Keyword Classification: Understanding The “Why” Of SEO

As search engine optimizers, we want to know as much as possible about our target audience so we can deliver the best search experience. To accomplish this, we address the following questions:

Why people search - image

Without understanding the reasons why people search, SEO professionals will often misinterpret or improperly classify keyword phrases.

  • What are people searching for? (keywords/labels, file type)
  • Where are people conducting their searches? (location)
  • When are people conducting searches? (date, time)
  • Who is using the commercial web search engines? (target audience)
  • How are people searching? (desktop/tablet/mobile, query/browse/ask)
  • Why are people conducting searches? (goals, intention, motivation)

Keyword research tools, web analytics data, advertising data, and other resources provide us with some answers. However, for our conclusions to be accurate, we should also understand the data and resources in context.

For example, keyword research tools can tell us what people are searching for and the order in which searchers type in keywords. But keyword research tools do not provide a lot of context about each keyword phrase. Therefore, savvy search engine optimizers know that they must use other means to understand searcher context.

Common Mistakes In Query Classification

When it comes to keyword classification, I often observe SEO professionals place their mental models onto keywords without (a) understanding searcher context, and (b) understanding query classification.

Here are some examples.

Scenario #1

Web searcher Bob is about to vacation in Hawaii. He wants to check the balance of his frequent flyer miles. Is Bob’s intent navigational, informational, or transactional?

Many people answer this question incorrectly because they believe that the word “check” indicates transactional intent. However, in order for a person to check the amount of his frequent flyer miles online, he must go to a specific website and log in.

Even though the final intent is to do online activities (log in and look up frequent flyer miles), the essential step before these activities is to go to a specific website. Therefore, the query (keyword) classification is navigational.

Scenario #2

Searcher Natalie conducts a Web search for headphones. Does this keyword communicate navigational, informational, or transactional intent? Explain your answer.

All too often, the immediate and natural thought process is like this: “If I typed in the word headphones into Google, what does it mean?”

The problem with this way of thinking is simple. The second you think about what you would do and why you would do it, you are placing your personal mental model onto the searcher. The idea behind query classification is to understand searcher context, not your context.

So how would I answer this question? Here is my analysis:

(1) Ad hoc query

My initial thought when I saw this query? I thought it was an informational query, more specifically an ad hoc query. With an ad hoc search, the searcher’s goal is to find as many relevant documents as possible about available headphones, a “fishing expedition.

Headphones is a single word. Natalie did not mention brand, type, or any other qualifier word. This single-word query also leads me to believe that this is an ad hoc search.

(2) Transactional intent not specified

Natalie might want to purchase headphones eventually, but the single keyword does not specify whether or not she wishes to make the purchase online or in a physical store.

Transactional queries are ones where the searcher wishes to perform some Web-mediated activity. Since Natalie did not specify whether or not she wanted to purchase headphones online, this makes the keyword query seem less transactional.

Even if Natalie eventually planned on purchasing headphones, she might want to find out about the different types of headphones (over-the-ear, wireless, earbuds, etc.) and compare prices.

So before Natalie decides to purchase, she is finding out information about headphones before an actual online or offline transaction.

(3) Plural = possible list

When a searcher types in the plural form of a keyword, it is an indication that he or she wants to see a list of items. When a searcher wants to view a list of items, it shows informational intent.

Headphones is a word that can indicate singular or plural.

Therefore, I concluded that the keyword headphones is an informational query that might lead to an online or offline transaction – keeping in mind that the online or offline transaction might not be an immediate need or desire.

Granted, these are just my interpretations of the keywords. Had I observed Bob or Natalie in their natural search environments, I could determine more easily their searcher goals.

Card Sorting Analogy

As a website usability professional, I am fortunate to observe people in their natural search environments. Furthermore, I get to conduct usability tests with keywords. Many of my SEO insights are a result of ongoing usability testing.

