Searching in the Form of a Question

When you search for something, do you just type in the phrase you’re looking for, or do you phrase it in the form of a question?

If you’re like most searchers, chances are good that you type in a question at least some of the time. That’s the finding of a new study about the psychology of searching. The study found that more than 1 in 4 searches—27 percent—are phrased as questions.

What Determines Your Search Style?

That makes a lot of sense. Human beings are not wired to think in rigid concepts, we think narratively—often we think the same we speak. I would never see a doctor and simply say to her, “Sore throat” and then wait for a diagnosis. And I probably couldn’t get a list of what beers are on tap by simply asking the bartender, “Beers?” People prefer whole sentences in most situations. The fact that we now give our search queries in whole sentences too (at least a fourth of the time) indicates just how social technology has become. We talk to machines the same way we talk to people.

At least, kind of. The study found that there were two different kinds of question searches: fragments and full queries. Using examples from the study, “why doesn’t my coffee maker turn on” is a full query while “fix coffee maker” is a fragment. The study found that people who use fragments prefer to search quickly and click around until they find the answer, while full query types prefer depth of search where they’re more likely to find a specific answer right away. (I’m definitely a full query guy.)

SEO Applications

From an SEO perspective this does not call for any immediate change in how to rank for terms. You do not need to rank for full questions, because your top keywords will already be part of the questions your audience searches for. (On the other hand, you can get great content topic ideas by looking at what questions bring people to your site—simply write blog posts that answer the questions people ask.)

Google, on the other hand, has a long way to go on this, and I would love it if this study provoked some change from the search engine industry. While Google does understand some questions, and will try to provide knowledge graph answers where possible, most complex or niche questions do not get good search results. Often it seems like Google ignores the intent of the question and simply gives results that ping the main keywords.

As an example, try searching “what are best neighborhoods to buy homes in charleston?” Most of the results are just Charleston real estate listings, not information on specific neighborhoods.

I suspect that the trend toward searching in the form of a question will only continue. If you do take the time to write posts that answer common queries, it’s possible that your content will be in the top results as Google gets better at answering questions. In the meanwhile, it will at least help users get the info they need—which is a fast track toward converting them to customers.

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