Don’t Forget SEO For Navigational Searches

During search engine optimization (SEO) consultations, we search professionals often see and hear things that make our jaws drop. Even after years and years of knowledge distribution through email newsletters, blogs, forums, and other forms of social media, we still witness companies making really stupid optimization mistakes.

Since I am a strong believer in learning from ones mistakes and the mistakes of others, here is my SEO stupid mistake contribution for this column: not optimizing a website for navigational keywords.

What is a navigational search?

When searchers use a commercial web search engine to go to a specific website, the search query is classified as a navigational search. Navigational searches are more common than one might imagine. In fact, you probably perform navigational searches without realizing it.

For example, suppose you want to go to eBay to do a little shopping. How do you arrive at eBay’s home page? Do you:

  1. Go to the address bar in your preferred web browser (Firefox, Explorer, etc.) and type in:
  2. Go to Google and type in the word “ebay” (without the quotes) and click on the first link in the search engine results page (SERP)?
  3. Use the search function in your browser toolbar and type in the word “ebay” (without the quotes) and click on the first link in the SERP?
  4. Look through your bookmarks and select the eBay option?

If you do numbers 2 and/or 3, you have performed a navigational search on a web search engine. You are using Google, or your preferred web search engine, to navigate to eBay’s home page.

Navigational keywords are the words, phrases, abbreviations, and portions of domain names and URLs that web searchers use to go your website via the commercial web search engines. For any SEO project, you should always make it easy for searchers to find your official company website. Think about it—when people perform navigational searches, they want to go to your website. Why would anyone make that task difficult for web searchers to accomplish?

Which brings me to the big SEO mistake…

Optimizing the home page for “home page”

One of my clients recently purchased new content management system (CMS) software for managing a rapidly growing website. During the content transition, the HTML title-tag content on the site’s home page was modified to say, “home page,” like the following:

<title>Home page</title>

A minor oversight, I thought, before the launch of the site redesign. However, when I contacted my client to alert them of this oversight, this is how the conversation went:

Client: “We did that on purpose.”

Shari: “With all due respect, when searchers want to find your official company website, they will probably type in your company name. So if you want to keep ‘home page’ in the title, okay. But at least change the title to state ‘Company name – home page.”

Client: “That is too long and messy looking.”

Interestingly, these statements came from a usability professional who wasn’t quite with the SEO program. In addition, many important keyword phrases were removed from title-tag content on other web pages.

The problem? The client’s new content management system forced the title-tag content and the primary heading (in this case, the H1 tag) to contain the same content. And management felt the headings were too long and messy. Result? Few, or in some cases, no keywords in title tags. Few or no keywords in the search listing. Considerable loss of search engine traffic from people who wanted to go to this client’s website because they were doing navigational searches.

Optimizing for new and repeat visitors

I believe it is imperative for all SEO professionals to communicate the importance of navigational searches and navigational keywords to their clients. Navigational queries can originate from both repeat and new visitors. A repeat visitor usually finds it simpler to type in a navigational keyword into a search engine and click on the link to the website, rather than type in a full URL in a browser’s address bar. A new visitor might have seen a reference to your website on TV, a text message, a billboard, an ad… or he might only remember part of your domain name.

Removing navigational keywords, especially from a home page, often results in decreased search engine traffic. In fact, when this happens, you might see search listings from other websites (such as product review sites and local directories) appear in place of the official company site. When I observe searchers’ reactions to these search results, they leave with a negative impression of the company site.

Part of the problem is content management systems. “I have seen this issue in a couple of open source CMS packages where there is only one input box for the ‘page title,’ which generates both the meta title and the page headline,” said Randy Pickard, VP of Product Innovation at User Centric. “However, a benefit of open source is that a knowledgeable coder can easily over ride the default code and provide the option to have a unique heading and page title.”

And part of the problem are people who make assumptions about navigational queries. For your site to appear accurately in web search results, you will need to optimize key pages on your site to accommodate navigational searches, especially the home page. Don’t ignore people who want to go to your website. You might lose prospects, customers and a positive brand experience.

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).