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Decoding Searcher Intent: Is "MS" Microsoft Or Multiple Sclerosis?

Consumers conduct about 90 million multiple sclerosis related searches each month. They spell out the words, but also use the acronym MS 508K times a month. MS is an ambiguous acronym, and has many meanings depending upon who is using it in a query. Currently there are over 200 definitions for MS in the marketplace, but the most common meanings are:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Microsoft
  • Mississippi
  • Morgan Stanley
  • Masters of science degree
  • MySpace

This is something to think about because it reflects how people and search engines process information differently. People can see “MS” in context and get the meaning, but search engines have a harder time figuring out what it means. For example, do a search on MS and look at the results. As you can see, you end up with a search results page co-mingled with results from Microsoft, Morgan Stanley and Mississippi. I think this causes consumers to do a second search spelling out multiple sclerosis which returns a rich set of search results.

I took a look at a couple of multiple sclerosis non-profit websites, and indeed I found that the term MS was used almost exclusively over multiple sclerosis in webpage copy. One home page I looked at had 15 instances of MS, and only one instance of multiple sclerosis. This is not the best usage of the terminology from an SEO perspective, but the copy was just fine for consumer consumption. Non-profits should try to strike a balance in website copy between these two important keywords because they have two important but very different targets: the consumer, and the search engine crawler.

Multiple Sclerosis

Ok, with that out of the way, let’s take a look at how consumers find information about multiple sclerosis. 90 million monthly searches is an enormous amount of traffic that reflects consumer anxiety, and a quest for answers about this debilitating disease. There is a fair amount of complexity in this data, and understanding this search behavior will help you provide more options and information to people in crisis.

The first thing to examine is the high-level categories of search behavior. Consumers are participating in 19 distinct behavior patterns. Reviewing the categories by volume shows you that informational searches are the most dominant category by a wide margin. Informational searches are often vague, and hard to exploit because you know that they are in some way interested in MS, but you can’t tell what specifics they are looking for. The next two largest categories (symptoms and treatment) are the most common specific search requests where you can deduce user intent.

The next thing that jumps out at you is the Spanish category. 90K people are searching on “esclerosis multiple” each and every month. This is close to one million searches a year; therefore this would make an excellent micro site opportunity for the Hispanic community. Keep in mind that these are global numbers, and your strategy may be different if you focus is local.

MS 1 High Level Categories


Several of the high-level categories have themes that can be called out. In the following table you will find these themes sorted in descending volume so that you can see the relative importance of each sub-group. For example, about 88% of searches for treatment reflect a traditional physician / hospital approach, while the remaining are queries about diet, and other alternative approaches.

MS 2 sub categories copy

While examining the list of sub-categories is an interesting exercise, it is more productive to see if there are common interests that allow you to regroup this list in sections that make sense from an information architecture perspective (for website development). It turns out there are four very distinct organizational opportunities in this search behavior.

First cluster: Searchers are looking for very specific information about all aspects of the disease. They are in self-education mode.

MS 3 Educate

Second cluster: Here searchers are concerned with treatment options, the long-term prognosis and future developments that may impact treatment.

MS 4 Treatment

Third cluster: Here searchers are interested in finding services and support. This includes locating hospitals and doctors. On the support side you find them looking for support groups and non-profit support organizations.

MS 5 Service and Support

Fourth cluster: Here searchers are requesting specific types of content. They are naming products and people, and making content requests using terms like guides (in the content category).

MS 6 Content and Product

The ability to organize search behavior into common categories allows your non-profit to display the information that consumers are looking for into logical sections accessible from the home page. This organizational strategy makes sense for Facebook support pages as well.

MS 7 Behavior Model

Categories In Detail

Let’s take a look at the individual categories in more detail. I will be dealing with each of the categories by descending volume.

