How To Use The Keyword Funnel To Understand Searcher Intent

Keyword research can give you great insight into customer problems, needs, desires, and intent. Categorizing the keywords you’ve found is an important step in putting together potential campaigns and deciding on which ones are worth pursuing in your organic or paid search efforts.

I believe that categorizing keywords into the finest groupings that make semantic sense is the right way to do it; often I’ll have a category with 2, 10, or perhaps 30 keywords at the most. Later, when some of the categories are turned into actual campaigns, this tight organization and relevance will tend to pay off with higher quality scores.

Since Google Adwords takes into account the relevance of keywords to the creative, obviously grouping very diverse keywords will result in low relevance, so this is why relatively fine categorization is important.

Often, however, I find myself with too many keywords to handle; even as little as 5,000 keywords broken down into 300 categories, for instance, is still not a very manageable set.

In these cases, I like to take the keyword categories and bundle the categories themselves into a *secondary* category that represents the “funnel” stage that the keyword category belongs to.

Marketers are told to think of a customer as being in one of various “funnel” stages at any given time, and even if you’re not systematic about it, you probably already think of brand terms as being “lower funnel” and research-type terms as being “upper funnel”.

Most readers are doubtless familiar with models such as “Attention-Interest-Desire-Action”, and other 4, 5, and 6 stage funnels which are pretty standard fare for marketers.

After performing my initial keyword categorization (sort of into micro-categories), I like to categorize the categories themselves into a total of *ten* funnel stages I’ve developed, which are organized around a “problem/solution” mental model.

In Figure 1, I’ve shown individual keywords belonging to each funnel stage for a variety of B-to-C funnels. Later, Figure 2 presents some B-to-B  examples.

These keywords presented could be actual keywords, but I think they are more appropriately thought of as representing *categories* of keywords:

Figure 1 - Business to Consumer Search Funnel Stages

Figure 1 - Business to Consumer Search Funnel Stages

Ten stages may seem like a lot of detail, but organizing keyword categories into these stages:

  1. Forces you to really try to understand searcher’s intent.
  2. Gives you a sense of where the holes in your keyword research are from a funnel perspective.
  3. Resonates with clients or management and is a great way to discuss and understand a business.

For example, after going through this exercise with one client, to my great surprise, they told me that stage 2 (“Suspicion There May Be a Problem“) was almost the sole focus of their existing marketing.

Their strategy is to pull in searchers looking for help identifying their problem, establishing them early as a trusted brand in the eyes of the searcher.  This client has found that organic and offline conversions then naturally follow. Although very much a one-trick pony approach which I would not recommend for most businesses, it works great in their market.

Below is another version of the funnel with examples that are more B-to-B oriented, for those interested in that perspective;  we’ll now run through the funnel stages, explain the thinking behind each of them, and discuss which stages you should consider addressing in your marketing mix.

Figure 2 - Business to Business Search Funnel Stages

Figure 2 - Business to Business Search Funnel Stages


Activity Funnel Relates To

This is a very general field of activity, and will often not be a focus of marketing efforts since the customer may not actually be experiencing a problem yet.

However, display advertising that targets field-focused websites or is demographically targeted may be a useful vehicle from a branding perspective in this stage.

Suspicion That There May Be A Problem

This funnel is focused around the mental model of problem-solving; other mental models may make for useful funnels as well, but I’ve found “problems” to be universally applicable.

In this stage, there may be symptoms described but the customer does not understand the nature of the problem, or perhaps they don’t even understand that the symptoms are a problem at all.

It’s a critical stage where you can have great influence on the direction a potential customer will take; we’ll touch on this more later.

Problem Identified

This is an interesting bucket because you may have some latent versus blatant needs that you can separate out; different types of problems may actually fork off into different funnels.

Looking For Solution Alternatives

In this stage, the prospect is trying to understand the variety of approaches available to them. There are many ways to lose weight for instance; diet, exercise, portions, surgery, and so on.

This is fairly early in the research phase and can be ripe fruit for thought leadership content (great for the SEO channel as well). If you’re really lucky and you’re the only solution to a problem (perhaps you’re in a new market) then this stage may barely even exist and prospects may jump directly from stage 3 to stage 5.

