The Searcher s Intent

The Searcher's Intent

Now that you understand the basics of Web visitor behavior, let's talk specifically about search. Web searchers have behaviors all their own that start with the query itself.

Throughout history, human beings have sought to bring order to information by sorting and grouping documents to find them when they need them. But the advent of computer information retrieval (that is, search) made possible a massive increase in the number of documents available to find the needed information. And mostly, that's good. The problem arises when we expect those poor human beings to know how to find information in a whole new way. Folks who are comfortable using library card catalogs, book indexes, and other paper techniques find that none of those skills translate into using Web search.

So, although searchers are growing more sophisticated each year, the task of actually choosing the words for the query is one of the most difficult parts of searching. A few years ago, searchers mostly entered one- or two-word queries, and although queries are getting longer each year, it is still hard for search engines to know exactly what the searcher intends by a query.

It's actually a simple question: What does the searcher really want when he enters a query? But the answer is hardly as simple. When a searcher enters "home improvement," is he remodeling his bathroom or interested in Tim Allen's TV show? Researchers from top search engines say one of their biggest frustrations is making sense of the searcher's query. Despite this, it is not a hopeless cause. You can dramatically improve your search marketing by thinking about the "need behind the query." This knowledge helps you deliver the best possible content to your visitors when they search.

Andrei Broder, formerly of AltaVista (and current Distinguished Engineer at IBM), segments searchers into three categories:

  • Navigational searchers want to find a specific Web site (perhaps because they do not know the exact URL), and use queries such as "irs web site" or "valley hospital."

  • Informational searchers want information to answer their questions or to learn about a new subject, and use queries such as "what is scuba" or "hard water treatments."

  • Transactional searchers want to do something (buy something, sign up, enter a contest, and so forth), and use queries such as "sydney weather" or "treo 600 activation."

We need to examine each kind of searcher so that you can reach them with content from your Web site. Understand that real people shift roles all the timethe same searcher might enter informational queries to learn about a new product and suddenly decide to use a transactional query to buy it. A clear understanding of the types of searchers and their respective intent will help you reach more searchers with less effort.

Navigational Searchers

Navigational searchers are looking for a specific Web site, perhaps because they have visited it in the past, or someone has told them about it, or because they have heard of a company and they just assume the site exists. Unlike other types of searchers, navigational searchers have just one right answer in mind. Table 4-1 shows some examples of navigational searches.

Table 4-1. Examples of Navigational Queries (Searchers expect a single correct result from any navigational query, the home page of the site they are looking for.)

Search Query

Probable Destination

greyhound bus

internal revenue service

jetblue airlines

toys are us

barnes and noble

Even when they use the same query, navigational searchers might not have the same destination in mind, as Table 4-2 shows.

Table 4-2. Confusion with Navigational Queries (Searchers expect a single correct result from any navigational query, but exactly what result is not always clear.)

Search Query

Probable Destinations



Delta Airlines

Delta Faucets


University of Southern California

University of South Carolina


St. Louis Cardinals baseball team

Arizona Cardinals football team


Hoover's Online

Hoover Vacuums

Although it might be ambiguous as to what the navigational searchers want, it is clear what they do not want. They do not want deep information from a Web sitethey want the home page. They know what site they want, and only that site will do. And, in most cases, they want just the home page for that siteno other pages.


At a standing-room-only session on Internet travel deals at a popular New York City tourism conference, one woman stood up after a panel discussion and launched into a complaint about a particular hotel chain. She was furious that this hotel had hundreds of Web sites, each offering different prices and conflicting information. Not one of them showed the phone number so that she could actually call the hotel and book a reservation directly. This rant elicited cheers of support and sympathy.

The session moderator calmly tried to retake control of the session by explaining that those sites were affiliate sites and they did not actually belong to the hotel chain. Each site was a legitimate affiliate marketing partner of the hotel chain that gets a small commission for every reservation it books on behalf of the hotel. Unfortunately, some of these sites use unethical techniques (spam) to get top search rankings, frustrating navigational searchers who find these affiliate sites rather than the official site for the actual hotel.

