- Why are the keyword search query numbers supplied by Overture’s search term suggestion tool (STST) so incredibly different than those supplied by Wordtracker’s keyword selection service (KSS)?
- Overture’s STST numbers are increased upward by automated queries. These include automated bid optimizers, position and ranking monitors, page popularity analyzers – anything other than a real person manually performing a search is considered an automated query.
- Obviously we’d like to eliminate artificial and duplicate searches from our tabulations and fortunately there is a way to do so. The solution is meta-engines.
The root of all success in search engine marketing begins with keywords. Period. Get them wrong and virtually everything about your online endeavor will fail. So do so many – professional and amateur alike – buy keywords based on highly skewed numbers?
Only by targeting the right keywords can you expect to ride that exhilarating magic carpet to online prosperity.
Stating the obvious you say? ...well, if so, then why is it that virtually everyone – professional and amateur alike – is oblivious to the fact they are selecting, and frequently buying, keywords based on highly skewed numbers?
The fact is that very few online marketers understand the results supplied by the two most basic keyword selection tools. These are the very same tools being used globally to hone keyword choices into supposedly laser sharp focus in an effort to keep pace with the challenges of increasingly keen competition and ever-rising keyword pay-per-click costs.
The critical differences — Overture’s STST vs. Wordtracker’s KSS
One of the more intelligent questions we’re receiving these days is...
Why are the keyword search query numbers supplied by Overture’s search term suggestion tool (STST) so incredibly different than those supplied by Wordtracker’s keyword selection service (KSS)?
Frankly, there isn’t a better search engine related question one could ask. And, now’s a good time to pay close attention because the surprising answer will likely change forever how you evaluate keywords!
First: Understanding Their Motives.
To help you understand the details we’re about to reveal, let’s examine the motives of the services that are providing the keyword query numbers.
On the one hand there’s Overture’s STST whose purpose is to help customers buy keywords.
On the other hand, there’s Wordtracker whose purpose is to help customers select keywords.
Overture’s STST suggests what keywords to buy from them.
Wordtracker suggests what keywords to use in your optimization efforts and/or which to buy elsewhere.
Overture’s success depends on you believing there are LOTS of search queries for whatever you are selling.
Wordtracker’s success depends on you getting accurate numbers upon which you can reliably base your optimization and keyword purchase decisions.
Overture’s STST is free. Overture profits by selling you the keywords that STST reports on.
Wordtracker’s KSS is fee based. They profit by selling you access to accurate and impartial information. Since they don’t sell the keywords there’s no vested interest in query numbers beyond accuracy.
It’s important to note there is no good-guy, bad-guy here – just two companies that provide information and do so with different incentives in mind.
Second: Understanding The Artificial Skew.
In researching the search term keyword, Overture’s STST indicates there were 180,468 searches for the 30 day period ending the last day of December ‘03. Of course, when we divide this number by 30 (days), one naturally assumes that’s an average of 6,016 combined searches per day for the term keyword – (180,468/30=6016).
Now, if you happen to be in a business that sells keywords (like Wordtracker) then 6,016 pairs of eyeballs per day is a pretty encouraging number indeed! The problem is, there isn’t anywhere even close to 6,016 per-day-queries for the search term(s) keyword(s). In fact the actual number, which we’ll share with you in a minute, will no-doubt shock you!
But, for the moment, let’s look at why that number is skewed?
Reason #1 — Artificial Searches
Overture’s STST numbers are increased upward by automated queries. These include automated bid optimizers, position and ranking monitors, page popularity analyzers – anything other than a real person manually performing a search is considered an automated query.
Monitoring a site’s positioning at, say, AltaVista for the search term keyword tallies a “hit” within (partner site) Overture’s STST system for that search term. That’s in spite of the fact that it was actually automated software that generated the hit. The same holds true for page-popularity checkers, pay-per-click bid optimizers or any other machine generated monitor or tabulator that queries an engine for a “pet” keyword and generates a hit in the process.
