Commercial Intent & Web Search Behaviors

When searchers use a web search engine to perform an action online, the search query is usually classified as a transactional search. Transactional searches are the least common type of search query, less common than navigational or information-seeking queries. And only a percentage of transactional queries are specific to the buying process.

So if the least common query type is a transactional query, how should web site owners and SEOs allocate time, resources, and budgets to other types of queries? What’s the “ideal” strategy to capture searchers attention regardless of the type of query they’re using?

Search engine reps have been talking about commercial intent for a number of years now. And commercial intent encompasses all three types of search engine queries: navigational, informational, and transactional. Because, realistically, most web searchers do not go from zero to “I have to buy that,” with a single query. Many web searchers try a variety keywords and keyword combinations before they make a purchase.

Commercial intent via informational and navigational queries

As many SEO professionals already know, many web searchers perform informational queries before making a purchase, especially if the desired product/service is a high-priced item. Here are some examples:

Suppose a web searcher wants to get health insurance for his family. He is not going to blindly take Google’s or Bing’s interpretation of “best” (i.e. the listing in the #1 position), but he might click on that first link to establish a frame of reference. Let’s be frank here—every health insurance company and affiliate will market their healthcare plan as being the “best.” The interpretation of “best” is entirely from the searcher’s point of view. Therefore, the searcher will probably do a variety of keyword searches to determine: (a) what types of health insurance plans are available and (b) the costs associated with each plan.

The keywords associated with these queries clearly show informational intent. When a web searcher wishes to see a list of items and associated features, search engines interpret user intent as informational.

Here is another example. Many online shoppers research their desired products/services online before making a purchase offline. I commonly observe this among users who wish to buy high-ticket items such as large piece of furniture or a car. These shoppers will not buy the sofa or the car without trying it out first, in person. But they research online to see: (a) what is available, (b) if their specific car/sofa/etc. is available, and (c) where they can buy it nearby.

Again, many of the keyword searches associated with these goals communicate informational intent. A question word such as “where” or “how” is a strong indication of informational intent.

Finally, in my last column, Optimizing for Re-Finding Search Behavior, I described a web searcher who looks up the phone number to her local pharmacy every 6 to 8 weeks in order to refill her diabetes-treatment supplies. Her intent (refill diabetes supplies) is clearly transactional. But her keywords are not. They are navigational keywords.

So, as you can see, commercial intent is not so easy to interpret from a list of the keyword phrases, even the most popular ones.

Search engines and commercial intent

Search engines have a tough job. Not only must they correctly identify searcher intent and deliver relevant search results, they must also associate specific keywords and keyword phrases with searcher intent.

Can search engines truly identify commercial searcher intent? I am not so sure they can. Commercial intent certainly encompasses the 3 known query types: navigational, informational, transactional. And many keywords can be reasonably assigned to navigational intent (such as a company name or known brand) or informational intent (question words).

However, some search results are accurate. Some search results are not. What do you think? Are search engines reasonably interpreting your commercial goals? Me, personally? I believe the search engines have a long way to go. Though log file analysis can and does yield useful data, I do not think it is enough to interpret commercial intent.

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

Related Topics: Channel: Content | 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).

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • nickstamoulis

    Hi Shari – I agree with you, the search engines do have much work to do for a better job to clean up navigational, informational and transactional searches…

  • Stupidscript

    The only way a PPC buyer might segregate their bids to capitalize on the various search classifications is by working within their own historical traffic data to define and then classify the terms used by those who visit their sites. In the business I support, legal services, we see that short tail queries (“attorney”, “lawyer”, etc.) are nearly always informational, and long tail queries (“beverly hills defense attorney”, “criminal defense lawyer in los angeles”, etc.) and brand name queries are nearly always transactional. Undoubtedly this is not the case in all industries.

    Your statement at the beginning of this article that commercial intent “encompasses all three types of queries” … which by definition makes the three classifications virtually indistinguishable (they are ALL transactional, if commercial intent can be assumed from any of them) … is curious.

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding your point. It seems to me that commercial intent would be restricted to ONLY transactional classification, with informational and navigation classes being composed of discrete, non-commercial queries … for the purposes of gathering information or for navigating … not for performing transactions.

    I fail to notice any difference in how the search engine SERPs are presented in this regard. Although it would make sense that they are attempting to divine and classify queries, the SERPs are always a mix of informational, navigational and transactional links … unless the search is for a product number or name, in which case the SERPs become much more transaction-oriented.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Stupidscript-

    I do appreciate your comments.

    Well, normally I don’t do this as a response, but I am going to. It is clear to me that you are misunderstanding the 3 different types of Web searches. My new book, When Search Meets Web Usability, will help you understand query classification much better. Trust me….you are misunderstanding more than you might realize. Do not take it personally. Most people don’t understand them.

    For example, you are stating that “beverly hills defense attorney” is nearly always transactional. No, it is an informational query, clearly an informational query. Brand name queries? Those tend to be navigational queries because users usually want to go to a specific Web site.

    If you want to know how search engines modify listings to accommodate these query types…well? That information is in the book, in multiple chapters. That is why I wrote it, because search engine marketers really don’t understand searcher behavior, query formulation, and query classification. They honestly believe they do, though.

    And, with all due respect, I do not agree with “the only way a PPC buyer might segregate their bids…” statement. My firm usability tests all of the time. I’ve seen many, many inaccurate cause-and-effect conclusions based on Web analytics data only, keyword research data only, PPC data only, etc. My gut feeling is that this is a subject you just don’t understand, but should.

    Again, I do appreciate your comments.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide