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Keyword and Query Classification: Understanding the "Why" of SEO

Keyword and query classification are often the missing" why" ingredients in effective search engine optimization.

As search engine optimizers, we want to know as much as possible about our target audience so we can deliver the best search experience. To accomplish this, we address the following questions:

  1. What are people searching for? (keywords, labels, file type)
  2. Where are people conducting their searches? (location)
  3. When are people conducting searches? (date, time)
  4. Who is using the commercial web search engines? (target audience)
  5. How are people searching? (desktop/tablet/mobile, query/browse/ask)
  6. Why are people conducting searches? (goals, intention, motivation)

Keyword research tools, web analytics data, advertising data, and other resources provide us with some answers. However, for our conclusions to be accurate, we should also understand the data and resources in context.

In This Article

Common mistakes in query classification

Keyword research tools can tell us what people are searching for, how they are searching, and the order in which searchers type in keywords. But keyword research tools do not provide much context about each keyword phrase.

Therefore, savvy search engine optimizers know that they must use other means to understand keyword and searcher context.

When it comes to keyword classification, I often observe SEO professionals place their mental models onto keywords without (a) understanding searcher context, and (b) understanding query classification.

Here are some examples.

Scenario #1

Web searcher Bob is about to vacation in Hawaii. He wants to check the balance of his frequent flyer miles. Is Bob's intent navigational, informational, or transactional?

Many people answer this question incorrectly because they believe that the word "check" indicates transactional intent. However, in order for a person to check the amount of his frequent flyer miles online, he must go to a specific website and log in.

Even though Bob's final intent is to perform an online activity (log in and look up frequent flyer miles), the essential step before the transaction is to go to a specific website. Therefore, the query classification is navigational. And Bob's keyword phrase is navigational.

Scenario #2

Searcher Natalie wants to look at the different headphones and earbuds available for her phone and tablet. Does her web search communicate navigational, informational, or transactional intent? Explain your answer.

All too often, the immediate and natural thought process is like this: "If I typed in the word "headphones" or "earbuds" into Google, what does it mean?"

The second you think about what you would do and why you would do it, you are placing your personal mental model onto the searcher. The idea behind query and keyword classification is to understand searcher context, not your context.

So how would I answer this question? Here is my analysis:

(1) Ad hoc query

My initial thought when I saw this query? I thought it was an informational query, more specifically an ad hoc query. With an ad hoc search, the searcher's goal is to find as many relevant documents as possible about available headphones or ear buds. In other words, Natalie is not looking for any specific website. She's on a proverbial "fishing expedition."

"Headphones" is a single word. Natalie did not mention brand, type, or any other qualifier word. This single-word query also leads me to believe that this is an ad hoc search.

(2) Transactional intent not specified

Natalie might want to purchase headphones or earbuds eventually, but the single keyword does not specify whether or not she wishes to make the purchase online or in a physical store.

Transactional queries are ones where the searcher wishes to perform some web-mediated activity. Since Natalie did not specify whether or not she wanted to purchase headphones online, this makes the keyword query seem less transactional.

Even if Natalie eventually planned on purchasing headphones, she might want to find out about the different types of headphones (over-the-ear, wireless, earbuds, etc.) and compare prices.

So before Natalie decides to purchase, she is finding out information about headphones or earbuds before an actual online or offline transaction.

(3) Plural = possible list

In the US, when a web searcher types in the plural form of a keyword, it is an indication that he or she wants to see a list of items. When a searcher wants to view a list of items, it shows informational intent.

"Headphones" and "earbuds" are words that be either singular or plural.

Therefore, I concluded that the Natalie's initial query is an informational query that might lead to an online or offline transaction – keeping in mind that the online or offline transaction might not be an immediate need or desire.

Granted, these are just my interpretations of the keywords. Had I observed Bob or Natalie in their natural search environments, I could determine more easily their searcher goals.

Card sorting analogy

As a website usability professional, I am fortunate to observe people in their natural search environments. Furthermore, I get to conduct usability tests with keywords. Many of my SEO insights are a result of ongoing usability testing.

One usability test I use to determine searcher mental models about keywords is a card sort test. Both open and closed card sort tests can also help SEO professionals determine the best labels when optimizing web documents.

I attended a webinar presented by information architect and card-sorting guru Donna Spencer entitled Designing Usable Categories with Card Sorting. I discovered that Donna and I have the same experience with keywords and user mental models.

Card sort tests can be conducted online and offline (usually face-to-face). In her webinar, Donna explained some of the differences between a face-to-face card sort test and an online card sort test. Sometimes, Donna conducts face-to-face card sort tests in groups of three. The value of group testing is listening to participants talk through what they think.

During face-to-face group testing, Donna could observe:

  • Where test participants really disagreed
  • How test participants resolved the labeling dispute (if it were resolved)
  • The words that participants did not write on a sticky note or an index card

In other words, Donna can hear why test participants had an easy or difficult time determining a category label…something she might not experience by conducting the usability test online.

When I observe users in their natural search environments and during usability tests, I often learn information that I do not get from keyword research tools.

For example, recently, I discovered that if I architected a website based on keyword research data, I would have completely missed the users' mental models.

Keyword research data showed that the vast majority of web-search queries were by service type (A Service, B Service, C Service, etc.) However, during usability testing, all test participants mentioned their personal status (single or family). They didn't know the jargon for different types of industry services.

So for this company's website, the primary way that users organized information was by target audience, not by service type. Upon learning this, I recommended that the website's information architecture more closely match users' mental models. Subsequently, I modified the primary and contextual navigation on the website to reflect how consumers categorized content.

The result? Consumers could more easily discover and locate the different types of services available to them on the company website before and after they arrived. Web search engine visibility nearly doubled. Site search engine results were more accurate. Task completion was more efficient, and sales increased over 20%.

I did not discount keyword research data. I did not discount web searcher goals. I did not discount site-search data. What I did do is use the keywords in the right context.

Understanding searchers, their contexts and environments, behaviors, and intentions is just as important as understanding how search engines work.

To me, search engine optimization is optimizing a website for people who use search engines. Understanding searchers, their contexts and environments, behaviors, and intentions is just as important as understanding how search engines work.

In my opinion, if SEOs are optimizing websites without considering query classification and searcher personas, then they are optimizing more for search engines than for searchers (technology-centered optimization). Query classification is crucial for long-term search engine visibility and conversions.


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