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Searcher Behavior: The 4th Building Block of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Web search engines actually rank web documents based on searcher goals and behaviors. Does your site accommodate web searchers?

Web searcher goals: go, know, do

For many years, "organic" or "natural" search engine optimization (SEO) has been typically defined as designing, writing, coding and programming a website to maximize the chance that its pages will appear at the top of spider-based search engine results for targeted keywords.

This definition is only partially accurate, because search engine optimization is not only optimizing a site for the commercial web search engines. SEO is actually optimizing a website for people who use search engines, and this includes both web search engines and site search engines. The key ingredient has always been searchers—their characteristics and behaviors.

Now that the commercial web search engines have data about searcher behavior for the past 15-20 years, I have modified my approach to SEO to include a 4th building block:

  • Text component: Using words and phrases your target audience types into search queries. Matching searcher mental models. Providing a labeling system that communicates aboutness (meaning) to humans and technology.
  • Link/accessibility component: Giving both searchers and search engines user-friendly, easy access to desired content. Includes information architecture, navigation design, and technical architecture.
  • Popularity component: The number and quality of links pointing to a website. Think of popularity as a form of validation.
  • Behavior component: Accommodating searcher characteristics, intents, and behaviors.

Download 4 Principles of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Infographic.

Navigational queries = go

Navigational query imageWith a navigational query, a web searcher’s main goal is to go directly to a website’s home page or to a specific website page. The term navigational query refers to people using a commercial web search engines to go (navigate) to a specific website page.

Navigational queries are important to site owners because searchers who perform them genuinely wish to visit your site. Web searchers might want to visit your site to find specific information (such as your company’s or organization’s phone number) or to perform a transaction (buy, enroll, log in, and so forth). Regardless of the searcher’s final goal, many query sessions begin with navigational intent.

Navigational queries are more common than one might imagine, comprising between 10-33% of web search engine queries, including mobile queries. Clearly, a considerable number of web searchers want to go to specific websites.

Informational queries = know or learn

Informational query imageAn informational query is one in which the searcher’s goal is obtaining more information about a general or specific topic. Sometimes a searcher wants quick information, such as how to do something. And sometimes a searcher wants to delve deeper into a topic, and he is willing to do considerable research before making a business transaction.

Informational queries are the most common type of web search query, comprising between 48-80% of web searches. What do these numbers mean to website owners?

If a site owner wants to get and maintain long-term search engine visibility, then satisfying informational searches is crucial. All websites should contain informational pages. They provide specific content of user interest.

Transactional queries = do

Transactional query imageWith a transactional query, a searcher’s main goal is to perform some sort of activity beyond merely reading. Sometimes the activity occurs online, such as downloading software, watching a video, or playing an online game. And sometimes the activity ultimately will occur offline, such as purchasing bedroom furniture or going to the dentist. Approximately 10-24% of web queries are transactional.

Transactional queries are important to website owners and search engine optimization professionals because they both hope to capture searchers at a critical point in the buying process: right when they are ready to buy and provide personal information (such as name, address, phone number, email address, and so on).

Additionally, items such as videos, sound files, slide shows, games, and so forth can increase the stickiness of a site, encouraging site visitors to stay on your site longer and view more content. Popular and informative interactive items can also increase a site’s external, third-party link development, which has a direct impact on a website’s rankings.

In reality, the human element of SEO has always been an important part of the optimization process. Sometimes, searcher behavior is simple and sometimes it can be quite complex.

Sometimes searcher behavior is simple

Many search engine marketers and website owners base their entire search marketing strategy on the simplicity of search behavior. To them, the querying-to-purchase process is straightforward:

  1. Searcher types keywords in a search box and clicks "Search."
  2. Clicks on first listing in search results page.
  3. Lands on web page.
  4. Adds to shopping cart.
  5. Buys product or service.

See? Simple and straightforward. Believe it or not, sometimes searcher behavior is this straightforward. During field studies and usability tests, we often observe searchers click on the first or second search listing simply because it is there. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen calls this search behavior Google Gullibility. Unfortunately, some SEO professionals, brand marketers, and website owners alike rely on Google Gullibility as a major search marketing strategy.

Searchers do not necessarily click because they believe it is the best web page or website according to Google's algorithm. Nor do they click because they want to make a purchase from the first website they encounter.

Searchers often click on the first few search listings as a frame of reference for further research—to see what products and services are available, and to see what characteristics they should consider before purchasing a product or service.

And sometimes, searchers do click on the first or second search listing because they performed a navigational query, and the search engine delivered the most appropriate listings at the top.

The simplicity of searcher behavior—searchers click because it is there. All of the fancy-schmancy eyetracking data, keyword analysis, click analysis, and statistics seem overdone and even useless when the answer is, "Duh! Searchers look and click because it is there."

Nevertheless, seemingly simple behaviors are more complex than we might imagine. When we examine physical characteristics, usage patterns and the psychology of choice, all searcher behavior cannot be written off as simple Google Gullibility.

Sometimes searcher behavior is complex

When observing searcher behavior, you often see patterns emerge. For example:

  • Gender: Men scan search results pages differently than women do.
  • Search experience and aptitude: The behaviors of advanced searchers are quite different from the behaviors of novice and intermediate searchers. Interestingly, many novice searchers honestly believe they are advanced searchers, and there is nothing a search usability professional can say to convince them otherwise.
  • Device: Mobile search behavior is different from laptop/desktop search behaviot.

The list goes on and on.

One reason searcher behavior is complex is that there is no single behavior associated with searching. In fact, the word "search" has come to mean querying behavior only. In reality, "search" consists of a wide variety of behaviors. I like to think of search as the following equation:

Search = Browsing + Retrieval

To understand search usability, I believe one must fully comprehend the concept of berrypicking (See Marcia Bates' The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface). In berrypicking, searcher behaviors are not static. Searchers use a wide variety of behaviors to look for desired content, and these behaviors evolve with each perceived failure and success.


Findability = browse, search, ask

People locate and discover desirable content via browsing, asking (their social groups), and searching.

Gender differences, language and age differences, usage behavior, searcher goals and how they express these goals with keywords—all of these items are a part of evaluating how people search and why people search.

SEO professionals do not want pages simply to rank well. They want the right web page(s) to appear at the right time for the right searcher goal.

  • Is the searcher ready to buy? Then the SEO professionals should optimize a product or category page to appear at the top of search results or in a search ad.
  • Does the searcher want to go to a specific page on a website? Then the SEO professional optimizes a web page to appear for that specific navigational query.

Sound complex? It is complex. Many advanced SEO professionals study the various aspects of searcher behavior.

I have always found it odd when some of the simplest human behaviors are quite complex, and when seemingly complex behaviors are quite simple. Search behavior is no exception. The human element of SEO has always been an important part of the optimization process. Now, I have added it to my building blocks of successful SEO. Have you?

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