Optimizing For Re-finding Search Behavior

Over the past year, I have been observing some of the day-to-day activities of web searchers. Of course, I want to know how these searchers discover and locate desired content via the commercial web search engines.But I also want to know why they exhibit specific search behaviors. Lately, one search behavior keeps popping up: re-finding behavior. I commonly see re-finding behavior for web search, image search and video search.

Here’s an example. One usability test participant likes to view funny videos. She wanted to show me a really funny cat video after she learned that I have a tabby cat. She did not remember the name of the video or the title of the video. But she did remember the search engine she used to discover the video (Yahoo! Video) and the keywords she used to discover the video. So she went to Yahoo! Video and performed a search. I watched her scroll through multiple pages of search results. She wasn’t using keywords to identify the correct search result. She was scanning the video thumbnails, trying to recognize the particular tabby cat in the video.

Clearly, this participant was exhibiting re-finding behavior. Re-finding involves content that has been located and/or viewed previously, and it is a more direct process than an initial discovery. Re-finding involves both recognition (is this the content I am trying to relocate?) and recall (where did I see this content before?)

Re-finding behavior is more common than many search engine optimization (SEO) professionals might imagine. Log files, keyword research tools and web analytics data rarely reveal specific re-finding keywords that direct observation, usability tests, and field interviews provide. All too often, I observe keywords that SEO professionals might believe show informational or transactional intent. Upon further observation, I see many of these keywords being used to re-find desired content. And re-finding, as a querying behavior, clearly indicates navigational intent.

Re-finding as navigational intent

As I mentioned in Don’t Forget SEO For Navigational Searches, people who perform navigational queries want to go to a specific web site or a specific web page. Re-finding queries are inherently navigational queries, because web searchers want to return to content that they have found previously.

Web searchers might have a difficult time remembering the exact keyword phrase used to find desired content due to work interruptions and/or the passage of time. Determining re-finding keywords is tricky because you cannot use web analytics data and keyword research tools to determine specific re-finding keywords. You have to talk to your users. Sometimes, refinding happens very quickly, within the same day. Sometimes, refinding happens months after the initial search query.

Here is an example:

One test participant gets prescriptions filled for a family member. She must buy diabetes syringes as well as insulin. But she doesn’t need to get insulin all of the time. She refills the insulin prescription only a few times a year, and diabetes syringes need to be replenished every 6 weeks or so. She looks up the pharmacy’s phone number on the web every time she needs a prescription refilled (Google is her current search engine of choice). Her keywords include the name of the pharmacy, and the city and state where the pharmacy is located. “I used to type in the name of the street in Google because it is so easy to remember: Main Street,” she said, “but Google keeps messing it up. I get the phone number right away if I don’t type in the street name.”

This searcher’s re-finding keywords are:

  • Pharmacy name (which, by itself, would only lead to the main corporate site)
  • City name
  • State name

Now, if an SEO professional saw these keywords in web analytics data, he might likely interpret these keywords as showing informational intent. Additionally, since this web searcher only wanted the phone number and got her desired information on the first try, the “time spent on site” metric might be interpreted as poor, since she looked up the phone number and left the site immediately. In reality, this searcher is obviously happy with the search experience—she keeps using the same keywords every 6 weeks or so.

Repeat queries can be an indication of re-finding intent. But keep in mind that search engines regularly update search listings to include new and updated content; to remove spam and removed content; and to accommodate personalization and relevancy feedback, among other things. Ranking changes slow the re-finding process.

Re-finding via the commercial web search engines usually does not occur with daily tasks. It is more common with medium-frequency tasks, such as the one I mentioned above.

Tips for optimizing for refinding queries

As I mentioned previously, I commonly observe re-finding behavior in web search, image search, and video search. Here are some tips to remember to help web searchers re-find your site’s content:

  • Since re-finding shows navigational intent, make sure your titles and URLs (web addresses) contain keywords. With navigational queries, the URL structure is very important. In fact, searchers who wish to re-find content often remember part of the URL structure.
  • For image search, remember to use keywords in alternative text. For those of you who do not know what alternative text is, in (X)HTML, it is the text placed inside the image tag. If a graphic image does not appear on a browser screen, the alternative text appears in place of the graphic image. Although alternative text does not help a page rank higher for web search, it does have an impact on rankings for image search. Captions can also help.
  • With video search, meta-tag content actually affects rankings in the video search engines. Ideally, use important keywords in the video title, meta-tags (keywords and description), and on the page where the video appears, whenever possible. If the website allows, make sure the video thumbnail also contains appropriate, keyword-focused alternative text.
  • Finally, talk to your users. Ask them to show you how they re-find specific information on your website, and observe them objectively. And if you cannot be objective? (Hint: the people who develop the site are not objective.) Then hire a search usability professional who is. Believe it or not, many of your users will be more than happy to help.

If you would like more detailed information on this topic, please read the paperRefinding Is No tFinding by Robert Capra, Mary Pinney and Manuel A. Pérez-Quiñones from Virginia Tech University.

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).