The 4 Steps in Search

The four steps in search – and how you can win each one

4 steps in search


Today I’ll outline a four-part series on how a search works. There are four steps in the chain. I’ll also explore in detail that important first step. The four steps are:

  1. The search. This is the series of words that someone enters into a Google search bar. And it’s other things that we’ll discuss shortly.
  2. The search result, also called a Search Engine Results Page (SERP). This is what comes up when the searcher hits Enter on that Google search.
  3. The click to a landing page. What happens when someone sees something they like?
  4. The offer and contact. This is what you, the business owner, are ultimately after.

There is a lot to be excited about with search, and understanding these four steps. For one thing, there is a lot of search volume for many types of business and offerings. That’s why Google is so big. It means money for Google and for you. And it’s why it’s worth a four-part series. What I find beautiful is that you can drill down on each of these four steps and make them almost airtight. For me this means data and measurement without contamination, as opposed to instinct and opinion.

The search

Let’s examine closely the first step – the search. Before someone even types some words into a Google search window, they have something you want – motivation. This potential buyer is hungry, perhaps literally, for something. I wrote about this last time and called it “inbound marketing.” They want it, they’re actively looking and if you have it, and they can find you, and your offer is clear and compelling, they’ll buy it. Simple. The alternative is every other kind of marketing, which is some form of you jumping in front of people who are doing something else, waving your hands about and trying to get some attention.

So the hungry buyer is looking, and she types something into a Google search bar. What does she type? Well, there are some common sense guesses, of course. What would you type? But we can do way better than that. Since the dawn of the internet (not that long ago in dog years, but an eternity of light years in bits of information), Google has been gathering statistics. We know what people actually type and, like most things, it is different than anyone’s best guess, sometimes substantially so (and sometimes not). So we go for data – let’s call it “reality-based marketing.”

The scorecard

I’m going to jump ahead now to The Scorecard. We’re still in Step One, and we’re going to stay there, but it’s important to know what you’re after before you start to play the game. What’s the object of baseball? To hit the ball with the bat, maybe as far as you can? No. It’s to round the bases and make it all the way home. You can do this without ever touching a bat to a ball. What’s the object of search, both paid and organic? It’s to appear on the SERP for the search terms that matter. (These are also called “keywords”). Which search terms matter? The ones that have high search volume (a lot of people search them) and are relevant. First, search volume. Take a look at the scorecard we use for ourselves:

keywords and search volume


The column on the left, as you can see, measures monthly search volume. We have ordered the rows in the scoresheet from highest volume to lowest. We only care about the top terms. We’ve used nationwide numbers because that gives us a statistically significant sample. If you use local marketplace numbers, you might not get enough to be reliable. Although there is some variation from one region to another, these national numbers are close enough.

And you might be wondering right about now why Yours Truly, Mr. Numbers Geek, would write the phrase “close enough.” Here are two reasons. No. 1, most people interested in “doing well in the search engines” don’t even have a scorecard. Heck, most of the SEO firms we’ve run across don’t seem to know what the object is. So on just that alone, we’re way, way ahead, and now you are also. No. 2: Take a look at how quickly the numbers drop off. In just 20 rows, search drops from 1.5 million to a little over 5,000. That’s a drop of almost 3000 times, that is, the top term is 3,000 times better than term No. 20 (never mind term No. 40). And it’s like this for most businesses – a very concentrated distribution of activity.

Focus on what matters

As much as I’ve geeked out about this one statistic, search volume, the purpose is actually to minimize the amount of irrelevant data and to focus on what matters. Before we get into the weeds on how to improve search results, we need to figure out which search terms we care about. And it isn’t as many as you think. You don’t want to start jibber-jabbering about meta data, back links and blog posts before you figure out where to concentrate your efforts. Remember, we want to round the bases and get back home, not necessarily to hit the ball the farthest.

Before we get to the actual “score” for each search term, let’s touch on relevance and geography. The scorecard example shown has already had the irrelevant search terms removed. It is our actual Google Sheets scorecard. Here is an example of an irrelevant search term: in managing an AdWords campaign (paid results) and SEO (organic results) for an auto repair facility, we combed through and saw “auto parts” as one of the terms. The term and its variations have lots of search volume. But the facility we represent doesn’t sell auto parts, so the term isn’t relevant. We took it out of their AdWords campaign and didn’t work it in our SEO efforts.

Location, location, location

Now to geography. If you happen to be in or near Wilmington NC, and you type in any of the above terms without the Wilmington NC, as most people do, you’ll get similar results. Google knows where you are. In the market where you happen to be sitting, you don’t need the location. If you need a hair stylist in Boulder, CO in three weeks, you should type it in.

The score for each of these terms is the organic search result on Google for that term. This means you skip the paid ads at the top, you skip the Google Maps result, which is now usually 3 pins on the map instead of 7, and you start counting. Sometimes you’ll get one or two results above the Maps result, which is now called the “snack pack” as we covered in a recent newsletter.

Now, for the harsh truth

The only scores that matter are results on the first page – that is, positions 1-10. And only for high-volume, relevant terms. Nobody, or very very few people, go to the second page of a Google search result. As you can see in our scorecard, we’re doing well for AdWords Wilmington NC and not so well for SEO Wilmington NC. And so on. And that’s it. This is what you’re after for organic SEO. How you get there is way trickier and ever-changing, and don’t forget that AdWords works and so does Maps.

Also note that the scorecard I’ve shown here is relevant for all three kinds of search results. You need to know search volume and search term relevance for AdWords, Google Maps and organic results, but you only need the Google position column for the organic result. We’ll get into more of that in the next installment.

In the meantime, if you need help sorting out your website’s search engine results and you’re not sure where to start, give us a call at 910-452-6345. You can also get in touch with us by filling out our contact form.

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This post was written by Michael Byrd

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