Definition & How to Use Them (with Examples)

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What Are Search Terms?

Think of the last thing you Googled. That was a search term.

That’s because a search term is anything you type into a search engine. Really—anything.

You need to understand the Google search terms people use to find your website or ads. That’s because you can use this knowledge to get better search engine marketing results.

In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about search terms. 

You’ll also learn how to use search terms in your SEO and paid search advertising efforts.

search term definition

Ready? Read on.

Search Term vs. Keyword

A search term is what a user types into Google. But a keyword is a particular word or phrase you might try to rank for.

They’re not the same thing. But they are related.

Here’s an example:

If you’re targeting “used camping equipment,” that’s your keyword. But you might get traffic from people searching for “pre-owned camping equipment.” 

“Pre-owned camping equipment” is a search term in this case. Because it’s what the user actually typed into Google.

In SEO and paid search ads, you choose the keywords you want to target (keywords). 

But you can’t choose exactly what people type into Google (search terms).

People type all kinds of variations of common words and phrases into Google. They don’t necessarily care about using precise keywords. They just want their queries answered.

Google is smart, though. It can tell when a search term is related to another word or phrase.

So, when someone types “pre-owned camping equipment” into Google, Google knows that’s the same thing as “used camping equipment.”

If you’re ranking well for “used camping equipment,” Google might display your ranking content in response to the “pre-owned” search term. That’s the SEO side.

On the pay-per-click (PPC) side, you can tell Google Ads which keywords to target. And synonyms for those keywords can trigger a match.

That match means your PPC ad might display for a search term that’s similar to the keyword you’re targeting.

discover how to create your ads

(If you’re interested in learning more about keywords, check this out: What Are Keywords and How Do You Use Them?)

Why Do Search Terms Matter?

Search terms tell you exactly what people are searching when they find your website or search ads. That’s incredibly useful information.

Why?

Because you can use search terms to optimize your content or ad campaigns. That enables you to reach more customers. Which builds your business.

Here’s how:

Why Search Terms Matter for SEO

Search terms can help you optimize your content for better SEO results. Because they can tell you how people are finding your website. Or if they’re finding it at all.

Here’s an example:

You’re a florist in Miami, Florida. You’ve published a product page for your website. You’re targeting the keyword “tulip floral arrangements.”

But then you use Google Search Console to see the search terms people are using in Google before they click on your product page. 

(More on how to do that with Search Console later.)

And there’s a problem. Hundreds of people are using this search term before landing on your site: “tulip farm Holland, Michigan.”

google search console keyword report

You’re not running a tulip farm in Michigan. You’re selling tulip arrangements in Florida. 

But you do mention something about Michigan on the product page. You mention that you source your tulips from a “tulip farm in Holland, Michigan.”

That’s probably why your website is showing up when people enter that search term. And people are probably trying to find a farm in Michigan (not in Florida, where you are).

Now that you know that, you can do something about it. You can edit the page to remove that phrase.

That way, you won’t get irrelevant search traffic for that search term anymore. 

Why Search Terms Matter for PPC

Understanding search terms can cut your PPC costs. Because they’ll help you focus your ad campaign to target the right kinds of customers.

Here’s an example of how:

Imagine you’re managing a Google Ads campaign for your photography business. You’re targeting keywords like “wedding photographer” and “newborn photo session.”

wedding photographer keywords

You’re reading through your search terms report in Google Ads. And you notice your campaign is getting clicks for this search term: “wedding videographer.”

The problem? You don’t do video. 

And you’re paying money every time someone enters that search term and clicks on your ad.

You’ve found an instance of a search term that isn’t relevant to your targeted keywords. 

So, you add “videographer” to your campaign as a negative keyword. That way, Google won’t display your ads in search results for search terms related to videographers.

Over time, small tweaks like this can dramatically improve your paid search advertising ROI. And it all starts with search terms data.

How to Identify Search Terms

There are a few ways to identify the search terms users are actually typing into Google:

  • Use the Keyword Overview tool
  • Take a look at the Keyword Magic tool
  • Research in the Keyword Gap tool
  • Look at your Google Search Console
  • View your Google Ads search terms report
  • Search Google Trends

Here’s how to do each of those methods:

You can choose keywords you’re targeting. But how can you know the search terms users are actually typing into Google?

