Keys To Understanding Search Marketing & User Intent

Search engine marketers spend a large portion of their marketing strategies on keyword research. One method is to seek words and phrases that are most likely to be used by searchers to find a particular website.

Search queriesWhat may be ignored or overlooked is understanding the user intent behind these searches.

It’s one effort to provide pages that come up in search results for particular words, but a very different approach when you want to understand why they are searching and what they’re looking for.

An enormous number of studies and research has been done around the globe on search queries. They range from the stability of search engine APIs, to user intent, to SERPs accuracy and relevancy and understanding user goals in web search.

It has always been a mistake to think of search marketing as just a battle of data and algorithms. Understanding why people search is a valuable part of your online marketing strategy.

User Intent Types For Search

A popularly referred to study by Andrei Broder, A Taxonomy of Web Search, classifies web search queries into three classes:

  1. Navigational. The immediate intent is to reach a particular site.
  2. Informational. The intent is to acquire some information assumed to be present on one or more web pages.
  3. Transactional. The intent is to perform some web-mediated activity.

Sometimes referred to as a “known item,” navigational searches are those where we know the domain in advance ( There is usually only one “right” answer, and typically the search result is a homepage. For search marketers and content writers, navigational searches are the easiest to optimize for search engines.

We’ve learned that articles, forums, blogs and topic-specific directories are sought by information seekers, but it’s also not as simple to optimize without knowing in advance why the information is being sought.

Broder defines informational searches as wide (New York) or narrow (New York subway). To help with user intent, Google offers suggestions based on search term popularity, search history and other criteria.

Google search results

Transactional searches include online shopping, application-driven sites, forms, registration, file and video downloads, and any time the user wants or needs to interact with a webpage. From a persuasive web design and page optimization perspective, user personas, user testing, server logs and site analytics contribute to enhancing pages for accurate search results that meet user intent.

In other words, not knowing your target user and market weakens the chances of connecting to searchers. Or worse, they arrive, don’t connect and abandon the site.

Which of these categories of user queries is the most dependable?

Another study, The Effect of User Intent on the Stability of Search Engine Results added a fourth category, “Commercial,” when tried to determine how stable search results are for each type of user intent.

They tracked Google, Bing and Yahoo search results and discovered that “queries with informational intent appear to generate a result space that is much less likely to change than the result spaces produced by queries with transactional, navigational or commercial intent.”

Conversions Follow Good User Intent

As end users, we want to feel confident that our search query is an exact match. This is less likely to happen in commercial searches, where competition between e-commerce sites occurs.

Supply and demand affect pay-per-click listings, and changes in rank create instability of the search result space. The volatility of commercial and competitive transactional searches presents unique challenges to search marketers, who once again benefit from getting inside the minds of searchers.

One specific type of user query does not appear to be addressed yet, and that is searches by special needs users. When they go in search of information or want to make a transaction from a website, how can they know in advance the site is accessible to them?

We’re more likely to read about large e-commerce companies being sued for not being accessible to everyone more than we hear about companies that target special needs visitors.

Information Accuracy

Unfortunately, search marketing doesn’t always equate to credible and accurate information being placed on the Internet. Anyone can promote their stuff — and they do. How do we verify information credibility today?

Does authentic, credible content matter to search engines? You can bet it does, because not presenting accurate, valid content for specific search queries is a poor reflection on the search engine.

In addition to the intent behind search queries, it’s important to note that people respond emotionally to information, and our experiences with the Internet factor into our decision making. We base many decisions and choices on habit, memory, trust, consistency, credibility, expertise, accuracy and much more.

What’s often funny is when people refer to themselves as an expert or guru in their field, and then don’t offer information validating their claim. The World Wide Web offers an abundance of information suppliers, but far less in the way of expert evaluation of what is credible. The responsibility for deciding accuracy and credibility lies with the end user of the information.

When you judge information found on the web, emotionally you’re hoping to trust the author of that information. This is why spam email and text messages frustrate us. We haven’t established trust, nor do we likely believe the information to be in our best interest because it wasn’t well targeted in the first place.

Clearly there is denial on the part of some Internet marketers who insist on ignoring the value of providing good information to the correct mental models (i.e. people who desire the information). There is no value in link dropping in blogs and forums.

In forums, blogs with active user comments, LinkedIn group discussions and article-driven web sites, certain cues help determine trust in information: accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency and coverage. Moderated sites do well because they demand quality discussions by well-intentioned members (rather than self-absorbed promoters) willing to share expertise and knowledge.

How can you successfully create and market your web pages so that they stay stable in search results pages and convert to your readers, customers, mental models, user personas and accidental tourists?

One study, Factual Accuracy and Trust in Information: The Role of Expertise, came up with what they call the 3S-model (source, semantic, surface features) used in trust judgments. The 3S-model framework provided them with two sets of characteristics: information and user. Each of these criteria are factors in judging information trust.

Information Characteristics

  • Semantics (content) — accuracy, completeness, scope, neutrality
  • Surface (presentation) — length, references, pictures, writing style
  • Source — authority, website

User Characteristics

  • Expertise in information skills
  • Domain expertise
  • Source experience

Both experts and novices look for expertise in information skills and domain expertise and evaluate sources based on their own experience.

Source experience as a form of information judgment can be done passively or actively. Passive decisions are based on earlier experiences with the source of the information.

This means that if a user has a negative experience with a particular source, they may not feel the need to judge the credibility of the information. They may not be motivated to participate, be involved, etc. Again, consider well-known e-commerce sites known to ignore special needs customers, online forums and one-sided viewpoint sites.

The general public enters search queries with the belief that search results are accurate. They know that not every result will meet their specific need, so they rely on a wide array of criteria to predict and evaluate the right choice.

Successful search and social marketing strategies must include understanding how to create and deliver information that is judged to be accurate, trustworthy and authentic. Understanding user intent helps marketers and search engines present relevant information.

With the enormous volume of information available to us on the web, your competitive advantage may just be in how well you understand your end users.


Truran, M., Schmakeit, J.-F. and Ashman, H. (2011), The effect of user intent on the stability of search engine results. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 62: 1276–1287. doi: 10.1002/asi.21550

Andrei Broder, A taxonomy of web search; 2002, IBM Research

Lucassen, T. and Schraagen, J. M. (2011), Factual accuracy and trust in information: The role of expertise. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 62: 1232–1242. doi: 10.1002/asi.21545

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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  • Nick Stamoulis

    “The general public enters search queries with the belief that search results are accurate.”

    And that is why the search engines are so committed to cleaning up the search results. Having low-quality, spammy content rank well undermines the trust users have in the search engines, devaluing their product. I think that’s why Google and Bing put out so many free SEO resources. The better you manage your SEO the better their results will be.

  • Trond Lyngbø

    Excellent post, Kim!

    Understanding user intent is playing a major role in conversion optimization, the process of mining out the gold in the page view mountain and deep oceans of lost opportunities :-)

  • Trond Lyngbø

    Also, you just pinpointed some of the key ingredients in my own first contributions here on Search Engine Land. I guess we will se it live within a couple of days :-)


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