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.


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).