Determining Searcher Intent: A Challenge for Both Marketers and Search Engines

Good marketers are empathetic. Smart SEO practitioners and the search engines have a common goal of providing searchers with results that are relevant to their queries. Therefore, a crucial element to building an online marketing strategy around SEO and search rankings is to understand your audience. Once you grasp how your target market searches for your service, product, or resource, you can more effectively reach and keep those users.

Search engine marketers need to be aware that search engines are tools—resources driven by intent. Using the search box is fundamentally different from entering a URL into the address bar, clicking on a bookmark, or picking a link on your start page to go to a website; it is unique from a click on the “stumble” button in your StumbleUpon toolbar or a visit to your favorite blog. Searches are performed with intent; the user wants to find something in particular, rather than just land on it by happenstance.

What follows is an examination of the different types of queries, their categories, characteristics, and processes.

Navigational Queries

Navigational searches are performed with the intent of surfing directly to a specific website. In some cases, the user may not know the exact URL, and the search engine serves as the “White Pages.” Figure 1-2 shows an example of a navigational query.

Navigational query

Figure 1-2. Navigational query

Opportunities: Pull searcher away from destination; get ancillary or investigatory traffic.

Average value: Generally low, with the exception of navigational searches on the publisher’s own brand, where the value is very high as these types of searches tend to lead to very high conversion rates.

Informational Queries

Informational searches involve a huge range of queries—for example, local weather, maps and directions, details on the latest Hollywood awards ceremony, or just checking how long that trip to Mars really takes. Informational searches are primarily non-transaction-oriented (although they can include researching information about a product or service); the information itself is the goal and no interaction beyond clicking and reading is required. Figure 1-3 shows an example of an informational query.

Informational query

Figure 1-3. Informational query

Opportunities: Brand searchers with positive impressions of your site, information, company, and so on; attract inbound links; receive attention from journalists/researchers; potentially convert to sign up or purchase.

Average value: Middling. Note, though, that informational queries that are focused on researching commercial products or services can have high value.

Transactional Queries

Transactional searches don’t necessarily involve a credit card or wire transfer. Signing up for a free trial account at, creating a Gmail account, paying a parking ticket, or finding the best local Mexican cuisine for dinner tonight are all transactional queries. Figure 1-4 shows an example of a transactional query.

Transactional query

Figure 1-4. Transactional query

Opportunities: Achieve transaction (financial or other).

Average value: Very high.

Research by Pennsylvania State University and the Queensland University of Technology ( shows that more than 80% of searches are informational in nature and only about 10% of searches are navigational or transactional.

The researchers went further and developed an algorithm to automatically classify searches by query type. When they tested the algorithm, they found that it was able to correctly classify queries 74% of the time. The difficulty in classifying the remaining queries was vague user intent, that is, the query could have multiple meanings. Here are some URLs that point to additional academic research on this topic:

When you are building keyword research charts for clients or on your own sites, it can be incredibly valuable to determine the intent of each of your primary keywords. Table 1-4 shows some examples.

Table 1-4. Sample search queries and intent




$$ value

Beijing Airport




Hotels in Xi’an




7-Day China tour package




Sichuan jellyfish recipe




This type of analysis can help to determine where to place ads and where to concentrate content and links.

Hopefully, this data can help you to think carefully about how to serve different kinds of searchers, based on their individual intents, and then concentrate your efforts in the best possible areas.

Although informational queries are less likely to immediately convert into sales, this does not necessarily mean you should forego rankings on such queries. If you are able to build a relationship with users who find your site after an informational query, they may be more likely to come to you to make the related purchase at a later date.

One problem is that when most searchers frame their search query they provide very limited data to the search engine, usually in just one to three words. Since most people don’t have a keen understanding of how search engines work, they can often provide a query that is too general or in a way that does not provide the search engine (or the marketer) with what it needs to determine their intent.

For this reason, general queries are important to most businesses because they often get the brand and site on the searcher’s radar, and this initiates the process of building trust with the user. Over time, the user will move on to more specific searches that are more transactional or navigational in nature.

If, for instance, companies buying pay-per-click (PPC) search ads bought only the high-converting navigational and transactional terms and left the informational ones to competitors, they would lose market share to those competitors. During several days, a searcher may start with digital cameras and then hone in on canon g10, and buy from the store that showed up for digital cameras and pointed her in the direction of the Canon G10 model.

Given the general nature of how query sessions start, though, determining intent is quite difficult, and can result in searches being performed where the user does not find what she wants, even after multiple tries. An August 2007 Foresee/ACSI Report for eMarketer found that 75% of search engine and portal users were satisfied with their experiences. In a breakdown by property, 79% of Yahoo! users, 78% of Google users, and 75% of both Live Search (Microsoft’s web search property, which has since been renamed to Bing) and users reported being satisfied.

Based on this later study, more than 20% of users did not find what they were looking for. This suggests that there is plenty of room to improve the overall search experience. As an SEO practitioner, you should be aware that many of the visitors that you succeed in attracting to your site may have arrived for the wrong reasons (i.e., they were really looking for something else), and these visitors are not likely to help your business goals.

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