Why Optimizing for 0 Search Queries is Okay – SEO Theory


Someone asked for help in an online discussion group. His situation: Working on a site that is already ranking well in hundreds of queries (for a given topic) with at least 101 searches per month. He needs ideas for where to get more “high value queries” – that is, queries with more than 0-100 searches per month.

That’s what I call Mono-Topic Thinking. It’s the SEO philosophy that gave rise to doorway pages. And I don’t mean the fancy content-rich doorway pages people spew out today. I mean the 1990s variety of doorway pages, where you took 1 keyword and crammed it into the page Title element, an H1 element, and 1 short paragraph of text (about 50 words). Then you added a http-equiv redirect to the product page you really wanted traffic for and submitted your doorway page to Altavista and Inktomi.

Within a week – a month at most – you were ranking at the top of the search results on dozens of search engines and raking in the traffic. You still needed a good landing page to drive conversions, but you didn’t have to worry about getting traffic.

Life was so simple (and spammy) when all you had to think about was one keyword per page.

Frankly, Altavista ended that with Black Monday (October 25, 1999). You’ve NEVER seen so many depressed Web marketers if you didn’t live through that experience. No Google update has come even close to matching the impact of Black Monday. Altavista killed the effectiveness of doorways. Sure, they still worked with Google – but Google was nobody in 1999. Almost no one had heard of the search engine.

0-Search Queries Were Tainted by Scammy Faux SEO Companies

Around the time people were milking Altavista and the Inktomi partner network for millions of free visitors every month, some clever scam artists began promoting number-1 ranking services. For a small monthly fee, they’d get you number 1 listings on just about any search engine.

They used doorway pages, of course. And if you stopped paying them they turned off the doorway pages. People were trapped on this treadmill because the doorway pages worked like magic. One business owner told me he didn’t feel trapped – he was “just paying for cheap advertising.” Well, I guess he was.

When doorway pages became less profitable, the scam artists turned to other illusory tactics. Ranking clients for uncompetitive queries no one used was an easy way to show results to naive business owners.

This is where the “don’t pay for number 1 rankings” adage came from. It’s true that no one can guarantee number 1 rankings for any competitive keyword. We don’t own the rankings – we just own the content that might rank above other content.

But the Fact No One Searches on a Phrase Means Nothing

But every query starts out life with 0 searches. I guarantee you, no one was searching for “disney plus” 15 years ago. Here’s what the query lifeline looks like in Google Trends.

Trend history for the 'disney plus' query shows no activity for many years prior to the launch of the service.
Figure 1: No one searched for ‘disney plus’ for many years. It was a 0-search-volume query. Optimizing for it in 2010 would have been a waste of time.

Every query looks like this. No matter how popular they become, they always start at 0 and remain flat until someone creates some value that the general public associates with that query.

The Vulcans have a saying: No query lives alone.

In the past few years, the disney plus query not only grew into a monolithic powerhouse, it spawned a family of new queries that earn a lot of traffic.

Figure 2: A sample of some of the related queries that began earning searches after the launch of Disney Plus.
Figure 2: Many other queries began earning searches after the launch of Disney Plus. The popularity of ‘disney plus shows’ flattens the other 2 queries, but they also earn a lot of traffic.

Query families spring into life together. If you can build interest in any 1 topic, you’re building interest in an entire family of related, similar queries. And each of those queries spawns other similar, related queries.

In effect, stimulating interest in a query family is like planting a tree. With enough stimulation, the query tree can spawn dozens or hundreds of branches that spread out into a multitude of interesting topics. The topics may live for years. Sometimes they live spectularly intense, brief lives and the topics and most of their constituent queries lose nearly all their searches.

What Creates Interest in a 0-Search Query?

Obviously we can’t all launch online streaming services with the brand value of Disney Plus. But you don’t need to.

In 2006, no one was searching for seo theory. Todd Malicoat used the phrase and caught my attention. At the time I was writing a blog titled Google Says … and it was growing an audience, but I thought SEO Theory was more on point. And, really, the searchable web ecosystem has always been about much more than any 1 search engine. And so I began writing on this domain name, and built brand value for it.

