Online search is not a stand-alone activity. It doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is not self-contained.
When people perform an online search, they bring with them an enormous amount of preconceptions, biases, preferences, and behavioural tendencies. An online search is always performed amidst a veritable jungle of individual contexts.
A search is never as simple as a keyword in a search box resulting in a SERP and eventually a click. Superficially that’s what happens, but it’s about as superficial as a ripple of water on a vast ocean. What lies beneath the surface is what’s really interesting. It’s also of such mind-boggling depth and complexity that we can never hope to understand even a fraction of it.
A Glimpse of the Deep
By necessity, SEO as an industry tends to focus on that superficiality. We aim to get relevant traffic to our clients’ websites, and the way we do that is by finding the right keywords and getting the site to rank for those.
In that first instance, that genesis of every SEO project, we poke gingerly beneath that rippling surface and get our initial gauge of the true depths that lurk beneath. When we do our keyword research, we catch a glimpse of the profound complexities that underlie every search query.
We find related keywords that hint at a wider context, we find surprising metrics on conversions and competitiveness and search volumes that indicate other cerebral processes occurring in a searcher’s mind when they’re looking for that product or service your client is offering. But these are still just fragments of shadows cast in accuracy-challenged toolsets.
When then the optimisation begins, we ignore these shards of profound understanding in favour of the task at hand. We improve the site, generate content, and gather links. Then, when traffic begins to pour in, we measure and analyse and conclude.
And here we yet again broaden our understanding, one microscopic step at a time. Why did the user who typed in keyword A eventually convert on a referral visit? Why do so many visitors occur on page X with keyword B, but the bounce rate is so dramatically high despite keyword B’s prevalence on page X?
All these little mysteries tickle our intellects, but we tend to ignore them and look at the bigger picture. Traffic is growing, conversions are up, sales are improving. That’s what matters.
There’s a truth in that high-level approach. Those few metrics are truly all that matter. These are the numbers we are judged by, and improving them consumes enough of our time and energy that there’s precious left for any insightful meandering about the hidden contexts of the search experience. We, as SEOs, shouldn’t waste our time on that.
But others do. In fact, there are entire departments that do nothing but analyse the deeper truths and hidden contexts of search. These departments are either academic, or they belong to behemoth search engine corporations such as Google, Microsoft, and Yandex, and their research is aimed at understanding – and subsequently improving – the user’s entire contextual search experience.
It is for that reason that we see such baffling new features as Google’s SPYW being rolled out. It’s not because search engines are deliberately trying to be obtuse and frustrating. It’s because they’re trying to look beneath that ripple on the surface that every search query represents, in ceaseless attempts to discover the hidden truths about who we are, what we know, and how we think.
Because once they’ve cracked that nut, everything can be known. The world’s information, at anyone’s fingertips.