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5.2 Understanding Search Queries

How to understand search queries in GA?

Let’s start by looking at what analytical information you can glean from your audience using search queries, rather than simply finding out what keywords might be worth adding to your pages.

In a commercial context, one very important factor that search behavior can tell you about is user intent and, by inference from this, where the user is in the standard buying cycle. Many analysts divide search queries into three basic types:


These are searches performed to locate a specific website or service by name, for example “youtube”, “amazon” or your site’s name. Users performing this kind of search already know where they want to go. Navigational queries are common on mobile devices because it’s easier to enter a concise search term than a full URL, which would be counted as a direct visit rather than a search referral.

These users are most likely past the discovery phase of the typical inbound marketing sales funnel: they’ve heard of your brand one way or another, and might even be return customers. The intent isn’t necessarily to buy, though: they might be looking for information (or other content, such as YouTube video). That said, the fact that they search for the site rather than the information suggests that they’re quite confident of finding what they want on your site – they know your brand, and ostensibly trust and value it.


Transactional searches are performed to buy something, or with the intent to perform a specific action such as download a video game or find a local business. Examples include searches such as “buy PS4 online”, “pink iphone 6 case” and “Mexican restaurant in Tulsa”, but can also be the name of a specific – if generic rather than branded – product.

Not surprisingly, transactional searches produce the highest rate of conversions: users are likely to know what they want and be considering buying it, so your site’s success can depend on commercial factors such as price and availability. That said, not all product searches result in conversions, and some analysts who take a slightly different approach based on “commercial intent” have identified a class of user they characterize as the “tire kicker”, who may seem to be searching using these terms, but is unlikely to continue to a purchase (see below).


These searches are performed to find something out or answer questions – indeed, such searches are commonly framed in the form of a question: “how can I get rid of a stain” or “what golf clubs do the pros use”. This is the broadest type of query and tells us the least about purchasing intent. These users are most likely not ready to purchase: they are “high in the sales funnel and are just discovering they have a need for something”.[1]

However, this doesn’t mean queries of this type won’t lead to a conversion: in the first example, they might be looking for a stain-removal product or discover that this is the type of product they need from the content on your site. These users might be in the research stage, at the very start of the typical purchase funnel, but if your site provides the information they’re looking for then this could both build value for your site or brand and also lead to conversions, whether these are actual purchases or sign-ups and the like.

The best way to exploit this kind of search, according to one analyst, is to identify specific search terms in your sector “that have high search volume and low competition,” if you can, “then get as much of that traffic as you can on an email list. That way, you’ll be the site on their mind as they’re ready to buy something.”[2]

As we’ve seen, some analysts categorize search queries more explicitly according to “commercial intent” (that is, broadly speaking, intent to buy). In this model, there are four types of search query, ranging from high commercial intent down to low.


Types of informational queries:

  • “Buy Now” search terms: typically used minutes before making a purchase. Examples include Buy, Coupon, Discount, Deal and Shipping, possibly associated with a product name (generic or branded). Such searches might not account for a large proportion of search volume, but they “convert like crazy”.[3]
  • “Product” searches focus on a product category (such as “running shoes”), specific product or service (“Macbook Pro”) or brand name (“Nike”), and/or terms such as Best, Top 10, Review, Comparison, Cheap and Affordable. People using such terms tend to be just a bit earlier in the buying cycle than people using “Buy Now” terms and accordingly convert just a little less. Interestingly, searches including words such as Cheap or Affordable “convert really well. For example, someone searching for ‘cheap laptops’ has already decided that they want a laptop… They’re just looking for a product in their price range.”[4]
  • Informational searches tend to include terms such as “How do I…”, “Ways to…”, “Best ways to…”, “I need to…” or just a task in the abstract (such as “removing carpet stains”). As you might imagine, people looking for information don’t tend to convert especially well, but this doesn’t mean this kind of search won’t assist in conversions later.
  • “Tire Kicker” searches – characterized by terms such as Free, Torrent and sometimes Download – are very unlikely to convert, ever. It’s worth noting that specific product names can appear in any of these kinds of search: “a search like ‘watch The Simpsons online free’ is a classic Tire Kicker search. Good luck getting that person to buy anything (or even click on an ad). On the other hand, searches like ‘Buy Simpsons TV episodes’ (Buy Now Keyword), ‘Simpsons DVDs’ (Product Keyword) or ‘How to watch Simpsons episodes’ (Informational Keyword) will convert relatively well.”[5]

