Understanding search intent

Understanding a visitor’s goals and responding with tailored ads and landing pages could transform your PPC campaigns – through higher click-through rates, lower bids and higher conversion rates. This post discusses 3 different types of search queries and suggests ways in which you can build them into your campaigns.

Three types of searches

Search queries typically fall into one or more of the following 3 categories:

  1. Navigational searches are driven by users searching for a specific website.
  2. Informational searches are driven by users looking for information online – this can take many different forms, from images to videos, news and reviews.
  3. Transactional searches are goal driven. Goals can be commercial or non-commercial.

research paper from B. Jansen et al. found that more than 80% of Web queries are informational in nature, with about 10% each being navigational and transactional.

Navigational searches

Navigational searches are driven by users looking for a specific website. They could be looking either for the homepage or a specific page on the root domain:


Navigational queries remain hugely popular with users. In fact, the 10 largest search terms in the US are all navigational. Searches on “facebook” top the rankings, followed by “facebook login”. Navigational queries also top searches abroad in the UK, Australia and Canada according to Hitwise.com.
Source: Hitwise.com, Top 10 Overall Search Terms for the 4 weeks ending 06/12/2010.

Navigational queries are easy to identify when they contain portions of URLs or even complete URLs. Studies have shown than many searchers type in portions of URLs into search boxes as a short cut to typing the full URL in their browser’s address bar.

 Search marketing opportunity: should you be bidding on your own brand keywords? And what difference can it make if you already are appearing at the top of search results for searches on your brand name? The answer is that if you don’t, your competitors could do it for you. Google AdWords allows advertisers to bid on their competitors’ name in 192 regions, including the US and the UK. Rivals could bid on your name in an attempt to build awareness of their own brand and lure your customers away. Real estate on search results pages is extremely valuable. Maximise your presence with own-brand campaigns.

Informational searches

Informational searches capture a diverse set of queries, from checking directions to learning anything and everything about cup cakes or playing the latest Lady Gaga video. The common thread across these searches is that information is the ultimate goal behind the search.

Informational queries often fall in one or more of the following 6 categories:

  • General knowledge queries aim to learn anything and everything about a given subject. They may contain questions words (such as “what is”), comparison words (such as “difference”, “or”, “versus”) and a diverse set of natural language terms.
  • Factual queries look for a specific answer to questions about the weather, time of day, currency conversions and more. Search engines have created custom tools to answer many of these questions directly from the SERP. See Google’s Search Features.
  • Problem-solving queries seek advice, tips or instructions. Look for question words (such as “how to”) and help words (such as “tips”, “advice” and “tutorial”).
  • List queries seek a collection of links or directories rather than a specific answer. Search terms in the plural form often fall in this category.
  • Resource-led queries can be focused on the media type (“images”, “videos”), the file format (“pdf”, “doc”) or the content type (“lyrics”, “recipes”, “reviews” etc).
  • Local queries always feature the name of a place, city or country.
 Search marketing opportunity: informational searches provide brands with opportunities to connect with people at different stages of the buying cycle. They are incredibly broad and diverse, accounting for more than 80% of search queries. If you worked within AT&T’s online marketing team and realised that searches around broadband speeds were popular, you could create PPC campaigns and SEO content around “ways to boost broadband speeds”, “broadband speed tests” and more. Providing users with value added content and tools is a fantastic way to keep your brand front-of-mind at every step of the buying cycle. Identify popular keywords in your industry and ask yourself how you can add genuine value. As not every search is a selling opportunity, prioritise the keywords you feel have the most commercial value.

Transactional searches

Transactional searches are goal driven. The purposes of these searches is to reach a web site where interaction will happen, whether paid or unpaid. Transactional searches can include buying goods and services online, registering with a new service, online gaming, illegal file sharing and more.

 Search marketing opportunity: transactional keywords convert well for brands. This is because users tend to be in the very final stages of the buying cycle. In other words, they have already acknowledged their needs, assessed opportunities and are about to convert. If you worked within AT&T’s online marketing team, you could reach out to customers in the final stages of the buying cycle with PPC campaigns targeting phrases such as “switch to at&t”, “at&t special offers” and more. However, I know from experience that transactional search volumes are small in comparison with navigational and informational searches. This is why brands need to engage with users earlier in the buying cycle to keep their name front-of-mind.

Keywords are clues to search intent

When brain-storming keyword ideas for your PPC campaigns, ask yourself where they would fit across navigational, informational and transactional searches. Choose your ad text and design landing pages accordingly – users in the final stages of the buying cycle will respond best to a page with clear calls to action. The keywords people use often give us clues about their motivations. Put their “search intent” at the core of your marketing campaigns.