How User Behavior Influences Search Results

If you wanted to research something—the musician Johnny Cash, for example—would you go to a search engine or a library? There are many studies on search usage. It’s safe to say that at least 50% of people now turn to search engines for information. That number increases for certain types of searches, such as shopping or health information. If you are young and grew up in the technology age, the likelihood increases. So our young person may try Google and type in “Johnny Cash” at first. But I doubt it.

Without boring you with the case study statistics and latest scientific research, we are, as a human race, getting smarter. Ten years ago, we may have typed the singer’s name alone, but today, we know better and so do search engines. Therefore, we might try “Johnny Cash movie posters” or “Johnny Cash collectibles“. Or, “old movie posters” and then drill down to individual names; or instead of “collectibles”, choose “memorabilia” or specific “old records”; or “vintage Johnny Cash” or we might search by year, individual name, song name, movie name, or lyrics.

As a site owner, how do you structure your information architecture for easy search? As a marketer, how do you know what words to optimize for and when you dig up the top used phrases, do you make a separate page for each one? Wouldn’t that make for a gigantic web site that will confuse everybody? Welcome to information overload.

Search engines are like mini-interviewers. We arrive looking for information and a search engine interviews us. Whether or not you’re aware of it, search results actually influence where you may go next. In a paper called Shifts of Focus in Information Retrieval Interaction, David Robins of Louisiana State University writes:

During the course of information retrieval interactions, users may change the focus of their attention to various aspects of their information problem. These changes in focus, or interaction shifts are the subject of this paper. This phenomenon is readily observed in mediated database searching, from which careful analysis of the dialog among users, search intermediaries, and information retrieval (IR) systems reveals changes of search/interview focus.

He talks about a shift in focus, which can occur at any time during the dialog between a user and the “search intermediary.”

This is user behavior that most marketers don’t consider. He breaks shifts into categories:

  • From broader/narrower/related terms to broader/narrower/related terms
  • From general topic to specific topical concerns
  • From topical discussion to non-topical discussions
  • From one topical/non-topical discussion to another
  • Any other unexpected type of shift that occurs in the data

Robins writes, “Although a user’s behavior may be intentional and rational, it may not be linear or appear logical”. If you know precisely what you’re looking for, the information tends to be more stable and focused. If your search query is not as well defined and more uncertain, so might be your search results. Marketers allow room for this by creating pages that are variations on a theme. Whether or not these “throwing darts and hoping to make a hit” pages actually convert is another area of study.

What if you didn’t need to come up with different search phrases yourself? Could search engines do the “thinking” for you? This was explored and presented in, If At First You Don’t Succeed, Let the Search Engine Try, by Jim Jansen, Penn State associate professor of information sciences and technology and Danielle Booth, information sciences and technology student and Amanda Spink, Queensland University of Technology, Australia.

They found that search terms in 22 percent of queries were reformulated or changed to better convey the information the user was seeking.

“They typically moved to narrow their query at the start of the session, moving to reformulation in the mid and latter portions of the sessions,” Jansen said. “It appears that the assistance to narrow the query and alternate query terms would be most beneficial immediately after the initial query submission.”

Their findings on searcher behavior helps us to understand why search engines are trying to find new ways to come up with automated search assistance systems, recommendations and query reformulation assistance, such as “Did you mean…” Interestingly, they also found that searchers rather stubbornly don’t ask for help because perhaps, “they are too focused on using their own search terms to find information.” Marketers may be falling into this trap as well.

Microsoft’s new Bing search engine is labeled as a “new Decision Engine”. Its technology hopes to help searchers make more informed decisions by being more intuitive. How is Bing reading our minds? They studied how people use the Web. Their research showed that two-thirds of searches required refinement or requery and 30 percent of searches are abandoned because the results were not satisfactory. They set out to test certain areas where they found that people are more likely to want assistance, such as health, travel, shopping and local business. They approach search as a series of tasks, similar to the way usability reviews are performed. Bing hopes to simplify tasks and offer insight during the search dialog with its users.

It’s true that in some circles “user personas” and their use in software and web site development are debated. However, we know for sure that understanding each type of customer is vital. When keyword searching, it may help to remove yourself from the picture and look for how different people are looking for what you offer. What do they call it? Do different cultures and age groups call your items by different names? Are there sales funnels and landing pages on your site designed for specific groups of people with different goals?

Success in search engines was never quantity of pages vs. quality. It still is not. Rather, search engine market success is keenly tied to understanding user behavior and this is becoming more and more obvious every day.

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 SEO/Usability Consultant for Cre8pc. Her work combines website and software application usability testing with a working knowledge of search engine optimization.

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  • Missmcj

    Hi Kim,

    I really like this post, I’m rather biased though! This is all about my PhD research so I’m pleased because it’s nice to see people interested enough to write about it. I have received help both from Jim Jansen and Amanda Spink (BTW she is far far from being a student, she’s a professor and a really highly regarded one as well!)

    I expanded on your post on my blog and I’ve also quoted you, so take a look if you’re interested.


  • Missmcj

    Correction: I misread, you didn’t say Amanda was a student :) Sorry.

  • nickstamoulis

    Hi Kim, This is great info and research…I am sure over time the 50% number of people using search for research will increase. I have not stepped foot in a library for about 14 years…since college…which is totally crazy to think about!

  • Kim Krause Berg

    @cj, I visited and ate up every word! Thank you :)


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