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Keyword Basics Part 6: The buying cycle and keyword anatomy

We look at how a keyword works in relation to the buying cycle and how this fits with your website structure.

This article is an extract from Wordtracker's online SEO training course Get Traffic, free for subscribers to our keyword tool. Sign up for a trial and access the full article and all modules.

This is one of the most important units in the course as it covers not only how a keyword works but also introduces some key concepts that any SEO will need to know.

The buying cycle

This is the process a person goes through, from first realising the need for a product or service through to the final purchase. Although it's described in many different ways these all broadly follow the same pattern. We've broken it down into these three main categories.

the buying cycle

Think about the last time you purchased a product. You probably went through a process similar to this. The higher the value of a product, the longer this process tends to be.
Some products have buying cycles which are years long (when did you first start dreaming about and looking up that amazing bike / car/ boat, etc you'll buy for your retirement?). However most of the time this cycle is confined to a few weeks. We're generally impulsive in our purchasing decisions.

Now let’s tie this back to keyword research, so have a look at those examples:

Research: At this point people are looking for a broad solution to fit their need. So they will be searching for broad terms, like holiday.

Refine: At this point people are starting to get an idea of the market and what they want exactly, so are searching with more exact terms such as all inclusive holidays

Purchase: By this stage the customer knows pretty much what they want and are ready to buy, so they will be using very exact, or ‘long tail’ keywords like all inclusive holidays in alicante

We'll leave this idea for a bit to start discussing how to break down a keyword, but we will be coming back to it.

Keyword anatomy

Let’s start off by taking a look at a longer keyword, restaurant discount online. The keyword consists of three terms:
restaurant + discount + online

This can be broken down into three main elements:
head | modifier | tail
restaurant | discount | online

The head
Restaurant is the head of the keyword, this is the focal point of the user’s search and what the rest of the keyword relates to. Whether the user searches for restaurant discount online or luxury restaurant we know they’re searching for a restaurant.

The modifier
The modifier is a term which can be interchanged with other words in order to change a single aspect of the keyword's meaning. Unlike the head of the keyword it will not alter the type of the search.

Typical keyword modifiers are things like:

  • locations
  • brands
  • styles

In this example, discount is the modifier:
restaurant | discount | online
head | modifier | tail

So, how do we distinguish between the head term and the modifier?

Well, if you were to change the word discount to critic it would fundamentally change the meaning of the search, or the type of search. It would now form part of the ‘head’ of the keyword.

Your understanding of your market – and the products you offer – is important. Only you can know which type of customers you are targeting.

The tail
The tail of the keyword clarifies or adds further detail to the head term yet it doesn’t fundamentally change the searcher’s intent. In our restaurant discount online example, the use of online suggests that the searcher is looking for discount codes that can be found online.

A keyword where these three elements – head | modifier | tail – are used is often referred to as a long tail keyword.

Some examples of long tail keywords include:

  • restaurant | discount | online
  • dog training | best | Chicago
  • head | modifier | tail

It’s not about the order
It’s worth mentioning that the order of the language is not important. The head, modifier and tail of a keyword are named according to their properties, not according to the order in the keyword they occur in.

Site structure and keywords

This is where the buying cycle comes in again, and it should all start to make sense. A good site structure is like a triangle, or pyramid, with the single homepage on top then an increasing number of pages as you move through the site.

Now let’s think about this from a keyword perspective. You have your home page at the top, and this is probably the least focused page on your website. It’s not tied to any specific product or service (unless you only sell one), and will tend to attract the broadest audience.

site structure

The research phase

This is going to be the stage in the buying cycle that uses the broadest terms. Being broad, like holiday they will get lots of traffic. That’s great, lots of people are searching for that term. However people searching with that term won’t be at the point where they are ready to buy, so they will be low converting. This means that people who land on your site after finding it using a broad term like holiday are less likely to buy a product.

Remember though, this doesn’t mean they won’t buy anything from you; just that they will have to travel through the rest of the buying cycle to do so. They may well do this in a few clicks on your website, or they may go away and come back at a later stage.

The refining stage

This is where people are refining their choices; looking for something more exact. So rather than looking for a specific product they are likely to be using keywords which could relate to a group of products. Within the site structure this would be the category level pages.

So while your homepage might target a very broad term, like holidays the category pages would target groups within this such as:

  • all inclusive holidays
  • self catering holidays
  • half board holidays

At this level you have moved down the buying cycle. There will be less traffic for these terms, but people who use them will be closer to making a purchase. So you'll have a better conversion rate from these terms.

The buying phase

At this stage, the customer has decided exactly it is what they want. They are now searching for a specific product or service. This of course ties into your product level pages, where you show a single product which you are selling. As these are tied to a specific product the keywords are more exact. They are long tail keywords.

Long tail keywords have fewer searches because there are fewer people looking for each specific product. However, they do convert more effectively, as the people who searching with them have a greater intent to buy. They're inclined to be very specific, and really reflect the journey that the searcher has been on with their research:

  • all inclusive holidays in alicante
  • barbados self-catering holidays
  • half board holidays in the UK

Summary

The kind of keywords people use to search often have a direct relationship to where they are in the buying cycle, and it's valuable to have your pages (and indeed your site structure) set up to help searchers with this process. The more smoothly you can guide users through your site to the pages where they actually buy your products, the better.

In the next unit we'll be showing you how to do effective keyword research, from finding your niche to establishing the best keywords to implement on your pages, and later in this module, you'll learn exactly how to do that implementation.

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Keyword Basics

For the rest of our Keyword Basics series:

Keyword Basics Part 1: How search engines work

Keyword Basics Part 2: Finding keywords

Keyword Basics Part 3: Understanding a keyword's structure

Keyword Basics Part 4: Targeting your primary and secondary keywords

Keyword Basics Part 5: How to narrow down your keyword list

Keyword Basics Part 7: Using keyword modifiers

Keyword Basics Part 8: Building keyword rich inbound links