by Brad Smith, Founding Partner & Director of Marketing, Codeless Interactive, LLC

How to Choose SEO Keywords for Every Stage of the Funnel

A slew of zoo animals have shaped SEO over the past few years. But the overall goal has stayed the same: to deliver the best results for a specific keyphrase or question.

This means the intent behind a search query is more important than ever.

Here’s how to understand what people are looking for through every stage of the marketing funnel, and strategies to choose the best keywords for every step of the way.

Why not all searches are created equal

People don’t buy immediately upon their first site visit.

You already know this. They go through a series of steps, and subsequent visits across multiple devices, before they purchase.

When you zoom out and look at the customer journey from afar, you can see how people are influenced at different stages of the purchasing process.

Customer journey to online purchase

Google’s Customer Journey to Online Purchase can help you see what your own customer’s journey and influences look like.

And when you fire it up, one of the first things you’ll notice is that a distinction is being made between generic and brand searches.

People use search engines multiple times at different points along this journey.

At the beginning, they ping Google to better understand the problem they’re dealing with and to get a lay of the land. Later on, they’re looking for alternatives and evaluating their options to solve this problem.

Channel position

That means a generic search tends to be problem-aware, while a brand search means they’re lower in the funnel and closer to making a decision.

That nuanced insight should drive your modern-day SEO strategy. Ten years ago it might have been OK to pluck a random “money keyphrase” out of thin air and optimize everything around it.

But the game’s gotten tougher and more competitive. While consumer behavior has evolved as well.

Today, the best SEO plan ensures that a website has pages and sections set-up to attract people at the top, middle, and bottom of the funnel.

For example, someone looking for a TV might start off by looking for relatively generic information about “LCD’s”, before digging into “discounts” and then finally looking for a specific brand make and model.

Funnel keywords(Image source)

This same approach applies to more complex B2B or SaaS companies as well.

For example, let’s do a simple keyword search for “marketing automation” using Moz’s Keyword Explorer tool. (While you’re at it, check out this list of low-budget SEO tools)

Marketing automation keywords

Right off the bat, we can already see the funnel break down.

  • “Marketing Automation”: This top of the funnel phrase is also the most competitive. Searchers using this query are probably looking for higher-level information without much purchasing intent.
  • “Marketing Automation Tools” and “Marketing Automation Companies”: People start researching their landscape of options when they’re in the middle of the funnel, considering potential solutions to act on in the next few weeks or months.
  • “Marketing Automation Software Comparison”: Specific, long-tail phrases may not get a ton of search volume, but these inquirers are usually packing the highest purchasing intent and are your best bet for conversions.

The trick is not just in selecting these phrases, but in making sure that you’re proactively creating quality web pages that rank for these and related terms.

Awesome. Now you know what it looks like.

Here’s how to do it.

Step #1. Top of the funnel

If someone isn’t already aware of the problem and what the appropriate cost or value to solve it might be, your chances of selling to them are slim-to-none.

So at the very beginning you’re just trying to help cultivate a need awareness. Most of the time these are symptoms or pain points that stem from an issue the search is experiencing.

This means they’re likely troubleshooting, looking for ways to prevent or fix something that’s broken, and looking to optimize or improve their current performance.

The perfect bait to lure these people in are blog posts and longer pieces—including reports or ebooks—that are all problem-specific.

For example, let’s continue with the “marketing automation” theme.

Before someone gets to that buzzword though, they’re probably going to experience or become aware of “lead nurturing” problems first.

When they type that in, you want to deliver educational, interesting information that helps lead them to the next desired step (i.e. learning more about your company to consider it as a possible solution).

Case in point: this blog post on lead nurturing secrets.

Lead nurturing post

Step #2. Middle of the funnel

Now your prospects are fully aware of their problem and pain points.

They’ve given it a name, which means they are beginning to understand the industry buzzwords like “marketing automation” and the accompanying implications.

The next logical stage is to begin researching potential tools, the ways or different approaches to perform this solution, and reading about experts or companies that can perform this solution.

Once again, content-based offers like in-depth blog posts can help attract people who’re just entering this consideration period in the middle of the funnel.

Marketing statistics post

From there though, they’ll begin getting more specific with solutions, providers, tools, etc.

That’s where comparison content and buying guides can help bring people in. For example, Jeff Bullas has a great example 10 marketing automation tools that helps middle of the funnel searchers begin to find vendors to work with.

Marketing automation tools

Step #3. Bottom of the funnel

People entering the bottom of the funnel know what they want to buy. And are ready to take action.

They’ve figured out what they’re going to need and require, along with what they’re willing to spend or invest in order to get it.

These people want pricing, costs, quotes, benchmarks, and other specific product/service information that will help them finally pull the metaphorical trigger already.

In search, this tends to be a relatively small slice of the overall people (as we saw earlier).

That’s why they’re more expensive to reach for the first time (if you were to just use AdWords for example).

The competition tends to be fierce for this small pool of people, where competitors even bid on each other’s branded terms. Like PowerReviews and TurnTo do on this “Bazaarvoice” query:

Bazaarvoice search

This is also why you should optimize earlier in the funnel. There’s a longer ramp-up period, but it gives you the opportunity to reach more people initially, get them brand aware, and develop trust (hopefully making this conversion section easier and less expensive on a cost-per-click comparison).

By the time someone performs a brand search, to hit your home, product, and pricing pages, ideally they’ve already had multiple encounters with your brand and are just now ready to sign on the dotted line.


The most popular keyphrases in your niche are also (a) the most competitive and (b) the least purchase driven.

So while they might send you a ton of traffic (if you’re lucky), only the smallest percentage of it is ever going to convert.

Instead, people are using specific keyphrases at different times that signal their intent. It tells you where they are in the funnel, and can help you understand what they’re looking for (so you can do a better job of giving it to them).

Which is still—despite all the changes over the past few years—the most important driving force behind a successful SEO strategy.

Author Brad Smith, Founding Partner & Director of Marketing, Codeless Interactive, LLC

Brad Smith is the Founding Partner and Director of Marketing at Codeless Interactive, LLC, a B2B content creation company.

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