Understanding Web Searcher Behavior and Search Engine Optimization
By Shari Thurow | Omni Marketing Interactive | www.search-usability.com

When I ask online and direct marketers what they believe the definition of search engine optimization (SEO) is, in its simplest terms, they automatically say, “Making a site #1 in Google.” I understand this common perception. Because, classically, search engine optimization has been defined as designing, writing, programming, and coding (in XHTML) an entire Web site to maximize the chance that Web pages will appear at the top of search engine listings for targeted keyword phrases.

In other words, SEO is commonly interpreted as optimizing a Web site for search engines. Is this an accurate perception of SEO? I don’t believe it is.

In reality, search engine optimization is not optimizing a Web site for search engines. SEO is actually optimizing a Web site for people who use search engines. SEO professionals should understand how search engines work. And they should understand Web searchers – their goals, how they achieve their goals, and their motivations.

Searcher Behavior 101

As many direct marketers know, it is all too easy to oversimplify a process. Many direct marketing techniques have evolved and refined over many years, long before the Web came into existence. The same holds true for search marketing. People believe that understanding searcher behavior is simple and straightforward. When, in fact, searcher behavior is rather complex.

The logic seems to go like this:

  1. Web searcher types keywords in a search engine.
  2. He quickly scans search engine results pages (SERP) for most desired information.
  3. Clicks a link in the search listing
  4. Lands on a page containing desired information.
  5. Makes a purchase.

Even if site visitors do not make an immediate purchase, the site has a positive brand impact. A Web page cannot possible be of “poor quality” if it achieves a top-10 search engine position, right?

I wish searcher behavior were that simple. A positive brand impact can be reinforced or disappear with only one click. In fact, transactional queries are the least common type of search engine query. Additionally, “transactional” does not necessarily mean that a person wishes to make a purchase. Transactional queries are ones in which searchers want to perform some sort of activity, such as watching a video or downloading software. Buying is only one type of transactional goal. Therefore, buying behavior, via Web search, is far less common than one might imagine.

Informational queries are the most common type of search engine query. When a Web searcher performs an informational query, he wants to read more information about a topic. Many informational queries lead to transactions. Web searchers are not going to hand over personal information (name, address, credit card numbers, etc.) until they are sure a Web business is credible and secure. One page view will not establish that credibility.

Likewise, online shoppers compare prices, sizes, and availability. A single page view will not allow Web searchers to easily accomplish these informational goals. Therefore, the search engine spin doctors label this informational-transactional searcher behavior as showing commercial intent.

Furthermore, Web searchers re-find desired content all of the time. And they use the commercial Web search engines to go to specific sites that contain their desired content. This type of searcher behavior, where a searcher desires to go to a specific Web site, is called navigational behavior, because searchers are using a Web search engine to navigate to a specific Web site. Some of my search engine colleagues have told me that navigational queries are far more common than people might imagine – somewhere between 26% and 33% of all search queries.

Informational queries are the most common type of search engine query. Navigational queries come in a close second. Transactional queries are the least common type of query, and buying is only a small percentage of transactional queries. So why do many SEO professionals and direct marketers dismiss the most common search behaviors?

Maybe they are focusing so hard on optimizing for search engines only, and on achieving the elusive #1 position, that they forget about the very people who are going to make the final purchases – Web searchers.

Search Does Not Only Mean Query

Many marketing professionals and people in general consider the word "search" to mean only querying behavior. Unfortunately, point of view is very narrow minded because Web searching involves a wide variety of different behaviors, not only typing keywords into a Web search engine and clicking on the “Search” button.

Web searchers perform many different search tasks that evolve over time. After a Web searcher types in a keywords into the search box and clicks “Search”, he will either read or scan search results to see which listings best match the query. Or he will just click on the first listing as a frame of reference for future queries. If the search results, and the frame of reference, are unsatisfactory, the Web searcher might refine the keyword phrases. Then, he will either read or scan more search listings.

Browsing the landing page and other pages on the Web site for further information is also common. What is the searcher doing after he clicks on a link in a search listing? He is probably not landing on a site’s home page. He is landing on a page in the middle of a Web site. So within one second, he must orient himself – see if he landed on the right Web site and the right Web page. Furthermore, Web searchers often pogo-stick between search results pages and Web sites to find the best answer to their questions.

Look at all of the search behaviors I just mentioned: querying, scanning, reading, refining, orienting, browsing, and pogo-sticking. Do online marketing professionals, including search engine optimizers, even consider accommodating Web sites for all types of search behavior?
As long as SEO professionals continue to obsess over positioning, they will continue to produce Web sites that are built for search engines only, not the very people who will buy products and services. Web search behavior should be a key component of any search engine optimization campaign. Is it a part of yours?

Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine optimization, Web site usability, information architecture, and Web design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," and the recently released “When Search Meets Web Usability.”
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