In late July, Dutch Web analytics company OneStat.com released a new report on the number of words in phrases people use for search engine queries. Analyzing phrases ranging from one to seven words, one- and two-word phrases were on the decline, while longer phrases posted an increase.
This affects everyone: Internet users, companies engaging in search engine marketing, as well as everyone and everything searchable online.
One and two-word phrases still account for 46.7 percent of all searches, down from 51.6 percent since February, a fairly quick descent of almost 10 percent.
Think what kinds of queries can be conducted with one or two words. There are company names - Starbucks, Eddie Bauer; there are celebrity queries such as Madonna, Josh Duhamel, and Maria Sharapova; and some news items fall into this group, such as John Edwards, Iraq war, and Google IPO. Any subject can have a short query (DVD player, Philadelphia Phillies, Dow Jones, Bahamas flights, ovarian cancer), but it tends to be so vague that you'll need to drill down further.
The longer queries allow search engines to come up with more specific information, and they underscore how users are placing a greater amount of trust in searching.
While two-word phrases are the most popular (at 30 percent of searches), there's a shrinking gap between those and the runner-up, three-word phrases. The difference was cut in half from February to July, with the former month showing a 6.97 percent gap and the latter month with a 3.26 percent difference. Four-word phrases are likewise nearly as popular as one-word phrases, with the difference between them dropping from 6.19 percent in February to 1.77 percent in July. Additionally, phrases of five to seven words now account for nearly 11 percent of searches, up from just under 9 percent in February.
The difference between what users can do with a four-word phrase and a two-word phrase is like using either a candle or a raging fireplace to warm up. Both will have an effect, but only one will really accomplish the job.
For a retail search, it's the difference between searching for "DVD player" and searching for "Zenith DVB312 comparison shop." The user knows what he wants, and he's now shopping on price alone. For travel, instead of just "Bahamas flights," it means "San Francisco Bahamas flights." That way, there's no wasted time browsing deals on trips from Chicago. For health, it shifts from the generic "ovarian cancer," with hopes of finding basic information, to "ovarian cancer doctor Milwaukee," and suddenly the power of local search is tested.
Let the tests begin. Most casual searchers don't know that a search on "movie times 11102" brings up a far better set of results in various search engines than even a search including a city name. They don't know that when caller ID displays a strange phone number, they can plug that right into AskJeeves.com for a link to a reverse phone directory lookup. Though many improvements are needed in search technology, the technology's evolving at a pace beyond what most consumers can keep up with. Let's hope things stay that way.
That being said, consumers' trust of search is quantifiably deepening. Every time someone searches for "women's red wool sweater" instead of "sweater," it means that user is reasonably confident that the more specific query will lead to a more specific result. If search engines get good enough, consumers in time may be so trusting that they'll be frustrated in the rare instance that a search engine can't read their minds.
Now, brace for impact. If you read reports on the shortage of search inventory recently, then to paraphrase Mark Twain, "the reports of inventory's dearth are greatly exaggerated" (it took a five-word search phrase to confirm the original source of the quote). As more searches are conducted on lengthier keyword phrases, that opens up a greater range of buying opportunities. When 50,000 people are searching for the above four-word sweater phrase instead of a few thousand, there's strong justification to start making those keyword buys. Overture.com's maximum bid viewer reveals that a slew of advertisers are bidding on "women's sweater," but no one is bidding on the four-word phrase. See how long it takes for that to change - for advertisers to catch up to how consumers are increasingly searching.
The entire purpose of search engine marketing is to connect with consumers. Consumers' queries are changing. Whoever listens, gets the clicks.