This explanation did not make the attendees any happier, but at least they now understood what they were seeing. Another woman in the audience made the suggestion that searchers add the word "official" to their search query. For example, the query "official hilton hotel" actually returns the "official" Hilton Web site high in the results list in the major search engines, avoiding the spam (at least until spammers catch on and start adding that word to their own sites).

Frequently, novice search marketers find navigational searchers the hardest to fathomthis type of search does not make any sense to them. "Why would someone go to a search engine to search for my company when the URL is our name?" they ask. But Table 4-3 reflects the popularity of navigational searches within the top 20 most frequently searched terms. As you look at the table, you will see that the top searches revolve around popular current events (Paris Hilton's TV show, the Spider-Man movie, the Tour de France, and so on), but just below you find a set of navigational queries, some of which are the same week after week.

Table 4-3. The Popularity of Navigational Searches (Although these searches might seem pointless, many searchers use navigational searches to find Web sites.)


Search Phrase

Type of Search


paris hilton



tour de france



britney spears



spider-man 2



cameron diaz



jessica simpson



beyonce knowles
























maria shapapova





ashlee simpson











Source: (July 2004)

If, by now, you are becoming convinced of the importance of navigational searchers to your search marketing efforts, you might be wondering what you can do to make sure those searchers find your site. Usually, you do not need to do much. Most navigational queries don't have a lot of competitionwhen someone enters the name of your company into Yahoo! Search, your Web site should show up. As Table 4-2 shows, if your company's name is shared by other companies, there might be some competition, but there is much less competition than for other kinds of queries. Most corporations should be in the top few results of most search engines for searches on their company name or their popular brand names.

Take steps now to make sure your Web site ranks well for navigational queries:

  • Ensure your site is in the major search engine's indexes. Most organizations are already indexed, but see Chapter 10, "Get Your Site Indexed," if yours is not.

  • Make sure the search engines show a good description for your home page for searches on your company name. If you do not like what you see, add a strong sentence with your company name to your pagethe search engines will take that information and show it in the results. Figure 4-1 shows what can happen if you do not have a strong description.

    Figure 4-1. When good navigational queries go bad. Poorly written text on the page leads to a result that few searchers would click.

  • Remember that "negative" sites ( often rank close to (or occasionally higher than) your Web site, as shown in Figure 4-2. See Chapter 9, "Sell Your Search Marketing Proposal," for ideas about increasing the search exposure of your site and limiting the visibility of your detractors.

    Figure 4-2. "Negative" Web sites. Navigational queries can turn up sites that you would rather not have your customers see.

Because people often use navigational queries to locate a company when they cannot figure out how to type the URL directly, you might also consider registering domains for common misspellings of your company name. That way, people might find your company without resorting to navigational searches at all.

Informational Searchers

Informational searchers want to find deep information about a specific subject. Informational searchers believe this deep information exists, but they don't know where it's located. Unlike navigational queries, informational queries do not have a single right answerthe best search results are several pages from multiple sites that all shed some light on the subject.

Almost every Web user is an informational searcher at one time or another. Most searchers start with a simple query, refining it until they locate good answers (or give up). The intent of informational searchers proves the most difficult to deduce because their queries can mean so many things. Many informational searchers enter only a single phrase, such as "new york." Whether that searcher meant New York City or the State of New York, and whether she wants to visit New York or learn about its history, discerning her intent is next to impossible.


At the peak of the dotcom boom, a leading art and print site was spending millions of dollars on paid search placements for art-related search queries. The marketing manager knew that "monet" was one of its most heavily trafficked queries, but recently the visits from Yahoo! for "monet" had decreased significantly. What had changed?

Examining the Yahoo! search results for "monet" revealed a new site in the organic listings offering the complete history of Monet. Apparently many searchers were looking for information on Monet and were probably heading to that new site, instead of the art and print site.

