Keywords vs Search Terms: What is the Difference?

In a casual Marketing conversation, keywords and search terms are often used interchangeably. However, they are actually different, as one is from the perspective of the user while the other one – of the advertiser. Today, we will compare keywords vs search terms, and we will see what are the main differences between them.

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Keywords vs Search terms: What is the difference?

To put it simply, keywords are the words or phrases that an advertiser bids on so that his ads can show up on Google when a user types this word or phrase. In other words, they are what the advertiser thinks the user will type on Google. Something like an educated guess after an extensive keyword research.

Search terms, however, are the terms that the user is actually typing when looking for something. They are also known as search queries.

This means that in some cases, they might coincide, but the majority of times they won’t.

keywords vs search terms

Keywords vs Search Terms Infographic

To better understand these concepts, let’s work with a practical example. Let’s say that you are a person looking to buy a new pair of running shoes for your next marathon. On the other side, we have a company that is selling different brands of running shoes, and is advertising them on Google.

Different points of view – advertiser vs user

As an advertiser, you need to let Google know what your product is about, and you do that with keywords. This way, when a user types something, the search engine will know whether your ad is relevant for him. For example, if he typed “formal shoes for weddings”, and you are only selling sports shoes, Google will not show your ad. Because it is not relevant for this specific user.

By making a list of keywords that are relevant for your business, you give Google guidelines about your products or services. This way, the search engine will only try to show your ad when the user types something exact or similar to your keywords.

As a user who wants to purchase a pair of running shoes, you need to let Google know what exactly is that you are looking for. And you do that with search terms. A search term is basically anything that you will type on Google that will return the desired results. For you, this might not be precisely “running shoes”. It could be:

  • Best running shoes
  • Best running shoes 2020
  • Top performing running shoes
  • Running shoes for men

As you can see, while the keywords set by the advertiser can be more or less exact, users can type virtually anything that comes to their head. For advertisers, this means that they will need to implement a clear strategy in order to understand the way users search on Google. 

The thing is, a search term can (and should) easily become a keyword on your Google Ads’ list. However, not all search terms are good enough to become keywords. To understand which ones are good and how to use them to your advantage, first we need to understand the concept of search intent.

keywords vs search terms - search intent

Understanding Search Intent – and how to use it to your advantage

As we just mentioned, a user goes on Google to search for something specific in mind. From looking for the best gifts for mother’s day to hunting for a flight deal to Italy, we have millions of personal reasons to search for that something.

However, advertisers need to clearly understand the why behind our searches. This way, both they and Google will be able to decide whether an ad will be relevant for us. For the search engine, the concept of relevance is extremely important because it wants to show ads to people who actually could be interested in them.

Let’s say you went to Google and typed the word “cats”. This is a very generic search term, and it doesn’t say anything about your intent. Were you looking for pictures of cats? Did you want to buy food for cats? Or read an article about cats? The possibilities are endless.

With generic keywords like these, it is sometimes quite difficult to understand the search intent behind them.

However, if you typed “food for cats”, you are showing an intention to buy cat food. Or maybe research about the best brands of cat food (which is usually associated with the potential for a purchase.)

There are 4 types of search intent:

Informational

This means that the person is looking for information on a specific topic. It could be formulated like a question, such as “what are the 7 colours of the rainbow?”, or like a simple phrase “the 7 colours of the rainbow”.

In both cases, the user wants to get informed or learn more about something, but he usually doesn’t have the intention to purchase. Or at least not at this very moment of searching.

Other examples of informational searches include:

  • “What is Big Data?”
  • “How does Artificial Intelligence work?”
  • “Technology behind self-driving cars”
  • “basketball games today”
  • “boiling temperature of milk”

And so on.

Navigational

keywords vs search terms - navigational search intent

Have you ever looked for a specific website directly on Google? Sometimes, we are too lazy to type in the whole URL of a web into the address bar, or we don’t know the full URL. This type of intent shows that the user knows exactly where to go, and he isn’t looking for any other alternative.

For example, he might go to Google and type in:

  • “Hubspot”
  • “Moz link explorer”
  • “Mailchimp email marketing automation”
  • “Backlinko SEO study”

You get the idea.

Transactional

keywords vs search terms - transactional search intent

Remember when I said that search terms are a great way to enrich your keywords list, but not all search terms can make good keywords?

Well, search terms that show a transactional intent are usually the best ones to convert into keywords for your ads. They mean that the customer is ready, and intentionally looking to make a purchase. He is in buying mode, but he is polishing up the details on how to buy, or where is the best place to buy from.

Some examples include:

  • “buy new samsung galaxy”
  • “where to find cocktail dresses”
  • “semrush premium plan”
  • “zara shop near me”
  • “google ads coupon”

Commercial investigation

This search intent means that the customer is probably thinking of making a purchase. However, he is still in the stage of evaluating the best alternatives before making the final decision. Users with commercial investigation intent are usually looking for comparisons, reviews and ratings to help them weigh up their options.

