What is search listening?

About search listening

Search listening is the process of using search data (usually Google data but whatever search engine is most popular in your country is best) for consumer research.

The SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) industry started way back in 1997 and whilst its huge growth has meant that most marketers understand the concept of keywords and search behaviour, not enough use this search behaviour as a source of consumer insight. It could – and should – be used by businesses to truly understand what people think, want, need, worry about, and so much more, feeding product/service development, product buying, store openings, brand positioning, reputation measurement, content planning, PR planning and so on.

Traditionally, planning and research teams have defaulted research methods like surveys and focus groups. Then social listening came along – and that’s now the default ‘digital’ research method. Now, a small handful of marketers are using search listening to power their businesses.

It’s my belief that if more people understood that Google data represents so much more than ‘keywords’ the marketing campaigns would be resonating with audiences so much better.

Search listening versus social listening

I often talk about social listening when introducing people to the idea of search listening, and that’s deliberate. So many people are familiar with and understand social listening that it’s an easy jump-off point. All the definitions you see of social listening work perfectly for search listening too – if you switch out a few pertinent words:

Social listening refers to analyzing the conversations and trends happening not just around your brand, but around your industry as a whole, and using those insights to make better marketing decisions.

Social listening helps you understand why, where and how these conversations are happening, and what people think—not just when they’re tagging or mentioning your brand.

This helps you form future campaigns, improve content strategy and messaging, outpace your competition, construct an effective influencer program and even build more impactful brand partnerships.

Sprout Social

If we switch out social for search, and conversations for searches (which are kind of conversations with Google anyway!) then the above definition works for search listening:

Search listening refers to analysing the searches and trends happening not just around your brand, but around your industry as a whole, and using those insights to make better marketing decisions.

Search listening helps you understand why and how these conversations are happening, and what people think—not just when they’re talking publicly on social media.

This helps you form future campaigns, improve content strategy and messaging, outpace your competition, construct an effective influencer program and even build more impactful brand partnerships.

Any teams using social insights should be using search insights too, to build up a richer picture of the people they’re trying to understand. And by search insights, I don’t mean traditional search insights like ‘an average of 33,100 people in the UK search for ‘high heels’ every month’; I mean insights like ‘we can see from search behaviour that pregnant women are concerned about whether they should wear heels during their pregnancy’.

Remember that on social media people are most likely to shout about strong opinions they have or communities they’re a part of; it’s a place to project. Google is where you go when you have a genuine need for information or reassurance or whatever else – and you’re usually way more honest with Google than you are on social media because it offers anonymity and privacy.

As I heard recently:

If people are living their best lives on Instagram, they’re living their real lives in Google.

Stella Bayles, on an AnswerThePublic webinar

And that doesn’t mean that social listening is bad or wrong; but it should be done with its limitations in mind and not just because it’s the default for digital consumer intelligence. Search listening adds a ton of value.


If you’d like to learn more about how to do search listening then please explore this website! There’s plenty to read in the blog, a mix of free and paid-for learning resources in the academy and info on recommended tools, as well as how me and my colleagues can support with with search listening consultancy . Also check out AnswerThePublic’s latest webinar to hear me talk about applying search listening to a particular field.