Q&A Search: Who, What, Where, When, Why & How

A search query, in its essence, is a question requiring an answer. Fortunately the search engines are intelligent enough to find us what we need with most any query, but some inquiries require more specification than just a term.

Searchers use modifiers to fish for greater accuracy with their terms all the time — the proverbial long tail. But what happens with the searchers who are as specific as directly asking a question?

With the recent IPO of Demand Media (owner of eHow) and the buzz regarding Google’s Panda algorithm changes, my questions suddenly required answers as well.

For the sake of this analysis, let’s define the marketplace as all search terms in the United States that contained at least one of the following words in January 2011 vs. year ago: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Below is an illustration of the number of searchers and searches on these terms in January:


Each of these question terms tells its own story, so let’s analyze them one by one.


Searchers ask four main questions when using the word “who”:

  • Who is?
  • Who are?
  • What was?
  • Who were?

As of January 2011, U.S. searchers ran more than 57 million searches containing “who,” an increase of 38 percent year over year. These searches were run by 21 million people, representing a year over year increase of 18 percent. Both of these increases outpaced all other question terms on our list. But why?

The simple answer is Kei$ha, Flo Rida, and Akon. Their songs, “We R Who We R” and “Who Dat Girl” both heavily skew the increased results, potentially driving a Q&A publisher down a rabbit hole regarding search analysis. (Content owners should remember that simply analyzing search term sets without detailed review can lead you down the wrong path!).

As for the modifier questions that deliver relevant answers, “Who is” dwarfs the respective competition, accounting for 7.9 million search clicks to websites in January 2011.

Narcissism and/or paranoia also rule the day here, with four of the top 20 “who is” search clicks being:

  • Who is searching for me?
  • Who is looking for me?
  • Who is looking at my Facebook profile?
  • Who am I? (A bit philosophical if you ask me, but self-centered nonetheless)

Otherwise, it’s all about who’s dating who in the celebrity world.


“What” is the second largest question modifier used on our list, with 253 million searches by 52 million people in January 2011. Although the total searches are up 35 percent since last year, the total number of searchers is only up 6 percent. (As we analyze the rest of our question modifiers, we’ll see that this 6 percent number is pretty standard across the board).

The main five “what” questions are:

  • What is?
  • What does?
  • What are?
  • What was?
  • What were?

“What is” takes the prize in this category, with 67 million search clicks from their respective searchers. “What does” and “What are” are no slouches though, with 22 and 15 million clicks, respectively.

When using “what” in your search query, the main definition of the term tends to almost always be a noun and directly leads to learning something new.

Top examples include:

  • What is refinancing? (Informed home buyer market anyone?)
  • What is Taco Bell meat made of? (Topical news stories)
  • What is FICA? (January receivers of W2s)
  • What is love? (Baby, don’t hurt me)

These questions tend to be the most straightforward as to their meaning and should allow for easier targeting from a search destination perspective than some of the other terms on our list. As soon as you start typing “what,” it’s all about education.


“Where” comes in towards the lower end on volume with 52 million searches and 20 million searchers in January 2011, up 21 percent and 6 percent respectively.

“Where” lends itself to contractions a bit more than its related cousins, as the top variations are:

  • Where is?
  • Where are?
  • Wheres? (exactly as typed — texting has destroyed contractions!)
  • Where’s?
  • Where was?

“Where is” continues our use of “is” as most important phrasing associated with question searching at 8.7 million search clicks.

What’s interesting about “where” searching in January is that it’s top heavy with tax-related items; specifically searchers wondering “where’s my refund.” This may actually represent strong marketing efforts on the part of the IRS this year, since “Where’s My Refund” is their branded area on IRS.gov to allow tax payers a convenient way to receive updates while efficiently addressing the needs of their constituents. The IRS may not be known as the most forward thinking organization, but its commitment to the web, as well as its investment in its campaigns, allows for much greater efficiency than we have seen in past years.

