Keywords vs. Search Queries: What's the Difference?


In casual conversation, the terms "keyword" and "search query" are often used interchangeably, but there is actually a difference. So what is the difference between a keyword and a search query?

A keyword is sort of like the Platonic ideal of a search query – it's an abstraction that we extrapolate from multiple search queries.

A search query or search term is the actual word or string of words that a search engine user types into the search box. You can think of a search query as the real-world application of a keyword – it may be misspelled, out of order or have other words tacked on to it, or conversely it might be identical to the keyword.

As search marketers, what we target are keywords.

  • In SEO, we target these abstractions by optimizing on-page content (using the keywords in URLs, title tags, body copy, image file names, meta descriptions and so on), by building inbound links with keywords in the anchor text, etc.
  • In PPC, we target keywords by bidding on them and using them in our ads and landing pages.

Search queries, on the other hand, are the real-world terms that people use to find those pages through paid and organic search.

So, for example, you might bid on the keyword "skinny jeans." By looking at your search query report in AdWords, you can see all the queries that visitors typed in to trigger your ad – assuming you're using broad match, these queries might include the exact keyword as well as endless variations like "jeans skinny," "womens skinny jeans," "dark wash skinny jeans," "skinny jeans size 0" and so on.

keywords vs. search queries

If some of those search queries fall into a clear, repeating pattern (for example, "women's skinny jeans"), you might go on to create an ad group and corresponding ads for that search query, at which point the search query would become one of your keywords.

Search queries are a larger set than keywords, and by looking at search queries we can find new keywords to target in our search marketing campaigns. (Search query mining is also a good way to find negative keywords).

Any questions?

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Kristi Hines
May 25, 2011

Simple yet effective way to describe the difference! BTW, I included this blog on my 79 Link Building Resources post! Always great content! :)

Elisa Gabbert
May 25, 2011

Thanks so much for including us in your post, Kristi!

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Connie McKnight
May 25, 2011

Loved your graphic. Although most people are aware of the importance of having your post keyword rich, I don't think they totally understand how it relates to someone searching. Your explanation, along with the graphic should make it clear for anyone reading your post.

A further explanation on search query mining would be nice.


Elisa Gabbert
May 25, 2011

Hi, Connie, thanks for your comment! Chad Summerhill did a series of blog posts about search query mining recently. You can find those posts here:

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Daily Digest for May 25th | A Blog by John A. Lee
May 25, 2011

[...] @WordStream: NEW: Keywords vs. Search Queries: What’s the Difference? [...]

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May 26, 2011

"A keyword is sort of like the Platonic ideal of a search query – it's an abstraction that we extrapolate from multiple search queries."

Well... not exactly the English of my neighborhood, but I think I get your your drift :)

Elisa Gabbert
May 26, 2011

Sorry, Paul, did I get a little too philosophical there? :)

Gabriella - The Stepford Wife
May 27, 2011

Simple and easy to grasp - the post was great!

Larry Kim
May 27, 2011

 Glad that was helpful Gabriella!

PPC Weekly Roundup — Link Building Edition
May 27, 2011

[...] we’re on the subject of keywords, Elisa Gabbert at WordStream helps us to understand the difference between a keyword and a search query, and PPCHero’s Bethany Bey (who was gracious enough to grant us a PPC expert interview about [...]

May 30, 2011

Great post as usual and certainly covers the differences very weel I'd never thought about it in those terms spot on

Dec 01, 2016

Great article. I will be facing some of these issues too..

Maneet Puri
Jun 06, 2011

Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing.

online advertising
Aug 16, 2011

I never knew the difference of keywords and search queries before. now, I am able to understand why keyword has been the term used by most SEO companies in optimizing the websites. This one's a great post. Thanks a lot.

Aug 31, 2011

Elisa, Great post! I was looking for an article to teach my friend the difference between search words and keywords and this was perfect. I think it's hard to teach other people SEO. They have to realize it's not as easy as pacman to play. You need to know exactly what you're doing do get really good at SEO. Steve

Annie Key
Sep 19, 2011

I love the explanation and I clearly understand how search query and keyword differs and connected with each other. Thanks for posting!

Hotell Arlanda
Jan 10, 2012

I focus on keywords but I have no idea about the importance of search queries. Maybe I should also pay attention on the negative keywords to know more. Thanks for the interesting insights on keywords and search queries. And thanks for putting the graph, which explained a lot.

Patrick Dey
Jun 18, 2013

Interesting blog post, Elisa. Will return to your blog for more. Here are some observations about keyword vs. search queries.

  • A search query is the instance of a keyword
  • A single keyword can have many associated search queries
  • A seed keyword can be used to find long tail keywords
  • All keywords are search queries, but not all search queries are keywords
  • A keyword often has both broad match and phrase match search queries
Both keywords and search queries have SEO significance. Competition on keywords is usually higher than on search queries. 

SEO Raviraj
Jul 17, 2013

Elisa just given basic thing and it will help to choose keyword... Also Patrick all observations is acceptable.

Oct 21, 2013

Hi  Elisa,That post is really interesting, for someone that target traffic and search to know about Keywords and queries, especially since webmaster tools of google present its report of search queries with some search term users that are sometimes very far from the focused keywords , and let a beginner in web marketing suspect the skills of his SEO consultant  or even think that may be he was hacked, also i want to mention that i have searched for such topic to know about queries and keywords and i haven't really found any pertinent answer until i have meet yours. Thank you for that useful post, Hicham / Forestborj

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Hi ty for article. Do queries have any part in ranking our site?

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