One usability test I use to determine searcher mental models about keywords is a card sort test. (Please see When Good SEO Becomes Bad Information Architecture for info on the different types of card sort tests.)  Card sort tests can also help SEO professionals determine the best labels when optimizing web documents.

I recently attended a webinar presented by information architect and card-sorting guru Donna Spencer entitled Designing Usable Categories with Card Sorting. I discovered that Donna and I have the same experience with keywords and user mental models.

Card sort tests can be conducted online and offline (usually face-to-face). In her webinar, Donna explained some of the differences between a face-to-face card sort test and an online card sort test. Sometimes, Donna conducts face-to-face card sort tests in groups of three. The value of group testing is listening to participants talk through what they think.

She could observe:

  • Where test participants really disagreed
  • How test participants resolved the labeling dispute (if it were resolved)
  • The words that participants did not write on a sticky note or an index card

In other words, she often hears why test participants had an easy or difficult time determining a category label…something she might not experience by conducting the same test online.

When I observe users/searchers in their natural search environments and during usability tests, I often learn information that I do not get from keyword research tools.

For example, recently, I discovered that if I architected a website based on keyword research data, I would have completely missed the users’ mental models.

The keyword research data showed that the vast majority of search queries were by type. But all test participants mentioned their personal status (single or family) during the usability test. Consumers didn’t know the jargon for different types of services.

So for this company’s website, the primary way of organizing information was by target audience, not by type. Because of this, I modified the primary navigation and relevant page interlinking on the website.

I did not discount the keyword research data. I just used the keywords in the right context.

Missing piece of the SEO puzzle - searcher goals

Sometimes, the missing SEO ingredient is understanding why people search.

To me, search engine optimization is optimizing a website for people who use search engines. Understanding searchers, their contexts and environments, behaviors, and intentions is just as important as understanding how search engines work.

In my opinion, if SEOs are optimizing websites without considering query classification and searcher personas, then they are optimizing more for search engines than for searchers (technology-centered optimization). Keyword classification is crucial for long-term search engine visibility and conversions.

Is query classification a part of your SEO plan?


Broder, A. (2002). A taxonomy of web search. SIGIR Forum, 36(2): 3–10. Retrieved at

Jansen, B.J., Booth, D. & Spink, A. (2008). Determining the informational, navigational and transactional intent of Web queries. Information processing and management 44 (2008), 1251-1266.

Spencer, Donna. (2009.) Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories. Rosenfeld Media: Brooklyn, NY.

Thurow, S. and Musica, N. (2009). When Search Meets Web Usability. New Riders: Berkeley, CA.

Images from Shutterstock, used under license. 

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).

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  • Dicebat

    Thanks for sharing your insight, Shari. You also made a good point. I very often see sites that are optimized for search engines instead of the user. Fortunately enough, that’s the moment I get to fix it :)

  • sharithurow

    Hello Dicebat.  I don’t know what your first experience was with user-centered design and usability testing. Mine was a very, very humbling experience.

    It was an ecommerce site. I was dumbfounded when I observed users/searchers not do what I did…and I fit the client’s target audience (primary persona). So my personal mental model was inaccurate.

    I was also surprised when I compared the keyword research data with the final usability data. They didn’t quite align in the way I thought they would. 

    Very eye opening experience. I’m glad I had it, though. 

    I don’t expect SEOs to become usability professionals. But I do wish SEOs would work with usability professionals so that they can see if or when usability data and keyword research data possibly conflict.

    Thanks for the comment!

  • SEO 33

    Always insightful , Shari. I think people working with PPC advertising are much better understanding the logic in you article because understanding user intent is a must and because  
    they get instant feedback of changes they make and have the ability to test. Many SEO I meet are more concerned about keyword search volume and ranking. My advice to every SEO is sit with the PPC guys to understand the target audience.

  • sharithurow

    Hi SEO 33. Thank you for your comments.

