Understanding The Difference Between Queries And Keywords And What To Do About It

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Understanding The Difference Between Queries And Keywords And What To Do About It

Editor Note: Neil was the opening speaker for our SEJ Summit in Santa Monica this year, hosted by our partner, Searchmetrics. Want to learn more from speakers like him at our Summits throughout the year in NYC, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami, and London? Sign up for a FREE ticket today!

In casual conversation, the terms “keyword” and “query” mean roughly the same thing. We know what someone is saying (or writing) when we see the word “query” where it should be the word “keyword.”

But there is a difference between the two. A query is different from a keyword.

This seems like a semantic and rather annoying little difference. In some ways, it is. But as search professionals, it helps to be informed about the difference, so we can better communicate with our clients, our service providers, and our team members. What’s more, knowing the difference between queries and keywords helps us to become better at our jobs as SEOs.

What Are Keywords?

Let’s go back to SEO elementary school for just a minute. I’m not trying to insult your intelligence; just trying to define terms so we can identify differences.

A keyword is the exact term that you are targeting in a paid search or organic search campaign. If you want to win a PPC bid for the term “house paint”, then “house paint” is your keyword.

Keywords are what marketers, SEOs, and search professionals come up with. They define the strategy. Users don’t know about them, don’t care about them, and don’t have anything to do with them.

What Are Queries?

Queries are what the user types in.

They are searching for something online, and they type stuff in Google, speak something to Siri, or otherwise perform a search. It’s called a query.

Queries often include misspellings. Many times, these misspellings are corrected by Google, but sometimes they are retained in the search.

Know The Difference Between Queries And Keywords | SEJ

What’s The Difference?

The major difference between keywords and queries has to do with who is using them.

  • Marketers use keywords.
  • Users use queries.

Users don’t know what keywords are. That’s not because users are dumb; it’s because they don’t know what companies are targeting which keywords. The user is simply typing stuff in, hoping to find information or products that will meet her needs. How can she expect to know that your business is targeting a keyword that she will type in?

We as marketers are sitting in front of our computers strategizing over this marketing entity known as a “keyword.” We research keywords and hope that our keywords will match what users are searching for.

Marketers have keywords, but real users type in queries. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with the marketer’s use of keywords. That’s how you begin a successful SEO campaign — with keywords. But the real source of power and information comes from learning the queries — the words which actual users are tying in.

  • Keyword: What you’re targeting.
  • Query: What users actually type.

Here’s a helpful diagram from Wordstream that clearly displays the difference between queries and keywords:

That’s a pretty significant difference.

You can go on using the two terms interchangeably. It’s a hard habit to break. But be aware that the difference between keywords and queries could actually change the way you work and strategize as a marketing professional.

How to Use This Information

Now that you know the difference between a keyword and a query, what should you do with your profound intelligence? Correct your coworkers? Share this information in comment threads?

No. The real takeaways are more practical and profitable.

Target Keywords, But Broaden Them Into Queries

Every successful SEO campaign starts with keywords. You have a set of words or phrases that you want to win ranking for. You want potential customers to find your website when they type in that specific keyword.

But remember, keywords are not reality. Keywords only represent what you want, not what real-life users are actually doing. What kind of traffic do you really want to gain? Do you want to gain traffic that you want, or traffic from queries that real users are actually using?

The best sources of traffic will come from the conventional queries that users are inputting.

Research Queries to Discover Your Keywords

One of the smartest forms of research you can do will be to discover what queries users are inputting. The way to do this is by researching queries instead of keywords.

There are a few ways that you can discover queries rather than keywords.

Your Google Webmaster Tools account shows you some of the search queries that drive traffic. Access GWT, and navigate to “Search Traffic” and “Search Queries” to see this information.

Know The Difference Between Queries And Keywords | SEJ

Keep in mind that the information from GWT will be limited, because it only identifies actually queries that brought users to your site. You may want to target queries that do not yet bring any visitors to your site.

