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Understanding SEO For Navigational Search Queries

Is your website optimized for users (searchers) who WANT TO GO to your website? Here's what search engine optimization pros should know about navigational queries.

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During search engine optimization (SEO) consultations, we search professionals often see and hear things that make our jaws drop. Even after years and years of knowledge distribution through newsletters, blogs, forums, and other forms of social media, we still observe companies making really stupid optimization mistakes.

Since we are strong believers in learning from mistakes, here is a stupid SEO mistake Omni staff commonly encounter: not optimizing a website for navigational keywords.

In This Article

What is a navigational search query?

When searchers use a commercial web search engine to go to a specific website or a specific page on a website, the search query is classified as a navigational query.

Google's Search Quality Rater Guidelines describes this type of searcher goal:

Navigation intent – Users want to navigate to a website or webpage. These are "go" queries: users want to go to a specific page....

The intent of a navigation query is to locate a specific webpage. Users have a single webpage or website in mind. This single webpage is called the target of the query. Users want to go to the target page.

Navigational searches are more common than one might imagine, especially on mobile devices. In fact, you probably perform navigational searches without realizing it.

For example, suppose you want to go to eBay to do a little shopping. How do you arrive at eBay’s home page? Do you:

  1. Go to the address bar in your preferred web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) and type in:
  2. Go to Google and type in the word “ebay” (without the quotes) and click on the first link in the search engine results page (SERP)?
  3. Use the search function in your browser toolbar and type in the word “ebay” (without the quotes) and click on the first link in the SERP?
  4. Look through your bookmarks and select the eBay option.

If you did numbers 2 and/or 3, you have performed a navigational query on a web search engine. You are using Google, or your preferred web search engine, to navigate to eBay’s home page.

Navigational keywords are words, phrases, abbreviations, symbols, numbers, and portions of domain names and URLs that web searchers use to go your website via the commercial web search engines.

For any SEO project, you should always make it easy for searchers to find your official company website.

Think about it—when people perform navigational searches, they want to go to your website. Why would anyone make that task difficult for web searchers to accomplish?


Home page as main point of entry

One of our clients recently purchased new content management system (CMS) software for managing a rapidly growing website. During the content transition, the HTML title-tag content on the site’s home page was modified to say, “Home Page,” like the following:

<title>Home Page</title>

A minor oversight, I thought, before the launch of the site redesign. However, when I contacted my client to alert them of this oversight, this is how the conversation went:

Client: “We did that on purpose.”

Shari: “With all due respect, when searchers want to find your official company website, they will probably type in your company name. So if you want to keep ‘Home Page’ in the title, okay. But at least change the title to state ‘Company Name Home Page.”

Client: “That is too long and messy looking.”

Interestingly, these statements came from a usability professional who wasn’t quite with the SEO program. In addition, many important keyword phrases were removed from title-tag content on other web pages.

The problem? The client’s new content management system forced the title-tag content and the primary headline (in this case, the H1-formatted heading) to contain the same content. Management felt the headings were too long and messy.

The results?

  • Few, or in some cases, no keywords in title tags.
  • Few or no keywords at the top of the web page (important for validating information scent).
  • Few or no keywords in the search listing.
  • Considerable loss of search engine traffic from people who wanted to go to this client’s website because searchers were doing navigational queries and showing navigation intent.

I like to use Inceptor's Pyramid as a visual aide to remind prospects and clients that the main point of entry on a website might not be the home page. New and repeat visitors might arrive from a search listing from a web search engine, or they might arrive from a direct link from another website.

Inceptor's Pyramid

Inceptor's Pyramid image

Figure 1: People often do not land on the home page when they first visit a website. They often land on the page in the middle of a site.



Optimizing for new & repeat visitors 

It is imperative for all SEO professionals to communicate the importance of navigational searches and navigational keywords to their clients.

Navigational queries can originate from both repeat visitors and new visitors. A repeat visitor usually finds it simpler to type in a navigational keyword or phase into a search engine and click on the link to the website...rather than type in a full URL in a browser’s address bar.

A new visitor might have seen a reference to your website on TV, a text message, a billboard, an ad… or the new visitor might only remember part of your domain name.

Removing navigational keywords, especially from a home page, often results in decreased search engine traffic.

Removing navigational keywords, especially from a home page, often results in decreased search engine traffic.

In fact, when this happens, you might see search listings from other websites (such as product review sites and local directories) appear instead of the official company website.

During search usability tests, I often observe users’ reactions to this type search results page. If searchers do not see the official company site within the top 3 search listings, they leave with a negative impression of the company site.

Part of the problem is content management systems (CMS).

“I have seen this issue in a couple of open source CMS packages where there is only one input box for the ‘page title,’ which generates both the meta title and the page headline,” said Randy Pickard, VP of Product Innovation at User Centric. “However, a benefit of open source is that a knowledgeable coder can easily over ride the default code and provide the option to have a unique heading and page title.”

Another problem is false assumptions about navigational queries.

In order to have your site listings to appear accurately in web search results, you will need to optimize specific pages on your site to accommodate navigational intent:

  • Company/organization name. The home page and the About section of your website should emphasize your company or organization's name.
  • Branded products. If you have an ecommerce site with multiple branded products? Make sure you mention the brand in the XHML title tag and somewhere near the top of the web page.

Don’t ignore people who want to go to your website. You might lose prospects, customers, and a positive brand experience.

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