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Sunday, May 26, 2024

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Of SEO And Spaghetti Sauce

I can virtually guarantee that you aren’t satisfying at least one major segment of your customers.

Did you know that it took until 1989 for chunky tomato pasta sauce to come out? A guy by the name of Howard Moskowitz cracked this code for the Prego brand while they were trying desperately to defeat Ragu, the champion of pasta sauce at the time. Until then, companies were looking for the “perfect” pasta sauce, much like we seek the “perfect” architecture, interface, product photography, shopping cart, landing page, etc. It was Howard who pointed out that they shouldn’t be looking for the perfect sauce; they needed to be looking for the perfect sauces.

And he was right. By focusing on the right sauces for 3 distinct audience segments (plain, spicy and extra chunky), Prego handed Ragu their asses, making $600 million off of the chunky stuff, alone.

Malcolm Gladwell At TED 2004

I heard all of this in a Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talk from 2004, and it struck me as immediately applicable to the search industry and internet marketing, in general. We spend a lot of time, resources and arguments trying to figure out the right solution for everybody. And in SEO, we do so grossly, but differently.

What’s funny about SEO is that we do the market research ahead of time. We know the array of keywords. We can bucket those keywords into segments. We know what people are looking for. But then we run into a problem. We try to make everyone eat the same pasta sauce.

After the keyword research is done, we have to figure out where to put all of those valuable phrases, and that’s where the problem is. We start peeling the adhesive backing off of our keywords and we stick them to the pages where they best fit. We use them in pre-existing experiences. In pre-existing content. So yes, we’ve listened to the audience, but we’ve had to pick one page or a small few and we work to to fit all of these people and their varied interests into them.

Let me offer an interesting example. On this gift idea page on Saks Fifth Avenue, the title tag reads:

“Gifts for Women, Men, Kids & Home | Holiday, Special Occasion, Wedding, more – Saks.com”

Wow, that’s a lot of work for one page. But look at the left-hand navigation for this page. Hey, there is a page just for men’s gifts. And another one for women. And one for wedding, kids, and housewarming. And strangely, not one for special occasion (if it was worth putting in the title, it’s probably worth a page of its own). So, if there is a page for wedding gifts, why does wedding get lumped in on the main page? I don’t see any wedding gifts on that page. Why add a click? And when you get to the wedding page, the title tag is:

“Wedding – Shop by Occasion – Saks.com”

Wait. Now there aren’t any gifts mentioned? Shouldn’t this include wedding gifts, wedding gift ideas, shop for wedding gifts, something like that?

What really troubles me about this is that Saks actually went to the trouble to make the extra chunky sauce. They didn’t put all of the gifts all on one page and make people scroll aimlessly to find a gift. They segmented their audience and made a wedding gift page, but in their SEO, they serve everyone “pasta sauce”… the generic gift page, regardless of what they ask for. They have bottles of the flavor you want behind the counter, but you have to ask a second time.

So, Saks is actually a lot better off than most sites. The hard work is done; they just need to get their keywords in the right place. But for most sites, they just develop one, regular sauce and try to pump all sorts of visitors down the same funnel.

SEO makes site development easier, not harder. There should never be any question about what needs to be made, expanded, or edited when you have the research to show what people are looking for. We need to stop pasting keywords on content that “sort of works,” and start creating content, interfaces, and architectures that do. And we can’t just depend on keyword research to do that, either. We have to study behavior, too. As Gladwell points out, people don’t always know what they want, but they will always demonstrate what they want. Look at behavior in addition to search demand to see if there is something they want, but are unable to express in search.

Prego made over half a billion dollars serving a segment that was hungry, and history is repeating itself all over again online. Are you and a competitor trying to stuff everyone down the same funnel? Whichever of you decides to break it into segments and serve them more explicitly will undoubtedly have a much brighter future.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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