Search relevance in search engine optimization (SEO) is a concept that most digital marketers understand, but few know it at a deep level.
The concept seems easy to grasp on its surface: Google results have to relate to the business.
A local, family-owned pizza parlor won’t capture SEO for the term “bowling balls,” but the name “restaurants near me” might work great.
But what happens if the same pizza parlor’s name is Bowling Balls’ Pizzeria? How does that affect search relevance and SEO best practices for the term “bowling balls? Is Google smart enough to tell the difference?
Situations like this example show that understanding search relevance isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
This article will further explore search relevance in SEO so that companies can improve their SEO strategy.
Relevance to the business
The most straightforward and easy-to-understand concept of SEO is that a keyword must be relevant to a business. The catch is that it depends on the definition of relevance from Google’s perspective.
Even though a keyword relates to a company, that doesn’t mean the search results will coincide. Outcomes are the only thing that matters in the SEO business.
Another quick example is searching for the keyword “CAD,” a common acronym in at least two different industries: engineering and public safety.
“CAD” in the engineering field stands for computer-aided design, but it stands for computer-aided defense in the public safety and security field.
A user looking for information on computer-aided defense and typing in “CAD” would be remiss to see that all of the results returned were content on computer-aided design.
In terms of search relevancy, Google’s algorithm surmised that “CAD” most likely refers to computer-aided design and returns the results as such.
“CAD” technically applies to both industries; the term is popular enough to be commonplace in each. The difference is that Google considers “CAD” most relevant to engineering, not public safety.
A public safety and security website might mean well by capturing SEO for “CAD,” but unfortunately, they would be targeting a non-relevant keyword from Google’s perspective.
Relevance to standard marketing principles provides more context.
Relevance to the funnel
Another aspect of relevance is to search for intent and how it coincides with a business’ marketing funnel.
A dentist’s practice might try to capture SEO for the keyword “cavity,” using the dental industry as an example. Someone needing a dentist, someone with search intent, may type “cavity” into Google.
But search results for “cavity” would likely return suggestions for how to treat cavities or the definition of a cavity. There might also be content on how to prevent cavities.
“Cavity” as a search term does relate to dentistry, but it won’t work as a keyword that drives business to a dental practice. It doesn’t help drive customers into the funnel.
Therefore, the intent of the search result is purely informational, according to Google’s algorithms. Google is treating the most useful results for “cavity” as intended to find general information on cavities, not where to find a dentist to treat cavities.
A food company trying to capture SEO for their menu is another example of how tricky search relevance to the funnel can be.
This company might sell frozen dumplings, so the apparent low-hanging fruit is to try to rank for terms like “chicken dumplings” or “pork dumplings.”
But Google results treat those keywords differently. The majority of the results are for dumpling recipes, not businesses that make dumplings.
What looked like a promising keyword would turn out to be a red herring and a waste of time for a food company that makes frozen dumplings.
Search relevance to the marketing funnel means that specific terms skew towards informational results, not a business’s day-to-day operations.
At the time of this writing, no search metric altogether accounts for slanted search intent.
Every business is unique and has one-of-a-kind terminology, but that doesn’t mean those terms will automatically drive consumers to a company’s website and increase sales.
It requires more due diligence and keyword research to pinpoint search relevancy to the marketing funnel.
In the previous example of the dumpling company, a more valuable keyword phrase would probably be “best dumplings in New York” or “where to buy chicken dumplings” because they narrow the funnel.
Relevance to on-page content
Relevance to on-page content is similar to relevance to the marketing funnel, but it’s a distinct concept and deserves a brief mention.
The fact is, relevancy can become very granular and have niche characteristics, so companies need to be diligent and thorough when piecing together an SEO strategy.
One example of relevance to on-page content is the term “cost calculator” or “cost estimator.”
If a user searches Google, they will probably see results that display rudimentary calculators, but what if a website puts 100 percent effort into capturing SEO for a “cost calculator?”
The site might have all of the best SEO tools, keywords carefully placed in the content, and the proper word count but still won’t rank.
There isn’t enough search intent specificity, so Google returns generalized results.
A more reliable keyword in the above hypothetical scenario would’ve been a “cost calculator for real estate” or “cost estimator to improve credit score,” depending on the business.
Therefore, the positioning of on-page content – the specificity of the information in context – matters more than most believe at a glance.
The next aspect of relevance is locality, which may become more critical shortly as consumers look for ways to support local business activity.
Relevance to locality
Today, locality’s importance to search relevance is quickly becoming a hot topic.
A significant proportion of searches on mobile devices have local intent, making sense as people often use their devices when they’re on the move.
For a business to compete in a local market, they need to find ways to leverage locality. The good news is that Google provides companies with its Google My Business platform to increase visibility across all services (e.g., Google Maps).
The alternative, which is unpreferable in a marketing context, is to capture SEO for non-localized keywords that only slightly relate to the business.
Relevance to the locality can also go in the opposite direction.
Some companies may not want to focus primarily on local search results. Their business objectives might be national or even global, so search terms with local intent won’t help.
The bottom line is that companies can’t force the issue. Google decides relevance for a locality, so it requires in-depth keyword research to uncover the locality’s intricacies.
Live testing often reveals more insights about local relevance than businesses assume at first.
The purpose of this article is to add context and clarify the meaning of search relevance in SEO. The concept is easy to understand but very difficult to execute.
When choosing keywords, it’s imperative that a company only selects keyword groups after taking a closer look.
SEO is more of a marathon than a sprint, so it’s common for campaigns to yield little results if relevancy is low.
The takeaway for businesses is that it’s always best to test and retest keywords for relevancy. What may look like a great find may not work out in the long run and maximize SEO resources.
Jason Khoo started freelancing in SEO back in college, sold his first agency, and now is founder of Zupo, which is an Orange County based SEO consulting agency helping construct powerful long term SEO strategies for our clients. Jason also enjoys multiple cups of tea a day, hiding away on weekends, catching up on reading, and rewatching The Simpsons for the 20th time.