Then, when the same positioning query is done at, say, MSN (another Overture partner), STST records yet another hit. Understandably, STST cannot differentiate between automated and human queries. Neither can they tell when the auto-query has already been queried at another partner’s site.
Now, when we take into consideration all of the position monitoring, page popularity checking and pay-per-click bid analyzing – there are well over 15 automated and semi-automated bid checking software programs alone – it’s staggering to realize the significant effect these automated queries are having on the overall search term query tabulations.
However, artificial searches are only one aspect contributing to the artificial skew (defined as: the inflation of actual search queries for specific keywords performed by anything other than humans).
Reason #2 – Duplicate Searches
As you most certainly must know, Overture’s strength as a viable advertising medium for online businesses lies in the fact they are partnered with “tens of thousands of Web sites which include AltaVista, Yahoo, MSN Search, HotBot, and AllTheWeb just to name a few. They claim to reach more than 80% of active U.S. Internet users.
Potentially, this is great for advertisers! ...yet this very same partner structure is what so greatly contributes to the artificial skew leading to extremely over-inflated reporting of keyword queries.
According to Overture itself, statistics on searches in any previous month are compiled from Overture’s partner search engines. To further understand how partnering tends to facilitate skewed query counts, let’s examine what happens when a visitor conducts a search at Yahoo.
What’s actually happening is that two searches are being conducted at one time – one at Google (who’s been supplying Web Results for Yahoo), and another that lists the SPONSOR RESULTS supplied by Overture’s pay-per-click engine.
Although it is next to impossible to know the exact figures, suffice it to say that a single human often generates multiple queries when doing a single search as calculated by Overture’s STST. In some cases that same human could even generate additional “hits” for a given keyword simply by conducting the same search again on a different engine if such engine is also an Overture partner.
For instance, searching Yahoo, then searching again on MSN, then searching again on AltaVista, then again on Lycos (AllTheWeb.com) would tally at least five “hits” for the selected search term. In comparison, if Overture (like Google, for instance) counted only the searches that were done “on-site” such duplicate searches would not be counted and their search query numbers would be far more accurate.
This scenario, combined with the myriad artificial duplicate searches conducted by the various softwares (explained above), severely pumps up the number of queries for virtually every legitimate search term imaginable.
Reason #3 – Plurals and Singulars
Remember our STST example (above) regarding the 180,468 “searches” for the term keyword? Well, another factor to consider is that Overture’s STST combines both the plural term (keywords) and the singular (keyword) in compiling that number.
And, Overture’s STST not only combines the plural and singular versions of keywords, they also combine upper and lower case searches as well. Obviously, these two factors also exert an upward effect on the query count tabulations.
Third: Examining The Alternatives.
So now the obvious question – Is there a “better” way to tabulate search term query counts? ...let’s examine the alternatives.
Meta-engines – a better way to accurately tabulate queries.
Obviously we’d like to eliminate artificial and duplicate searches from our tabulations and fortunately there is a way to do so. The solution is Meta-engines.
Composite (Meta) engines, like Metacrawler and Dogpile, are search engines that query all the major engines simultaneously. One of the key differences is that the ratio of human queries to automated queries for a meta-engine is much higher than for a major search engine. That’s because it doesn’t make sense for anyone to point their auto-bots at meta-engines.
Position monitoring, bid-optimizing, popularity checks, etc., are typically conducted directly at the search engines themselves – it would be pointless to conduct such automated queries on a meta-engine because meta-engines do not “add-url’s” nor do they offer pay-per-click options. They are simply a search engine that queries other search engines. And, since there is no “metacrawler” of meta-engines the search query counts are unlikely to be artificially skewed by such artificial searches.
Furthermore, duplicate searches are eliminated because the query counts are being tabulated from a single source instead of combining results from myriad partners.
Therefore, query counts taken from meta-engines are far, far more representative of the number of searches conducted by actual people – but even this is not yet a perfect solution due to a relatively obscure form of keyword spam.
