Search Behavior: The 4th Building Block Of Search Engine Optimization

Shari Thurow on
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  • For many years, “organic” or “natural” search engine optimization (SEO) has been typically defined as designing, writing, coding and programming a website to maximize the chance that its pages will appear at the top of spider-based search engine results for targeted keywords. This definition is partially accurate, because search engine optimization is not only optimizing a site for the commercial web search engines. SEO is actually optimizing a website for people who use search engines, and this includes both web search engines and site search engines. The key ingredient has always been searchers—their characteristics and behaviors.

    Now that the commercial web search engines have data about searcher behavior for the past 10-15 years, I have modified my approach to SEO to include a 4th building block: 

    • Text component: Using words and phrases your target audience types into search queries.
    • Link component: Giving search engines user-friendly, easy access to those keyword phrases.
    • Popularity component: The number and quality of links pointing to a website.
    • Behavior component: Accommodating searcher characteristics, intents, and behaviors. 

    In reality, the human element of SEO has always been an important part of the optimization process. Sometimes, searcher behavior is simple and sometimes it can be quite complex.

    Sometimes searcher behavior is simple

    Many search engine marketers and website owners base their entire search marketing strategy on the simplicity of search behavior. To them, the querying-to-purchase process is straightforward:

    1. Searcher types keywords in a search box and clicks “Search.”
    2. Clicks on first listing in search results page.
    3. Lands on web page.
    4. Adds to shopping cart.
    5. Buys product or service.

    See? Simple and straightforward. Believe it or not, sometimes searcher behavior is this straightforward. During field studies and usability tests, we often observe searchers click on the first or second search listing simply because it is there. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen calls this search behavior Google Gullibility. Unfortunately, some SEO professionals, brand marketers, and website owners alike rely on Google Gullibility as a major search marketing strategy.

    Searchers do not necessarily click because they believe it is the best web page or website according to Google’s algorithm. Nor do they click because they want to make a purchase from the first website they encounter. Searchers often click on the first few search listings as a frame of reference for further research—to see what products and services are available, and to see what characteristics they should consider before purchasing a product or service. And sometimes, searchers do click on the first or second search listing because they performed a navigational query, and the search engine delivered the most appropriate listings at the top.

    The simplicity of searcher behavior—searchers click because it is there. All of the fancy-schmancy eyetracking data, keyword analysis, click analysis, and statistics seem overdone and even useless when the answer is, “Duh! Searchers look and click because it is there.”

    Nevertheless, seemingly simple behaviors are more complex than we might imagine. When we examine physical characteristics, usage patterns and the psychology of choice, all searcher behavior cannot be written off as simple Google Gullibility.

    Sometimes searcher behavior is complex

    When observing searcher behavior, you often see patterns emerge. For example, men scan search results pages differently than women do. The behaviors of advanced searchers are quite different from the behaviors of novice and intermediate searchers. Interestingly, many novice searchers honestly believe they are advanced searchers, and there is nothing a search usability professional can say to convince them otherwise. Mobile search behavior is different from laptop/desktop search behavior. The list goes on and on.

    One reason searcher behavior is complex is that there is no single behavior associated with searching. In fact, the word “search” has come to mean querying behavior only. In reality, as I mentioned in Understanding Search Usability, “search” consists of a wide variety of behaviors. I like to think of search as the following equation:

    Search = Browsing + Retrieval

    As I also mentioned in the previous article, to understand search usability, I believe one must fully comprehend the concept of berrypicking (See Marcia Bates’ The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface). In berrypicking, searcher behaviors are not static. Searchers use a wide variety of behaviors to look for desired content, and these behaviors evolve with each perceived failure and success.

    Gender differences, language and age differences, usage behavior, searcher goals and how they express these goals with keywords—all of these items are a part of evaluating how people search and why people search. SEO professionals do not want pages simply to rank well. They want the right web page(s) to appear at the right time for the right searcher goal. Is the searcher ready to buy? Then the SEO professionals should optimize a product or category page to appear at the top of search results or in a search ad. Does the searcher want to go to a specific page on a website? Then the SEO professional optimizes a web page to appear for that specific navigational query.

    Sound complex? It is complex. Many advanced SEO professionals study the various aspects of searcher behavior.

    I have always found it odd when some of the simplest human behaviors are quite complex, and when seemingly complex behaviors are quite simple. Search behavior is no exception. The human element of SEO has always been an important part of the optimization process. Now, I have added it to my building blocks of successful SEO. Have you?

    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).