Welcome to the November Highland Business Research Newsletter

Is vocabulary an online barrier between you and your customers?

Are you and your website visitors speaking the same language?

You say potAYto, I say potAHto, as the song goes. But what if I say spud, she says pomme de terre and that chap over there says King Edwards?

We all know spuds and potatoes are the same thing, right? Just like we know vacations are holidays, self catering and rentals are the same thing and that money is available from both cash machines and ATMs.

Is it really such a big deal if you and your customers speak with different vocabularies? Surely it is obvious you mean the same things.

Well, it is a very big deal indeed when it comes to websites and online marketing.

Relevance is the key to successful match making online

Firstly, your findability in the eyes of the all powerful search engines is based on relevant matching of key terms and phrases. (Speaking the same language, in essence). If your visitor is searching for "vacation rentals" and your self-catering website does not feature that phrase in any way – the visitor may never reach your site at all.

The difference in vocabulary has scuppered your chances of even having a prospect of a sale. A little variance in language has reduced your relevance and therefore your findability.

The problems of relevant language don't stop when prospects do successfully reach your website.

Website visitors navigate by scanning – not reading. Relevance is the driver here too. They are rapidly scanning for a relevant match to the phrase or concept they have in their head.

If your visitor is search for information about "courses", they will be rapidly scanning your navigation buttons and headings for that term (or even just for the letter C). Present them instead with the heading of "programmes" and in many cases it will be completely invisible to them. The link may lead to the same information, but it doesn't pass their rapid relevancy test.

How do you research what languages your customers speak?

If finding a common language is so important online, how do you get past your own assumptions and discover the different expressions your visitors use? Fortunately there are big clues – on your website, generally on the internet and also in your existing customer interactions.

Your onsite search engine, if you have one, is a massive help in identifying the vocabulary your visitors use. It's a big billboard where your visitor is trying to signal what they can't find. Your web analytics tool can track the terms your visitors use – and how often they refine them or abandon the site in frustration. Your top onsite search terms can often highlight where your website vocabulary is out of kilter with the terms used by visitors. Google Analytics readers can learn more here.

You can use Google's free keyword tool to find out what other terms people use for your key products and services (no Adword account required). Simply add in the words you would use, like self-catering, holiday cottages and so on. The tool will then generate all the associated key terms – and tell you the associated search volumes. You may discover you're overlooking far more common phrases and so are missing out on visits to your website.

The Google Insights for Search tool takes this further, allowing you compare search terms, review associated terms and then factor in geography and seasonal changes too. You'll get a very rounded picture of the search behaviour of your target market - as it specifically relates to your key terms.

Finally, really pay attention to your existing customer comments and correspondence. These people are directly talking to you using their natural vocabulary. Listen for the differences between the terms you use and the terms they use. They may not use the technical jargon you do – but if you want to be found online, you need to adjust to match their vocabulary, not demand your visitors learn to speak yours.

What can you do if your site is lost in translation?

How can you adjust the wording of your website to ensure it is relevant to all your different groups of visitors? Especially given visitors may use a wide variety of different expressions and terms.

  • Do your research, using the methods suggested above, to challenge your own assumptions about the key terms people use. Understand the most commonly used ones amongst your target market.
  • Start translating. Pick a short list of key expressions to work (naturally) into your website titles, headings, navigation sign posts, images and copy. Write for people, not search engines – the idea is to make the site more relevant and easier for visitors to use, not to reduce it to a jumble of key phrases.
  • Monitor and keep tweaking. Vocabulary evolves, as do websites. Make some changes on your site and look for the impact in your web analytics data, search engine rankings and your conversions from the web. Monitor, test and tweak – and of course keep listening to the language used by your customers.

You and your customers may speak different languages but there are clues on your website, on the wider web and in all your face-to-face interactions that can help you be more relevant to more people. And making allowances for both your spuds and your pomme de terres will lead to some fruitful match making!

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