One of the biggest challenges for small businesses when it comes to search engine marketing is figuring out what the best keywords are to target in their organic and paid search advertising campaigns. A few years back I wrote an article about the Number One Rule of Organic Search Marketing. (The rule? Speak your customer's language.) The article talks about the importance of understanding what keywords people are searching for and then integrating those keywords into your web site.

I've also spoken to small business owners about the pros and cons of targeting high-traffic phrases verses lower-traffic phrases. Obviously you get more visitors with the more competitive phrases, but lower-traffic phrases tend to convert better. Since many businesses have a hard time understanding that concept, I thought it might be a good idea to dig into the concept of the "search buying cycle."

Searchers Take Their Time Before Buying

While it's easy enough to envision a potential customer heading off to Yahoo or Google, conducting a search, clicking through and making a purchase, the reality is that the online sales process is more complicated than that. Yes, there will be plenty of sales that you can track directly to a keyword query on a search engine, but the greatest majority of sales on most sites come from direct URL entry or bookmarks. This becomes even more true as the ticket price of your products increases. This is because online shoppers tend to take some time doing research and following the "search buying cycle" before settling on a product and a web site to purchase it from.

In fact, studies have shown that the average searcher tends to search up to a dozen times over the course of several weeks before they make a purchase (either online or offline.) It's important to understand that we're not talking about people running the same search over and over again and then finally buying. We're talking about a user running multiple searches on the same topic before they make their purchase. This process of refining a search over time is what's known as the search buying cycle.

As you can see from the image on the right, searchers start out in what's known as the "interest" phase. As they learn more about their topic they progress into the research phase and finally the purchasing phase. In order to see the search buying cycle in action, let's follow the process as someone looking to book a vacation.

I'll use myself as an example and will think about the fact that I might like to take a vacation to a national park with my husband and two small children.

The Interest Phase

The Interest phase tends to be where people search using the broadest terms. Single word phrases like "cars" or "mp3" player that get very high volumes of search, are highly competitive and convert at low rates. Using my own example, I'd start off with a search for the phrase "national parks." While Google lists more than 27 million search results for this phrase, the very first result is the official web site of the National Park Service.

Once I get to the National Park Service site, I'm greeted with a map of the United States that allows me to rollover each state to get a quick glimpse of information about that state's parks. I've heard that quite a few movies were filmed in South Dakota and I've never been there, so I click on the listing of South Dakota state parks. While exploring the information about the state parks, I come across an article about the Black Hills of South Dakota. This area sounds promising, and so I move on to the next stage of the search buying cycle.

The Research Phase

At this point, I head back to Google and I run a new search for "black hills south dakota" in order to start getting some more specific information about the region. At this point my search query has gotten a little bit more specific, which means that I'm likely to spend more time checking out multiple sites and options. I spend a little bit of time at which has a clickable map of the area. This let's me find out that Rapid City is within driving distance of many of the sites that I'd like to visit while on my trip.

I also learn that there are more than a dozen beautiful lakes in the Black Hills and quite a few great camping spots. This knowledge pushes me into the final stage of the search buying cycle.

The Buying Phase

Now I'm armed with some information that tells me exactly what I'm looking for. My search queries now include phrases like "black hills cabin rental," "Rapid City SUV rental," "Little Seneca Lake boat rental" and "Rapid City restaurant reviews."

Each of these searches should lead me to web sites that I'll actually consider making purchases from. I may visit several options for each search and bookmark the ones that look best so that I can show them to my husband later tonight. We'll decide which ones we like best and then I'll head back to that site using my bookmarks (or by running the same search and counting on Google's search history to tell me where I've been) in order to confirm a reservation or get a phone number to call them with.

Targeting Any or All of the Phases

As I conducted my search I noticed that a few sites managed to rank well for phrases that matched each of the three buying cycles. Branding wise, this served them well as it put those sites front and center in my mind when I looked at the search results. On the other hand, as I ran into very specific searches in the final stage of the cycle, I noticed that I'd start to get a lot of product review sites or information aggregator sites. These types of sites fit the needs of my search and did an excellent job of targeting the long tail by relying on consumer generated content like user reviews.

An interesting thing to note about the search buying cycle is that as searchers move through each of the three phases, the traffic for each search phrase drops, but the conversion rate for each search phrase tends to go up. It's not hard to imagine that I'm far more likely to make a purchase after my search for "Rapid City SUV rentals" than I am after my search for "South Dakota State Parks." That's why it's essential that you, as a small business owner, consider what the intent of searcher might be when they type in each phrase that you're considering targeting. Are some phrases more likely to convert than others? Most likely. Are you ignoring those phrases because they don't appear to have enough search volume? If so, you are doing so at your own peril.

Site owners need to decide which stages of the search buying cycle they would like to capture traffic from and they need to make sure that the pages they are optimizing for those terms are also meeting the needs of the mind set of those searchers. Large sites with a high volume of quality incoming links and a good amount of content stand the best chance at targeting searchers in all three phases of the buying cycle.

What you need to ask yourself is how likely is it that you will rank for a phrase and how likely is it that the phrase will convert. There's a fine line in knowing where to place your limited resources, but by considering the impact of the search buying cycle, you can often make a solid decision on what phrases to target. After all, the more success you have in the early days of your SEM campaign, the more money you'll have to target more competitive phrases in your next round of marketing.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

March 5, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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