In response, the marketing manager placed more historical information about Monet on his site and soon found his Monet page ranked highly in the Yahoo! organic listings. As expected, he began to see the traffic to this new Monet page increase significantly from the organic listing. The surprise was in the paid search clicksthey dropped even further. Worse, there were no more buyers of Monet prints even though overall traffic had doubled when you added up both paid and organic referrals. Why?

The marketing manager decided to perform a test. He added a survey to the new Monet page offering a drawing for a free print for anyone who would reveal their purpose in coming to the site. Of the survey respondents, 95 percent indicated they were students simply looking for biographical information on Monet and information about his paintings. These were informational searchers that had no desire to ever buy a Monet print.

Armed with this information, the marketing manager switched his paid placement buys from an informational query ("monet") to specific transactional queries (the names of Monet paintings such as "water lilies"). This strategy not only increased traffic but also increased sales, by capturing people who were not entering "monet" as their search query, but were truly ready to buy a specific print.

As you can see, careful study of the searcher's intent pays off in more visitors who are focused on your site's goal. It can be just as important to avoid the wrong traffic as to get the right traffic, because every art student who clicked the paid placement page cost the art and print site a few cents in pay-per-click fees that were completely wasted. By focusing on queries that real purchasers use, the art and print site reduced the art students and attracted more art buyers at the same time, thus selling more while paying less for paid placement.

The informational searcher is the mainstay of any search marketing program. Informational searchers have not yet chosen the product they want to buy (for example), so they are still "up for grabs." Informational searchers allow you to present your products before they have chosen a specific product.

The key to satisfying informational searchers is to provide clear "learn about" content related to your products or services. If you are selling riding lawnmowers, explain why riding lawnmowers are superior to the hand-push kind. If you offer a smoking-cessation program, why does yours work while others fail? No matter what your Web site sells, why is yours better? Whatever your Web site does, why do you do it better?

By researching the informational queries that searchers use (explained in detail in Chapter 11, "Choose Your Target Keywords"), and by optimizing your pages to meet those information needs (covered in Chapter 12, "Optimize Your Content"), you can attract informational searchers to your site.

Transactional Searchers

Transactional searchers make things happen. They are not looking for informationthey want to do something. Transactional queries cluster around specific tasks, such as buying products, accessing databases, and downloading various types of files (images, software, or songs). When searchers enter the name of a book, or the model number of a digital camera, they are intending to make a transaction, namely to buy the item. But there are many other kinds of transactional queries. Anyone trying to download a fix for a computer, or signing up for a newsletter, or donating to a charity is a transactional searcher.

Transactional queries are the hardest of all queries to incorporate into an optimization program. Transactional queries are often related to specific products, and should return product catalog pages, which unfortunately have little content on them and do not rank well in search engines. The text-rich informational searcher pages that solved shoppers' problems with your products are gone, replaced by barren catalog pages with model numbers, specifications, and a picture. It is hard work to dress up these catalog pages for search engines.

The most important goal for improving these catalog pages is to make the search result's snippet relevant to the query. You improve your chances of both being found by the search engine and being clicked by the searcher by incorporating the query's words into the title and other parts of the page. In addition, you should feature any special pricing or other offer prominently on the page to catch the attention of the searcher. If your page can reassure searchers that it is a good choice, even better.

Figure 4-3 demonstrates why paid placement advertisements are not always clicked by searchers. Clearly the searcher is looking for a specific model of camera, yet all but the fifth result fail to incorporate the camera model into the offer. The other paid results might cause searchers to have to start from scratch and enter the model number all over again once they get to the Web site, a sure way to turn off searchers.

Figure 4-3. Enticing transactional searchers to click. Transactional searchers expect to see what they typed in your offer, or they might not click.

    Search Engine Marketing, Inc. Driving Search Traffic to Your Company's Web Site
    Search Engine Marketing, Inc.: Driving Search Traffic to Your Companys Web Site (2nd Edition)
    ISBN: 0136068685
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2005
    Pages: 138

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