Google Keywords as User Research

As an information architect, I often use card sorting and other types of user research to find out how people verbalize their content needs.  If available, I look carefully at a website’s internal search term tracking. But there is another tool that speaks to the verbal side of your users’ information seeking habits: the Google Keyword Tool.  screenshot of google adwords keyword tool

The Google Keyword Tool tells you the words and phrases that are most widely searched via Google. Do more people search for a “veterinary clinic” for their pet, or for an “animal hospital?” How many people seek “diabetes rates,” compared to “diabetes statistics?”    Does anybody search for “diabetes infographics?” This information can be applied to menu labels, taxonomy terms, link text, and other navigational elements not from the perspective of SEO but from the angle of information scent and usability.

Admittedly, there is a big difference between how people formulate Google searches and how they browse navigational elements on a website.  So just because nobody searches on “diabetes infographics” doesn’t necessarily mean I would nix “infographics” as a menu label on a  diabetes-related website. But if there was a near equivalent that people did search for en masse (such as “diabetes statistics”) I’d be more inclined to use that term, all other things being equal.

What I find iffy is the notion of using your site-specific organic search keyword stats from Google Analytics to reach any conclusions about a site’s users.  This is because those dice are loaded with SEO mojo:

For instance, what if “Veterinary Clinic” generated 100 visits to your site, but “Animal Hospital” generated only five?  Is that because the word “veterinary clinic”shows up a lot in the content?  Could it be because your website’s url is “veterinaryclinics.org?”  It’s circular reasoning to conclude that your top organic search terms must reflect the way your target audience verbalizes their content needs.

A website’s navigation, taxonomy, content, internal search and the SEO universe beyond are part of one massive linguistic system that extends from the mind of every person who interacts with the web.   When your user research budget is skimpy, remember that Google is has been doing a lot of work for you.   No user research method is perfect, but with a billion users being tracked, it’s safe to say you’ll turn up a useful nugget or two.

What nifty free or low-cost tools have you found to aid you in UX/IA?