The Keyword Search Cycle: How to Understand the Intent Behind Keywords

Keywords Research

Image by @seoinua

This post is the first in a 4-part series on keyword research called Keyword Research 101: The Ultimate Guide to Finding Buyers. At the end of the series I will be releasing a PDF that contains all posts.

If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you know that I place a lot of emphasis on understanding the needs of your target audience. If you have that crucial piece of information, everything else – from finding products to promote, to knowing what type of website to set up – becomes so much easier.

So the obvious question is this: what is the easiest and most effective way to understand the needs of your target audience?

In this post I’m going to describe how you can use keyword research to gain insight into people’s needs (notice I said “gain insight” – keyword research alone will not tell you with certainty what your audience is looking for. You need to do proper niche research to figure that out).

First Step in Keyword Research: Understand the Keyword Search Cycle

If you’ve been in internet marketing (IM) for any amount of time you’ve probably heard the term “buyer keyword”. In a nutshell, a “buyer” keyword is exactly what it sounds like – the keyword that a person types into a search engine when they’re ready to buy a product or service.

But what many internet marketers don’t know is that buyer keywords are part of the “keyword search cycle”.

What is the “keyword search cycle”?

When people do searches on Google and other search engines they’re at one of three stages. These stages have been expressed as the “Visitor Intention Model” by Richard Stokes. Below is my VERY sophisticated rendering of Richard’s model:

Let me explain what each stage means:

Browse and Informational searches are similar in nature, in that searchers are gathering information at this stage, and are generally not ready to make a purchase.

Browsers are people who will probably buy a product or service eventually, and their search terms tend to be very short (i.e. one or two generic words). At this stage they might not know anything at all about the product or service that they’re thinking of buying, which is why they type in general keywords such as “iPad” or “Las Vegas” or “yoga”. In essence, they’re in research mode.

People doing informational searches aren’t planning to buy anything at all – they’re looking strictly for information. Kids doing research for their homework, and people looking for celebrity gossip, are both examples of informational searches.

With “shop” keywords, searchers have made the decision to buy (maybe later, but probably soon), already have basic information on solutions, and are now gathering information that allow them to compare their options.

If you’ve done any keyword research, you’ve probably seen shop searches that use the word “review” (such as “web hosting review”) and the word “versus” (such as “Canon versus Nikon”).

Finally, “buy” keywords are just what their name implies. Searchers typing in these keywords have usually weighed their options, and are sitting at the computer with credit card in hand.

People who are ready to buy now often use keyword qualifiers in their searches. Simply put, keyword qualifiers are short words before and after a root keyword that signal the intent of the searcher. These can be one of the most powerful clues to the solution that the searcher is looking for. Here are a few examples of keyword qualifiers that can imply intent to purchase:

  • Cheap
  • Best price
  • Deal
  • Treatment
  • Cure
  • Remedy

I know from personal experience that searches containing those last two keyword qualifiers can lead to sales of health products.

A subset of “buy” keywords is navigational searches. In these cases, the searcher is looking for a specific brand of product or service (often a specific model), and will type that brand name and/or model name into a search engine.

“Buy” keywords are obviously the holy grail of keywords, as they’re the easiest to convert into sales. But if you’ve ever done one of these searches yourself, you can see how competitive they are, with tons of advertisers vying for placement in Google, and a lot of search engine optimized sites showing up in the organic results.

An Example of the Keyword Search Cycle

Let’s bring all of this information together with a practical example. I’ve recently been looking for a Flip camera to take on a trip my family is planning to Dubai and Bangalore, India.

As it turns out, “Flip camera” is a great keyword to demonstrate the keyword search cycle, because it contains pretty much every stage of the cycle. Check out the keywords from the Google Keywords Tool that I’ve highlighted below:

Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge

I’ve highlighted the keywords as follows:

  • The keywords highlighted in red are “browse” keywords: flip camera, video flip camera, and flip camera video.

As far as I know, the Flip camera only takes video – not photographs – so the people typing in “flip camera video” and “video flip camera” don’t even know that video is the only thing that the Flip camera does. That’s proof, I think, that these are true “browse” keywords.

  • The keywords highlighted in yellow are “shop” keywords: flip camera reviews, best flip camera, flip camera review, review flip camera, best flip camera to buy, and flip camera prices. People typing in these keywords seem to have made the decision to buy a portable video recorder, and are now looking for third-party advice on whether or not to choose the Flip brand.
  • The keywords highlighted in green are obviously “buy” keywords: buy flip camera, buy a flip camera, flip camera buy.

