Much of what SEO professionals do on a daily basis is research. When starting a new project, the focus usually begins with researching the right keywords for the campaign. It’s easy to spend hours compiling a relevant and strategic keyword list.
But as any skilled SEO can tell you, the research doesn’t end there. The best tools to gather useful keyword data aren’t third-party tools; they’re the advanced search operators that the search engines provide for power users to narrow their search results and find exactly what they’re looking for. SEO professionals can use these same query operators to dig into the competition or their clients’ sites, finding gold nuggets of information that newbies can’t.
While Google has at least a dozen advanced search operators, the following five are my personal favorites.
Example: site:example.com or site:example.com “search term”
The site: operator is the most basic, but also the most useful. When used with the URL of a website, it will return all of the pages indexed by Google with that URL. The most practical use for this query operator is to see how many pages on s site have been indexed compared to how many have actually been published. If the numbers are significantly different, this could indicate a problem with the way Google is crawling the site. The results will also show you how Google presents the title and the description for each page found.
Another great use for this operator is to search for specific keywords within a particular site. This will result in all of the pages containing those keywords that Google has indexed from that site. Furthermore, these pages will be sorted according to how perceives the relevance of each page for that query. This is useful for figuring out what pages are your strongest contenders for each of your keywords.
In addition to Google, this operator works with both Yahoo! and Bing.
Search with quotes
Example: “dog food”, “dog” food or “dog” “food”
The original purpose of the quotation mark as a query operator was to let people tell Google to search exactly for the words in between the quotation marks. Using our examples above, the first one would show results for dog food, where the two words must appear in exactly that order in the search results. If “dog” is the important word and you don’t mind variants of the word “food,” like meal or treat, then the second example would be a good choice. If you want to see results that include both “dog” and “food” but you don’t care whether they appear adjacent to each other, then putting each word in quotes like the third sample above would be a good query.
Using quotes around your search query can help you determine if your pages are being indexed for the search terms you’re optimizing for, and it helps you identify competing sites. For instance, a search for “dog food” without quotes in Google returns about 691,000,000 results. But not all of these pages are being optimized or indexed for that exact keyword match because pages with both dog and food will be returned. So when we add quotation marks to our search query, we narrow our results down to 12,000,000 because these pages contain the exact term we’re searching for.
Example: link:example.com or link:example.com/page1
There was a time when using this query operator would yield the results of all pages with links to the given URL. Unfortunately, Google has stopped this practice and now only provides a sampling of the sites that contain links to the supplied URL. If you’re trying to get a complete list of links to your website, use Google Webmaster Tools.
While this query operator helps you get a snapshot of your site’s incoming links, the real value is when you research the links of your competition. Since you don’t have access to their Webmaster Tools account, using the link: operator will help you get an idea of at least some of their incoming links so you can better plan your link building strategy.
Note: there are tools such as Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, and Majestic SEO that will give you a much more complete view of any URL’s link profile, but they do cost money. For preliminary and free competitive research, the link: operator is a valuable resource. This operator will also work in both Bing and Yahoo!, but Yahoo! does require http:// to be used at the beginning of the URL.
intitle: “search term”
Example: intitle:”dog food”
One of the most important elements of on-page SEO is to ensure that the title tag of each page is optimized for your specific keywords. Since most folks know this, there’s a good bet that any pages which include your keyword in the title tag are potential competitors who have also targeted that keyword for their own SEO campaign.
This operator will give you a look at everyone you’re competing against for those keywords. When the search results are displayed, you can take a look at the number of results to see if the keyword you’re targeting has heavy competition or relatively mild competition. If you see sites like Amazon and other major brands occupying the top 10 search results, the competition is likely going to be too difficult to break through unless your budget is as high as what the major brands are allocating to their campaigns.
This operator is great for comparing similar keywords so you can intelligently and strategically select keywords for your campaign. The intitle: operator also works for Bing and Yahoo!.
Example: info:example.com or info:example.com/page1
The info: operator is used by Google only, so don’t try this one on Bing or Yahoo!. This operator provides you with some important and useful information that can assist with competitive research. A search query using this operator will return the page’s title, its description, and the ability to see:
- The most recent cache of the URL
- Pages that have similar content to the URL
- Pages that link to the URL
- Pages that link from the site
- Pages that contain the URL in them
Whether you’re just beginning a campaign for a new client or performing competitive research on an existing campaign, these search operators can help you gain a competitive edge. SEO professionals wield their knowledge of search engines as their “sword” in the daily battle of improving rankings and website traffic for clients. As an SEO professional, understanding how to use these operators quickly and effectively will help turn the tide of battle in your favor.
For more advanced SEO tutorials, please see “How to Match Domain Names in Excel to Help with Creating a Disavow List” “10 Excel Functions Every SEO Professional Should Know,” and “The Ultimate Tactical 10-Step Guide for In-house SEO Professionals.”