Keyword spam (in this case not to be confused with word stuffing or repeating keywords within a web page) refers to the practice of using cgi-scripting to manipulate the Metaspy metacrawler voyeur to artificially promote certain products or services.
By entering a flow of terms or phrases at predetermined intervals, such spammers hope to inflate the importance and significance of certain search terms thereby artificially increasing the value of such terms related to their products.
In a perfect world, adjustments should be made to filter out this flavor of spam. In a minute we’ll share with you how such filtering is done but first, let’s address the issue of combining plurals with singulars and upper with lower-case searches.
Plural, singular, upper, and lower-case searches represent a decision-point for search engine optimizers because sometimes it’s good to combine the search query numbers while other times it isn’t.
For instance the search terms keyword and keywords, whether singular, plural, or in upper or lower-case, are similar enough in meaning that they could arguably be combined into one search query number.
However, the search terms tap, taps, Tap, and TAP can have entirely different meanings. Take a look at the results for the search term tap on Overture. The following references were all found within the top ten sponsored listings;
- Machine threading taps,
- Tap / Rap support software
- Beer taps
- Tap Dancing
- TAP A Stock
- TAP Terminal Phone Numbers
Note that none of the above has any relation to the others! Obviously if we are selling any of these items we’d want more specificity regarding the search queries than the simple 10,485 searches that STST reports were conducted in the past 30 days.
The example above illustrates the importance of obtaining search query tabulations for each version of a selected keyword independently of the other.
After all, it’s easy to manually combine the numbers while it’s impossible to break them out into their own categories once they’ve been compressed by Overture’s STST into a single search term regardless of potentially different meanings.
Finally: Making sense of the numbers (here comes the shock).
Ok, now that you understand the artificial skew and the alternatives that can correct for it, let’s move on to analyze the numbers given by Overture’s STST and Wordtracker’s keyword selection service (KSS) using the search term(s) keyword(s).
An in depth look at Overture’s STST numbers...
Overture’s STST shows 180,468 searches were conducted. This represents the combined count of the search terms keyword, keywords, Keywords, KEYWORD and KEYWORDS – the combined total of all singular, plural, capitalized, upper and lower-case searches.
When we divide Overture’s count (180,468) by 30 (because Overture’s figures are for a 30-day period), the inference is there are 6,016 searches per day that meet this criteria. In actuality, they receive just 40-60 per day total (are we shocked yet?).
Here’s how we’re crunching the numbers.
- Fact: Overture’s STST suggests a combined average of 6,016 page views took place between Overture and its major partners – e.g. AltaVista, Yahoo, and others – each day for the month of December ‘03. We’re referring to search result pages like: http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=keywords
- Fact: Each of these results pages lists between 10 and 40 URLs with descriptions.
- Factor in Zipf’s Law which predicts that traffic for any particular keyword on a search engine will be proportional to its popularity rank.
- Factor in how the title and description affect a user’s propensity to click on a Web site.
- Factor in the Penn State University’s findings that 55% of users check out one search result only, and 80% stop after looking at three results.
- Factor in known elements leading to an estimated, but educated, conclusion as such… Since it’s a fact that Wordtracker’s website appears in the top-ten of Overture’s results throughout their partner realm, they should be getting a guesstimateed 10% of the overall click-throughs from all major engines, pay-per-clicks, and directories. That would equate to about 602 visitors per day. However, Wordtracker is currently ranked 1–10 on only about 25% of the major engines, directories and pay-per-click portals for the search term, keyword(s)...
- Calculate the estimate... ...therefore, the Wordtracker site should expect roughly 25% of this predicted click-through traffic, which is 150 visitors per day.
