Pharmaceutical Search Intent: Cancer

As a content strategist working in the pharmaceutical market, I find myself constantly thinking about user search pathways. Understanding how target audiences find your content is a key concern to developing and evolving a branded or unbranded content strategy.

With this in mind, I want to use this space to talk about search intent and how it impacts website content strategy/architecture.

What is Search Intent?

For too long, the majority of people have assumed incorrectly that Google and the major search engines which fall in line, still adhere to the sentiment that keywords are king. This just isn’t true anymore and for good reason.

While keywords are a major part of how Google indexes, sorts, and delivers content to a searcher, the Google algorithm is constantly seeking to understand the inherent meaning behind a search query. The search engine understands that a typical query, segmented into short and long tail, holds behind it varying levels of user knowledge and interest.

Keyword Research is Still Very Much Needed for a Good Content Strategy Yet Understanding the Intent Behind a Search Query rather than Segmenting by Keyword Search Volume, is the Key to Success

As shown above, that standard search intent for a user can be broken down into four high level categories:

  • Awareness Stage (information and data seeking)
  • Research Stage (deeper understanding of a topic)
  • Decision Stage (shifting search and linking strategies from information and data seeking to transactional)
  • Purchase Stage (CTA and conversion ready)

This said, how does search intent show itself within the pharmaceutical vertical? Using the “cancer” market via Google Auto-Populate, SERP’s, and SEMRush, let’s jump in.

Awareness Through Purchase Stage

For a caregiver or a patient newly diagnosed with cancer, a typical search intent map would break down the following way.

1. Awareness Stage: Cancer, Broadly

The first stage of oncology search, segmented into awareness, would be a high level, short head search for “oncology”. Due to the general nature of this search query, we can assert the intent behind the search is awareness because the nature of the query is broad in topic.

Similar to the single top level search query, the auto-populate results Google provides are all general in nature leaning from the awareness to research phase of user search intent.

The search query “cancer” reveals additional general search queries segmented between “Awareness” and “Research”. This is by design, not mistake.

As you can see, the auto-populate is not exactly sure what the user intent of the search is. While I am directly searching for “cancer” in the medical space, auto-populate brings back results varied between “cancer horoscope” and “cancer symptoms” directly showing an unsure variance in search intent.

Another indicator of awareness is how broad the search is in terms of keyword volume.

165,000 Search Volumetric Results for “Oncology”

While it is true the numeric search volume metrics aren’t a direct indicator of high level category, within the cancer space, the broad level metrics highlight the top of the category of search intent rather than bottom of the funnel composed of the decision or purchase stage.

2. Research Stage: Specific Cancer

With “cancer” being the top of the search funnel yet results pulling back unsure user intent, drilling down to the category level within “cancer” will narrow and clarify the results yet will still remain between the “awareness” and “research” stage.

Altering the search query to “breast cancer” rather than the top level “cancer” clarifies user search intent by pulling back results specified within the context of “breast cancer” rather than that of “cancer horoscope”

The phrase “breast cancer”, while not a long tail yet, is a derivative of “cancer” however due to the widespread nature of the category, the search volume metrics are on par with its parent search term, “cancer”.

The one major difference between “cancer”, the parent, and “breast cancer”, the child term, is number of results. The volume metrics are identical coming in at 165,000 however the number of results show a massive difference: 728 million for “cancer” compared with 174 million for “breast cancer”.

The narrowing of number of results, as noted in the above graphic, begins to directly show a narrowing of the search intent funnel. With the terminology being broad yet more specific then its parent term, “cancer”, Google is accurately directing the searcher to SERP’s speaking to “breast cancer” rather than “horoscopes”.

But, as you might have noticed, the broad nature of “breast cancer” still segments it between the awareness and research search intent stages. To begin moving to the bottom of the sales funnel, the user search terminology needs to be a bit more specific.

3. Research to Decision Stage: Specific Breast Cancer Treatments & Physicians

In the event a patient is diagnosed with “stage 1 breast cancer”, that growing into a long tail search term would make for a natural search query mapped to user intent.