Another method of gaining search query ideas is to use Google autocomplete. The autocomplete feature is built into Google’s search functionality. When you begin to type any query into the search box from the standard desktop search screen, you’ll see prompts for various searches.

Where do these autocompletes come from? How does Google decide what to provide as their autocomplete fulfillment? The algorithm primarily depends on popular search trends to inform it.

For example, if you type in “popular vacation sp” then Google may provide this autocomplete:

Know The Difference Between Queries And Keywords | SEJ

Google describes the autocomplete in this way:

Autocomplete predictions are automatically generated by an algorithm without any human involvement, based on a number of objective factors, including how often past users have searched for a term.

Keep in mind this disclaimer that Google provides:

Our algorithm automatically detects and excludes a small set of search terms. But it’s designed to reflect the diversity of our users’ searches and content on the web. So just like the web, the search terms shown may seem strange or surprising.

Some of the excluded terms may be, according to Google, offensive, not popular, too fresh, or mistaken as a policy violation. Obscene or explicit terms are automatically filtered out of the autocomplete algorithm.

Autocomplete can help to inform or broaden your research. Once you understand what is popular and/or expected in a Google query, you can narrow down the queries that you want to target.

How Does This Work?

So, we have two takeaways. First, target keywords but broaden those, based on your research into queries. Second, research queries in order to discover your best keywords.

Here’s how this works. For example, let’s say you’re targeting the keyword “personal branding.” You do some research on and around this terms.

Eventually, you discover that your target keywords are surrounded by a variety of different queries.

  • personal branding steps
  • steps to personal branding
  • personal branding success
  • personal branding statements
  • personal branding examples
  • personal branding blog
  • personal branding statement examples
  • personal branding blog twitter
  • personal branding blog templates
  • 10 steps to personal branding
  • 5 steps to personal branding
  • build a personal brand
  • build personal brand strategy
  • build personal brand online
  • build personal brand with social media

Now you have a few powerful queries that people are actually using. These are important to know, track, and target in your SEO strategy.

But you should go a step beyond this, too. Let’s say that you did a little digging in your GWT data, and found visitors were finding a certain blog article you wrote based on the query, “how to be a well-known online business person”.

From this seed query, you also discover other relevant queries:

  • how to be popular online
  • build your personal brand social media
  • tips for online popularity
  • online popularity guide
  • online popularity score
  • become well-known online
  • become well-known online youtube

It becomes apparent that some people are not familiar with the term “personal branding”. Therefore, they may never find your website unless you are targeting alternate parallel search trends — the queries I listed above.


The difference between “keyword” and “query” is subtle and nuanced. But it is important. Knowing how to distinguish between an ideal keyword and the reality of queries will help you to refine your strategy and success as an online marketer.

Were you familiar with the distinction between keywords and queries?

Editor Note: Neil was the opening speaker for our SEJ Summit in Santa Monica this year, hosted by our partner, Searchmetrics. Learn more from speakers like him at our Summits throughout the year in NYC, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami, and London.

Featured Image: dslaven via Shutterstock

Neil Patel
Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions. Neil also blogs about marketing and entrepreneurship at... Read Full Bio
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  • Junaid Ahmed

    Hence the reason marketers should focus/target more search queries rather than keywords in current scenario because at the end majority of the conversions come from the queries not keywords

    • Hannan Ahmad

      Don’t you know anything regarding what branding is all about? When you project the on-page of website properly through off-page, it will start ranking high for all queries that relate to its particular audience. And, since the search engines going after things rather strings, just restricting yourself to targeting any particular “sequence of words” will spam the web, intentionally or unintentionally. That’s why the second approach may lead to less fruit of the efforts and hence should be avoided regardless of what sequence of words aka “queries” are being targeted.

  • Eric D. Greene

    Hi Neil it’s useful to understand the difference between keywords and queries. What users are actually typing into Google and searching for is always interesting to me as well as the synonyms for the various keywords.

