An Introduction to Real World Search Engine User Behavior
You were just assigned the task to update your website’s keywords. Not yet in the mood to pull out a thesaurus or check out the competition’s keyword meta tags? Then start with a bit of educational fun, reviewing how users really query search engines. Each of the major search engines offers, or has offered, insight into current search trends. In some cases, the engines also report the actual top internet searches. While clearly an indicator of major news events and other social phenomena, top search trends show how users rely on just one or two words to express what they are looking to find.
Google Zeitgeist, with achieves back to January 2001, currently reports on internet searches over three time intervals: weekly, monthly and yearly. Data break outs for each reporting period differ, so it is worth consulting each.
Weekly Google Zeitgeist snapshots (currently only for Google.com searches) are of trends, reflecting the top search climbers. One might assume that Google applies a filter to these results as not all “popular human activity” seems to be represented, although it should be noted that the search term Viagra does show up in a few zeitgeist surveys.
Monthly Google Zeitgeist reports are on “popular” terms, While both Google’s Italian Zeitgeist and Google’s German Zeitgeist label the searches as “Most popular terms” (I termini più popolari) and “Most performed search queries” Meist durchgeführte Suchanfragen, respectively, the English interface speaks more ambiguously of “Popular Queries“; one suspects the use of più/meist is simply a translation oversight.
Moving beyond a trend interpretation of the queries, consider the top three Social Media queries for March 2006:
Even when a user knows a domain name, they still find comfort using a search engine as their starting point – the queries are for variants of myspace, including the domain myspace.com. Similarly, the top three movie searches are for sites where the search word is part of the domain name:
One probable explanation is that users find a search engine is a trusted means to cut through the bewildering confusion of domain name extensions and find The site they are looking for.
A related tool, Google Trends, allows a user to compare searches over time for multiple keywords or keyword phrases. While this tool has clear value for keyword selection (and revision!), it remains to be seen how accurate the data is. A clear disclaimer notes:
Google Trends aims to provide insights into broad search patterns. It is based upon just a portion of our searches, and several approximations are used when computing your results. Please keep this in mind when using it.
Many Google tools, such as the Google inbound link tool, have been so crippled as to render them rather useless. Lets hope this fate does not befall Google Trends. Google Trends has been available since 10 May 2006.
Catch Google Zeitgeist TV!
At the end of February 2006 Google launched a video program dedicated to Search Trends, Google current, on Al Gore’s Current.tv. With a lighthearted approach, each 2-3 minute segment places popular search terms in the current events context driving them.
Yahoo!’s Buzz is a daily (Tuesday through Saturday) look at “What the world is searching for“. It includes lists of “top movers” and “top leaders” along with a more in depth narrative putting the top searches in context. Unlike Google, Yahoo! offers a nice description of how the top searches are determined. An RSS feed is available to receive update notifications. Yahoo! Buzz is also available in local versions for France, the UK and Canada. We hope Yahoo! starts a version for Italy soon.
MSN Search Insider (Windows Live)
The MSN Search Insider provides a scrolling listing of the top 200 searches over the past week. Unfortunately, the list, not in any apparent order, does not easily lend itself to search keyword analysis. MSN warns that the list is unfiltered which makes it more accurate than those offered by Google, Yahoo! and Ask.
Other functionality includes a fun “duel” tool pitting two searches against each other (and encouraging Search Insider users to click on the results, skewing the data!).
As the Search Insider data has not updated since August 2005, the future of the MSN Search Insider is in doubt.
Update 3/2007: MSN Search Insider is no longer available. A similar tool for the current Windows Live has not (yet) been released.
Ask IQ (Interesting Queries)
Ask IQ (Interesting Queries) presents top searches for the past week with breakouts for news, movies and top advancers. Although the Ask IQ description speaks of “the most popular search terms”, the lists seem a bit too “clean” to be completely accurate. A historical achieve is not yet available.
While more fun than strategic, overall search trends do illustrate two key points:
- Most searches are just a few words
- Many users start with a search engine even when they know or have a good idea of a site’s domain name
- Google Zeitgeist has a Sibling, Google Trends
- Eying Search Engine Market Share in the era of Bing
- Google Trends for Websites, now with less data
- Google Autocomplete, née Google Suggest, the Precursor of Google Instant
- Google’s autocomplete search suggestions target of Milan court order