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How Do Potential Customers Search?

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One critical characteristic of your target customer segments is how they use search engines. Many people, whether they’re shopping for a sleeping bag or looking for a small aircraft for their company, will go through several steps known as the buying cycle.

Most people take several steps in advance of making a purchase decision, downloading a white paper or trial software, or filling out and submitting a form asking for a salesperson to contact them. These steps can take just a few minutes, an entire day, or in the case of complicated, technical B2B products and services, several weeks or months.

These steps can be broken down into the following three categories:

  1. Interest
  2. Research
  3. Conversion

Figures 3.1 and 3.2 show searches used in the Interest and Conversion phases. Let’s look more closely at each step.

Search results after using a broad query during the Interest phase

Search results after using a specific query during the Conversion phase


During the Interest phase of the buying cycle, potential customers express a broad need or desire. They may be uncertain about whether their search activity is going to culminate in a purchase or other conversion action. They tend to use generalized search terms, often expressing their needs and/or desires as a question.

Though searchers may visit several sites during this phase, it’s unusual for them to take the conversion action at this early stage. Their primary objective is to see whether solutions (products or services) exist that might satisfy their needs and/or desires. They’re probably not looking too closely at prices and feature lists quite yet— this is something they’ll start to do in earnest when they enter the next phase.

Though site visits don’t often culminate in conversions during the Interest phase, these visits are valuable because visitors are mentally registering their impressions of the sites in terms of professionalism, relative pertinence to their needs and/or desires

Table 3.1 lists some products and industries along with search terms that might be used for them during the Interest phase.

Search Queries Used during the Interest Phase of the Buying Cycle


Potential customers pass from the Interest to the Research phases after they have made the decision that they intend to take action—to make a purchase or ask for a quote, for example. The search terms they use are more-specific versions of the queries used in the Interest phase.

Although it’s somewhat more likely that Research-phase site visitors will convert than those in the Interest phase, many people are still not ready to take action during the Research phase. Though they’ve decided that they eventually will take action, it’s important that they narrow their options by comparing prices, feature sets, or vendors.

Table 3.2 lists potential search queries used during the Research phase.

Search Queries Used during the Research Phase of the Buying Cycle


Not surprisingly, the Conversion phase describes the period during which people decide to take the conversion action. They may have already visited the site that best matches their needs, and they remember the domain name or something specific and distinctive about the site. Or they may still be narrowing the field but deciding among a small number of vendors.

Some typical Conversion phase search queries are listed in Table 3.3.

Search Queries Used during the Research Phase of the Buying Cycle

Such queries would seem to be the most valuable in that they often result in a site visit during which a conversion takes place. Conventional wisdom is for advertisers to pay top price for a click on an ad that is displayed as a result of a Conversion phase search query. Although this logic is sound, it may be less evident that search terms used by people who are closer to the beginning of the buying cycle should be valued highly as well, because without them, many eventual customers would never have become aware of sites that match their needs.


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