Caution: Reported Trends In Search Query Length May Be Misleading

We constantly are hearing reports about how web surfers are getting increasingly savvy with their searches. For example, Hitwise reports that average query length is getting longer. Search marketers have interpreted this information in the following way:

If queries are getting longer, the long tail of search must be increasing; further, if web users are getting more specific in their searches, marketers need to keep adding increasingly specific search terms in campaigns.

The situation, however, is a little more nuanced than at first glance. The mapping of search terms to a web query is in the hands of the search engines. While the advertiser would like perfect mapping, there are many instances where search engines map long queries to short broad matched search terms. To investigate this further, I looked at several large SEM campaigns over time. The results are revealing.

I did not find a consistent trend in search term impressions by vertical. In the example below, when weighted by impressions, the average search term length increased for the retail vertical but decreased in the business services vertical (the business services vertical refers to those that provide stationary supplies, printing services and web services to businesses. These are B2B advertisers). Moreover, the average length is less than three words which is less than the average query length hinted in the Hitwise report.


When I further broke out the data, I found that search terms of length greater than 5 words contributed less than 1% of volume both in impressions and revenue. Again, this is contrary to what the query reports indicate. Further, the trends in search term length vary widely by vertical. In the retail space, four and five word search queries have been steadily increasing in terms of impression and revenue contributions. In 2007, they accounted for less than 3% of volume whereas they now account for more than 15% of volume. However, in the business services vertical, there was no such trend. In fact, for business services, one and two word search terms have been increasing.


So what are you as a marketer to make of this data?

First, web query data cannot be applied directly to your search marketing efforts. Search term length trends vary widely by vertical. Hence, advertisers have to look carefully at these trends as they apply to their businesses. Second, the differing trends between retail and the business services sector suggests that the behavior of a B2B searcher differs from a B2C searcher.

Additionally, search terms with a length greater than five do not account for more than 1% of volume, either in impressions or revenue. Therefore, when adding keywords to your campaign, don’t worry about very long search terms.

Finally, If longer length search terms were far more profitable than shorter length terms then advertisers would bid higher on these terms to capture more volume. This would lead to greater exposure of longer length terms and hence more impressions and revenue from these terms would show up over time. The data suggests that longer search terms are more profitable for retail but this is not the case for business services.

Thus, when you look at expanding your campaigns keep these factors In mind. Rather than going by broad query trends, you would be well advised to understand the search term trends for your own business. Just as the business services example, the results may be contrary to what you expect. A keyword addition project with this understanding in mind would help you better select keywords to include in your campaign.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Search & Analytics


About The Author: is Director, Business Analytics at Adobe. He leads a global team that manages the performance of over $2 BN dollars of ad spend on search, social and display media at Adobe.

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  • skydive.ny

    Nice writeup – eager to use that new broad match setting when it rolls around.


  • MadeWillis

    Interesting article, but are you looking at actual queries or just, for example, Adwords keywords? If it is Adwords, how many 5 word+ keywords are actually in those accounts? I think the could easily skew your data if you are not looking at actually queries.

    You are spot on in regards to keyword mapping, especially for low volume search keywords (Yahoo was the king at this). I’ve added a keyword of 5 or 6 words (exact match) and then tried to get the corresponding ad to display and I can’t do it. Google would show a broad or phrase match of a more expensive 2 word keyword indicating either (A) that Google is trumping the less expensive keyword with the more expensive one to make more money, or (B) the ad algorithm is overpowered by the quality score of a more heavily searched keyword.

    Regardless, I could see how data in the experiment makes sense for advertisers in some situations, but the long-tail should not be ignored by SEOs.

  • sidshah

    I actually looked at search terms in a campaign and not queries. I did so on purpose. You can get query breakout from Hitwise or a different thrid party source. However, I wanted to see what it meant for SEM. The clients I chose are big spenders with millions of keywords with thousands of very long keywords in their campaigns. So in this sense I have avoid biasing the result. My main interest was to see if the search engines map queries to longer length search terms or do they map into broader matched expensive keywords. The evidence points to the latter.


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