A Little Keyword Theory: Educational vs. Transactional Keywords

Keywords drive SEO and AdWords. Users input keywords into Google, and even if they “talk” into their phone, Google parses their sentences to identify keywords and infer what they really want.However, not all keywords are the same! In this video, I am going to teach you a little ‘keyword theory,’ as it’s important to distinguish between education vs. transactional keywords (first and foremost), plus have some idea about volume vs. value. Let’s get started!

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Keywords Drive the Search Process

You realize that people “search” to find products on Google, right? As a scenario to work with, let’s imagine that you are the SEO expert for an Orthopedic Surgeon in San Francisco, and that she’s hired you to optimize her website to attract potential patients for knee surgeries. You realize that her business value proposition is “knee surgery” which is a “cure” for “knee pain.” So you start to brainstorm the types of keywords that likely patients might type into Google.

Keyword Theory and SEO

Photo credit: John D F via Foter.com / CC BY

For example, a patient who suffers from “knee pain,” and has been suffering for more than a few weeks, may fire up his Web browser or go to his phone, and type in search queries like

knee pain
what causes knee pain?
is aspirin or ibuprofen better for knee pain?
knee surgery
best knee surgeons in the San Francisco Bay Area

You would like to “capture” these searches and the clicks from Google. Meaning, you’d like to rank on Google for relevant keyword queries either via AdWords and/or via SEO, stand out as enticing, get the click, and then once they’ve landed on your website, get the conversion (e.g., a sign up via a Web form for a registration). So the process is:

Customer Intent > Keyword Query > Rank on Google (either on AdWords and/or SEO (Organic)  > Click > Landing > Conversion

You can see that keyword query is one link in this very important chain, and so you need to really understand potential keyword queries to succeed at AdWords or SEO. In another video, we dive into the Keyword Planner as a tool, but in this video, let’s step back and ponder some of the concepts at work in terms of “keyword theory.”

Basic Keyword Concepts: Educational vs. Transactional, Volume vs. Value, and More

Here’s a conceptual map of keyword types:

Educational Keywords. These are “discovery” keywords, entered early in the process. So, “his knee hurts,” and he wonders what’s causing this, and he is “educating” himself. He is not YET ready to buy much of anything. These are queries like “knee pain” or “causes of knee pain” or “why does my knee pain” or “knee pain in runners,” etc. Educational = he is just educating myself / learning.  Knee surgery is also an educational keyword, though it is getting closer to a transaction (i.e., hiring a skilled knee specialist).

Transactional Keywords. These are keywords wherein he is close to or ready to buy. An example is “Best knee surgeon in San Francisco” or “knee surgeons.” (“Knee surgery,” you’ll realize, is somewhere in the middle, perhaps closer to the transactional query but still educational in nature.)

  • It’s a continuum between educational and transactional keywords, not a sharp line!

Keyword Volume. This is the quantity of searches. For example, there will usually be many more educational queries than transactional. If you think of it referring back to our metaphor of fishing where the fish are: you are the fisherman (or woman), and you are trying to “fish where the fish are” to catch a lot of fish. Volume = quantity. This, of course, varies geographically: there are more in the USA as a whole, fewer in California, and fewer still in San Francisco.

Keyword Value. This is the “value” of searches, measured as a) the likelihood that someone is ready to buy, and b) the monetary value of capturing that click / lead / purchase. So, it stands to reason that a keyword query like “aspirin for knee pain” is worth less than one that is “knee surgeon in San Francisco,” as the one costs a few pennies and the other tens of thousands of dollars. In terms of fishing, this is analogous to catching the “yummy” fish (think: bass or trout) vs. the “not so yummy” fish (think: carp). But remember it’s the value to you, not the community that ultimately matters (some people actually like carp, if prepared well).

Helper Keywords. These are words like “best,” “top,” “top-rated,” “cheap,” “San Francisco,” “Berkeley,” etc. that are added on to the core keywords. So you have knee surgeons San Francisco or best knee surgeons Bay Area which are a “core keywords” (knee surgeon) plus helpers (San Francisco, best, top-rated, etc.).

Short vs. Long Tail. I don’t find this a particularly useful concept, but a “short tail” is just a few words (e.g., knee pain) and a “long tail” is more than a few (“best knee surgeon in San Francisco”). I find educational vs. transactional to be a better way to think about keyword strategy, as some micro phrases (knee surgeon) can be very lucrative and some long tail phrases (what are the causes of knee pain) can be not worth much. But the community focuses on this distinction, so you might as well know it.

Reputational or Branded Keywords. This is very close to the buy, when the person is nearly ready. He is doing “due diligence” on knee surgeons and will Google the surgeon’s name plus helper words like review. So, for example, “Molly McDonald Knee Surgeon San Francisco Reviews” or “Molly McDonald Knee Surgeon.” Here, they’re nearly ready to engage but if they find negative information, they may bail out.

  • This is why “reputation management” is so important; if they find negative information online, they may just go to the next surgeon or competitor.

So, to use our example –

knee pain = short tail / educational = user intent is “What causes knee pain? I want to educate myself.”

knee surgery = short tail / educational & transactional = user intent is “What is knee surgery like? Should I consider it?”

knee surgeons = short tail / transactional = user intent is “I want to browse some knee surgeons nearby and check out their websites.”

best knee surgeons in the San Francisco Bay Area = long tail / transactional = “I’m ready to set up a few appointments”

Molly McDonald knee surgeon = branded or reputational search = “Is she any good?”

Using the Google Keyword Planner to See Volumes and Value

Now, once you have mentally grasped this idea of educational vs. transactional keywords, and volume vs. value, you can use the Keyword Planner to see in real time how the tool gives clues to these patterns. In short, you’ll find that  – in general – the HIGHER the value of a keyword (i.e., the MORE money that can be made from capturing that click > landing > lead), the HIGHER the bids on AdWords. In addition, the more transactional a keyword is, the more likely it is to have a higher relative value. In summary, the Keyword Planner can help you focus in on higher value, transactional keywords.

Pop over to the Keyword Planner and input

  • knee pain, knee surgery, knee surgeon, best knee surgeons

and take a look at the volumes vs. values as clues to “where the money is.”  Pretty neat, huh? The takeaway to all this is to research the universe of keywords that are relevant to your business, product, and/or service, identify the higher value / higher volume keywords that are closer to the transaction, and then either advertise them on AdWords and/or optimize them on SEO. In general, keywords like knee pain that are very early in the sales funnel, and highly educational do not have a lot of value and are not worth the effort.

Photo credit: John D F via Foter.com / CC BY

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About Jason McDonald

Jason McDonald is a top-rated San Francisco SEO Consultant. His consulting services include search engine optimization consulting, social media marketing consulting, and Google AdWords consulting. Jason's motto as a consultant is that he doesn't do SEO 'for you' but rather he does SEO 'with you.' That goes as well for his social media marketing consultant activities and Google AdWords consultant services. Besides serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jason consults with clients in Silicon Valley (San Jose), Oakland and other cities throughout the Bay Area. Beyond the Bay Area, Jason is available as an SEO consultant, Social Media Consultant, and as an expert witness in litigation involving social media marketing, search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising.