Want to make the most of your search traffic?
Then you need to take a deeper look at search queries.
In this article, I’ll take you through the different types of search queries, and how to strategize for each.
What We’ll Cover
- What is a Search Query?
- What’s the Difference Between Search Queries and Keywords?
- The Three Types of Search Queries:
- How RankBrain affects search queries
- How Google BERT affects search queries
Looking toward 2020, SEO isn’t what it was a decade ago when keywords ruled the search landscape.
We now need to account for voice search, mobile, and the new algorithmic update, BERT. In other words, it’s tough out there for organic search marketers.
That said, a lot of what it takes to be successful in the SERPs depends on understanding search queries and their direct link to searcher intent.
It’s that knowledge that will help you create a better user experience for searchers and ultimately, attract qualified traffic to your site.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the three main types of SEO search queries and provide some insights into how you can target them based on the intent of your target market.
What is a Search Query?
A search query is what a searcher types into Google (or their search engine of choice) to pull up their desired results.
So, if I really wanted to know who George Clooney was married to, I would type “who is George Clooney married to” into the search box. And that right there would be my search query.
Now, in terms of SEO, search queries are important. In order for your content to show up in someone’s results, they need to be looking for it in their search query, and Google needs to know that what you’re ranking for is relevant to what that user is looking for.
But as marketers, we tend to put a lot of focus on keywords. Contrary to popular belief, those aren’t the same as search queries.
What’s the Difference Between Search Queries and Keywords?
You often hear the terms “keyword” and “search query” used interchangeably.
However, there’s actually a pretty big difference between the two.
A search query represents the words that a search engine user types into the search box, whereas keywords are the terms marketers target in their SEO and PPC efforts.
Think of the keyword as a vision of what a search should be, while the query is the reality
In marketing, we target or bid on keywords, hoping that they’ll line up with what real people use to look for information.
For example, “cowboy boots” is a keyword you might to try to rank for. But that keyword alone can be attached to all kinds of search queries:
- Cowboy boots for women
- Kids cowboy boots
- Leather cowboy boots
- Cheap cowboy boots
- Why are cowboy boots so uncomfortable
- How do you clean cowboy boots
And the list goes on. The cool thing is that if you’re running a PPC ad, you can check your Google Ads account (assuming you’re using broad match or broad match modifier), you can see the exact search queries that are triggering your ad.
If you find that some of these queries are used more than others, you can use them to form new target keywords and ad groups, and create organic content using those frequently used terms.
The Three Types of Search Queries
When we talk about search queries, it’s important to understand that they fall into three main categories:
- Transactional search query
- Navigational search query
- Informational search query
These categories were defined way back in 2002 in a paper by Andrei Broder, and have since come to define how we marketers consider queries based on searcher intent.
Separating searches into these categories helps us better understand what the searcher is hoping to accomplish when they type something into Google, and therefore serve them relevant content that meets those needs.
Transactional Search Query
If you’re the owner of a website that sells products or services, I’m going to go out a limb here and assume this is probably your favorite query category.
Why? Because transactional queries suggest that the user intends to convert or make a purchase.
In this case, the “transaction” refers to making a purchase (of course), completing a download, signing up for an account, or registering for a service—essentially, anything that represents a transaction on your website.
A transactional search query can be obvious if it’s using words like “buy” or “on sale” or “where to buy” phrases. Sometimes, you can infer transactional intent by queries that include brand names (Ariat cowboy boots), and other times the search will be general (patio furniture).
The thing that sets them off as transactional is that each query signals some intent to buy.
How to Target a Transactional Search Query
Transactional search queries are the most direct moneymakers as far as queries are concerned, so you’ll want to take some time to develop a strategy around them.
Here’s how I do it.
Make Sure Your Product and Landing Pages are Fully Optimized
You want your content to be as easy to find as possible.
So, for example, if you’re selling brown leather cowboy boots, make sure that keyword is included all over your page.
Make sure you use that keyword in your image descriptions, your tags, your meta descriptions, everywhere (though do be careful not to keyword “stuff.”)
Present all the information they may need in one easy to find place. Include detailed descriptions, prices, reviews, and clickable “buy” or “download” buttons.
Again, you really want to focus on specific queries here, so don’t optimize just for “cowboy boots.”
Make sure you include more detailed information, so searchers can quickly identify whether the cowboy boots you sell are the ones your audience is after.
Add Schema to Target Product Pages to Further Signal Intent
Rich results come in many forms, from knowledge cards and recipes to your company’s logo.
In any case, adding schema to your site allows you to let Google know which parts of your page, be it images, prices, availability, or ratings you want searchers to see when they type in a relevant term.
Why use them? Because Schema is required for sites to be eligible for position zero, which allows you to showcase valuable information that helps you stand out in front of the competition—not to mention, rich results take up considerably more space than your average organic listing.
Some of the more valuable markups for transactional search queries include:
- Product availability – this one’s used to show if you have a product in stock or not. That way, customer’s know right off the bat if you’re the site the looking for.
- Limited time offers – have a special discount or promotion going on? It’s the perfect time to seal the deal with those already looking to buy. By letting searchers know that this is a limited offer, you can capitalize on urgency. You can also use a limited availability snippet to let them know they have to act fast.
- Include an image or video – if you really want to stand out in the SERP, try including an image or video of your product. It will draw eyes (and clicks) away from your competitors.
- Reviews and ratings – good reviews signal a quality product. They make customers trust you and your product more.
You can get rich snippets by adding structured data your site (code written in a specific format). For more on that, head over here.
Run PPC Search Campaigns
PPC campaigns on the search network were tailor-made for transactional search queries.
People use Google to search to find things they want or need, now.
If someone wants to buy a cable knit sweater, they go to Google.
If someone needs a hotel in Muskogee, OK, they go to Google.
And if someone cracked a tooth and needs an emergency dentist near them, they go to? Yep. Google.
So, if you catch my drift, Google’s the go-to, and the listings that pop up at the top are the ones most likely to be clicked.
To quickly get to the top, you need a well-targeted PPC ad. These take up a lot of real estate in the top spots of the SERP.
And most of the time, whether it’s a sponsored or organic listing makes little difference to searchers.
In fact, paid clicks outnumbered organic clicks by 2 to 1, according to Wordstream.
And, search queries with purchase (transactional) intent are six times more likely than all other searches to display four ads at the top of Google.
So, when strategizing for transactional queries, make sure you ramp up your efforts in paid search. It will pay off.
Navigational Search Queries
A navigational search query is one intended to find a particular website or page.
They happen when, rather than typing a full URL into their browser, a user simply types the site name into the search bar.
These ones have pretty clear intent – if you want to go to Facebook, you type in Facebook. If you want to shop for Lululemon athleisure, you type in Lululemon.
How to Target a Navigational Search Query
I won’t lie, these aren’t the most exciting queries on the list.
They change very little over time, and if you don’t happen to own the particular website being searched for, you have little chance of taking over a navigational search.
Again, the intent here is completely clear – the user’s looking for one particular site. If it’s not yours, well, you don’t fit the bill.
In order to ensure you don’t miss a navigational query that is intended for your site, it’s imperative that your site’s fully keyword optimized.
Also, make sure you’re focusing on branded keywords. Your goal is to own every listing on the first result page – sponsored and organic.
So, think of how you can incorporate certain products or services you may be known for. Form keywords based on:
Informational Search Queries
These queries represent the broadest of the three categories and include anything a user might type in to learn more about a specific topic.
For example, both “who is George Clooney married to?” and “how to find the perfect CRM?” are informational search queries.
Basically, they’re looking for answers.
Your job? Anticipate the questions and have the answers ready.
Informational search queries make up the vast majority of searches, and most estimate that between 50%-80% of searches are informational.
How to Target an Informational Query
While these kinds of searches don’t produce much in the way of immediate value, they do provide that value over time.
These searchers are often done by people still in the research and awareness phase of the sales cycle, and by providing answers and relevant information, you can become a trusted resource for them.
To make the most of informational queries, focus on the following:
First, Focus on Providing Relevant, Optimized Content
As you may already be aware, Google has been rolling out change after change over the past couple of years, with the end game of creating a better user experience for searchers.
So, while you might feel panicked when, say, Google rolls out the BERT update or tweaks the RankBrain algorithm, the key thing to keep in mind is that your job is to help users find the information they need.
The best way to do that? Quality content, and lots of it.
As I’ve mentioned before, great content begins with a deep understanding of who your target audience is, their goals, and the unique challenges they face.
Anticipating informational search queries can be difficult, and without the right information at your disposal, it often means that you’re taking a shot in the dark. You might think users search for one thing, yet in reality, they phrase that question in a completely way than you might.
Start researching keywords by visiting Google. Then, type in a query, scroll to the bottom of the page and find the “related questions” box. Here you’ll find a list of related queries people “usually ask.”
Another option is the Keywords Everywhere Chrome extension. It’s a free tool that allows you to enter a keyword into the search box and from there, presents a long list of related queries. Keep in mind, the tool recently changed the pricing model to a credit-based system, so you’ll need to add cash to your account and spend credits to get the exact search volume for the queries listed.
Another personal favorite of mine is Answer the Public. Just type in your keyword (I’m sticking with cowboy boots for this example), and the site will generate tons of possible search queries and questions.
Those questions are what you want to build your content around. Focus on blogs and articles full of tips, FAQ’s and how-to’s. Use videos for more of a visual punch, and produce thorough, in-depth guides to establish your authority on a subject.
And, make sure your content is optimized. Include your target keyword throughout your headings and text (in a natural, non-keyword stuffing way), and use it in all of your images.
Find Featured Snippet Opportunities
Featured snippets are the new number ones in Google – literally. They’re actually called Position 0.
They’re large and in charge when it comes to search results, ranking above even the first organic listing.
For example, if I type “what is a featured snippet” into Google, the box that appears at the top is the featured snippet.
Now, no sugar-coating here: ranking for rich results isn’t easy. And often, the Google algorithm awards the top spot to sites that don’t necessarily need the extra exposure.
Generally, your page needs to already appear on the first page of the search results for it to even be considered for a featured snippet.
If it does, you’re in luck, and there are few things you can do to increase the chances that your page will be pulled for the box.
First, you want to see which of your competitors are being featured already and find out how you can recreate what they’ve done. For example, if they’re using review or price schema and you’re not, you should probably consider applying it to your page as well.
You also want to focus on making your content as clear and concise as possible. If you’re answering a question, make sure you include both the question and the answer in the copy. For example, if you’re targeting the keyword, “how to make chocolate chip cookies,” you might use that question as an H2 header with the answer listed below.
It’s worth pointing out that most of the content featured in Google’s rich results comes from keywords containing questions. SEMRush reports that content with questions as the primary keyword are 480% more likely to appear in position zero than content targeting non-question keywords.
Think about it: when you’re looking for information on Google, you probably use questions to find it.
Google has picked up on that intention and as a result, prioritizes content that answers questions in detailed, specific terms.
In general, you want to follow these principles:
- Answer questions revolving around your target keyword
- Answers should be brief or in list form
- Questions should be in H2 (your subheadings)
Learn more about ranking for rich results by reading my full guide on featured snippets.
One more thing: featured snippets are usually what are read out as answers to voice searches, adding even more weight to the already lofty feature.
How Does RankBrain Impact Search Queries?
Released as part of the Hummingbird update, RankBrain has been a part of the Google landscape for a few years at this point, but it’s constantly evolving to better support user needs.
As a quick refresher, RankBrain is a machine-learning system that uses languages, words, and systems, along with quality factors like click-through rates, bounces, and dwell time to deliver the most relevant content to users. For example, if people keep bouncing away from a specific page on your website, RankBrain will determine that that page isn’t relevant to searchers’ needs.
Before RankBrain, the Google Algorithm used keywords to rank content, meaning anytime you’d enter a term into the search box, the results would pull up anything featuring that term, regardless off context.
Google has long said that while you can’t officially optimize for RankBrain, you can optimize your site so that it’s more user-friendly.
Again, this brings us back to the idea of really understanding what your audience is looking for when they enter a specific search query and delivering the results that best meet those needs.
What About BERT? What Does the Latest Update Mean for Search Queries?
You can read my full BERT post here for a deeper dive, so I’ll just go over the basics here.
BERT represents the latest stage in Google’s AI-driven effort to understand the intent behind searchers’ queries. BERT builds on RankBrain, offering more nuance to the software’s ability to uncover meaning within a search query and the content featured on a website.
In terms of SEO search queries, BERT improves Google’s understanding of queries, analyzing what users type into the box, not necessarily on-page content.
The big benefit for searchers is that they’ll start to see results that match the more specific questions they ask. For instance, in this example below, you’ll notice that the “after” result takes the “to” into account, whereas the “before” does not.
Concluding the Search Query
Here’s the thing about search queries: they’re one of the best tools we have to decipher searcher intent.
With updates like BERT and the ever-evolving RankBrain, intent may well be the most important part of today’s marketing strategy.
While the strategy around each type of search query will differ, if you can interpret the intent and create the content that meets user needs, you have a much better shot at improving your search rankings, PPC ads, and even the chances of appearing in position zero.