IndustryOne-Word Searches: Search Engines Doing More With Less

One-Word Searches: Search Engines Doing More With Less

We’re seeing one-word search queries’ share of total search activity growing fast. Is this due to mobile search, Google Instant, or something else? Let’s see if we can break down this trend and isolate the behavior for what it really is.

Buy. Me. LeapPad. Online. Now!

nintendo-64-kidFortunately, most Search Engine Watch readers know at least the basics of using a search engine, and we’re not 7-year-olds drooling over the hottest toy of the 2011 holiday season. (Although, with just the right holiday cheer, we too can go into orbit like the kid who got the Nintendo 64.)

But the truth is, with the way search engines are evolving toward personalization and predictive modeling, it might not be long before any one of the aforementioned keywords might suffice in delivering relevant search results to users.

There’s a curious trend going on behind the scenes, one that hasn’t received a whole lot of publicity: the growing prominence of one-word search queries. We’re seeing one-word search queries’ share of total search activity growing fast: from 20.3 percent of all search engine queries  in January 2009 to 27.2 percent in October 2011, according to Hitwise.

That’s more than a one-third increase in percentage terms – in less than three years. Are things changing so fast in our digital ecosystem, that our impatience can be measured in such dramatic terms?

Maybe not. Let’s see if we can break down this trend and isolate the behavior for what it really is.

Growth of Mobile Search?

The first explanation that comes to mind might be that the meteoric rise of mobile search. With almost a quarter of mobile searchers inputting queries almost every day, and with the short form that lends itself to the mobile format, you might have a real insight on your hands. Alas, that Hitwise data excluded mobile devices.

Belated Effects of Google Instant?

There’s no doubt that the launch of Google Instant in early September 2010 touched off a sea change in search behavior, as hordes of search engine users gleefully rescued nanoseconds back into their calendars – and the occasional multi-word search query got truncated by the pre-emptive delivery of some useful search results.

Various people tried to quantify this effect. ComScore’s Eli Goodman probably came the closest, and in his verdict, only 3 percent of search queries saw a reduction in word count. Maybe that’s why Hitwise data showed a decline in the incidence of one-word search queries in September 2010, to 22.7 percent.

So we’re barking up the wrong tree there, too.

More URLs as Keywords?

When faced with the home screen of, a lot of users still are compelled to enter a URL as a keyword input – and those are generally counted as one-word keywords. With browsers emulating Google Chrome’s singular input field for both URLs and search queries, maybe this is in fact changing the face of search behavior.

But knowing what you know about the sophisticated online consumer, are you going to settle for that explanation?

Improvements in Geographic Targeting Search Engine Users?

Search engines have become a lot smarter about understanding the similarity between a search query for “leappad brooklyn,” and “leappad” queried from a computer or mobile device located in the Brooklyn area. If users have started to catch on that simply typing “leappad” delivers them a litter of Nearby Stores links among the search results, then yes, that could help to explain the downward pressure on query length.

Something Happening Further Down the Conversion Funnel?

We can deconstruct these trends until we’re blue in the face, but in all likelihood the behavioral insight here has less to do with the search engine, and more with the resulting action. About a year ago, we wrote about the relationship between search query length and predictive keyword research, and cited research that illustrated a correlation between the number of words in a search query, and its resulting conversion potential.

Yet one would assume that data analysts and economists at Google, Bing, and the like would have spotted this trend and started clamoring for a re-engineering of the search algorithm toward this behavioral sea change.

If long search queries are the highest converters, and search engines are seeing more one-word search queries than ever… are we at the nexus of the universe?

Or if you’ve got a simpler explanation, let’s hear it!


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