So what exactly is keyword misalignment? I’m tempted to quote from the cult classic movie “The Princess Bride.” When Westley, as the dread Pirate Roberts, continues to catch up with the trio of Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo (who have kidnapped Westley’s sweetheart Buttercup), Vizzini shouts “Inconceivable!” every time they see that Westley has overcome the latest obstacle placed in his path. Inigo, getting a bit fed up with this, finally says “That word…I do not think it means what you think it means.”
That is the essence of keyword misalignment. A word or phrase that you want to use for one particular purpose may already be in use for a different purpose. A searcher using that key phrase, then, might be looking for something completely different from what you offer. When they see that their desires and your website don’t match, they’ll hit the back button and track down another site. In a situation like this, all of the effort you put into climbing the SERPs – even if you achieved the number one position – is wasted for that keyword.
As Christine Churchill explains on Search Engine Land, “One needs to be careful when selecting keywords to make sure that you select phrases that do not unintentionally conflict with unrelated industries.” In these days of fast-moving technology, frequent use of acronyms, and jargon proliferation, that happens more frequently than you might think.
Churchill offers an interesting example. Say you’re a company that sells advertising on billboards mounted on trailers pulled by trucks. It’s a surprisingly competitive business; some firms are nationwide, and offer billboards pulled by bikes, Segways, and more. Some even rent “walking” billboards – not sandwich boards, necessarily, but people wearing four-foot-tall, skinny billboards like backpacks that can be made to light up for evening events. These “walking” billboards can even distribute brochures and other giveaway items related to what they’re advertising.
So if you’re a company that offers this unusual means of advertising in several different formats, and you want to rank high in the search engines for this competitive field, what key phrase would you use? A company owner’s first instinct might be “mobile advertising.” After all, it goes beyond just billboards, and the advertising is mobile, right?
Using that phrase, however, would be a huge mistake. There’s an entirely different field that’s heavily invested in the phrase “mobile advertising.” These are the companies that sell advertising on mobile devices, such as cell phones. What’s more, that phrase is even more competitive than the next obvious phrase for our hypothetical company, which is “mobile billboards.” A cursory search on Google yields about 1.14 million results for mobile billboards – but 322 million results for mobile advertising.
What can you do to prevent this issue? Obviously, you need to be careful with the keywords you select. When examining your candidates, do a Google search on each one. If you don’t see many of your competitors showing up, ask yourself why. Just as importantly, pay attention to what DOES show up – and in what quantities. As with the phrase “mobile advertising” above, there may already be a well-established industry using the key phrase you want. In that case, a user searching with that key phrase will expect to find sites in THAT field, not in yours.
There’s another reason to pay attention to what shows up with particular keywords. There’s a joke about the sheltered cat-loving great-granny whose first venture online is an image search on Google for…well, do I really need to complete that phrase? Seriously, though, you don’t want to be on the same page in the search results as something with which you wouldn’t want to be associated, if you can possibly avoid it. That’s why you need to be thorough when you do your keyword research.
There’s one other point I’d like to address on the topic of avoiding keyword misalignment. The keywords that people use for particular things change over time. Sometimes it’s a slow process, but other times it’s just a matter of months. From what little I could determine from searching online, for example, advertising on mobile devices and advertising on mobile billboards, as industries, started around the same time – about the year 2000. It’s entirely possible that a mobile billboard company could have started their website with the aim to corner the phrase “mobile advertising” in the search engines, and if they didn’t repeat their keyword research as time went on, not realized their mistake until much later. So when you do your keyword research, be prepared to dig deeper – and repeat the process a few months later. Good luck!