, we urge SEO professionals to consider alternative means of understanding searcher context.

  • Field studies (observing users/searchers in their "natural" search environment)
  • User interviews
  • Usability testing
  • Diary studies

As information architect Peter Morville stated in his User Experience Design article years ago,

"…we must strike a unique balance on each project between business goals and context, user needs and behavior, and the available mix of content."

Peter Morville's 3 Pillars of Information Architecture

Peter Morville's 3 Pillars of Information Architecture - Searcher's Edition

Figure 3: Image used with permission.

And from noted search expert Richard Zwicky in his Context Within Search and Optimization article,

"This process of helping guide the search engine to better understand the context of a document, so that the engine can properly direct searchers to the right document, and thus ensure relevant results, is a the core of what any good search engine optimization firm must do. It should be at the core of every search engine algorithm, but obviously context is not yet there."

Help search engines understand context. Open your eyes to qualitative research methodologies. You won't regret it.


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This SEO article was originally published at Search Engine Land ( It has been updated since its original publication.


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