When is a search term not a search term? That's a question worth asking after looking at a year's worth of search results on Google, Yahoo and AOL.
Google has just released its 2006 Year-End Google Zeitgeist. To compile its year-end lists and graphs, Google reviewed a variety of the most popular search terms that people typed into its news search engine as well as its web search engine.
Here are the top searches in 2006 on Google News:
1. paris Hilton
2. orlando bloom
5. hurricane katrina
7. martina hingis
9. 2006 nfl draft
10. celebrity big brother 2006
Now, compare the list above with the one below for the top searches in 2006 on Google:
3. world cup
To state the obvious: The top news search terms are completely different from the top web search terms.
If you go to Yahoo's Top Searches of 2006, you will also see some striking differences between Yahoo's Top 10 Searched News Stories of 2006 and Yahoo's list of the most popular web search terms this year.
The tragic passing of Steve Irwin and the mysterious death of Daniel Smith rank as this year's top searched news stories. Interest in the Middle East also dominated the top rankings in 2006, with conflict in Iraq, the Israel Lebanon conflict and the Saddam Hussein trial all ranking well.
Here's Yahoo's list of top news search terms for 2006:
1. Steve Irwin death
2. Anna Nicole's son dies
4. Israel and Lebanon
5. U.S. elections
6. Fidel Castro stroke
7. North Korea Nuke
8. Jonbenet confession
9. Saddam Hussein trial
10. Danish Cartoon
In other words, it appears that one group of people is turning to Yahoo News Search for hard-hitting information.
Meanwhile, on another part of the portal, Britney Spears topped Yahoo's list of most popular web search terms in 2006 – for the fifth time in six years. The rest of the search engine's overall top 10 searches for the year were dominated by the under 30 celebrity set making a mark on pop culture.
Here's Yahoo's list of top 10 web search terms for 2006:
1. Britney Spears
4. Jessica Simpson
5. Paris Hilton
6. American Idol
7. Beyonce Knowles
8. Chris Brown
9. Pamela Anderson
10. Lindsay Lohan
In other words, it appears that an entirely different group of people is turning to Yahoo Web Search for celebrity happenings and scandals – or the same group of people is conducting news searches in the office by day and different set of web searches at home by night.
If you go to AOL's 2006 Year End Hot Searches, you'll discover that it, too, appears to have a split personality.
The top 10 news topics at AOL News for 2006 were:
1. Gas prices
2. Steve Irwin
4. Bird flu
6. Natalee Holloway
7. Debra Lafave
8. Rush Limbaugh
10. Hurricane Katrina
In other words, the group of people using AOL News seems interested in “hard news.”
Contrast that with AOL's list of the top 10 web search terms for the year:
4. American Idol
In other words, the group of people using AOL Search seems to be looking for general interest information.
So, why do top news search terms differ so often from top web search terms?
One possible explanation might be demographics and/or psychographics. The smaller group of people using news search may differ demographically and/or psychographically from the larger group of people using web search.
And, who knows, perhaps a higher percentage of news search engine users are older, richer, better educated, and more experienced search users with children and homes in suburbs. Or, maybe web search engine users have different lifestyles, behaviors, interests and values. We can't say.
Why? Because there's another possible explanation: Situational intent. Each of us often acts differently in different situations.
A new eye-tracking study from Enquiro found that “intent impacts searching.” For research-related queries, we tend to “thin slice” sponsored content out of the way. But, for purchase-related queries, we tend to focus more on sponsored content.
So, maybe most of us use web search engines to look for one type of information and we use news search engines to look for another.
While it may not be clear yet why top news search terms often differ from top web search terms, one thing is perfectly clear. They are often different.
So, using web search term research tools like Wordtracker, Keyword Discovery, Yahoo's Keyword Selector Tool, or the Google AdWords Keyword Tool to identify potential web search terms makes a lot of sense. But, if you are trying to optimize a news story or press release, then using these same tools to identify potential news search terms may often produce mixed results.
If you are looking for news search terms, you might get better results using Google Trends, Google Suggest for Google News, the Yahoo News “also try” feature, or Keyword Discovery's news keywords database. But, don't be surprised if their news search term suggestions often seem surprising.
The most popular news search terms are often different from the most popular web search terms. That's a fact you can take to the bank – even if we can't explain why this is true just yet.