Building Searcher Personas For Greater Customer Engagement and Acquisition

When we want to find more information about something, hear about something interesting from our friends, see a compelling television commercial, or need a local mechanic, chances are the first place we turn is the Google search box. Fifty percent of us in the United States use search engines every day and over 90% of us search every month.
These days, your search strategy is your business strategy, whether you realize it or not, because that’s how potential customers are trying to find you. Search is the new yellow pages, 800 number, Sunday circular, card catalog, and cash register. No matter what kind of web site you have–whether it’s a media property like a blog, an ecommerce site, or the online arm of multinational corporation–you want to connect with as many of your potential audience as possible, and organic search can help make that happen.

Effective search acquisition strategy
To effectively use organic search as an acquisition channel, you should ensure that your web site:

  • Can be discovered by search engines so the pages can be added to the list the crawler uses to traverse the web.
  • Uses site architecture that doesn’t introduce obstacles that make the pages inaccessible to the crawlers.
  • Presents all content in a way that’s extractable for search engines to index.
  • Is relevant and useful to searchers

Sounds easy, right? The good news is that the path to success is fairly straightforward. But as you might imagine, once you dive into the details, the road starts taking a few hairpin turns. The first three points focus on the web site infrastructure and the last point is all about what’s actually on the site.

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Let’s dive into that last item: content. To truly capitalize on organic search acquisition that provides long term success in search engines as well as delights your customers and keeps them coming back, try developing searcher personas that use search data to better understand your audience and ensure a compelling experience from the search box all the way through to conversion. (You can learn about building personas in the book The Persona Lifecycle: Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design.)

Searcher personas for better customer engagement and more relevant search results
User interaction design and usability research often starts at the site’s home page, but a potential customer’s involvement with your site starts at least two steps before that, and they may never see your home page at all. Every page on the site is a potential entry. When building a searcher persona, ask the following:

What are my:

  • business goals (and conversion goals)?
  • Who is the target audience most likely to convert?
  • What as this target audience searching for?
  • What is the intersection of what they are searching for that leads to conversion?
  • What content best meets audience needs for those identified searches?
  • What information will compel those visitors to conversion?

An important part of this process using search data such as keyword research, competitive research, paid search data, and web analytics data to discover the answers to some of these questions. But for the purposes of this post, we’ll just dive right in creating a searcher persona and searcher workflow.

For instance, let’s take a look at O’Reilly. For their answers site, they might put together the following chart for one use case related to the blog post “Quick Video Example of Firebug”:


Note that generally you wouldn’t create a searcher persona for each blog post. Rather, you would create personas for each audience type you’re trying to attract with the blog. You might do more specific task-based personas for a web application, ecommerce site, or other business. For instance, an online shoe store might develop task-based workflows for a working mom with a son and daughter who both play sports, doesn’t have time to shop, and wants to buy shoes for her kids at good prices. I’m using this more narrow example for ease of illustration.

Now that we have a profile of our audience, business goal, and method of motivating the audience towards the business goal, we can put together a searcher workflow as follows:


SERP Display

The Search Engine Results Page (SERP) display for this query is shown below:


Let’s take a closer look:

Title: the ideal title that appears in the search results clearly describes the page in the left section of the title. In this case “Quick video example of Firebug” does provide accurate information, but it doesn’t fully convey the value proposition to the searcher. Why would the searcher click on this result? A better title might be “Diagnosing AJAX Issues with Firebug” or “Debug AJAX Issues With Firebug”. What’s most important to the person who will be visiting this page? That it contains a video with a Firebug example? Maybe. But it’s more likely that the visitor is most interested in knowing how Firebug can help them debug AJAX issues. If research shows that this audience is particularly interested in videos, then it may make sense to make that clear in the title as well.

Description: The description under the title in the search results page (called a “snippet” is the text that provides more details about what the page is about. It generally is pulled from either the page’s meta description content, or from a contextual section of the page. In this case, it seems like the snippet is being pulled from the page itself, and is fairly relevant. If the meta description attribute on the page were longer and included a few more words that searchers would be likely to use (such as “diagnose”), it might be more likely to be used and could be crafted in a more compelling way.

Current meta description:
<meta name=”description” content=”A quick video demonstrating how Firebug can be used to debug an Ajax problem.” />

Potential revised meta description:
<meta name=”description” content=”Learn how Firebug can help you quickly diagnose AJAX issues. This video shows how to debug AJAX features that aren’t working.” />

URL: A whole book could be written about URL structure. For the purposes of compelling a click from the search results page, this URL does a great job of describing what the page is about at a glance and promotes the brand.

Page Content
Once searchers click over to the site, they are presented with the following:


Does this page satisfy the search? Searchers skim quickly. When they access your page from the search results, they need to quickly see that the page will satisfy their query or they’ll bounce back to view more results. In this case, the page heading suffers from similar problems as the SERP title. If searchers wants to know how Firebug can help them debug AJAX, they may not realize that this video will do that based on the heading. The most important element of the page is obviously the content itself, but if the page doesn’t provide immediate clues that the content is what searchers are looking for, they won’t stick around to read it.

Does this page provide context for the site as a whole? The page is clearly branded “O’Reilly InsideRIA”, which provides context and validity to the content. However, the page is missing clues about what the site is about and why the visitor would want to return. A tagline or short descriptive paragraph in the page header or top sidebar could help solve this. Something as short as “everything about rich internet applications” would probably go a long way.

What’s the call to action? Does it compel conversion? It’s unclear what the primary call to action is on this page. The links below the blog post suggest the visitor read more blog posts. The right sidebar offers a tag cloud, poll, a section called “latest features”, links to podcasts, news and events, discussions, and sessions at Web 2.0 Expo NY. It’s a bit overwhelming and confusing. O’Reilly could decide on a couple of primary calls to action and position them at the end of the post and in the top right sidebar. Likely exploration of the tag cloud isn’t what O’Reilly would like visitors to do most, but right now, it has prominent placement. Some of the calls to action (for instance, those to read more posts) are duplicated, so it may make sense to consolidate things a bit. For the top two calls to action, it would help to expand them a bit and explain why it might be valuable to the visitor to click through to them.

Once you’ve put these searcher workflows in place, you may need to engage an information architect or user interface designer to help organize the content on the site. For instance, is this page really where you want someone who’s looking to diagnose AJAX issues to land? And of course, you’ll want to test changes and monitor the search acquisition and conversion impact via your web analytics.

Want to learn more? Want a free searcher persona report?
I’ll be doing a full-day bootcamp on building searcher personas and ensuring your site is crawlable to maximize potential customers from search at Web 2.0 Expo NY. We’ll dive more deeply into these issues, answer all of your search-related questions, and include lots of hands on time to get you started on identifying crawling obstacles on your site and building searcher personas.

We’re also giving away a free searcher persona report for one major page of your site. You can find out all the details on the Web 2.0 Expo blog. To enter yourself in this contest, tweet this sentence exactly as follows:

“I want a free SEO critique #w2e”

The winner will be selected at random (i.e. pulling a Twitter handle out of a hat) on Friday, October 30th, so make sure to tweet by the 29th.