The first step in optimizing for search engines is understanding how your audience may be searching for you. The tips below will guide you through a specific research process.
Search Term Research Databases
One of the best places to start is Overture, which gives you the ability to look up how popular any search term is. Using the service's free Search Term Suggestion Tool, you enter a word, and then you're shown all the searches that contain that term, in order of popularity.
For instance, in May 2003, the word "shoes" was searched for 649,326 times, with "golf shoes" as the second most popular term at 101,629 searches, and so on. You can find the Search Term Suggestion Tool on the More About What People Search For page.
Another helpful resource is Wordtracker. This fee-based service allows you to see what people are searching for on the popular meta search engines of Dogpile and MetaCrawler, similar to how the Overture query tool works. It also provides a wide range of other helpful features for search term research, so it's well worth the investment. You can find the tool and an in-depth review of it on the More About What People Search For page.
Double-Checking Via Related Searches
You can use the "related searches" feature at some search engines to double-check your findings from Overture and WordTracker.
For example, let's assume we have a site that deals with sleep issues. How might people be looking for our material? The first stop is Overture, where we discover that top terms for "sleep" in May 2003 include "sleep apnea," "sleep disorder," "sleep deprivation" and "sleep problem."
Next, we head over to Yahoo and search for "sleep." When the results page appears, we'll be shown related searches next to the word "Related" underneath the search box on the results page. This line shows the most popular searches that contain our original word. We can quickly see that sleep apnea makes the list.
Looking at Yahoo also shows that "sleep disorders" is popular, as opposed to "sleep disorder" as shown at Overture. Why the difference?
At Overture, singular and plural forms are combined. So, all the searches for "sleep disorders" are combined with any searches for "sleep disorder" and one total for both forms is shown -- but only the singular form is actually displayed. Thus, it's possible to think something is popular in the singular when in reality, it's the plural you should concentrate on.
This isn't a problem for those buying placement at Overture, since the service automatically makes any bid applicable to both singular and plural forms. But that's not the case elsewhere, so it pays to know which way to optimize. Double-checking as described above can help you do this.
Also, be aware that it is not just singular and plural terms that are combined at Overture. The company's "MatchDriver" technology may also combined related phrases together. For example, searches for "shoes for running" might be combined into the figures shown for "running shoes." The article below examines this in more depth:
Overture Weakens Advertiser Control With Match Driver
The Search Engine Update, Sept. 16, 2002
A complete rundown can be found of where related searches features appear at major search engines can be found on the Related Searches section of the Search Assistance Features page.
More About Related Searches
At AltaVista, Prisma "refine" results look like related searches but are actually based on terms that appear on web pages. Because of this, they don't reflect actual search behavior.
At Lycos, "Narrow Your Search" results are shown with capitalization even though searches may have been performed in lower-case. In other words, there's no need to target the exact capitalization displayed. Instead, use whatever format you feel is best. Want some help deciding? See the More About Capitalization page for tips.
At AllTheWeb and Yahoo, related search terms are shown in lower-case, regardless of how users search.
As MSN Search, "Popular Topics" related searches are terms hand-picked by editors, rather than being compiled automatically by query log analysis. Because of this, don't consider them to necessarily be reflective of how people are searching.
Tapping Into Visitors Via Related Searches
When someone clicks on a related searches link, the search is rerun using those words. This means that having content that matches some of the suggestions in related searches areas may help bring you traffic.
For instance, in a search for "dvd players" at Yahoo, you'll see that "portable dvd players" is a suggestion for the original search of "dvd players" Anyone selecting the suggestion would be shown matching pages for "portable dvd players." Consequently, if your site had a page targeting that longer term, you might rank well for it and receive some traffic.
In contrast, if you instead had a page targeting "compact dvd player," then you are less likely to receive traffic, because that phrase does not show in the related searches area.