Search process

Searching for things on the web has become so routine for most people that they probably don't even realize that they're following a regular process.

The search process goes like this:

  1. Enter a query.
  2. Get results back.
  3. Scan for relevant results.
  4. View a result or two.
  5. Refine my query, if needed.

People repeat this process until some need is met or abandoned.

There are two important aspects of a search query: intent and satisfaction. The need or goal of a search query is expressed as intent and can be inferred based on the terms used and the structure of the query. Satisfaction comes when the goal, however small, is acheived.

3 types of search queries

Search query type Objective
Informational Find data or information about a topic.
Navigational Get to a specific, known website or URL.
Transactional Take the first step in a series towards acquiring some resource.

Categorizing searches into these goal-based groups gives us a glimpse into the intent behind a user's search. Analysis and classification of search phrases is useful when planning an information architecture, a content strategy, or an SEO strategy.

To get more clarity about user intent, we can compare search phrases with the sub-categories of each query type.

Informational (I) sub-categories

  • Directed (I,D) – I want specific information.
    • Closed (I,D,C) – I want the one, unambiguous answer to a specific question.
    • Open (I,D,O) – I want the answers to a specific question covering more than one topic.
  • Undirected (I,U) – I want everything on this topic.
  • List (I,L) – I want a list of things on this topic.
  • Find (I,F) – I'm looking for a real world service or product that can be obtained.
  • Advice (I,A) – I'm looking for advice or suggestions.

Navigational (N) sub-categories

  • Navigational to Transactional (N,T) – I want a URL that is transactional. (Doesn't seem very useful as a category.)
  • Navigational to Informational (N,I) – I want a URL that is informational. (Also doesn't seem very useful as a category.)

Transactional (T) sub-categories

  • Obtain (T,O) – I want to obtain a specific resource or object.
    • Online (T,O,O) – I want a resource I will get online.
    • Offline (T,O,F) – I want a resource or object I will get offline.
  • Download (T,D) – I want to find a specific file to download.
  • Results (T,R) – I want a resource that can be found directly on the results page.
    • Links (T,R,L) – I want a resource that appears in the title, summary, or URL of a result.
    • Other (T,R,O) – I want a resource that appears somewhere other than in the the title, summary, or URL of a result.
  • Interact (T,I) – I want to interact with a specifc resource or program.

Hierarchy adapted from Determining the informational, navigational, and transactional intent of Web queries (2007)

Additional source: Query classification; understanding user intent