Solution Space Has Been Chosen

In this stage, the prospect has decided on a particular approach for solving the problem (for instance, “dieting” to solve a weight problem).

Complicating Issues

This stage perhaps belongs alongside the funnel, but I usually place it in the middle of the research phase. Many people with problems have complicating issues; diabetes (if they are interested in weight loss), a wheelchair-bound spouse (if they are interested in travel), and so on.

Addressing these complicating issues can be a great way of differentiating your product or service and reducing friction for a final sale.

Researching A Specific Solution

Now the prospect is getting *very* specific about a particular member of the solution space (“Low-Carb Diets” in the case of a Weight Loss/Dieting funnel for instance).

Researching A Specific Brand

At this stage, the prospect is getting very serious and is educating themselves about specific providers.

Remember, brand terms are well known in the industry to convert at a higher rate as generic terms (twice the rate on average in my experience), so addressing this funnel stage should be a critical component of any online marketing effort.

Conversion Imminent

Terms that include phrases like “coupon code”, “pricing”, “cheap”, are akin to flashing red lights with a siren screaming “transaction about to occur!!!”

Spending a lot of time building out variations in this funnel section is usually well rewarded. Google Suggest is a great place to find ways that potential customers are raising their hands in these ways.

Post Conversion

Often, a neglected funnel stage, this is where you will find customers searching for things like “repairs”, “replacement parts”, “add-ons”, “upgrades”, “warranties”, and “support”.

You may or may not have offerings that address concerns in this funnel stage, but it’s important to think about them.

If you’re a travel company, trip insurance may not be something your customers will actively seek out often, and paid search campaigns targeting that concept may not be worthwhile.

If, however, your paid search keyword research turns up the concept, and you then prompt your company to put together some sort of revenue-sharing deal with a trip insurance provider to integrate their product into your cart, I would say the time spent researching funnel stage #10 was well worth it.

Which Stages Should You Target?

As most articles you’ve read on this topic probably state, you should target all of them. This is not very helpful advice though – often in marketing we have to prioritize our efforts.

If I absolutely had to prioritize the top ones to focus on initially, I would say #9, #8, #5, and #2 in that order.

Funnel Stages #8 and #9, “RESEARCHING A SPECIFIC BRAND” and “CONVERSION IMMINENT” are self-evidently critical; how are you going to leverage this great funnel if you don’t catch potential customer at the end of it?

I am, however, a big believer in avoiding cannibalization from organic search conversions, so my preference is to consider targeting competitor brand terms  before I would work on cannibalizing my own.

Funnel Stage #5, “SOLUTION SPACE HAS BEEN CHOSEN” is square in the middle of the research phase, and catches customers who are partially educated on the problem and are still early enough in the funnel to nudge in your direction.

Funnel Stage #2, “SUSPICION THERE MAY BE A PROBLEM” is important because it’s an opportunity for you to disturb the prospect’s equilibrium, a critical step in any sales process.

Much like Don Draper stated in his famous “Carousel” pitch about the term “new”, with problem defining keywords, you “create an itch, and simply put your product in there as a sort of ‘calamine lotion’”. Funnel step #2 is essentially the “itch” stage.

This stage, where the potential customer suspects but does not yet fully understand that they may have a problem, is a powerful leverage point for influencing searchers in your direction. Think of searchers as meteors, heading for earth – a slight nudge much earlier in their trajectory can have as much influence as a strong shove later in the funnel.


Very fine categorization of keywords can be helpful in ascertaining customer intent, organizing your efforts, and suggesting actual paid search campaigns you might run.

I have found these ten funnel stages in particular are a convenient and useful way for me to organize very large numbers of refined categories of keywords, derive insights from them, and create campaigns targeting various phases of the sales funnel.

If anyone has any other useful mental models for constructing a funnel besides the “problem/solution” approach I’ve presented here, or any thoughts on which funnel stages to prioritize and how – by all means, comment below.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | How To: SEM | Keywords & Content | Search Marketing: Search Term Research


About The Author: helps enterprises to scale up online marketing efforts through custom engagements tailored to their unique situations. Ted blogs on a variety of online marketing topics with a special emphasis on SEO at Coconut Headphones. You can find him on Twitter @tedives.

