Insights For SEM Service Providers: SEO vs. Search Engine Optimization Queries

Is typing in “SEO” the same as typing in “search engine optimization“? Not according to the data in AdWords. The queries in the search engine optimization data set are quite different than the data in the SEO data set. This was a bit of a surprise even to me. It turns out that there is […]

Chat with SearchBot

Is typing in “SEO” the same as typing in “search engine optimization“? Not according to the data in AdWords. The queries in the search engine optimization data set are quite different than the data in the SEO data set. This was a bit of a surprise even to me.

It turns out that there is much more variable traffic in the search engine optimization data by a 4-to-1 margin over an SEO search.

  • Search engine optimization: 125 million monthly searches.
  • SEO: 30 million monthly searches.

The Search Engine Optimization group has 25 categories of behavior. The SEO group has three fewer search behavior categories.

For example, there is no traffic for the advertising, business and search engines categories.

SEO Categories by Volume

Category Comparison

So, what do these differences mean? I’ll start by comparing the search traffic head-to-head.

For example, in this view you will notice that location-based searches are much more prominent in the SEO group, while product development queries are almost non-existent.

SEO categories Alpha View

Search Behavior Model Hierarchy

The following two graphs order the search behavior categories for both groups from top to bottom by search volume. You will notice that each model has a different order and the sub categories are displayed where there is critical mass in search traffic.

The Search Engine Optimization Model

SEO Model Full spelling

The SEO Model

SEO Model Full Acronym

Categories In More Detail

This analysis will be more focused on the search engine optimization group because it contains more data. As I work through the categories, I will lead with data about the search engine optimization group, and follow-up with observations about the SEO group data if it’s of interest.


  • 2,547,280 searches

These searches are mostly about finding advertising services. About 700,000 of these searches have the term promotion in them. There are a few cases where the word optimization is used in the keyword phrase, and the acronym SEO is not used at all.

In the SEO group, the term advertising appears just once.


  • 11,239,780 searches

10.5 million of these searches have the brand name Google in them. These queries tend to be high level; business people use keyword phrases such as Google optimization, Google search engine marketing and Google search optimization. The majority of the remaining traffic is for Overtour. The term SEO appears only once in the brand category.

In the SEO group, Google appears in just under 50% of the searches. The rest of the branded searches are for named companies and named software products. The term SEO appears in every branded query in this group.


  • 902,000 searches.

This traffic is all noise, and it’s not clear to me why these queries are here. I would assume that these were captured as part of a multi-search session that had SEO related queries in them. The SEO group has no business related traffic.


  • 4,112,600 searches

Here marketing professionals are searching for a company without specifying a brand name. Two-thirds of the searches are high level, where you see people using terms like affiliate and design agency. There are two pockets of behavior here that are of interest. The following partial phrases appear in large numbers of company-related searches:

  • Marketing services: 835,000 searches.
  • Search engine optimization: 597,000 searches.

In the SEO group, you do have people looking for marketing services, but it represents much less traffic at about 100,000 queries. Most of these queries have the term SEO in them. Though the term company is the most common word used, you do see a lot of variability in how a company is described. They’re using terms like provider, firm, reseller, agency, service and partner interchangeably.


  • 662,200 searches

When business people look for a consultant, they’re looking for a combination of search engine optimization expertise and search engine marketing expertise. They are also looking for a broader set of tools and experiences from these consultants.

Consultant and consulting are the most common terms, however you do see a lot of variability in the words used, such as guru, expert, professionals, freelance, and specialist.

In the SEO group, there is only one query that contains the word marketing. The focus in this group is purely on finding search engine optimization consultants.


  • 4,435,030 searches

The content category has three very definable subgroups.

  1. The first group of four million searches has consumers looking for SEO guidance, search engine optimization secrets and article marketing.
  2. The second group of 390K searches has consumers looking for tips about optimization and search engine marketing.
  3. The third group has business owners looking for books about search engine marketing and search engine optimization (37,500 searches).

SEO Tips would make a great landing page opportunity.

In the SEO group, you see the same categories, but without any traffic associated with marketing and advertising. The SEO group has one additional sub-category, reviews which is primarily focused on software.

