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Types of searches: transactional, navigational, informational

Types of Searches: Brief Summary

Users tend to turn to search engines like Google and Bing when they need assistance in navigating the world wide web and finding the websites, information, products or services they are seeking. To actually perform a search, the user will enter a search query into the box provided, and the search engine will then use the query entered to present them with the most relevant links and information, based on the search engine’s own methodology and algorithms.

However, searches can be separated into a number of different search types, with these search types differing from one another in terms of user intent, in particular. It is generally accepted that there are three main search types: transactional searches, navigational searches and informational searches. Most modern search engines are able to determine the type of search based on the search query entered and the format of that query.

Types of Searches: Detailed Summary

Search engines compete with one another based on providing the best user experience, and this means making sure users are presented with the information they are looking for, in the most convenient way. In the early days of the world wide web, search engines were mainly concerned with providing links to web pages, and search engine users were mainly concerned with finding web pages containing the information they wanted. Yet, this is no longer the case.

Often, modern search engine users are not looking for a web page, but instead looking for quick answers to a question, or for a product they can buy. Google, for example, provides featured snippets which offer what its algorithms believe is the best answer to a question, while searching for particular products will often bring up shopping links. To provide this kind of user experience, however, the search engine needs to try to determine user intent.

To do this, search queries are typically divided into three main types, which are as follows:

  • Transactional – A transactional search query indicates the user is looking to complete a transaction and this will usually mean buying a product, or paying for a service. These searches can be quite specific, such as “buy PlayStation 5”, which clearly indicates intent, but they may be more simple, such as a search for “women’s jeans”.
  • Navigational – A navigational search query indicates the user is looking to find a particular website, or find a particular company or brand. Often, the user will have a clear idea what they are searching for, but may not know how to get there without the search engine. Examples include searches for “Textbroker”, “YouTube” or “BBC”.
  • Informational – Finally, an informational search query indicates the user is hoping to find information on a particular topic. This could range from a search query seeking advice, like “how to bake bread”, through to more general information, like “when was McDonald’s founded?” or “what is the capital of Brazil?”

The major challenge for search engines is determining which category a search query fits into. In some cases, the intent of a query will be quite obvious, such as “buy easter eggs”, which is clearly a transactional search. However, some queries may be much more ambiguous. For instance, a search for “apple” could be in reference to either the fruit or the technology company, and it could technically fit into any of the three categories.

It could be intended as an informational search about either the company or the fruit, it may be a navigational search targeting the Apple Inc. website, or it could be a transactional search for either the fruit or Apple products. The search engine’s algorithms will then work to determine which of those user intents is most likely, based on the format of the search query itself, past user behaviours and any other information or data that is available.

Transactional Searches

Transactional searches are search queries which indicate a desire to complete a transaction or find information related to transactions. The transaction may be free, such as looking for a file to download or a registration form to complete, but they will most often be related to financial transactions, such as purchasing products or paying for access to services. Google calls these ‘Do’ searches, because they suggest an intent to perform an action.

A transactional search query may literally include a word like “buy” or “purchase” in it, or it may be more general. Similarly, it could include a broad description of a category of products, such as “mobile phone”, or a more specific product, such as “iPhone”. To target transactional searches, website owners should use SEO techniques on product pages. It can also pay to invest in sponsored advertisements and bid for relevant transactional keywords.

Navigational Searches

Navigational searches are performed when a user wants to visit a particular website. They may turn to a search engine if they are unsure of the correct URL to use, if they are unsure of how to spell a particular company or brand name, or just for convenience, especially if they have a search engine as their ‘home’ page, or if their browser is set up to automatically conduct a search when a query is entered into the address bar. Google calls these ‘Go’ searches.

As of 2020, all of the top five most popular search queries on Google are examples of navigational searches – “Facebook”, “YouTube”, “Amazon”, “Gmail” and “Google”. In all of these cases, the intent of the user is most likely to find a link to the relevant website. For website owners and marketers, there is no simple way to target navigational search users. Instead, you will need to develop brand recognition, so that people want to find your website.

Informational Searches

An informational search is a ‘Know’ query and is intended to find out information about a particular topic. These searches may take the form of a question, but can also be generalised queries focused on a particular topic. With this in mind, “how to create a website”, “how do I build a website?” and “website building” are all examples of informational searches, because they are all most likely to be entered when looking for information on website creation.

Google provides an information snippet in response to many informational searches and these results are generally taken from high authority websites, which have earned backlinks and which provide useful information. Therefore, the best ways to target informational search users is to create useful, high-quality content, which people want to link to, and then use search engine optimisation techniques within that content, in order to target the most relevant keywords.

Conclusion

Search engines attempt to provide users with the best possible experience and one of the ways they have evolved to do this is through attempts to automatically determine user intent. This results in most search queries being categorised into one of the three main categories – transactional, navigational, or informational – based on the search string itself, its format, and previous behaviour from people who have performed a similar search in the past.


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