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  • russofford

    Great post.  Thanks for sharing your process with us.

    I find that I have already been using a few of these concepts without really knowing there was a larger sub-set of funnels with which to work.

    I had previously thought in more limited terms of search phrases that are ‘sales producing’ and search phrases where people are ‘researching’ a problem/solution. Within the researching stage, I knew that some website visitors were searching using ‘problem’ type keywords and others used ‘solution’ type keyword phrases.  Within the ‘solution’ phrases, I found that some people were looking for general types of solutions and others were researching a particular solution that they had previously encountered.

    With this client’s product, it is VERY important that we educate the potential customer of this alternative solution very early on in the process.  Many people do not even know this solution exists so they think that they need to REPLACE (with a new very expensive product) rather than REPAIR their system with this (very affordable) solution.  We try to provide as much education about the problem itself, the solutions, as well as the downfalls of other ‘competing solutions’ (apart from replacement.)

    This new knowledge will definitely help me tackle this particular client.  I had them in mind the entire time I was reading this article!

    Thanks again. Russ.

  • sandeep kumar

    Thanks for such a elaborative article about keyword.
    Normally we follow the above steps without knowing thwir technical aspects but you have explained them with proper expalanation and example.
    Thanks once again.

  • Shade Wilson

    Good article, and while it’s from a PPC perspective, this same type of approach also works well for content development, and SEO.

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    All  i can say is wow great article,

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    Thanks for such a informative article about keyword, the article is written very well.

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  • Nick Stamoulis

    Understanding user intent is so important in keyword research. Why someone is searching is just as important as what they are searching for (what keywords are they using). This is a great way to break it down.

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    Man, I wish I wasn’t the first person to make a comment on your post… I keep getting notifications from the Disqus system from people trying to spam your post.  :S  That’ll teach me!  It seems like the spammers try to make a comment on the first comment left on the page. (?!?)

  • Jerry Nordstrom

    Ted – Excellent article. Like the previous commenters I have used an intent based funnel for years with a great deal of success. You have articulated this concept in a very clear and concise manner – well done. I would love to hear your follow up on how this level of detail is expressed in the number of landing pages you create? How do you efficiently manage a campaign structure, rules, bids, ads and related landing pages with this level of detail? Is this set-up too complex for the DIY small business, or can they get away with your subset of funnel stages? What are the minimum requirements for tools to manage this type of campaign structure? Can adwords and editor handle it, or does one have to go up the chain and implement more robust tools like Omniture or Kenshoo?

  • Ted Ives

    Jerry – I might do a followup at some point, you raise a lot of good questions – I’ll try to answer a few here:

    The minimum requirement is really just adwords and the editor.

    I find that once you put campaigns together in this way, you can progressively work your way backwards to put negatives into earlier funnel stages – so your late funnel ones have very few but the earlier funnel ones have later stage terms as negatives – sort of makes negative management a little easier to figure out.

    I also break each stage into “performers” versus general (so say, 20 campaigns), and make the performers contain all exact match and the general campaign all phrase match (again, dropping the exact match negatives into those phrase match versions).

    Also if you’re bidding on a CPC basis only (less than ideal), you can
    bid up the later funnel stages, and in a way sort of be bidding in a
    CPA-like fashion even though you don’t have conversion information –
    say, 50 cents for early funnel terms and $3.00 for late funnel terms for
    instance.  Intuitively this should be closer to what you would be bidding if you actually had some kind of tracking in place, rather than just a flat $1.50 across the board for instance.

    Based on what I’ve seen with my clients, it’s a bit too complex for them to set up themselves, but once it’s in place they find it pretty easy to understand.

    Landing pages – in the ideal world you should have one per Ad Group; in practice you don’t see people go to that much effort.  I do think that organizing along these funnel stages allows you to perhaps consider designing landing pages to target funnel stages, so you may have some seemingly unrelated ad groups at first glance that might be able to use the same landing page, because the prospect is at a similar stage in both cases.


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