  • Searching for guides, advice and articles: 281,300 searches.
  • Searching for books: 86,900 searches.
  • Searching for reviews: 32,900 searches.


  • 1,145,906 searches

This category is dominated by queries for training. About 80% of this traffic is for search engine marketing training, while the rest is for search engine optimization training, tutorials and workshops.

The SEO group has 350,000 searches in this category, but instead of requests for training you see queries for seminars, tutorials and courses. You also see two other groupings not in the search engine optimizations data set, which are how to and learn about.


  • 2,490 searches.

All the traffic in this category is for search engine marketing/search engine optimization conferences. The SEO group has about 4,000 searches a month for event-based queries.


  • 38,899,740 searches

About 12 million of these queries actually have the three-word phrase search engine optimization in them. As in all informational searches these tend to be high level, and in many cases it’s hard to guess what the user was really looking for. For example, what exactly does search engine optimization results mean?

In the SEO group, the use of the phrase search engine optimization and the term SEO are evenly split in the 20 million searches in the information category.


  • 305,080 searches

Searches for international or multilingual services are pretty high level. The SEO group, which has only 13,700 searches, is more focused. They are interested in international multilingual services, but they are also specifying SEO services by nationality. You see search requests for Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish SEO.


  • 1,000,190 searches.

There is a lot of noise in this category; just 175,000 of these searches are for search engine optimization/marketing jobs. In the SEO group the dominant job search phrase is SEO jobs.


  • 141,920 searches.

This is an interesting category because the term local can have two meanings.

  1. People are interested in locating specific services but failed to specify a city or state name. They use search phrases such as local search marketing or local SEO. Are they looking for a local firm?
  2. Owners have a regional business and want to optimize their website for local search results.


  • 190,440 searches

Business people search for SEO services in two primary ways; by state and city name. Searching by city name is the most common by a two to one margin.

The SEO group has many more location-based searches, 530,000 a month. You see much more specificity in this group as people are specifying the type of SEO they’re interested in. For example, link building, content optimization and page markup.

Paid search

  • 3,197,170 searches.

All the action for paid search is in the search engine optimization group. The terminology they use and word order is very consistent here.

For example, you see these patterns 95% of the time:

  • PPC [variable terms]. 2.5 million searches.
  • Pay per click [variable term]. 625,000 search
  • Paid search [variable term]. 65,000 searches.

In contrast, the SEO group has only 35,000 searches for paid search each month.

Product development

  • 2,316,000 searches

The fact that product development related searches are showing up in this data suggests that many companies recognize the specific role that SEO plays in the web development process. This is spot on. You do see some keyword phrases that merge web development with SEO such as the phrase SEO Web development.

There is almost no traffic associated with product development in the SEO group – just 2.3K searches a month.


  • 138,690 searches

Here, executives are searching for optimization services by profession. They do so in two distinct ways. First, they search at a high level using the primary term B2B. Secondly, they specify a specific industry such as automotive, hotel or legal.

There are only 14,000 monthly searches in the SEO group by profession, but they specify many more industries in this data such as dental, law firm and travel.


  • 745,080 searches

When people specify a particular quality within their keyword phrase, they do so with very few specific terms.

For example:

  • Best search engine [variable term]. 393,000 searches.
  • Top search engine [variable term]. 194,000 searches.
  • Improve/increase search engine [variable term]. 145,000 searches.

In the SEO group, there’s the same focus on the terms best and top, however there is no traffic associated with increase or improve.

  • Best search engine [variable term]. 293,000 searches.
  • Top search engine [variable term]. 97,000 searches.

Search engine

  • 2,056,180 searches

These are fairly high-level queries and are clearly about search engines, but beyond that it’s hard to tell what the consumer was thinking when they typed in the following phrases; natural search engine and web search engines. You find none of these phrases in the SEO group data set.


