How Do Users Search — The Definitive Guide to understanding keywords

For a long time, SEO and content writers have relied on three well-documented search types in order to inform the optimisation of websites and micro-copy. The majority of digital marketers will be familiar with the trusty Transactional, Informational and Navigational searches. These three main archetypes provide enough distinction to clearly define user journeys, landing pages and content curation.

The syntax of search has fascinated me for many years (proud language nerd right here) and I have spent a lot of my R&D time trying to figure out just how users navigate around their particular needs via the medium of search engines.

Firstly, and before I go into the subtypes of searches, I think it’s important to define more specifically the nuances within Transactional searches.

Transactional — the difference between “buy” and “budget”.

For me, one of the main flaws with these three archetypes is that they fail to differentiate between what a user intends to do and what filters they are applying to their search (more like a facet applied in a taxonomy in the latter).

Consider the difference between the term “buy”, which shows intent to consider making a purchase, and “cheap” which is a variable in defining the budget towards an intended purchase.

In this context “buy” is an active verb. It tells us that the agent has the intent to perform an action (either in the present or in the future).

“Cheap” suggests that an action will be performed only if the variable (lower budget) can be met.

These searches are at different stages in the user journey and the “cheap” search, which expands on the original action, provides opportunities for retailers.

We want buyers who are at the point of purchase, but we don’t get a lot of qualitative information from the “buy” search. With the “cheap” search, we get the invaluable addition of a variable that the user requires us to meet for them to be able to complete their purchase.

So from this reasoning, we get Informational, Navigational, and two variations of Transactional (conversion action intended and define variables).

Examples of the two core Transactional types would be-

“Buy shoes” = intended conversion

“Cheap shoes” = define variable

Understand Search for better conversion optimisation

Comparative and Subjective Searches

Another really common form of search is Comparative (X vs Y), which would fall under the Informational category. You could argue that there is implicit intent to purchase if a user is pitting one product against another, but it’s really a fact-finding mission at this stage. Which of X or Y is better suited to my needs. Once I have established this, I might then consider a purchase.

Comparative searches will often be brand specific; comparing two brand names in an attempt to find out which one is more suitable.

Comparative should not, however, be confused with Subjective searches, which actually use terms like “best”. Comparative searches (confusingly) usually don’t contain these adjectives, even though they are trying to determine which of two or more products is best.

Subjective is different and, in literary terms, relies on opinion rather than fact. The subjective assessment of one product as better than another is completely relative to an individual. Things can be more suited to one person than to another and the subtle nuances that affect this suitability are difficult to understand, record and duplicate.

That’s why subjective searchers rely heavily on word of mouth, review sites and peer-created recommendations. They may get a results page of pushy paid ads but they will often bypass these for trusted sources such as TripAdvisor, Reevoo, Which?, Trustpilot and aggregate rating data in knowledge panels or SERPs entries.

Other Informational Searches

There are plenty of other informational searches but here are a few to get your content creators thinking.

Brand Exact Match — Dependent on the intent of the user, these searches fall into either the Navigational or Informational category. We have all typed the name of a site into the search bar as a means of quickly navigating to a site we intend to visit, hence Navigational.

But what if the user is actually trying to find out about a company before visiting the site? If the prospect is looking for reviews or aggregate rating data they may qualify their search with ‘(BRAND NAME) + reviews’, but they may not. It can be difficult to understand the intent behind an exact brand search that is performed without a qualifier; there are ways to try and determine intent but that’s for another post.

Brand Indirect — Searches which lead to a conversion away from the main website. Often this is because the user has a preferred supplier.

Amazon is most likely your direct conversion enemy here as subscribers to the mass distribution giant don’t have to pay standard delivery fees and can get expedited shipping. The model is almost flawless in my opinion.

Their customer service engenders trust in their users and it’s almost too easy with One Click purchase functionality. Users are beginning to bypass Google in favour of Amazon’s internal search function for product queries; a feat not attained by any other FMCG distributor.*

The older generation especially may also have preferred suppliers such as M&S and John Lewis. They will buy your product indirectly because they trust the longevity of the business or have had a positive previous brand encounter.

Reward-based models will also throw additional complication into the mix; Boots Points I am looking at you here!

Understanding which searches are leading users to your site or products, or your competitors, can help to maximise on conversion rate optimisation. If I know what a user is looking for I can attempt to make their online journey less convoluted and establish trust.

I hope you enjoyed reading and that this provides you with some actionable insight. You can get in touch with Ryan Anthoney at 3Sixty if you want to find out more about the work we do with analytics & SEO.

Coming soon.. Mapping User Journeys to Search Types.