- Compare calculated estimate to known facts... In fact, Wordtracker receives 10 – 15 visitors per day for the search term(s) keyword(s). In fact, Overture’s STST overestimates this search query by a factor of 10. Furthermore, since Wordtracker is estimating they receive approximately 25% of the total traffic then that would put the total traffic generated at 40 to 60 per day (25% of 40 to 60 = 10 to 15 visitors a day). In fact, Overture’s STST overestimates the total search query count by a factor of 100 ...based on 6,016 being more than 100 times greater than the 40 to 60 figure suggested by Wordtracker’s actual visitors.
- Experience shock and awe at the difference between the numbers!
Wordtracker’s service provides very different numbers...
Using the same search term(s) keyword(s), we pulled a representative result from the Wordtracker database (on January 13, 2004) that predicts searches per day conducted throughout the major engines, directories and pay-per-clicks on the Internet.
The results were...
- keyword – 93 searches (lower case, singular)
- Keyword - 39 searches (Capitalized, singular)
- keywords - 187 searches (lower case, plural)
- Keywords - 184 searches (Capitalized, plural)
- KEYWORD - 115 searches (UPPER case, singular)
Total Predicted Daily Searches for all Engines = 618
This figure – 618 – Wordtracker compiled directly from results taken from Meta-engines, Metacrawler and Dogpile in order to eliminate the artificial skew.
Wordtracker further adjusted the number downward by filtering out keyword spam (as defined above) based upon a proprietary formula used to identify search terms that are being searched at intervals too regular to have been conducted by actual humans.
These suspiciously regular and assumed to be artificially generated searches, are therefore discounted in arriving at the final number – 618.
Even when taking into account such dependent variables such as position, title, and description, we would expect (logically guesstimate) the website to receive about 10% of the total traffic due to top-ten placement, targeted title and relevant link-description.
And finally, we should expect no better than 25% of that total traffic, due to the fact that Wordtracker has top-ten placement in only 25% of the relevant engines.
So the calculations show...
618 x 10% = 61.8 x 25% = approx 15 visits per day.
This is more in line with Wordtracker’s actual 10-15 per day average number of visits generated by the 5 variations of the search term keyword across all of the major engines.
So, whose numbers should we trust?
When it comes to trusting the numbers you should take into account what you are using them for. If you’re looking to determine relative popularity of a given item, service, topic, or category then Overture’s STST can fill the bill nicely – and for free!
For instance, Overture’s STST returns the following numbers for the following searches...
58,312 home insurance
57,315 home owner insurance
233,854 auto insurance
570,337 car insurance
This tells us (for free) that car insurance gets about twice as many searches as auto insurance. It also tells us that home insurance gets about the same number of searches as home owner insurance ...and that searches for car insurance is TEN times more popular than home owner insurance.
No doubt about it, when researching what to sell online, this is valuable preliminary information that Overture’s STST provides for free.
However, based upon what we now know about artificial skew, we’d want to get a third-party-review of the search terms – one that adjusted the numbers for skew – before we bought advertising on a pay-per-click engine or spent good time and money optimizing a site for organic (think Google) web search results.
After all, if Overture shows 6,016 “hits” per day out of which Wordtracker is experiencing 15 visitors, then reality suggests we should do the math (i.e., apply the information) that distills the raw numbers into useful data. Let’s first decide if “15” visitors per day will pay the advertising bill (duh!) ...and, if the reality count is anywhere near 6,016, we’ll be ecstatic, right?
Always remember it’s the amateurs whobelieve optimistically romanced numbers just before they lose their wallets on the way to bankruptcy. Professional marketers learn to err on the downside of expectations and then smile when the pleasant surprises shower down riches.
They know that nothing beats accurate information – the most powerful marketing tool on earth.
About Robin Nobles
Robin Nobles is the Co-Director of Training of Search Engine Workshops, where they teach "hands on" search engine marketing workshops in locations across the globe. They also offer Ultra Advanced SEO Symposiums for advanced search engine marketers who want to take their learning to a new level. They have opened the first networking community for SEOs called The World Resource Center for Search Engine Marketers and have expanded their workshops to Europe with Search Engine Workshops UK.