Energy Efficiency, Home Performance, Weatherization -- How will your customers find you?

Global search volume for the term One of the big challenges for the emerging home energy efficiency industry is deciding what we call ourselves. Energy auditor, energy rater, home performance retrofitter, weatherization technician, and efficiency remodeler are just a few of the many terms. While it's not the only lens, one starting point for this conversation is to ask: are we speaking in the language our customers use?

One way to understand what consumers are thinking (so that you can reach them using their language) is to analyze search terms on Google and other search engines. Yes, search is just one measure, but it tells us not only what people are physically typing into search pages, but how the average homeowner is thinking about the home performance and energy auditing industry. How would a consumer who wants to improve their home's efficiency go about finding you? Would they look for an insulation contractor? A weatherization contractor? A carpenter? An energy auditor? Truth is, they're all over the map.

Analyzing Search Terms in Home Energy Efficiency

So, we decided to do some analysis of search terms (using the publicly available Google External Keyword Tool) that people looking to upgrade the energy efficiency of their home might use. The results might surprise you: what we call ourselves is sometimes dead last on their list. (More on that later.)

energy efficiency search terms graphic

energy audit related search terms graphic

energy contractor search terms graphic

Interesting, right? We thought so, too, and see at a number of key takeaways:

1) People are thinking about energy efficiency.

Terms like "energy efficiency" and "energy consumption" are getting decent traffic, and that's a good sign. (For volume context, "Apple iPad" was searched more than 2.2 million times in February.) Still, the order of magnitude differences between home weatherization, home performance and home energy are striking. Would you have guessed that the gap between green building and home performance to be that great?  

2) The "energy audit" concept is gaining ground.

As you can see in the top right hand graphic, things seem to be getting better, too: A quick look at Google Trends for the term "energy audit" shows a steady increase over the past several years. Clearly, there's much work to do to make this more widely known, but this looks like a term that's on a path towards mainstream.  

3) Homeowners may not necessarily be looking for what we think they're looking for.

And minor linguistic adjustments can make all the difference. For example, check out the difference between "energy audits" and "energy audit." It's a difference of more than 100,000 searches. Who would have thought? 

4) Homeowners aren't sure how to find qualified pros.

Above all, this analysis spells out the low search volume for the terms used by energy efficiency professionals themselves. "Home performance contractor," for those in the know, seems like a mainstream term. But the fact that only 390 people searched for "home performance contractor" is startling. I'm not saying this isn't the best term to describe what we do, but it has no penetration in the consumer psyche. On the other end of the spectrum, there are 650,000 monthly searches for "insulation contractors." That's more than twice the volume of all energy-related "contractor" terms, combined. (And I can hardly bring myself to share the data on "air sealing." It's nowhere.)

It all adds up to this: We have a lot of work to do as an industry to get the word out and a lot of education of the general populace to accomplish. The search pattern we see here clearly indicates that most people have little understanding of the whole-house approach (encapsulated in such search terms as "home performance contractor," "building performance," and others). This is a message we need to simply explain, while we reach out to customers where they're looking and learning now. 

If you work in the field of energy efficiency or run an energy efficiency business, tell us: Have you used any other terms that have helped your marketing efforts? Or have you found a way to frame the work you do, from a linguistic standpoint—for the benefit of search engines and people who'd like your help? If so, we'd love to hear about it. 

Caveats: Google data is from a particular point in time and is historical only. In a week, the same searches will likely produce different numbers. Search "volume" is only one important metric. The competitiveness of that search term, meaning the number of results competing for that term, is also a critical factor. The precision of a given term is also critical. "Weatherization," for example, brings up a ton of related search terms such as "low income assistance," "food stamps," and "welfare," given the long-term association of this term with low-income help.


This is an important point, and I think it's important to add a few things.

First, people search for what they know, and they know what they hear.  If they hear "weatherization" on the news, this may be the term they associate with the more general concept of "I gotta get my house fixed because my oil bill is going through the  $#&^@ roof this year".  The President says "weatherization" and guess what, all those terms of the profession, technically accurate, distinctive and the like ... fugetaboutit.  Ah, "building performance", we love you so, but you're dead to me now.

Second, search engines are dumb.  Yes, even Google.  They read words and sometimes are able to do very clever things like guess that "energy auditing" and "energy audit" seem somehow oddly connected, even though they are totally different.  Side point: Google doesn't listen to the radio or the TV news: if it's not on the web, it doesn't exist.  So look for what's been written and look for the words used by whomever it is that talks about a topic (and to whom people listen) and know that these are probably going to be the same terms that people use when they are searching.

Finally, remember how writers (and others on the web) write as compared to how the audience thinks.  If I write about "energy auditing", Googles going to see that phrase a lot.  If I write about "energy audits", Google sees something a bit different.  But people are (hopefully) thinking "I want an energy audit" and the difference between "auditing", "audits" and "audit" makes a difference.  A huge, huge difference, in many cases. 

There's an art to writing for the web using terms that people search for -- it's a little different than Ms. Ballbuster from 6th grade tawht me, when I learned how to write goodly, and with right speling and the properest grammer.  Actually, it's really just a different kind of writing, more conversational, and less formal.  Ms. Balbuster would hate it.  But Mr. Google and all the rest of us love it.

A little known secret is that most people who write seriously on the web on real sites saying real stuff (like here on Energy Circle) have editors.  The editors correct the gramatical errors, the spelling errors, the tense and gerunds and so on.  And sometimes they turn conversational writing into something more formal.  So the secret is: write the copy of your website using the language your (prospective) customers might use when they are looking for someone like you.

Bonus secret: you probably wouldn't drive three hours to do a job, right?  So when you're writing, mention your state, region or area served.  I live in "Newton, MA" which is in "Metro West Boston".  When someone types "Metro West Boston Energy Auditor" they had better darned well find me, doncha think?  (Well, if I was an energy auditor).

All of this is part of a dark art known as search engine optimization (SEO).  Most companies that suggest they know know to get your site listed on Google and others say they do SEO.  Most SEO companies are "black hat", thinking they can do something clever to beat Google, Bing, and Yahoo.  The ones that have been around are more sensible.  White, gray or black hatted, SEO is more like voodoo than it is like science.  Don't pay money for companies claiming to do more than seems reasonable.

Tom Harrison

Energy Circle SEO guy (but nice, honest, and not likely to kill gramma, or grammar)

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