Keywords, Aboutness, and SEO
How humans and technology (searchers and search engines) interpret the meaning of digital documents.
As search engine optimization (SEO) professionals, we often use the word aboutness whenever I label and describe content. Aboutness plays a critical role in information retrieval systems. If a search engine determines that a document (web page, PDF, graphic image, video) is topically related to a searcher's keywords, then a link to the document often appears in the organic search listings.
According to many information sciences professionals, the term aboutness has multiple meanings and layers. For example, many search professionals might be familiar with intentional, extensional and pluralistic aboutness. Let's look at these terms individually and see how they are directly related to our jobs as search engine optimizers.
Aboutness: Search engines, users, and context
R.A. Fairthorne is credited with coining and defining the term aboutness back in 1969. According to Fairthorne, intentional aboutness describes the meaning of a document (such as a web page, PDF, graphic image or video) from the author's perspective. Authors are able to state what a document is "about" by formulating an expression which "summarizes" the content of a document (Hutchins 1997). Summarization involves the selection of keywords or keyword phrases.
As SEO professionals, we understand keyword selection and placement. We describe the intentional aboutness of web pages in a variety of places, including but not limited to:
The way we describe and label website content should ultimately communicate to both search engines and web searchers what the content is about. In other words, both humans and technology should understand the aboutness of our digital documents.
For example, let's take a graphic image. Since search engines have a difficult time accurately understanding the aboutness of a graphic image, they look at the context in which an image is used.
According to Fairthorne, extensional aboutness is reflected semantically by actual units and parts of the text. In other words, how we present content on our web pages via titles, headings, sentences, captions, etc. influences the extensional aboutness of page content.
External link development can also communicate aboutness. How do people other than the author describe a document's content?
In an ideal situation, both intentional and extensional aboutness should match or at least closely resemble each other.
However, it is commonly known that a single term can have multiple meanings in different contexts, and that a single concept can be represented using more than one term (Ching et al, 1998). There is also pluralistic aboutness, when desired information can be labeled in multiple ways, or if one keyword doesn't address the entity of the topic (Morville 2005).
Intentional aboutness, extensional aboutness, pluralistic aboutness—what do these terms ultimately mean to an SEO professional? And how can we be sure that the "correct" interpretation of a page's aboutness is communicated to both searchers and search engines?
Measuring and communicating aboutness
Many SEO professionals feel that a web page's aboutness is communicated simply by keyword repetition. If you use keywords X number of times on a web page, then clearly the page is focused on those keyword phrases, right? We wish it were that simple.
First of all, search engines haven't measured keyword density as a ranking factor for a very long time. However, that doesn't mean that web pages (and graphic images and multimedia files) shouldn't contain keywords. Keywords are essential for communicating aboutness. But keywords should be placed judiciously so that the aboutness of the page is clear to both search engines and web searchers.
Here is a usability test we like to do called the 5-Second Test coined by the folks at User Interface Engineering. For this usability test, we present the web page to test participants for only 5 seconds and ask them what they believe the page's content is focused on. If we don't hear the most important keyword phrases? Then the page probably isn't communicating the aboutness of the content—above the fold—where users view content first.
How do we SEO professionals communicate aboutness of content above the fold?
Search engines also look for the aboutness of a web page via off-the-page factors. I like to think of link development as validation of a user/searcher mental model. If a searcher types a keyword phrase into Google, for example, the searcher wants to see his keywords validated in search results and those same keywords on the web page that he ultimately lands on. He wants to see his information scent (keywords) validated.
Validation also occurs on pages other than search engine results pages (SERPs).
For example, if a searcher clicks on a link from Search Engine Land to another website, the searcher wants to be sure that he goes to the right web page on the destination website. If a person clicks on a link from a newspaper or magazine article, he wants his keywords validated and reinforced. Search engines want that, too. That's why link development is also a part of aboutness.
However, Peter Morville also noted that the authority of the masses can redefine the aboutness of the object, even though there can be a good match between the words of the author and searcher. Mass authority can be a good thing, because authors are not always right, or it could be a bad thing, because the "wisdom of the crowds" is an often-cited fallacy.
For those of you who wish to read more about aboutness in the context of information sciences and information retrieval, here are some great reference materials.
If you liked this web copywriting tip, here are more links to related optimization tips and articles from Omni Marketing Interactive:
You can also read our articles from other online publications.
If you have any questions about Omni Marketing Interactive's search engine optimization (SEO), website usability, information architecture (IA), or web design services, please call us at 847-426-4256.