Lesson 1.4: The art of keyword choice

Access Lesson 1.4 slides here


In the last lesson, engineer Matt Cutts talked about how search works. Now you should be thinking: How can I apply that knowledge to choose better words to use in your query?

Sometimes you have to try a couple of different queries to focus in on the information you want, trying different combinations of keywords.  Keywords are the most important words in your idea or question—they tell the search engine what you are seeking. They can also be called search terms.

When you get ready to type in a query, think for a moment about what you really want to find. One way to do that is to consider what words you think will appear on the page that would have the perfect answer. Imagine that page for a moment. How would someone else write about it? That is actually an important skill: how do you put yourself in the mindset of the author who wrote your perfect page?

So, consider three things:

For example, if you search Google for information about your kid who broke an arm, what kind of results would you get for a query like [busted arm]?

Figure: Search results for the query: [busted arm].  This might not be what you want.  

If you are looking for medical information on broken arms, these results may not be what you really want. What you might want to do instead is replace that query with a more appropriate word choice. Like, say, even something as simple as [broken arm].

Figure: Search results for the query [broken arm].

You could also use [bone fracture] or some other medically appropriate term.

The big idea here is that the words you choose will influence the kinds of results you get.

We once saw a sixth grade student who was trying to find information on Costa Rica jungle ecosystems using the query [sweaty clothes]. He identified [sweaty clothes] with the state he would be in if he was experiencing the jungle, but most pages that used that phrase were about other topics.

So, for example, if someone says to you, "I heard there was some old city in San Francisco Bay. What was it called?”  it is best to consider what words will actually appear on the page with your answer.

Let’s compare results from a few different searches to see why:

[What was the old city in San Francisco Bay called?]

Figure: Result for [What was the old city in San Francisco Bay called?]

This query uses a lot of words to describe a very simple concept. Those extra words that are outside the central idea of the query end up bringing up all kinds of results that may or may not be relevant to your question. So what you're doing, in essence, is getting off topic.

The first result is from Wikipedia, for San Francisco. That's the most common two word phrase in that query. So the idea of San Francisco naturally comes to the top.

San Francisco Bay is another common phrase. History of San Francisco also comes up because we use the word old and the word city. Comparing the results to the words in the query, you can see that the words in the query really are what is defining those results.

[Old city San Francisco Bay]

Figure: Results for [Old city San Francisco Bay]

Here we have gotten rid of the extra words, like was, the, and in. These words matter in English, but they do not define the topic for which you are searching.

Still, the results are not much better. You can see that the first three results here appear in the top four results in the previous search. These results reflect the query well, but do not give you the information you seek.

What is going on?

Remember the idea of asking what words the author would use? A more common way to talk about that town would be to search for [ghost town San Francisco Bay]. Old city is one way of conveying the notion, but since those words are so common, Google is giving you generic results. Ghost town is a more specific description of what it is you want to find.  Here’s an example:  [ghost town San Francisco Bay]

Figure: Results for [ghost town San Francisco Bay].

This query has some results that are exactly on target. The very first result says that Drawbridge, California, is a ghost town right on the San Francisco Bay.

When you pick the words to use in a query, think about how the page you want to find would talk about your idea. Using those words can give Google reliable cues to finding the information you desire.

Please try the activity for this lesson, and practice selecting effective search terms.

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