A Simple Guide To Understanding The Searcher Experience

When search engine optimization (SEO) professionals talk about the searcher experience, they often cast their personal mental models onto the minds of searchers. Believe it or not, I understand why this happens. I think humans do this naturally, without thinking. We assume that others have the same, or similar, contexts that we have.

That thought reminded me of information architecture guru Peter Morville’s 3 Circles/Pillars of Information Architecture (diagram below):

Peter Morville's 3 Pillars of Information Architecture: Context, Content, and Users/Searchers

Used with permission of http://semanticstudios.com

In this diagram, Morville shows how and why we must strike a balance on each web project between “business goals and context, user needs and behavior, and the available mix of content.”

I wondered if there might be an analogous diagram for SEO, and I came up with this:

Thurow's 3 Pillars of Searcher Experience (image)

Contributors to a successful searcher experience: website owners, searchers, and search engines.

In order to achieve a successful searcher experience, all 3 of these elements need to be present and align beautifully. Let’s look at each of these items individually and see how each group is responsible for their part of the searcher experience.

Website Owners & Aboutness

Website owners have a very important contribution to the searcher experience: aboutness. Aboutness needs to be communicated to both searchers and search engines:

  • Do content labels (titles, headings, subheadings, annotations/descriptions, etc.) communicate what page content is about?
  • Do navigation labels reinforce a sense of place, information scent, and the aboutness of page content?
  • Do document labels (file name, URL structure, etc.) communicate aboutness well enough when search engines are not yet able to clearly determine aboutness from actual document content, such as a graphic image (GIF, JPEG, PNG)?

Aboutness is a term that few people know about or comprehend. Because of this “aboutness” ignorance, it is often skipped and/or misinterpreted during the web development, content creation, and search optimization processes.

Regardless of knowledge level, website owners and SEOs alike both contribute heavily to the searcher experience. Our responsibility is to communicate aboutness to both search engines and searchers as succinctly and clearly as we can.

That being said, now let’s look at another circle of the searcher experience….

Web Searchers & Keywords

Web searchers have a responsibility to communicate what they want to find. As a website usability professional, I have the opportunity to observe Web searchers in their natural environments. What I find quite interesting is the “Blame Google” mentality.

I remember a question posed to me during World IA Day this past year. An attendee said that Google constantly gets search results wrong. He used a celebrity’s name as an example.

“I wanted to go to this person’s official website,” he said, “but I never got it in the first page of search results. According to you, it was an informational query. I wanted information about this celebrity.”

I paused. “Well,” I said, “why are you blaming Google when it is clear that you did not communicate what you really wanted?”

“What do you mean?” he said, surprised.

“You just said that you wanted information about this celebrity,” I explained. “You can get that information from a variety of websites. But you also said that you wanted to go to X’s official website. Your intent was clearly navigational. Why didn’t you type in [celebrity name] official website? Then you might have seen your desired website at the top of search results.”

The stunned silence at my response was almost deafening. I broke that silence.

“Don’t blame Google or Yahoo or Bing for your insufficient query formulation,” I said to the audience. “Look in the mirror. Maybe the reason for the poor searcher experience is the person in the mirror…not the search engine.”

People need to learn how to search. Search experts need to teach people how to search. Enough said.

Connecting Searchers & Web Documents

Search engines certainly have a responsibility in the searcher experience. Not only must search engines correctly and accurately interpret searcher intent from often-insufficient keyword combinations, they must also accurately determine the aboutness of millions (or billions) of Web documents. And then rank those documents accordingly.

Search engine software engineers have a very difficult responsibility, as website owners and other Web professionals do not label content and navigation clearly, and searchers honestly do not know how to search effectively. Add to that the many, many unethical SEO practices that are misleading and that miscommunicate aboutness? Well, let’s just say that I have a great deal of empathy for search engine software engineers.

What are your responsibilities and contributions to a successful searcher experience…both as an SEO/SEM professional and as a web searcher? Can you objectively see your “Blame Google” mentality? Can you objectively and consistently communicate aboutness to both humans and machines? Do search engines misinterpret searcher behaviors and aboutness?

Think about it. The answers might not be as simple as we would like them to be.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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  • http://www.facebook.com/marcuscudd Marcus Cudd

    “People need to learn how to search. Search experts need to teach people how to search. Enough said.”

    I disagree. Plenty of products come with instruction manuals on how to use them properly. I don’t believe the search engines do an adequate job teaching searchers how to use them properly. Help is obscure. Search users don’t take kindly to the idea that the search engine has very little responsibility to teach people how to search.

    As a search expert I can talk to users about best practices for search, but I don’t own the search engines, nor is it ethical for me to claim I know how they handle every query.

    I think the average user is much better at using search engines than they were 2 or 3 years ago. I think it’s reasonable for them to expect a search engine that advertises better results to be much better at anticipating intent.

  • cjvannette

    “I think it’s reasonable for them to expect a search engine that
    advertises better results to be much better at anticipating intent.”

    Is that a dig at Bing? :) It would be a fair one. One of the searches I did during my Bing It On taste test was “seo blog strategy” (no quotation marks in the query). Google thought that I meant SEO strategies for blogs; Bing thought that I meant SEO blogs about strategies. Google was right; Bing was wrong.

    Of course, if I had just queried Bing with “SEO strategies for blogging,” maybe it would have done better. But I agree that searchers get frustrated when they have to think too hard about the right way to phrase their query.

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    Hi guys-

    I believe Google has some how-to-search items, such as:


    (Scroll to the bottom of the page)

    Chris Sherman wrote a book called Google Power.

    And I am a HUGE fan of Ryen White at Microsoft – he writes about exploratory search. http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/ryenw/

    I didn’t say search engine expert, as in SEO or software engineer. I think that search/retrieval should be taught at colleges and universities as well as high school. I had to take 2 required library/info science classes for my first master’s degree (one in American English, the other in Japanese). I wish I had taken those classes as a freshman undergraduate. I would have been such a better student and researcher had I known how to search more effectively.

    There are so many myths and misconceptions about how and why search results appear. Students honestly do not know how to critically evaluate search listings to accomplish their goals. As search professionals, I think we have a duty to teach people how to search as well as how to optimize…beyond this whole rankings “thing.”

    So I teach and lecture at academic institutions as much as time will allow me.

    Being physically handicapped these past few years (and very much on track to being able to walk normally again) has greatly limited my availability. I look forward to teaching and traveling again.

    I think the folks at Bing need to be pushed out of their comfort zone to genuinely improve their search interface. I see promise there (hey Ryen White is still at Microsoft; there is hope).

    I must respectfully disagree with you on one point, Marcus. I don’t think the average user is better at searching. Dr. Dirk Lewandowski recently published a paper about searchers and simple/complex search tasks. In his paper, he said, “Users tend to over estimate their own search capabilities in case of complex search tasks.


    I’ll let you all read the paper and tell me what you think. I keep a special file with all of Dr. Lewandowski’s and White’s publications. Smart men. Good research.

  • Bill Hunt

    Hi Shari,

    This brings back old memories. I did a presentation many years ago with a similar diagram. I did add an additional circle “business objectives” and found that these often clashed with the user’s and the website circles. You reference Peter’s “business goals and context” which often does not translate exactly to the web where I think some of the challenges occur.

    With the 4 circles – the that “sweet spot” where all 4 overlapped is where a companies often has the most success and the goal was to widen it by better matching the searchers interest with our content and from that we can satisfy business goals. To many people focus on making the website fit the search engine’s goals.


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