What Is A Searcher Searching For?

Jared Spool

July 11th, 2008

On his Biznology blog, search expert Mike Moran (author of the great book Do It Wrong Quickly), commented on my recent article about how people search, Producing Great Search Results: Harder than It Looks – Part 1.

In his post, Mike makes some excellent points, including pointing to the seminal work by Andrei Broder, A Taxonomy of Web Search (PDF), which talks about three types of searches: navigational, informational, and transactional. He suggests that my theory that users just want a single result, not a set of choices, is flawed. He wrote:

In my work at ibm.com, I noticed that the most preliminary searches often were informational ones. Someone might search for “e-mail archiving case studies”—they don’t want to get just one. Now, sure, if you have a page on your site that lists every blessed e-mail archiving case study, that would be a great #1 result, but you usually don’t have that kind of aggregation page for every possible query.

Searchers would not want your “Content Management Case Studies” page as #1, even if that list included every e-mail archiving case study, because it also includes too many other irrelevant case studies. Instead, searchers would love a list of case studies that match the query. They could scan through that list and click several results, drinking in that practical information they crave.

I think Mike is correct, if you look from the myopic viewpoint of the query itself. Starting with “e-mail archiving case studies,” the fact that it’s a plural, implies that the user wants a listing. But, that’s assuming that the user really wants to see e-mail archiving case studies.

I suggest that we start earlier in the user’s day. It’s likely that the user didn’t bolt out of bed first thing in the morning saying, “I need to type ‘e-mail archiving case studies’ into IBM.com and see what I get!” There’s some line of thinking and behavior that started this process.

Why does a user want to see the case studies? Are they looking to see that others had gone down the archiving road before them? Are they looking to compare vendors? Are they looking to solve a specific archiving problem (such as regulatory compliance in the pharmaceutical industry), but don’t know how to describe that for a successful query?

In any case, I’m betting that the user would be much happier with a single link that answers their specific need than a selection of links for them to choose between.

Developers trying to make a great On-site Search experience have the problem that they just have a list of queries and a corpus of content. They have to create matches between the query list and the available content.

But when you step back to the original goal of the user and ask what they need to accomplish that goal, you come up a different set of content altogether. The problem with Search is that we force the user to specify their goal in terms of the phrase they think will most likely produce a reasonable result.

Mike is right that the results need to be relevant. (I’ll talk about relevancy in part 2 of the article.) That’s the problem with the Content Management Case Studies result — it’s not really relevant.

But I think he’s wrong when he says that users are sometimes looking for a list of content, if you look at it from the holistic viewpoint of the user’s goal. They may settle for a selection list because of the poor state of what today’s Search experience delivers, but I think that isn’t what they really want.

4 Responses to “What Is A Searcher Searching For?”

  1. Intelligent Experience Design » Articles » Search Goals on the Web Says:

    [...] today, Spool writes again on Mike Moran’s commentary on his first article, which counters this finding. Moran writes: [...]

  2. Mike Moran Says:

    Hi Jared,

    I totally agree with you that searchers *want* one place that answers all their questions, but if asked, they’d probably want the Carnac feature where their questions are answered before they are asked. :-)

    I understand what they *want*, but I don’t think that site owners can deliver on that desire terribly often. So, I guess what I should say is that there are some queries where a list of content is the best answer that a Web site can give, because there are so many long-tail queries that no Web site can have enough “perfect answer” pages to go around. In that case, we need the search engine to deliver that “perfect answer” page, which itself is a list of other pages. I know what they want, but a list of good results is probably the only practical way to handle queries that few searchers enter.

    I totally agree that Web sites can and should have “perfect answer” pages for all popular queries, which I’ve called the top-down approach in the past (http://www.mikemoran.com/biznology/Nov2005.htm). This is really a quibble over one small part of an excellent article, so thanks for the conversation. I’m looking forward to Part 2.

  3. Jeff Parks Says:

    Jared,

    I had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Moran last year on his previous book about Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization. If you’re readers are interested, they can find the audio and show notes here: http://www.iaconsultants.ca/index.php/2007/04/05/ibms-mike-moran-search-engine-marketing-inc/

    Cheers!

  4. Kendall Says:

    There is a single perfect answer result page on many sites, it’s called the FAQ. I do research so when I search, I generally want a lot of results, not just one, though I realize this gets away from your context of a site search somewhat.

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