Information: Informational searches account for 2.9 million searches a month. These tend to be vague in nature. They use phrases like MS information or multiple sclerosis websites that make it clear that they are interested in MS, but what aspect of the disease is unknown. One of the more interesting things happening in this group is how many searches are done on abbreviated spellings of the medical terms. For example:

  • multiple sclerosis – 550,000
  • multi sclerosis – 550,000
  • multiple sclerosi – 550,000
  • multiple sclera – 550,000
  • multiple scl – 550,000

This terminology can be exploited as part of your SEO strategy.

Symptoms: Consumers search for symptoms more than a half-million times each month. They tend to cluster into two sub-categories: non-specific searches using vague terminology, and very specific searches mentioning body parts and specific symptoms. For example:

These non-specific search terms most likely reflect consumers who are in the earliest stages of research and self-education.

  • Early signs / symptoms
  • First signs / symptoms
  • Initial symptoms
  • Warning signs
  • What are the…

When you look at specific symptoms used, you see clusters in the following areas:

  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Lesions
  • Numbness

Consumers search using non-specific terms by a ten-to-one margin over specific medical terms.

Treatment: Consumers conduct 195,388 searches for treatment options in three distinct sub-categories:

  • The first category is generalized searches about therapy, medications and new developments in treatment.
  • In the second category, they are searching for alternative treatments using the terms natural, homeopathy, herbs and alternative.
  • In the third category, they are concerned with diet, nutrition and vitamins.

Organization: Most of the 103,540 searches are for MS organizations. Consumers are searching for these groups using the terms association, society and foundation interchangeably. society is the most commonly used term and should be the term of choice for website and ad copy.

  • Society – 40K
  • Association – 20K
  • Foundation – 10K

Spanish: 90,500 people search for “esclerosis multiple” every month. This is clearly an opportunity to develop a Spanish language micro-site to front-end the rest of the content available at your non-profit site.

Location: The majority of the 71,320 searches in this category are for locating a hospital (60K searches). They are using the terms hospital, center and clinic interchangeably. The most common term is center, used about 54K times a month. This behavior should be reflected in your webpage copy.

Drug: Two thirds of the 62,656 searches are for drugs by a brand name. Avonex is the most common (29K searches). The second / third most common search is generic in nature, and is for new drugs and MS drugs. The following terms are the most common found in the drug category.

  • Avonex – 29K
  • New drugs – 7K
  • MS drugs – 5.4K

Consumers are also using medication, medicine and meds interchangeably. It’s hard to make a case for a preferred term in this instance, though you can make a case for using all three variants throughout all your content.

  • Medication – 6,140
  • Medicine – 6,000
  • Meds – 4,400

Support: Of the 56,600 searches in the support group, 44K are about the MS walk. The searches for support manifest itself in several distinct themes.

  • MS walk
  • Awareness
  • Charity / donations
  • Resources for individuals

Causes: These 43,660 monthly queries are really about consumers asking questions. The most common terms in this category include:

  • Causes of – 12K
  • Etiology of – 6.6K
  • How do you get – 6.6K

This behavior provides a great labeling opportunity for a custom landing page.

Diagnosis: When consumers search about diagnosis (41,770 searches) they do so using variants such as diagnose, diagnosing and diagnostic. You find them using the following terms to modify the primary phrase:

  • Blood test / test
  • MRI

Disease type: When consumers search for information about MS (32,590 searches) they do so in two ways. They are specifying their searches in general terms using the word type or types of – 10.8K searches. When they search more specifically they are commonly using the following terms:

  • Progressive – 8.3K
  • Primary progressive – 4.8K
  • Secondary progressive – 1.7K
  • Benign – 1K

Research: The 31,746 searches in research break down into three distinct consumer interests.

  • General research – 12.8K
  • Stem cell research – 11.9K
  • Clinical trials – 6.9K

Complications: The 29,028 searches in the complication category cluster into four groups:

  • Relapsing MS – 10.4K
  • Myelin / myelin sheath – 4.1K
  • Secondary complications from pregnancy, alcohol and stroke.
  • Reference to body parts: brain, bladder, neck and legs.