What about the remaining keywords that I haven’t highlighted?

It’s hard to tell just buy looking at them. The keyword “flip camera hd” could be a “buy” keyword, because the person is looking for a particular model of the Flip camera. But it could also be a “shop” keyword, because they’re looking for price comparisons of that particular model (but neglected to include the word “price” in their search).

With keywords that have uncertain intent, we need to go a little deeper, and use some ninja tactics to uncover their meaning.

(Okay, sorry for the “ninja tactics” reference – but it seems that every IM blogger is supposed to refer to ninjas or “cash flying into your pockets” at least once in a post 😉

5 Techniques to Discover the Intent Behind Keywords

Your objective in doing keyword research might not be to find “buy” keywords at all. Maybe you’re looking for some high volume, low competition keywords that are easy to rank for, so you can get lots of traffic to your sites and generate Adsense revenue.

It’s important to note that a very subtle change in keywords can mean big differences in a searcher’s intent. One example often given by a mentor of mine (Glenn Livingston) is the difference in the term “guinea pig” versus “guinea pigs”.

So besides guessing, how can you tell what the intent is behind a keyword? Try one of these five techniques:

1.      Use a “commercial intent” tool, like MSN adlabs commercial intent tool. This tool is easy to use (just type in a keyword) and it provides a number that indicates how much “commercial intent” there is behind a particular keyword (in other words, are most people who type that keyword looking to buy?).

Adlabs’ tools have some obvious drawbacks, including a lack of information on how they do their calculations, and the fact that the tools are sometimes unavailable (like when I was writing this post! Otherwise I’d have some screenshots for you 😉

2.      Let Google tell you. You might have heard: Google has some pretty smart people working for it. And they’re continuously refining their algorithms to ensure that the most relevant results show up at the top of the results page. So a great way to use Google to figure out what the intent is behind a keyword is to do a search on that keyword, and see what kind of sites come up.

Let’s test that theory by seeing what websites Google shows on its first page for a keyword whose intent is not clear: “flip camera hd”:

Click image to enlarge

Judging by the results on this page, Google appears to think that searchers want basic information on the Flip camera (notice where I’ve placed red arrows. The first three listings are for pages with general information on the Flip; only the fourth links to a shopping page).

However, Google has also thrown in some shopping results (which I’ve highlighted with a yellow border). Google seems to be hedging its bets here by mixing informational and shopping results.

I’ve read recently that Google is placing greater emphasis on clickthrough rate (CTR) in organic rankings (but this respected source says that CTR doesn’t matter). In the case of this page Google might monitor CTR and bump the shopping results higher if they see those results are getting a higher CTR than the informational results.

3.      Look at the keywords that are leading to “goals” in Google Analytics. If you have a Google Analytics account (if you don’t, shame on you!), you can set up “goals” for your site. Basically, a “goal” is any action you specify: an email opt-in, an e-book sale, etc.

One of the goals I’ve set up for my sites is “E-book Sale”. Whenever someone makes it to my “thank you” page (after paying for an e-book), Google Analytics (GA) registers that as a completed goal. In GA you can see which keywords led to a goal. Here’s a screenshot that shows keywords mapped to my E-book Sale goal:

Click image to enlarge

Pretty cool, eh? Over time, you’ll see that certain keywords are more likely to lead to sales. The conclusion: those are buyer keywords!

4.      Run a pay-per-click campaign. This one is pretty obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning. If you have a Flip camera affiliate site, the quickest way to identify buyer keywords is to run a pay-per-click campaign. Load up your Adwords account with a bunch of “flip camera” keywords and send that traffic to a page that reviews the Flip (making sure to abide by Google’s guidelines for site content, of course). By correlating keywords with sales, you’ll know which ones were typed in by people intent on buying.

5.      Run a survey. If you want to know exactly what is on people’s minds when they type in a keyword, the best method is…to ask them!

What’s more, when you run pay-per-click surveys, you not only learn the intent behind a keyword, you can also learn if there are needs in a market that are not being met.

I have run surveys in many niches, and it’s the only method I use to develop information products (because the knowledge you gain from surveys dramatically reduces the risk of a product failing).

Note: this technique probably doesn’t work well with “navigational” searches (i.e. when a person types in a specific brand name and/or model number). I can’t see many people wanting to complete a survey, when what they’re really looking for is to buy a particular product. Where surveys do work is in areas such as health, hobbies, etc. – niches in which the product people are looking for is information, not a physical product.