In this case, searches might look something like this:

  • “bluehost vs godaddy hosting”
  • “mailchimp reviews”
  • “best rated restaurants Madrid”
  • “L’Oreal vs Maybelline lipstick”
  • “cheapest hotels in Salamanca”

Keywords vs Search Terms: Which queries should you convert to keywords?

As we just saw, the type of search intent behind a user’s query will give us an idea on whether he is ready to purchase. And here is how to use each one of them to your advantage:

  • Informational – these search terms are typically not a good idea to include in your ads. Because people are merely trying to educate themselves on a subject, you will most probably waste your budget on clicks that won’t end up in a purchase. However, they can serve you as an inspiration for blog posts or other types of content for your website.
  • Navigational – navigational searches to your web are great for getting an idea on the spread of your brand awareness. In other words, how many people know your brand and are looking directly for it by the name. You can use them to create a brand campaign in Google. This way, when people use these terms, you will show up both in a paid and organic way. Thus, ensuring that no other company will “steal” your potential customers.
  • Transactional – these are the type of search terms that you should be focused on identifying. Because they show an intent to purchase, including them in your keyword list will “guide people” towards your product.
  • Commercial investigations – these terms could have a buying potential, but you have to be careful with them, especially if you are on a limited budget. The main reason why is that the user might not be at the right stage of his journey. Additionally, he might not want to see ads when all he is looking for is a review from other users.

Search terms reports

search terms vs keywords

So, we already viewed keywords vs search terms from a theoretical perspective. But it is time to put the knowledge into practice!

Now that we know the type of searches that we should be focusing on, we need to find them. And this is very easy to do with Google Ads.

Open your Google Ads dashboard and select the campaign that you want to extract search terms from. Now, go to the icon Reports right above your ad groups.

google ads dashboard - keywords vs search terms

Of course, if you want to download the search terms of all campaigns at the same time, you can just stay at your dashboard’s home page, and do the same exercise. However, I wouldn’t recommend it because it would mix your search terms and it might be more difficult to analyze them later.

Now that you’ve clicked on the Reports icon, select Basic, and then Search Terms:

search terms vs keywords - google ads

You will be taken to another window with all of your search terms for a specific period of time. You can select any period of time during which your campaigns have been active. If it’s the first time that you are doing this, I recommend selecting the time period Always:

keywords vs search terms google ads time period

This way, you can collect as much historical data as you can do make a full analysis of your search terms. It will be like a fun little spring cleaning that will help you improve the quality score of your Google Ads!

Sorting out your search terms

As I just mentioned, we will need to take a good look at your search terms and decide which ones should be added to our keyword list. Now that you are looking at your Search term report,you can either work from here or download them to an Excel file.

In this example, I am not going to show my search queries because it is confidential information. However, you can see two interesting columns right next to them:

  • Search term match type – this column indicates how closely the search query of the user matched with your keyword. For example, if your keyword was “buy running shoes” and the user typed “buy running shoes”, his search matched your keyword exactly. However, if he types “best running shoes for men”, it is a little bit different – making it a broad or a phrase type. You can read more about match types here. 
  • Added/Excluded – this column tells you whether you already have the specific search term in your list. This way, you can easily see those that are not part of your keywords yet so you can add them later.

Taking action

By looking at the report, try to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are these search terms transactional? In case they are not, could they possibly indicate any future intention to buy? If the answer is yet, add them to your list. If the answer is no, you can either do nothing or put them in your negative keyword list. Negative keywords are simply those that you don’t want to show up for ever.
  • Have their brought you any conversions? A conversion, also known as lead, is someone who left their personal data or requested more information about your product. This means that they are interested in your business. If the answer is yes, definitely include them! Especially if there was more than one conversion.
  • Do they have a lot of impressions? If they do, definitely take notes of them either for your campaigns or , in case they are not precisely transactional, for your blog. A lot of impressions (ad views) means that many people are using this term to look for something.
  • Would you never ever use them in your campaign? If you notice that your ads are appearing for topics that you don’t want to position for, definitely exclude them from your keyword list.

And last but not least, pay attention to your Cost per Click. If there are search queries that are wasting you a lot of money without bringing any conversions, it is also a sign that you need to exclude them.

Wrapping it up

I hope you liked my article on keywords vs search terms!

We now know that it takes some time to build your keyword list and enrich it with queries that are relevant for your business, and you didn’t think about before. I definitely recommend that you do a “cleaning” of your search terms and keywords every week or couple of weeks.

This way, you are not only enriching your current keyword inventory, but you are also ensuring that you aren’t appearing for terms that will only waste your budget. And also, you are increasing the relevance of your ads for the users. So, it’s a win-win!

As always, thank you for taking the time to read my post Keywords vs Search Terms – What is the Difference?, and I hope to see you in the next one! If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!


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