Research in Keyword Overview 

You can find billions of valuable search terms inside the Keyword Overview tool. You’ll find it under the Keyword Research toolkit in Semrush:

keyword overview tool

In the search bar, enter the topic you’re interested in. For example, if you’re looking for search terms related to “corporate gift baskets,” type that in.

keyword overview search

In seconds, you get a ton of useful information. 

keyword overview data overview

Including:

  • Monthly search volume. The average number of times users type the search term into Google each month
  • Keyword difficulty. A measure of how difficult it would be to rank well for this search term in organic search results
  • Search intent. The intent of the user when they search the term in question
  • SERP features (SF). Results on the search engine results page (SERP) for the search term that are not traditional Google results. These include rich snippets, the local pack, People Also Ask, images, and more.
  • Paid search info. Information relevant to Google Ads: CPC (cost per click), competition level, product listing ads, and more
keyword overview dashboard
  • Keyword variations. Variations on the search term you typed into the tool, including longtail variations. These will usually contain the words of the seed phrase you used but put them in a different order or change them slightly.
  • Questions related to the search term. Question phrases that contain the search phrase you entered (or a close variation of it)
  • Related keywords. Search terms that are similar to the term you entered but may contain different (but related) words

Take a Look at the Keyword Magic Tool 

You can take your search term findings from the Keyword Overview tool even deeper. All you have to do is fire up the Keyword Magic tool

Find the tool in the left-hand sidebar of your Semrush dashboard under “Keyword Research”:

keyword magic tool sidebar

Enter a search term or topic you’re interested in.

You’ll get a huge list of search terms, including lots of useful long-tail variations. Along with all kinds of information about them: search intent, monthly search volume, trend, keyword difficulty (KD%), CPC, competitive density, SERP features (SF), and more.

keyword data displayed in keyword magic tool

Inside the tool, you can refine and sort your results by location, keyword type, or keyword data:

keyword magic tool filters

Research in Keyword Gap 

What if you want to find out which search terms are giving your competitors traffic and target those? 

There’s a tool for that. It’s called Keyword Gap.

Find it under the “Competitive Research” section of the left-hand sidebar in Semrush:

keyword gap tool sidebar

In the provided spaces, enter your domain and your competitors’ domains.

keyword gap compare domains

Then, choose which kinds of search terms you want to analyze: organic, paid, or product listing ads (PLA keywords).

select keyword type

Click “Compare.”

Then, you can see all kinds of information. Including the search terms your competitors are ranking for (and you aren’t).

That’s under “Top Opportunities.”

You can also get a visual representation of keywords both you and your competitors rank for. That’s under “Keyword Overlap.”

top opportunities and keyword overlap

Scroll down to see a list of all keywords for the domains you analyzed:

keyword gap missing keywords

Click the “Missing” filter near the top of the screen.

You’ll see lots of opportunities here. If your competitors are ranking for search terms that you aren’t, you might want to create new content to target those search terms. Or optimize existing content.

Look at Your Google Search Console 

Google has a built-in tool that helps you see which search terms people are using before they see your website in search results.

It’s part of Google Search Console. 

(Search Console does a lot more than search terms reporting. But that’s what we’ll focus on for now.)

To use Search Console to see search terms, you’ll need to make sure you’ve configured it on your website.

If you need help setting it up, check out this quick guide.

Once you’re all set up, go to Search Console.

Click “Search results” in the left-hand sidebar.

google search console search results

Scroll down until you see the list of top queries. 

Those are the search terms Google users have entered into Google before seeing or clicking on your website.

You can see which search terms in Google have resulted in clicks (search engine traffic to your website). And impressions (views of links to your website in search results).

That information is under the “Queries” tab:

google search console queries

Note that you can change the date range in the “Date” bubble at the top of this list.

sort by date

View Your Google Ads Search Terms Report

If you’re running a PPC ad campaign, you can see the exact search terms people type into Google before your PPC ads display.

How?

With the Search Terms Report in Google Ads. Here’s how to see it:

Go to your Google Ads account. In the left-hand sidebar, click “Keywords.”

google ads keywords

In the list that populates under Keywords, click “Search terms.”

google ads search terms report

That will pull up your “Search terms” report.

search term report in google ads

There, you’ll get a ton of data. Including the search terms that triggered clicks or impressions of your ads in Google. 

You can also see the average cost of each click. Or how often users complete specified actions, such as clicking an ad, filling out a form, or making a purchase (conversion rate).

Google Trends is another free Google tool that can help you identify and analyze search terms.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s say you’re selling metal water bottles through your ecommerce store. You’re interested in search terms in Google related to water bottles.

Navigate to Google Trends. Enter your basic topic or root search term in the search bar:

explore popular searches

That should pull up a ton of great information about your search term and related terms. 

Such as interest in the search term over time:

search term interest over time

Interest in the term by region and subregion:

interest by region and subregion

Related topics and queries:

related topics and queries

And much more.

Search Intent for Search Terms 

Search intent is the purpose of any online search.