People began searching for seo theory – some people have even optimized parts of their sites for the query. I breathed life into a phrase just by writing content for it.

You can buy advertising, do radio and TV interviews, speak at conferences, give samples away in parking lots across the country, sponsor sporting events – do anything to create visibility for a brand or brand-like phrase. And when enough people have seen it often enough, they will search for it.

An intense or horrifying news event might do the same thing.

Many years ago I knew someone who wrote a travel blog. He didn’t get much traffic. But on December 26, 2004 he woke up to an explosion of visitors. He didn’t understand what happened. When he turned on the television and saw the news about the Christmas Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, he was horrified like the rest of us.

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Only gradually did it dawn on him that people were searching for the name of a ship that had vanished in the tsunami. It was a ship he had once taken a picture of, and that picture was displayed on his Website. All he had about the ship was a single caption with its name.

Families of victims, and many curious people, found his Website because of that 1 picture. That’s not the way I would want any Website to become popular, but many sites do enjoy a burst in visibility and traffic because of a news event.

The same thing happened to one of my sites in 2002. New Zealand actor Kevin Smith (Ares on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess) died after being injured in a climbing accident on the set of a movie he was making. We had a fan forum dedicated to him. It was featured on CNN as they discussed his death and life. 15,000 people left messages on the forum.

Again, that’s not the way I want a site to become popular, but breaking news puts obscure relevant Websites on the map for everyone to see. And sometimes that sudden burst of visibility turns into a long life of public attention.

Content Makes the Website Query-Magnetic

Long-tail query magnetism is the quality of a Website that attracts random visitors. It’s a natural process that can’t be optimized through an SEO formula.

Assuming for the sake of discussion that search engines accept doorway page content, if you write a 100-word doorway page, that page won’t rank for much. There are too few words on the page. The page is about 1 phrase and 1 phrase only.

If you write a 1,000 word essay about a topic, that essay will be relevant t dozens, perhaps hundreds of queries. Over 5-10 years that page could attract hundreds or thousands of random visitors for a lot of queries.

Before you dismiss this illustrative example as being of too little value, consider that you can see those queries in the page’s analytics and do something about this. Creating content is the easiest way to do keyword research. You’ll always see real query data in the search engine Webmaster dashboards.

You can mine these random long-tail queries for keyword ideas and find good topics you can develop more content for – and you’ll already have 1 or more pages you can link from for the new content.

The process should be never-ending. As long as you write useful, helpful, informative, interesting content – someone will always find it. Someone will always search for something you didn’t expect to be connected to your own words.

0-Search Queries are Abused in Other Ways

People design bad SEO experiments around 0-search queries. The best experiments are designed for active, high-volume queries. If you don’t inject your experimental ideas into real search results with real competition, you have no way of knowing what effects your ideas have on search algorithms.

Optimizing test pages for queries no one uses, where no one else is competing for the same phrases, creates a fantasy world of useless data. You might as well be comparing the combat capabilities of Starfleet warships to the capabilities of modern China’s Navy. You’ll get the same amount of insight from either kind of analysis.

Don’t waste perfectly good long-tail queries on faux SEO research. If you want to study search algorithms, do it right. Optimize for competitive keywords. You’ll learn more much, much faster from doing that than from creating ridiculous sites no one is interested in for queries no one uses.

Those nonsense words you think are worthless aren’t necessarily so bad. IBM just spun off a huge part of their company under the name Kyndryl. I guarantee you, there will be search volume for that ridiculous-sounding name – and not because I just mentioned it in a blog post.

Conclusion

The potential value of every 0-100 search query is vastly under-rated by many Web marketers. The idea that each page should be about 1 keyword or even 1 topic is fundamentally flawed. That is a doorway page strategy. If you wouldn’t be caught dead publishing doorway pages, then why are you using doorway page optimization strategies?

When you’re already ranking 1st or 2nd for all the queries you think you should be, and you’re stumped for where to turn next, instead of dismissing those low-volume queries find the ones you can grow.

A Website with existing traffic, especially in the news and ecommerce industries, should be able to create new brand-value queries every year and grow them. In fact, affiliate sites should be able to do this, too.

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