Google Weighs In on Query Length; Long Tail Alive & Well

Filed in Featured, Searcher Behavior, Statistics by Matt McGee on May 25, 2010 13 Comments

I have a soft spot for data relating to how users search. I think it’s imperative to understand how people search if we want to optimize our content so it’s visible when they do. Typically, data about query length comes from Internet data measurement companies like Experian Hitwise, comScore, and Nielsen.

Google sometimes shares statistics about searcher behavior, like this post from January which revealed that one in every 13 search results that Google displayed in 2009 included a map. Good to know.

But, as far I recall, Google rarely (if ever) weighs in with specifics about query length. Until now.

Brad Geddes shared one slide from a presentation that Google recently sent him, and that slide includes this nugget of info:

54.5% of user queries are greater than 3 words

Why is that important? A couple reasons:

  • As the “long tail” grows, it’s good news for small businesses. Most SMBs will not compete with Big Brands for short keywords like “shoes” or “skin care,” but they can compete on longer search phrases.
  • It flies in the face of Hitwise stats that I shared earlier this year. In that post, I shared a chart which showed that one-word searches rose in 2009, while 3-, 4-, and 5-word searches declined.

On that second point, there’s actually a difference in what’s being reported: The Hitwise numbers reflect searches that produced a click. Google’s numbers, we can assume, are true, raw search data — i.e., the Google number reflects all searches on, not just searches that produced a click.

My post earlier this year produced close to 20 comments, some wondering if the “long tail” was dead. I’d say that Google’s stat shows it’s alive and well.

Comments (13)

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  1. Has The Most Long-Winded Searchers, Report Says | January 24, 2012
  1. Julie Kosbab says:

    Anyone who thinks the long tail is dead isn’t looking at their own analytics, or their site is really toxic for verbiage and content.

    The long tail, mixed in with the added personalization and localization being used by Google these days, is an amazing opportunity for smaller businesses to get rolling online within a reasonable marketing budget.

  2. brad says:


    That’s a great catch in the data. Hitwise is clicks and Google is raw search data. I missed that difference.


  3. John says:

    Long live the long tail! Great post and thanks for sharing. Long tail is alive indeed. It only seems natural that the long tail will continue to grow as users continue to get smarter on how they search. A few years back search queries were generally one to two keywords, but users are realizing that the SERPs are more relevant with a more detailed query, which is why over half of all searches are long tail. I only expect the long tail to continue growing.

  4. MiriamEllis says:

    Thanks for reporting on this, Matt. I found it very hard to believe the earlier reports that the long tail was dead. Just think, for a second, about what the YouTube suggest drop down looks like! Seriously, “Episode of Donna Reed with Mary’s weird boyfriend”. The web has taught so many of us to dig deep for specifics. I can’t see that going away any time soon.

  5. Matt McGee says:

    You know … I have two years worth of referrer date for four extremely hyperlocal blogs. Perhaps I should collect all that data and put it together to show how long the “long tail” really is when it comes to local search. Hmmmmmm.

  6. Matt, Great piece – we just need to remind ourselves that query lengths when counted by number of words, do not cross languages because of language structures – and that long tail varies by language!

  7. Gareth Rees says:

    I was at a conference in the UK and Google were very quick to point out how there is a shift in the average length of a query, maybe that’s a little love to even things up for the SMBs considering their usual bias for brands.

  8. Damian Smith says:

    This is great news for a lot of business, I knew from looking over analytics reports that most people were finding clients by typing 3,4,5 words into google rather that just 1 word which tends to bring up all the major companies from that sector.

    Should we now be advising our clients to concentrate on longer ‘keyphrases’ rather than a ‘keyword’? Would be interesting to know if the way we optimise our sites needs to change with this trend. I’m not an expert in SEO but would make sense to me!

    Interesting read though so thanks, I will check up all my existing clients and see what kind of searches they are being found for.

  9. Ken Lyons says:

    Hey, Matt.

    We graph client account data at WordStream, which demonstrates incredibly strong long tail distribution. Our records show that nearly 75% of the queries are for terms of 3 words or longer.


  10. Andy Nattan says:

    I never doubted longtail for a second!

    Saying that, I didn’t expect it to be quite so high. 54% is a great figure for 3+ word queries, and I guess it shows that average people are becoming more proficient at using Google to get the answers they want.

  11. musgrove says:

    Hi all, this is a great article/discussion. And, I just read another article about long-tail queries: by Vanessa Fox (legit source)

    So does that affect everyone’s thinking about the long-tail not being dead? I’m still pretty new to this stuff so i may be missing the point. But it sounds like search results will change dramatically, especially for e-commerce pages. Here’s a quote from that article:

    “This change seems to have primarily impacted very large sites with “item” pages that don’t have many individual links into them, might be several clicks from the home page, and may not have substantial unique and value-added content on them. For instance, ecommerce sites often have this structure.”

    So does that mean that small business sites will benefit from this change? Since the big e-comm site pages will lose their relevance?

  12. Mike says:

    Great post. It only seems logical that the long tail keywords or phrases will continue to grow as users continue to get smarter on how they search. This represents a problem for Google in Adwords.
    I only expect the long tail to continue growing, that’s why Google is adapting, and so must we.

    Moaning does not help.

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