    Hmmm, I wouldn’t conclude that PPC guys have more usability insight. Sure, they get data, but they do not necessarily get the data in the proper context. 

    That’s what happened with that last example. I had all of this data from web analytics, PPC ads, and keyword research tools. None of this data supported the fact that this industry’s target audience organized and labeled content by target audience.

    That was Donna Spencer’s point as well. In her webinar, she stated that she wouldn’t have the “why” without the face-to-face interactions.

    I would never architect a website based on PPC data alone. Context is so important. I agree with you — search volume and ranking seem to be more important to SEO professionals than other things. I think the result is designing, writing, coding, etc. for search engines, not searchers.

    Thank you again!

  • alexander zagoumenov

    Shari, thanks a lot for an insightful article! I do occasional keyword research projects and I agree that context and classification are very important in connection with volume and competition data from analytics.

    I’ve also done a few site focus groups and although these activities are very helpful, it usually costs the client a substantial sum of money. Although I’m not a fan of shortcuts, I have to resort to research shortcuts every once in a while to minimize client’s costs.

    One of those shortcuts is asking people at reception to fill out a keyword list that they would use to find my client’s business. This helps me to see what terms the actual target audience will use to find the site. Then, by applying the query classification I can break the lists further into valuable information for my keyword research.

    My question is: what other qualitative keyword research shortcuts are there, based on your experience? Again, I’m not a fan of shortcuts, but it’s great to have a few of these in your arsenal as an SEO, especially dealing with SMBs. Thanks in advance for your reply!

  • Mary Kay Lofurno

    Shari – Great article as always.  Agree with the query classification and searcher personas.. I have a different question as you know, Google just introduced its knowledge graph.  My dev director and I are starting to investigate the potential for coding into the family of sites we have where appropriate.  A technology we are looking at, opencalasis has an extension for one of our CMS’s [we use a few different ones]  I am told this technology has a ‘machine’ type card sort mechanism.

    So, given your comments above, especially about card sorting, its seems like if ‘query classification and searcher personas’ were not originally considered that the data fed and coded in to a knowledge graph [semantic web way] would be even more…flat..not sure if its the best word…

    Thanks, Mary Kay

  • sharithurow

    Hi guys-

    Alexander, I understand shortcuts, because not every SEO is going to run out and become a usability professional like I did (and it took years of classes and experience with mentors). But the one thing I do know about testing is that you ABSOLUTELY have to test people who fit the persona or profile. 

    If you don’t, you are probably not getting the right mental model. And another thing that is really hard? When you ask others to describe your client’s services? You might be leading them with your questions and your responses. Also, are you giving them the exact same scenario? We have to do that for the data to be accurate.

    Practice practice practice.


    Mary Kay, Google is a technology company. They treat their technology data as the Holy Grail, IMHO. When someone from Google touts search-engine friendly design? He/she is touting good for Google, not necessarily good for users (though Googlers preach that). I have conducted too many usability tests over the past 10 years that completely contradict Google’s data, like the one I mentioned in the last part of the article.

    So I would accept their data for what it is, but conduct my own tests to validate if what they claim is true for your websites.

    I do not want to give the impression that search engine reps are always wrong. They are not. I have validated navigational, informational, transactional intent many times over. 

    I’m wary of anyone who says to do something for the user experience when he/she doesn’t define it.

    Great questions!

  • Mary Kay Lofurno

    Thanks Shari – Yes, we are talking about testing the knowledge graph and semantic stuff with one of our content sites now as opencalasis has an extension for the CMS its on.  We also have a pilot on rel author running and planning them with the event & product rich snippets.  So we are doing that.  If you are at SMX NYC, lets try and catch up.  I hope all is well. Have a great summer. Mary Kay

  • sharithurow

    Hi Mary Kay-

    As an FYI, I am getting mixed results with the rel=author and the image display with author photos. I think the individual results depends on the industry. 

    Hope to see you in NYC, too!


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