Through auto-populate, Google is both deciding user intent and creating a natural learning to decision funnel by providing both awareness/research terminologies alongside decision and purchase keyword terminologies.

The intent of “stage 1 breast cancer” is both awareness and research however the populated auto-populate results along with SERP’s begin to funnel the searcher into the decision phase with phrases like “stage 1 breast cancer treatment”, “stage 1 breast cancer treatment options”, and “stage 1 breast cancer surgery”.

Search volume metrics and number of results are both down yet that lessening of results means served up content is more focused to drive action within the target patient and caregiver audience.

More to the point, when a searcher alters the query to a true pure long tail (a string of contextual keywords which isn’t a direct question) like “stage 1 breast cancer treatment” as shown below the search intent research stage gives way directly to the decision phase via terminologies like:

  • Stage 1 Breast Cancer Treatment Cost
  • Stage 1 Breast Cancer Treatment Timeline
  • Stage 1 Breast Cancer Treatment Guidelines
  • Recommended Treatment for Stage 1 Breast Cancer
The narrowing specificity of auto-populated long tail keywords naturally drive the searcher to find more granular decision related content.

With intent being specified driven down funnel, once again search volume metrics and SERPs have been acutely and purposefully narrowed.

The interesting yet somewhat expected result within SEMRush is CPC for the phrase match terminology. With the specific long tail driving to tailored content, competition to rank for “stage 1 breast cancer treatment” is either dominated by a few players driving up the CPC or it is distributed across many players all trying to rank for the top level keyword terminologies. This should indicate, for content strategy and search content planning, that building from related to terminologies in a foundation up strategy is a better avenue for organic and paid traffic.

As you can see from the SERP’s both organic and paid results are stage 1 breast cancer treatment options rather than simple awareness content populated with pages speaking to “what is stage 1 breast cancer” or “stage 1 breast cancer information”. The SERP result are taking into account not only the individual keyword meaning, yet the long tail intent of the context and relevancy behind the search.

The ability for Google to decide what the keywords definition mean in context with what the searcher is fully looking for, is the main difference in algorithm, hardware, and user input learning from where Google and the like were a decade ago.

This ability is what has essentially knocked out and decimated traditional black hat practices of keyword stuffing, terrible anchor link practices, and link farm webpages designed to drive all levels of spammy traffic to unrelated web destinations.

4. Decision to Purchase Stage: Specific Stage 1 Breast Cancer Treatment Cost

Finally, when we reach the bottom of the funnel, specific long tail terms like “stage 1 breast cancer treatment cost” and “what is the cost of stage 1 breast cancer treatments” show a tailored SERP page highlighting specific treatment options yet for the first true time in the search intent funnel, branded treatment options begin to appear.

At this point in the search intent funnel, Google knows what the user is looking for and, if a brand is smart, the organic and paid content they serve up aligns with searcher expectations. This can we seen in the SEM ad, “HER2+ breast cancer — Treatment information” as it drives directly to a branded treatment course.

The SERPs at this stage of the funnel are highly specific and targeted to provide a direct actionable (also called transactional) answer to a user query. This is in full opposition to where we began with “cancer” SERP’s providing highly relevant yet informational rather than transactional content.

What Does This All Mean for Pharmaceutical Content Strategy?

The answer is very simple: to build a fluid and evolving content strategy, you need to understand the intent behind user search. Once you do, you can accurately build content silos addressing short head queries down to specific long tail queries, i.e. informational awareness to transactional user behaviors.

So, do keywords matter? Sure.

Do they matter as much as search intent and building content silos which align to that intent?


All the healthcare keyword research in the world isn’t going to save you if the organic content your website serves up doesn’t answer the patient, caregiver, or HCP search query.

Brad Yale can be reached for comment at He considers himself a search nerd and hates when a website has terrible meta data or hasn’t taken the time to implement structured data.

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