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What search queries reveal about user intent

Notes on my introductory research into how to classify search queries based on informational, navigational, and transactional intent.


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 achieved.

3 types of search queries

Search query typeObjective
InformationalFind data or information about a topic.
NavigationalGet to a specific, known website or URL.
TransactionalTake 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


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