How bath salts polarised the UK SERPs

Today I was doing a bit of keyword research around the term “bath salts”. It gets 5,400 searches per month in the UK in Google. The term itself has two main intents: people looking to buy a product that dissolves in their bath, and people researching a drug with the name “bath salts”.

Here’s what I found that was weird: all the PPC results relate to the product and all the organic results (at least on first page) relate to the drug.

Here is today’s SERP (incognito for Leeds, UK):

Bath Salts SERP

(With apologies to Team Creative for using MS Paint.)

‘Bath salts’ is the only “mixed intent” term that I’ve seen where the paid results and the organic results are entirely different. There are plenty of “mixed intent” terms where the paid results show only ‘product’-focused results; this makes sense as fewer people spend advertising money on research-led queries compared to consumer-based queries. However, Google has become good at understanding different intents behind one single keyword, and usually shows more than one type of result for that term.

Example 1: ‘Whiplash’

Search volume: 110,000 searches per month (UK)
Paid output: Injury law firms
Organic output: Information about whiplash (injury), information about Whiplash (film), injury law firms, search suggestions relating to Whiplash (Marvel character)

Whiplash SERP

Example 2: ‘Cat’

Search volume: 110,000 searches per month (UK)
Paid output: None
Organic output: Information (and videos) about cats, Caterpillar AKA Cat, Centre for Alternative Technology, CATS the Musical, Schrödinger’s Cat, suggestions for a drug named “cat”, and a Linux command


Why is “bath salts” so different?

The SERPs for “bath salts” are similar in the UK to the US: the first two pages of Google are dominated by drug-related search results, which begin to evenly split into product pages thereafter. However, if the search is refined to “bath salts UK” (only 210 searches per month in UK) the reverse is true and only very few results relate to the drug.

Bath Salts 20 Results

Bath Salts 100 Results

For the term [bath salts] without refining it to [bath salts UK] the websites that were ranked in both the UK and the US had a similar focus to the websites that only ranked in the US: around 50% of them related to bath salts as a drug. However, the websites that only appeared in the UK held a more “bath salts as a product” focus as only around 30% of UK-only websites were related to bath salts as a drug.

Bath US vs UK

Even in Google Trends, Google sees the term as being mostly drug related:

Bath salts google trends

This peaks in 2012, probably due to the 2012 Miami cannibal attack.

Bath Salts Google Trends 2012

The top topics are a mixture of searches relating to the drug and the cannibal attack:

Bath Salts Google Top Topics 2012

However, although the same headline peaked the searches for “bath salts” in 2012 in the UK, the search for bath salts does not flatline afterward. In fact, there is growth in interest compared to the period before the attack.

Bath Salts Google Trends UK 2012

And, unlike the worldwide results, most of the top topics relating to “bath salts” are product-based (Epsom being a company):

Bath Salts Google Top Topics UK 2012

This leads me to believe that, for such a generic term, Google is emulating the US results for UK, since the US intent seems to be a lot more focused that the UK intent. Back in 2008 Patrick Altoft wrote a post about Google enforcing US law and Stigma on Adwords, and maybe it still is, particularly for drug related terms, as these are not things that can be advertised on paid media.

Have you seen any examples of mixed intent keywords where Google only returns results for one primary intent? I’d like to hear your thoughts. You can get in touch via the contact form or on my Twitter: @ejbarnes89.

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