Gender and Age: Of the 16,721 searches conducted by gender and age we find that 10K searches are for information about women, whereas only 2K searches concern men. The rest of the search traffic is demographic in nature, and deal with age and onset of MS.

Prognosis: 50% of the 15,926 searches in the prognosis category deal with questions about cures. The rest of the traffic deals with the effects, the stages and prognosis of the disease.

Doctor: Consumers look for professional medical services in several ways (11,773 searches). The most common titles include:

  • Physicians – 3.6K
  • Doctors – 2.9K
  • Neurologist – 2.6K

In other medical behavior models I’ve seen that consumers tend to favor the term physician over doctor when they are searching for services.

The remaining categories have very little traffic, but it is worth understanding what consumers are looking for in these cases.

Content: 4,237 searches. These are very specific content requests, and most of this traffic consists of people searching for pictures and videos.

Products: 2,530 searches. These people are interested in books, bracelets, jewelry and t-shirts. Though this traffic is limited it is transactional and valuable because they want to buy something.

People: 2,450 searches. Most of this traffic is for famous people with MS. Perhaps they are trying to find out how these personalities are coping with their disease.

Secondary Term Density

It’s always useful to look at how often an individual term or a two-word phrase is used across all the keyword phrases in a particular dataset. The following table outlines the top 25 terms, and how often they show up in a search query. The terms in this list account for nearly 90% of search traffic. In particular the terms symptom and treatment reflect the primary interest of consumers, and should play a major information role on the home page.

One of the more interesting behavior patterns in this list is the propensity for partial spellings of sclerosis in very large numbers (1.65 million) each month. It could be that many consumers are not sure how to spell sclerosis, and they hope that the search engine sorts it out for them. The top three partial spellings are:

  • Scl
  • Scler
  • Scelosi

The word “multiple” is also abbreviated 550K times each month (i.e., multi). Behavior like this is difficult to exploit in consumer friendly webpage copy without it looking like spam. Though you can get creative, and call out this behavior on a “did you know” facts page.

In the final analysis these terms represent your textual pallet when developing website pages and ad copy, and the terms should be reflected in your information architecture.

MS 8 Secondary Terms

Key Insights For MS Non-Profits

So, what does this analysis do for you as a non-profit organization? Let’s list some of the most important items to think about.

  • At the highest level, consumers are interested in symptoms, treatment and organizations. These themes should underpin your website information architecture and ad copy.
  • The sheer number of Spanish searches provides additional recruiting and donation opportunity.
  • The 18 categories identified in this analysis fold neatly into four sections that can be the basis for focused architecture in website design. These can also be the basis for custom landing pages. These are:
    • Self-education
    • Diagnosis and treatment
    • Locate support and services
    • Locate content and products
  • Editorial focus. Each category of behavior has a very narrow set of terms that are being used in searches. These terms provides you with the opportunity to tailor page copy to exactly what consumers are searching for. One of the major reasons consumers bail out on a website is their intent is not satisfied. When they see an exact match for the terms they are using, they are less apt to leave.
  • Google taught the world how to search. Consumers are taking these skills and are applying them in the enterprise and in social networking platforms. The insight in this analysis applies to your enterprise and social media initiatives.
  • Strike a balance between MS and Multiple Sclerosis when writing website and ad copy. Consumers know what MS means from context. Search engines are not as smart.

Parting Advice

Your non-profit organization may not be focused on multiple sclerosis, but the insight in this analysis exists in your cause. I encourage you to sort out how consumers find your organizations services.

Finally, your non-profit may be national but all your events and fund drives are local. If you have not claimed your organization in Google, Yahoo and Bing’s local search services, you should do so. You will not automatically get added to these local search indexes. There are local search requirements for being included. Make sure you understand what they are.

If you are looking for more information about multiple sclerosis please check out the national multiple sclerosis society for a chapter near you.

The data used in this analysis were extracted from AdWords.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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