  • Suumit Shah

    Hello Neil,

    When it comes to affiliate marketing, which is most useful for getting maximum sales/leads in between – keywords and queries? Lot of people says that long tail keywords that is queries performs really better than generic keywords! Do you also think the same eh?


  • Susanta Kumar Sahoo

    Talking of Queries, Quora and Twitter are two powerful tools that let you discover users intent. SEO is no longer a game of keyword optimization; hence, SEO’s must shift their focus to users intent and queries and build their content around those.

  • Erwin Winchester

    Thank you Neil for such great piece of information.
    When I started my profession as SEO, I mostly focused on many things without good knowledge on my basics. I think I actually found difference between queries and keywords.
    Marketers should take queries as the basis for their keyword campaigns.

  • Kulwant Nagi

    Quite an impressive guide.

    In your articles on QuickSprout I have seen that you keep talking about using related keywords in the article.

    I can acknowledge that I have started using such phrases with your suggestions and getting good traffic on different search queries.

    Thanks for explaining this small but BIG difference.

  • Kes

    Isn’t there a term for this already? Long-tail springs to mind

  • Zulhilmi Zainudin

    Search Queries in GWT is no longer available right?

  • Janet Nevins

    Great tip Neil! You should get more traffic working with queries. I love using Google Auto Suggest to find more searches for my websites.

  • John P

    It’s really hard to distinguish the difference between the two, especially if you’re a marketer who uses the word “keywords” most of the time. It is not that you don’t know the difference, it’s just that you’re more used to using the word “keywords.”

    Relating to the post of intertwining the two terms to come up with better phrases to target when doing online marketing is the best advice one can give to those doing keyword research. In reality, users do not understand and could not care much about keywords, which was clearly stated above; rather, they care about their queries and the relevant information they could get out of that query.

    Empathy works magic in coming up with great key phrases. As a marketer, you have to put yourself in the user’s place and think of good group of key phrases to work on. Of course, having short-tail or more defined keyword is still a practice you have to continue doing to satisfy search engines. The best thing to do is to target and do both strategies to satisfy both and act as support to one another.

  • Sean Vandenberg

    Hi, Neil:

    Great post— informative, scannable and meaty.

    I’ve often wondered myself about the “relevance,” if you will, of keyword usage, since searchers are laymen and unaware of industry-specific terms.

    Lately I’ve been using Google’s autocomplete to find long-tail searches, and I’ve also been trying to answer questions searchers will likely ask. Who, what, when, why?

    You’re right, though. Nuance. Transitioning to “query SEO” vs. “keyword SEO” is difficult, especially is you’re used to near black-hat on-page techniques, which to some extent, used to be a necessity for rankings a few years ago.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this juicy post. I appreciate your industry expertise and advice.


  • Osama

    Great post. I’m a newbie and really didn’t know the difference between the two. The post was really informative and useful. Thanks

  • Emily Earhart

    Such an awesome and easy to understand stuff. Neil, I love your all articles and never miss. You always come up with new experiment and share with us useful information in a simple way. Thanks for sharing with us.

  • Lola Doherty

    Hi Neil,

    This is a great post regarding the difference between keywords and queries. This is not only important for beginner but also to pros.

    I just noticed that most users focus only on keywords, when in fact, users key in queries on search engine. But it’s still a good thing if we can balance targeting between keywords and queries.

  • Faiza Ahmed

    This is a great post, I have been applying similar strategies to our clients on page SEO; its very important to understand the pattern of keyword. Domain authority can only be best use if the keywords in Meta Tags are correctly used.

    Thanks Neil.

  • Luca

    Hi, another method to find queries that GWT doesn’t give you is to look at the suggested queries at the bottom of the search result page. Those suggestions Google gives you are not the same as the autocomplete queries because the latter is a result of past searches, while suggested queries are the result of popular queries.

  • Kapil Pal

    Thanks Neil,
    Well It seems basic but it isn’t.
    It’s a very smart concept which helps to focus on keywords using queries.