Summing Up

Keyword research is both art and science – but it’s mostly science (in my opinion). By treating it as such, you’ll gain a competitive advantage over your competitors, who see keywords as just an indistinguishable mass of words.

When doing your keyword research, also keep in mind that behind each search is a human being who wants to accomplish a goal (whether that goal is to obtain information, make a purchase, or be entertained). Help them to accomplish that goal, and you’ll go a long way to building an online business.

P.S. If you’re serious about doing pay-per-click advertising, Richard Stokes’ latest book is an essential addition to your library. Richard is a no-nonsense PPC guy, and he gets straight to the point in his writing. The book is called the Ultimate Guide to Pay-Per-Click Advertising, and you can get it here.

Next up in this series:

Effective Keyword Research: How to Brainstorm a “Seed” List of Keywords

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  1. says

    Hi Moe

    Great info as usual. I have a question regarding keyword choice:

    I’ve identified a niche, and conducted ‘buyer’ keyword research. I now have the choice of using an ‘aged’ domain name with a relevant brand name or a new domain name with a buyer keyword in it. Which name would you recommend using?


    • Moe says

      Wow, that’s a tough question, Ben! Let’s see if I can give a decent response…

      The obvious benefits of a ‘aged’ domain that has a relevant brand name are (1) you’ll be able to rank quicker (and therefore get free traffic faster), and (2) you might get a higher clickthrough rate in the search engine results because of the brand name in your domain name.

      I think the biggest drawback with this one is that you’ll be narrowing your traffic to only those people interested in that particular brand.

      The benefit of a new domain with a buyer keyword in it is that your domain name is “solution-oriented”, which might catch people’s eyes and encourage them to check out your site.

      The drawback with this domain is that it will probably take longer to rank in the search engines.

      Unless the niche you’re in is super competitive, I’d go with the new domain that has a buyer keyword in it. It might take you longer to rank, but ultimately you should see better results than using a domain name with a particular brand in it – because you’ll attract a larger group of potential customers.

      Hope that makes sense!


  2. says

    Hi Moe

    I’ve uncovered a ‘niche’ with a huge number of searches for the top two keywords (10 million plus). It has very low competition, and the PPC is just 20 cents.

    Problem: The product is free and generic. Therefore, the keywords are not ‘buyer’ keywords and the prospects are not in ‘buying mode’ at the point of acquisition.

    Question: Do you think I could make money from following up with offering relevant products to the opt-in list?


    • Moe says

      Hi Anna – wow, another tough question. Thanks for asking it!

      I absolutely think you could make money by capturing the emails of people who aren’t in ‘buying mode’ now, and following up with them via email autoresponder. The key thing to keep in mind is this, though – you need to start off your autoresponder series as an ‘educator’, not a marketer. In other words, the first batch of messages that you send out to your subscribers should give them lots of useful, free information – it should not try to sell them right away (that comes later).

      The reason is this: if people aren’t in buying mode when they join your list, you’ll turn them off in droves, and they’ll unsubscribe. If, however, you take the time to nurture a relationship, you’ll have their loyalty for a LONG time. And then you can try to sell to them later.

      There’s an important mental adjustment that you have to make with this strategy, though: delayed gratification. You have to accept that you probably won’t make money from these people for a while.

      In terms of how you should approach your pay-per-click campaign, if the cost-per-click is 20 cents (for top spot, I assume), I would bid low enough to put you in spots 4-6. Here’s the reason: when your ad shows up at the top spot (#1), you get a lot of “tire-kickers” who will click your ad just out of curiosity (not out of a serious desire to solve a problem). That’s obviously a big waste of money.

      In my experience, the lower my ad is in Adwords (or Yahoo or Bing), the greater % of serious buyers I get clicking on my ad. The logic is this: most searchers don’t look at the right side of the results page when doing searches. If they do look at the right side, they might look at the top 1-3 ads. So if a person is scanning the paid ads all the way to the bottom of the screen, they’re serious about finding a solution to their problem.

      Hope my long-winded response offers some guidance!


  3. Alwyn says

    Thanks for the excellent post Moe. Reading it now makes more sense to me.

    I really like how you can set goals in Google Analytics and then track which keywords led to the conversion. Neat!

    And when I run my PPC campaign to drive traffic to my sales page I will make sure to set an ‘eBook sale’ goal in GA so that I can find the buyer keywords and then work on SEO later targeting those KW’s.



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