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The Art of SEO by Jessie Stricchiola, Rand Fishkin, Stephan Spencer, Eric Enge

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How People Search

Search engines invest significant resources into understanding how people use search, enabling them to produce better (i.e., faster, fresher, and more relevant) search engine results. For website publishers, the information regarding how people use search can be used to help improve the usability of the site as well as search engine compatibility.

Data from comScore provides some great insight into what people actually search for when they perform a search. Table 1-5 shows a breakdown of many of the major categories that people’s Internet searches fall into, based on comScore data for October 2008.

Table 1-5. Searches by market segment

Parent category name

Percent of total searches

Directories/Resources

16.60%

Retail

11.86%

Entertainment

11.54%

Services

6.63%

Education

4.59%

Conversational Media

4.04%

Government

3.87%

Health

3.38%

Games

3.26%

News/Information

3.06%

Hobbies/Lifestyle

3.05%

Business/Finance

2.94%

Travel

2.21%

Community

1.94%

Regional/Local

1.87%

Sports

1.78%

Technology

1.73%

Automotive

1.67%

Real Estate

1.43%

Career Services and Development

1.12%

Telecommunications

0.78%

Auctions

0.57%

Portals

0.56%

ISP

0.38%

Gambling

0.27%

Business to Business

0.25%

This shows that people search across a very wide number of categories. Search engines are used to find information in nearly every portion of our lives. In addition, user interactions with search engines can be a multistep process. Witness the user search session documented by Microsoft and shown in Figure 1-5.

Merrell shoes user search session

Figure 1-5. Merrell shoes user search session

In this sequence, the user performs five searches over a 55+ minute period before making a final selection. The user is clearly trying to solve a problem and works at it in a persistent fashion until the task is done.

However, it is increasingly common that search sessions of this type can take place over days. A 2007 study of e-commerce sites by ScanAlert showed that 30% of online transactions occurred more than 24 hours after the initial search (http://searchenginewatch.com/3626363).

This means people are thinking about their tasks in stages. As in our Merrell shoes example in Figure 1-5, people frequently begin with a general term and gradually get more specific as they get closer to their goal. They may also try different flavors of general terms. In Figure 1-5, it looks like the user did not find what she wanted when she searched on Merrell shoes, so she then tried discount Merrell shoes. You can then see her refine her search in the process, until she finally settles on Easy Spirit as the type of shoe she wants.

This is just one example of a search sequence, and the variety is endless. Figure 1-6 shows another search session, once again provided courtesy of Microsoft.

Health user search session

Figure 1-6. Health user search session

In this search session, the user has a health concern. This particular user starts with a five-word search, which suggests that she may have some experience using search engines. At 3:01 her search on headache pregnant 3rd trimester leads her to Answers.yahoo.com. After visiting this site, her search suddenly gets more specific.

She begins to focus on gestational diabetes, perhaps because something she saw on Answers.yahoo.com led her to believe she may have it. The session culminates in a search for first signs of gestational diabetes, which suggests that she has concluded that this is quite possibly the issue she is facing.

The session stops there. It may be that at this point the user feels she has learned what she can. Perhaps her next step is to go to her doctor with her concerns, prepared to ask a number of questions based on what she learned.

Our next search session example begins with a navigational search, where the user simply wants to find the site for the travel website Orbitz (see Figure 1-7). The user’s stay there is quite short, and she progresses to a search on Cancun all inclusive vacation packages. Following that she searches on a few specific resorts but finally settles on cancun riviera maya hotels, after which it appears she may have booked her hotel—the final site visited on that search is Bookings.occidentalhotels.com, and the direction of her searches changes after that.

Travel user search session

Figure 1-7. Travel user search session

At that point, the user begins to look for things to do while she is in Cancun. She conducts a search for cancun theme park and then begins to look for information on xcaret, a well-known eco park in the area.

Users traverse through countless different scenarios when they are searching for something. Search engines do a lot of modeling of these scenarios to enable them to provide better results to users. The SEO practitioner can benefit from a basic understanding of searcher behavior as well. We will discuss this in more detail in Chapter 2.

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