Beyond taxes, “where” is an overwhelmingly location-based question (big surprise), with most of the questions asking where they can accomplish a particular task as opposed to finding something (e.g., where to buy Amazon gift cards).


“When” runs neck-and-neck with “Where” in volume, with 54.8 million searches and 21 million searchers, up 26 percent and 6 percent respectively.

The top four “when” variants are:

  • When is?
  • When was?
  • When did?
  • When does?

“When is” drove 4.4 million clicks in January 2011, with the mass majority of them concerning upcoming holidays and events. Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Easter, and the State of the Union address bubbled to the top that month.

With these queries being so time sensitive, this would be a great market for news organizations to review and consider. News publishers of all kinds online can use these queries to better prepare for annual/recurring events with their SEO architecture, because a large volume of searchers will be asking the same questions year over year and these news organizations will inevitably have content related to these items, year after year. Knowing “when” these searches begin to pop up prior to the events can only help with your targeting efforts.


According to most anyone you talk to, “Why” things happen is the most important part. This defines the meaning behind everything that happens in your life — but when it comes to searching it is the smallest area by far, with only 33 million searches and 13 million searchers in January 2011, up 27 percent and 6 percent respectively.

“Why” finally breaks our streak of “is” winners with the following Top 5 list:

  • Why do?
  • Why is?
  • Why are?
  • Why did?
  • Why does?

“Why do” makes up almost 30 percent of the search clicks for this modifier, with 9.8 million clicks deliver. “Why do” definitely falls into the same category as “what” questions with edification being the main driver, but it is also prominent with searchers that are confused and looking for people with similar problems.

The other modifiers on our list are more straightforward with the problem that needs to be solved or the question that needs to be answered. Even “who” related searches tend to be about other people, while “why” questions are centered around and/or include the searcher:

  • Why do I hate myself?
  • Why am I depressed?
  • Why did I get married?
  • Why do we dream?

Any publisher out there pushing “why” content should remember that and act accordingly. “Why” is less about answering a question about the world around you and more about answering questions about you.


The big daddy of our question modifiers, “how” related searches making up almost half of the question marketplace with over 431 million searches by 71 million searchers in January 2011, up 27 percent and 7 percent respectively.

Without a doubt, our largest question online is “how to” do something:

  • How to?
  • How do?
  • How much?
  • How many?
  • How does?

“How to” drove over 253 million clicks in January 2011, up 35 percent since last year and growing every day.

While the other modifiers lend themselves to text-based answers quite often, “how to” searching has shown an exceptionally high affinity for video search results. Google, eHow, YouTube, Yahoo Answers, and others will all deliver you “how to” instructional videos with your results, whether you run this search on a search engine or on a vertical search site.

Some of the most popular searches month in and month out:

  • How to tie a tie?
  • How to kiss?
  • How to get pregnant?
  • How to lose weight?
  • How to write a resume?

“How to” searching tends to skew towards younger demographics, which makes sense since you have less knowledge about everything the younger your age (how to kiss and other such variants come to mind). That said, “how to” items related to job searching are as collectively large as any “how to” topic at this stage, reflecting the needs of a population in search of work.


Although every search inherently answers a question, those with the above modifiers help define searcher intent in a particular way. The marketplace is growing and will likely continue to see growth in the coming years. It is important to note, however, the low overall increase of searchers in relation to the large overall increase in searches.

U.S. searchers are averaging over 120 searchers per searcher at this stage, with that number growing double digits every year. Just keep in mind that the searcher population here is not growing so expediently, so the growth in this marketplace is more about searcher engagement than it is to an expanding searcher marketplace. This makes consumer experience on your website, and the ensuing return visitation if satisfied, so important in the Q&A space.

Join us for SES New York 2011, the Leading Search & Social Marketing Event, taking place March 21-25. SES New York will be packed with 70+ sessions, multiple keynotes, 100+ exhibitors, networking events, and parties. Learn about PPC management, keyword research, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, local, mobile, link building, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization, usability, and more.

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