  • 11,426,001 searches

This is a complex category with many sub-groupings. Most of these searches are fairly focused and the business owners are telling you exactly what they’re looking for. For example:

  • Service – general: 5.6 million searches.
  • Service – marketing: 3 million searches.
  • Service – submission: 1.2 million searches.
  • Service – page rank: 823,000 searches.
  • Service – link building: 651,000 searches.
  • Service – SEO page markup: 63,000 searches.
  • Service – copywriting: 59,000 searches.

In the services-general category, the majority of the traffic is for search engine optimization without any references to terms like submissions or copywriting.

In the SEO group, you see the same categories, but with drastically reduced numbers. For example:

  • Service – general: 2.9 million searches.
  • Service – link building: 120,000 searches.
  • Service – copywriting: 116,000 searches.
  • Service – submission: 111,000 searches.
  • Service – page rank: 80,600 searches.
  • Service – SEO page markup: 51,000 searches.
  • Service – marketing: 16,780 searches.


  • 9,087,000 searches

Over 8 million of these searches are for CMS and CRM services. About 99% of the searches are high level, and there is only one search query specifying a brand. You see keyword phrases such as search engine ranking software and SEO optimization software in this group.

The same behavior exists in the SEO group, but with a little more variability in term usage. For example, SEO blocking software and SEO shopping cart.


  • 1,175,000 searches

In the source category people are looking for directories, specialty websites and lists of search engine optimization sites. There’s quite a bit of noise in this category. For example, you see requests for lists of Internet search engines and advertising websites.

In the SEO group the searches for a source are far more focused, and 100% of the traffic is focused on finding SEO directories or SEO resources.


  • 13,022,120 searches

These are searches for software tools, but the consumers did not use the term software when they did the search. Approximately 11 million of these searches are for AdSense, AdWords and analytical tools. The remaining traffic is for optimization, submission and ranking tools.

In the SEO group, people are using many more search phrases to find a wider variety of tools. They are using secondary terms such as analyzer, generator, suggestion, checker, and tracking to specify the type of tool they are looking for.


  • 166,100 searches

Consumers use very few transactional terms to specify their needs in this category. The most common are buy, get and quote. This behavior holds true for both groups.


  • 15,923,150 searches

Consumers search for a type of service in five different ways. In order of importance they are:

  • Type-SEM: (7.9 million searches) e.g., SEO SEM.
  • Type-general (6.8 million searches) e.g., mobile search engine optimization.
  • Type-web: (1 million searches) e.g., web marketing search engine placement.
  • Type-interactive: (134,000 searches) e.g., interactive advertising.
  • Type-organic: (19,000 searches) e.g., organic search optimization.

Other examples of Type include video SEO and white hat SEO.

In the SEO group, you have an additional category where consumers are searching by development platforms such as flash and Joomla.

In this group, you also find no traffic for interactive services. The one anomaly in this comparison is that you find double the traffic for organic services than in the SEO group.

  • Type-general (1 million searches) e.g., Internet marketing SEO.
  • Type-platform: (341,000 searches) e.g., SEO Joomla.
  • Type-web: (269,000 searches) e.g., web marketing search engine optimization.
  • Type-SEM: (104,000 searches) e.g., SEM SEO.
  • Type-organic: (47,000 searches) e.g., organic SEO services.


  • 683,420 searches

Of those, 457,000 of the searches are for free services. The most common secondary terms is cheap followed by affordable.

  • Value-free: 457K searches.
  • Value-cheap: 74K searches.
  • Value-affordable: 50K searches.
  • Value-price: 35K searches.
  • Value-cost: 33K searches.

You see the same behavior reflected in the SEO group.

  • Value-free: 366K searches.
  • Value-cheap: 66K searches.
  • Value-affordable: 29K searches.
  • Value-cost: 17K searches.
  • Value-price: 14K searches.

Term Density

The next table shows the top 25 secondary terms for each group. In the search engine optimization group, you see a much broader range of topics reflected in the terms while the SEO group reflects a much narrower range of interest.

SEO Secondary terms

Secondary Terms: Search Engine Optimization Group

The terminology used in the search engine optimization group shows that these business owners understand that SEO is just one part of a successful website strategy.

For example, you see interest in marketing, advertising and paid search. It’s not surprising to see the term SEM used three times as much as the term SEO (7.5M vs. 2.7M).

