What’s the Difference Between Search Queries and Keywords?

Written by Nick Stamoulis

Search engineHave you ever noticed that people often use the terms “search queries” and “keywords” interchangeably? The assumption is that they are the same thing, but there is, in fact, a difference between them. Simply put, the keyword is the phrase that we target when putting together an SEO program for our full service SEO clients and the search query is the phrase that the search engine user physically puts in the search box of Google to find information. However, it’s important to analyze both sets of data in both Google Analytics and Google Webmaster tools in order to get a full picture. The goal when creating an SEO program, of course, is to come up with the keywords that are a close representation of what the search queries will actually be.

Search queries are in the “Traffic” drop-down menu in Google Analytics, under the “Search Engine Optimization” section. You can only see this information if you have a Webmaster Tools account for your site, which if you don’t you should set up immediately! Your Google Webmaster Tools account is the place where Google will send you important messages (like if you have a penalty) and how you can check up on the “health” of your website from Google’s perspective. Which report is more important to look at? Which data set is better at showing you how well (or poorly) your SEO campaign is doing?

In Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools, the search query data doesn’t primarily measure information about your visitors the way that tracking keywords (what did someone search for that brought them to your site) does. It’s really telling you about your site’s performance in the SERPs for a particular phrase. That’s where the impressions data comes into play. It’s important to note that impressions means how many times your website was offered up in the search engines but doesn’t have any real measure of how many times your site was actually clicked on in the SERPs.

For instance, in the graph below the #2 search query is “claims processing,” which in this given time period had 320 impressions but zero clicks. That zero clicks is probably tied to the fact that this site typically ranks #66 for “claims processing” as a keyword. However, when I look at the organic search traffic report in Google Analytics for the same time period the #2 keyword (meaning a particular search query that actually sent visitors to the site) is a branded keyword; the company name in fact.

What’s the Difference Between Search Queries and Keywords?

The organic search traffic report also tells you a lot about the visitors that came to your site through a particular keyword such as how many pages they visited, how long they spent on the site, conversion rates and so forth. You can also hone in on a specific keyword to see what days those visitors using that keyword came to your site, what pages they landed on and so forth. This is the kind of data that fuels an SEO campaign because it gives you a better understanding of how real human visitors are finding your site and what they are doing once they get there.

On the other hand, search query information in Google Analytics (or Google Webmaster Tools) gives you a much higher overview of how your site is performing. For instance, this site has the same number of impressions for “claims processing” as they do “healthcare claims processing” (320) but there is a marked difference between average ranking (66 vs. 8). This could be a sign that “healthcare claims processing” is a “money” search query and keyword for this site because they are already doing fairly well, while doing well for “claims processing” is going to be more of an uphill battle.

SEO Green Vector Icon DesignBy analyzing the keyword and search query data available in Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools, you can get a more accurate picture of which keywords you can effectively target on your websites. If the search queries that people use to find information aren’t represented well on your website, you won’t get the search traffic that you expect. It all starts by understanding the difference between keywords and search queries, and using data found in thee tools to effectively optimize the website for the search engines. This is the approach we take for all our full service SEO clients.

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