When you can see the search terms used to access your website or search ads, you learn a lot about the user’s search intent.

It’s what they were looking for:

  • An answer to a question they had
  • A product they want to buy
  • A particular website they want to access

Why should you care?

Because search engines like Google want to satisfy users’ search intent by serving the best possible results.

Google won’t rank your page as highly if it doesn’t match the search intent of the search term at hand.

When you understand your target audience’s search intent, you can create content that serves that search intent. 

And that’s the kind of content that ranks well in search engines.

There are four main types of search intent:

search intent types

Informational Intent

Informational search intent means the user is looking for more information.

That could mean the answer to a question. Or a list of solutions to a problem.

Here are some examples of search terms that suggest informational search intent:

  • How to fix a door that won’t close
  • Best blogs about SEO
  • Ringo Starr birthday

Commercial Intent

Search terms with commercial intent suggest that the user is thinking about buying something.

They’re not ready to purchase a specific product or service. They’re investigating their options.

They might be looking at different types of a particular product. Or different brands.

Here are some examples of search terms that suggest commercial intent:

  • iPhone 12 Pro vs. Galaxy S8+
  • Top immigration attorney Chicago
  • Best SEO plugins

Transactional Intent

Search terms with transactional intent suggest that the user is prepared to purchase something. Or complete some other kind of transaction.

This is not the same as commercial intent. 

Commercial intent is about weighing the available options. Transactional intent is about the purchase itself.

Here are some examples of search terms that suggest transactional intent:

  • Buy iPhone 12 Pro
  • Used Nissan Rogue for sale Minneapolis
  • HelloFresh coupon

Search terms with navigational intent suggest that the user is trying to get somewhere online.

In most cases, the user simply searched for the website instead of typing in the URL.

Here are some examples of search terms with navigational intent:

  • Semrush blog
  • Wells Fargo login
  • Instagram

What to Do with Search Intent

Let’s say you’ve identified the search intent of the search terms your target audience is using. 

What do you do with this information?

Start by remembering what Google does with it:

Google works hard to satisfy users’ search intent. Which means that SERPs evolve based on how users interact with them.

Google’s John Mueller even says that learning more about your users is more important than figuring out Google’s algorithm:

One of the other reasons why you shouldn’t be focusing on how Google’s algorithms figure [ranking] out is that Google’s algorithms will also continue to evolve and continue to focus on the users and see what they need.

Google adapts to its users’ needs. So, you need to do the same thing.

If you’d like to capture search traffic from search terms related to “affordable digital cameras,” create content about affordable digital cameras.

If you’re going after search terms related to “fast dinner recipes,” don’t create content about recipes that take all day.

Give users what they want: dinner recipes they can cook in minutes.

You get the idea. Just make sure you’re always serving the user’s search intent.

Search Term Examples

Let’s look at some more real-world examples of search terms and how they interact with keywords. 

We’ll look at organic (SEO) search terms and paid advertising (PPC) search terms.

Organic Search Terms Example

For this example, you’re a plumber in Los Angeles. 

You’re creating a page for your website. And you would like this page to show up in Google search results. 

Specifically, when someone searches for plumbing services in your area. So, you optimize the page for this keyword: “Los Angeles plumber.”

Here’s what the search results look like right now:

organic keyword LA plumber

Now, not everyone who lands on your new page will type that exact phrase into Google. You might get visits from people who type in something related to the keyword you’re targeting.

For example:

  • Best plumber in Los Angeles
  • Affordable Los Angeles plumbers
  • Plumbing services LA
  • Los Angeles emergency plumber
  • Plumber near me (if the searcher is in L.A.)

Those are all Google search terms. How do you know? 

Because they’re exactly what searchers entered into Google. They’re not exactly the keyword you’re targeting, however.

For this example, you’re still a plumber in Los Angeles. This time, you’re managing your Google Ads account. 

You add the keyword “plumber” to your campaign. So when potential customers search for “plumber” on Google, your ads might show up.

Soon after, someone in Los Angeles Googles “top LA plumbers.” Your ad shows up in their search results.

paid ad LA plumber

In this example, the search term was “top LA plumbers.” That’s because it’s what the user typed into Google. 

And the keyword was “plumber.” 

Your ad showed because you added that keyword to your Google Ads campaign. And the search term the searcher used contained the keyword.

Next Steps

Understanding search terms is powerful. You can use this knowledge to improve your Google rankings and fine-tune your PPC ad targeting efforts.

If you want to learn more about Google Ads and PPC advertising, check out this comprehensive guide: What’s Google Advertising? A Guide to Google Ads.

And if you’re interested in search terms from an SEO perspective, take your next steps with everything you need to know about on-page SEO.

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