One surprise in this data is how often consumers actually take the trouble to spell out search engine optimization instead of using the acronym SEO.

Secondary Terms: SEO Group

In the SEO group, you don’t see a focus on product development, advertising and paid search.

Instead, you see terminology that is very closely associated with the nuts and bolts of search engine optimization such as searches for services, tools and software. Interestingly, these phrases do not show up in the top 25 list for the search engine optimization group.

High-level Differences

The search engine optimization group is far more inclusive and reflects the role that SEO plays within the entire website development, marketing and advertising business cycle. Not only are businesses looking for SEO services, they are equally interested in paid search and search engine marketing services.

There are several focuses within this data, with marketing being the most dominant, followed by advertising and product development. When it comes to marketing, business owners are using half a dozen interchangeable phrases to dictate what they’re looking for.

For example:

  • Search engine marketing: 1,286,000
  • Online marketing: 1,138,000
  • Web marketing 487,000
  • Internet marketing: 94,000
  • Search marketing 98,000
  • Interactive marketing: 65,000

You do not see this focus on marketing in the SEO AdWords data, where the term marketing appears only 754,000 times. There is not much focus on paid search in the SEO data as seen in the comparison below.

  • Search engine optimization group: 3.2 million searches.
  • SEO group: 35,000 searches.

In the search engine optimization group business owners use only three terms two modify advertising queries. These are:

  • PPC: 2.5 million
  • Pay per click: 625,000
  • Paid search: 65,000

Brand Differences

Another noticeable difference between the two groups is the brand category.

In the search engine optimization group, there are over 11 million brand related queries, most of them having the word Google in them. There are a few other brands in the data, but not many. You do see queries for Overture, Brad Callen, MSN and SEO Inc. These brands represent less than 600,000 queries a month.

In the SEO group, brand accounts for just over 1 million searches a month. Google does not dominate this category. Instead, you see queries by brand name for software that is used in managing SEO platforms, such as elite 4.0.

Location Differences

Another major difference in category behavior is the search for SEO services by location. The SEO group has nearly triple (190K vs. 530K) the location-based searches than the search engine optimization group. All the queries in the SEO group are about locating SEO services in a particular city or state. While the search engine optimization group has a lot of SEM requests in the location category.

Key Insights For SEO firms

  • If your business is primarily providing search engine optimization related services, then using the abbreviated form (SEO) is your best option.
  • If you’re a full service marketing and advertising firm along with SEO services, then using search engine optimization fully spelled out is your best option.
  • On balance, when businesses look for consultant they are looking for a broader array of expertise beyond that of SEO.
  • There are very specific content opportunities in the area of training, seminars and reviews.
  • In certain categories, there’s a lot of predictability in how consumers construct search queries (e.g., word order and terms used). You see this in the paid search and quality categories.
  • When business owners search for a type of a firm there are big differences between the two groups. For example, there is 80 times more traffic in the search engine optimization group associated with the term SEM.
  • You see a lot of variability in the terminology people use to specify a type of firm. For example, web, interactive, organic and Internet are used interchangeably when describing a company. You see this behavior in both groups.

If you take a step back to think about why there are such dramatic differences in the two groups, you can make a couple of observations.

Comfort level – The terminology used in the SEO Group suggests familiarity with the jargon commonly found in the search engine optimization community.

The search traffic in the SEO group suggests a higher level of sophistication and understanding by searchers.Their needs are narrowly defined, and they know exactly what they are looking for. I also wonder how much of the SEO group traffic is generated from within the industry.

Company size – It may be that a lot of the search engine optimization group traffic is coming from larger companies with complex website infrastructures and extensive marketing departments – hence all the traffic associated with CRM, CMS and SEM. This search traffic reflects the complete web development, marketing and advertising cycle. In this group, SEO plays a supporting role, not a dominating role.

Need To Know More?

A search behavior model is a data-driven process for classifying user intent for each search query to a specific source, type or subject. It’s a reflection of the total consumer search experience for products and services in any single market segment.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Mark Sprague

Get the must-read newsletter for search marketers.