When Search Meets Web Usability: Informational Searches—What Can I Learn?
An informational query is one in which the searcher's goal is obtaining information about a general or specific topic. Sometimes a searcher wants quick information, such as how to do something. And sometimes a searcher wants to delve deeper into a topic, and is willing to do considerable research before making a business transaction.
Informational queries are the most common type of web search query, comprising between 48 percent and 80 percent of web searches. What do these numbers mean to website owners? If a site owner wants to get and maintain long-term search engine visibility, then satisfying informational searches is crucial. All websites should contain informational pages that provide specific content of user interest. Let's look at how to determine that a search is informational and how to ensure your site meets searchers' expectations.
Many web search sessions begin with an informational query and end with a transaction. People will not purchase your products and services if you do not provide them with enough content to make an informed decision, especially for high-ticket items.
For example, on an ecommerce site, searchers might be interested in locating something in the real world (such as a physical location of a store), or they might be interested in seeing a list of available items. Many product or shopping queries have a "locate" goal because online shoppers want to know where they can purchase a desired product. In fact, the plural form of a targeted keyword can be a strong indication that searchers wish to view a list of available products.
Category pages are a type of information page because they contain lists of available items. Figure 4.1 shows a standard format for a category page. Another category page format is an annotated list. The annotated list format can provide a stronger information scent because the annotation text can contain additional keywords as well, reinforcing existing keywords on the page (Figure 4.2).
Figure 4.1 A category page is a type of information page because it contains a list of products that searchers might wish to view and compare before making a purchase. For high-ticket items such as furniture, cars, and plane tickets, searchers typically visit many websites to gather information before buying.
Figure 4.2 A topical category page on the National Cancer Institute website. The annotated list format provides many opportunities for keyword placement.
Proper keyword selection and placement can make an annotated category page appear more topically focused to both searchers and search engines. In other words, the page format shown in Figure 4.2 is an effective format for people who query and for people who browse.
Let's take a look at some more examples of informational queries.
Example 1: Quick Facts
Search sessions can be long or short when a searcher wants information about a topic. Of course, if searchers want a quick fact, they prefer to make the search session as short as possible.
In Figure 4.3 on the next page, our searcher is traveling to London and wants to see what the weather is like. Notice that the top three search listings are not official company sites. Even Weather.com's listing is not in the top three results, meaning that the search engine has determined that the keyword phrase (weather in London) does not indicate a navigational goal. It is most likely an informational goal. The searcher is using Google to find out about the current London weather, not to navigate to a specific website.
Figure 4.3 A search engine results page for an informational query. Notice that the top positions are not dedicated to navigational queries. These search listings strongly indicate that this keyword phrase shows informational intent.
Searchers do not always show informational intent with their keyword selection. For example, in Figure 4.4, what type of keywords do you believe this searcher, a Manchester United soccer team fan located in England, will generate? Do you believe the keywords will be navigational, informational, or transactional?
Figure 4.4 Is this searcher's intent navigational, informational, or transactional?
On the surface, the searcher's intent appears to be informational. He can view the match schedule on multiple websites. He does not have to go to the official Manchester United website to view the match schedule.
However, this particular searcher typed the word united in Google and received the search results in Figure 4.5:
Figure 4.5 What the Manchester United fan said and what he did were quite different.
Even though the searcher stated that he wanted to see the match schedule, his web search query was for only one word, united. His actions did not match his words. He clearly wanted to go to the official Manchester United website to view the match schedule.
Moral of the story? To see such discrepancy between words and actions, it is very important to have some one-on-one, face-to-face contact with searchers. Observe what users do as well as what they say. Web analytics data will only show that this type of searcher wants to go to the official Manchester United website. The data does not show this searcher's informational goal. Field studies and exploratory usability tests often reveal searchers' informational goals above and beyond what can be inferred from web analytics data and keyword research tools.
Example 2: Questions and Answers
One of the strongest indicators of informational intent is a keyword phrase that is formatted as a question, such as:
- How do I get driving directions to your office?
- Where are the nearest parking garages near this restaurant [name]?
- What is the capital of Nigeria?
- What are your hours of operation?
- What does the abbreviation NMR mean?
Question-formatted keyword phrases present a great opportunity for multiple types of search engine optimization, particularly how-to keyword phrases. Searchers might want to see graphic image instructions and diagrams that they can eventually print. Searchers might also want to watch a video that shows them how to do a procedure. One way to see how search engines determine the best results for question-and-answer queries is to monitor search engine results pages to see what types of listings appear on the first few pages (Figure 4.6).
Figure 4.6 For many informational searches, there are multiple ways that your listing can appear on the first page of search results. Like web page listings, graphic image files and video files should be optimized in order for them to appear in the top search results. How-to files present a great opportunity to satisfy informational queries.
A natural place to implement keyword phrases in a question-answer format is a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section of a website. However, some usability professionals do not recommend having an FAQs section. They say that most users should be able to have all their informational needs addressed on main content pages and category pages, making the FAQs section unnecessary.
Nevertheless, users have questions about products, services, delivery options, hours of operation, guarantees, and so on. And users often format their search queries as questions. Can you imagine formatting a product page on an ecommerce site in a question-answer, question-answer format? That format would probably confuse users. And a question-answer format isn't really an appropriate format for a product page. However, an FAQs section of a website is a legitimate and accepted way to satisfy question-formatted informational queries.
In addition, a customer service or FAQs section is often more flexible than other sections of a website. If your customer service staff, or others who have direct one-on-one contact with your users, determines that customers and prospects keep asking the same question over and over again, adding that question to an FAQs page is an easy process.
Example 3: Lists
When searchers wish to delve deeper into a topic of interest, they often type keyword phrases that they hope will provide them with a list of suggestions and a frame of reference for further research. Sites that provide a topical list of resources, particularly annotated lists that easily validate an information scent, often appear at the top of search engine listings (Figure 4.7). Sections of a website that typically give a topical list of resources include Links, Resources, and Tips sections.
Figure 4.7 An annotated links page on a business-to-business (B2B) website. Notice that the page is a long one, and the site owners have clearly indicated that content is available below the fold via the bulleted hypertext links. The scent of information is maintained above the fold as well as below the fold. In addition, the repetition of important keywords helps with search engine visibility.
Another type of web page that naturally contains a list is a category page, as illustrated at the beginning of this chapter in Figures 4.1 and 4.2. One thing to remember about many category pages from a search usability perspective: The plural form of a query word should naturally occur on this type of page within the title tag, heading, locational breadcrumb links, and introductory paragraph (if used).
Individual product pages should emphasize the singular form of a word, with a few exceptions. One exception: If a product page contains links to other product pages containing the same word, providing a strong scent of information, then searchers find it acceptable to see both the singular and plural form of a word on a page (Figure 4.8).
Figure 4.8 This product page links to other product pages containing the word saw.
Another exception is a product page that offers a set of items, such as a set of tools. In this instance, the plural form of a word is a natural occurrence. However, a product page that emphasizes a set of items does not necessarily provide a good frame of reference for further research. Therefore, a product page for a set of items will not likely rank well for informational queries where searchers want a list of items.