According to Google Trends, informational queries – especially those including “how” and “what” – have increased exponentially in the past few years. A little over a decade ago, informational queries accounted for only about 48% of queries, but today almost 80% of queries are informational, with the remaining 20% divided between navigational and transactional queries.[6] Marketing strategies haven’t always kept pace with this shift in user behavior: “marketers… are often caught up in the ‘need direct sales’ mentality by focusing too heavy on transactional queries and ignoring users who are still in the research and informational phase.”[7] In the same way, analysts who use the commercial intent model also advocate focusing on “high commercial intent” searchers, who are on the point of buying. For example:

“Most SEO experts agree that – when it comes to choosing keywords — commercial intent is actually MORE important than search volume. [Users] stemming from informational searches are typically hard to convert into paying customers. Fortunately — with a little bit of research — you can easily find keywords that actual buyers use to search. And when you get your site in front of those people, turning them into leads and sales is a breeze.” [8]

Despite this, there are plenty of opportunities to convert business from each type of search query. If an increasing proportion of visitors are looking for information, this is what you need to provide: “it’s essential that you generate quality content to attract leads to your site and thus your product or service. The golden rule here: quality over quantity. You want to provide consistent, relevant, and reliable content that will help establish trust with consumers. Remember: they may not know what they want yet. It’s up to you to establish a relationship, gain their trust, and convert” by means of this more gradual and organic process.[9]

Yet another way to categories search terms looks at how specific they are and accordingly classifies them as either “broad” (also called “head” and “short-tail”) or “long-tail” search queries. Broad search terms are short words or phrases that, while they may apply to your own industry and company, might also apply to every company in your industry or even to those in other industries (for example “shoes” or “loans”). Long-tail terms tend to be longer words or phrases that are more specific to your company or industry (such as “Nike red running shoes” or “commercial real estate loans”).

Broad search terms typically account for a high volume of searches, but there’s a great deal of competition to contend with. It’s difficult to rank high in such searches and win traffic from them, and the visitors you do get from such searches are less likely to become leads or purchasers. Because long-tail terms are more specific to you, however, the opposite applies to them: they represent lower search volume but little competition; it’s easy to rank in searches for them and win traffic; and visitors from these are more likely to convert.

These characteristics produce a remarkable result: while the most searched-for broad terms might bring you a large number of visits, you might easily get even more total visits – and almost certainly more conversions – from the range of long-tail terms combined. This statistical distribution phenomenon is what the term “long-tail” describes: the graph of visits shows a high number for the few “head” terms in your industry, but the numbers taper off very gradually for the range of “long-tail” terms, and adding up these many small numbers typically results in an even greater total than that for the head terms.[10]

How long is the long tail? Hitwise puts it like this: if you had a monopoly over the top 1,000 search terms across all search engines (which is impossible), you’d still be missing out on 89.4% of all search traffic. There’s so much traffic in the tail it is hard to even comprehend. To illustrate: if search were represented by a tiny lizard with a one-inch head, the tail of that lizard would stretch for 221 miles.[11]

In commercial terms, this means you really don’t need to focus on ranking high in searches for your industry’s head terms. “For highly-contested keywords in competitive markets, it could be more realistic and profitable to work on ranking well for the long tail. If you rank poorly for the head but rank well for much of the tail, you could still be very successful in business terms. It’s the bottom line you’re after, not the bragging rights that accompany ranking for your vanity term. You may lose one battle but still win the war.

“Once you accept that you ideally need to target multiple search phrases, the question is, how? Very simply, you need to come up with a variety of the phrases people will use in finding businesses like yours, and then create content (typically, pages or blog posts) focused on those terms.”[12]

For SEO, this means it’s less critical to identify the exact “head” search terms, even if they are bringing a high volume of search to your site. It’s the bigger picture and the long game – or here, the long tail – that counts. In Google Analytics, “Instead of fixating on a handful of fat head keywords, it’s time to train executives to focus on what really matters to your business: how organic search brings revenue (and ultimately profit) into your organization.”[13]  So let’s look in Analytics for alternatives to measuring search performance based purely on specific keyword data.


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[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.









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