3 Search Types All SEOs Should Know

Common wisdom, supported by various research projects, has identified three primary types of searches: navigational, informational, and transactional. All of the major web search engines try to detect which type of search a user is performing by analyzing the query and attempting to determine intent, to better accommodate common searcher behaviors in their search results pages.

For example, in Google, if keyword data indicates that a specific keyword phrase is a navigational query, search engines will put a link to an official company website home page in the first position, often with supplemental Sitelinks.

A navigational query is a keyword search in which the searcher wishes to go to a specific website, or a web page on a specific site. In other words, with a navigational query, searchers are using a web search engine to navigate (go to) a website. Navigational queries are far more common than previously reported. In fact, at the 2009 Stockholm Search Marketing Expo, Peter Maxmin, Director for Online and Bing Search EMEA, reported that approximately 33% of Bing queries are navigational. And some of my sources at Yahoo told me recently that over 30% of Yahoo queries are navigational as well.

What does that mean to us, as search engine optimization (SEO) professionals? Is it enough for us to accommodate navigational, informational, and transactional queries? During my ongoing research on searcher behaviors, I discovered more types of searches that, I believe, we SEOs should know. Here are some of them.

Ad hoc search

An ad hoc search is one that SEOs are probably the most familiar with, even though we might not know the label for it. With an ad hoc search, the searcher’s goal is to find as many relevant documents as possible about a topic, as the need arises. An ad hoc search is informational in nature, since searcher is on a “fishing expedition” for information about a subject. The searcher might or might not have previous knowledge about the topic but wants to read or learn more about it.

For example, suppose a searcher wishes to purchase a new digital camera but does not know what brand or type to purchase. The searcher might want to read reviews about different digital cameras before making a purchase. Some keyword phrases he/she might type into the search box can include:

  • digital cameras
  • types of digital cameras
  • digital camera reviews
  • best digital cameras

The searcher probably does not want to go to a specific website at this time. The searcher is relying on the search engine to deliver many relevant documents (with corresponding links/URLs), and he will browse those documents to learn more about this topic.

Known-item search

A known-item search is similar to an ad hoc search but the target of the search is a particular document, or a small set of documents, that the searcher knows to exist and wants to find again (definition from Ellen M. Voorhees, National Institute of Standards and Technology, available in the paper Overview of TREC 2003). In other words, with a known-item search, the searcher knows a particular web page exists but does not always know or remember where it is.

Or, interestingly enough, the searcher might know where the web page is but finds it easier to type all or part of the URL into the search box rather than the address bar. Why? Because many people find it is easier to type in all or part of a URL into Google (for example) rather than the full URL. In fact, in 2006, 17% of Google mobile queries were URLs, indicating that searchers knew which websites they wished to visit (see A Large Scale Study of Wireless Search Behavior:
Google Mobile Search
for more info).

Here are some keyword phrases that indicate that a person is exhibiting site finding behavior:

  • google adwords login
  • Beyonce website home page
  • official Star Trek site

In other words, labeling a home page (in the title tag, heading and even the meta-tag description) is very important for site finding queries.

Named page search

With a named page search, the web searcher wishes to go to a specific page within a website, a page that the searcher recalls seeing or visiting at a previous time. As an SEO professional, I often test the effectiveness of site optimization by doing named page searches.

For example, many SEOs use Google AdWords’ keyword research tool, but they don’t always bookmark it or remember it when using a different person’s computer. So they might type the following keyword phrase into the search box:

google adwords keyword research tool

Clearly, this searcher wants to go directly to specific web page on Google’s website. But I also like to do some advanced queries to see how well or poorly clients and competitors are optimizing their own sites. The queries I type use the following formats:

  • [keyword phrase] [company/organization name or abbreviation]
  • [keyword phrase] [part of URL with and without the .com or TLD]
  • [keyword phrase] site:www.example.com

So if I am looking to see how well the National Cancer Institute has optimized its site, using the above example, I might try the following queries:

  • breast cancer treatments nci
  • breast cancer tests cancer.gov
  • “breast cancer screening” site:www.cancer.gov (with and without the quotes)

If inappropriate pages appear in search results, then I know that pages need to be optimized more effectively.

As I continue to research, label, test and verify web searcher behaviors, I continually encounter these types of searches. As you can see, some of these searcher behaviors have overlapping definitions, which can be confusing. Nevertheless, I maintain a list of different types of searcher goals so I can accommodate them in all of my client websites. Which searcher behaviors do you commonly encounter, and how well does your site accommodate those behaviors?


About The Author

Shari Thurow
Shari Thurow 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).