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April 23, 2013

Asking the Right Questions in Search

Tyler Reinhard Blog Post - Experience MattersA couple months ago I wrote about the semantic web and how the future of search will incorporate methods of extracting the underlying meaning of data.  Semantic search is only part of the equation, however. 

To get the right answers, we need to ask the right questions.  We (as humans) aren’t always good at doing that (although my friends at Blue Door do a pretty awesome job).  To truly provide the right information at the right time and in the right way, search engines are beginning add other approaches to the mix to better understand our search queries.  Semantic analysis, among other things, uses search history to understand searcher intent, and keyword proximity to understand contextual meaning.

In a recent blog post over at SEOMoz, Peter Meyers highlights two other parts of today’s search engine – social and sentiment.  You likely have some idea of how the social part works – using social signals to further contextualize the search query and segment the results that are likely to be what we’re looking for.  As Peter points out, however, we need to be careful about how much we blindly rely on social signals – it’s easy to apply them a bit too heavily to our search results, and what you end up with is a negative impact on relevance.  Sentiment analysis aims to further refine the context of our search queries by extracting the emotional tone of the text through the use of natural language processing.  This can help a search engine identify the important parts of a search query, and in turn provide more accurate and relevant results.

So how do we use this to our advantage when talking about search engine optimization?  First, we need to understand the different types of search queries.  The first is a navigational query.  Google calls them ‘go-queries’.  An example of this is when someone searches for a brand name.  Most of the time, they’re trying to arrive at that company’s website, and either need help remembering or are too lazy to type the URL.  Most of the aforementioned semantic search functions don’t really apply to this type of query, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them.  Make sure you rank for your company name.  You should be able to do this organically with good web development practices (although your results may vary depending on your brand or industry).

The second type of search query is the research or informational query.  I’d consider this type of query to be the ‘meat’ of search queries.  The goal is to find information, although not necessarily from a particular website.  This is where all the best practices of SEO and content marketing come in.  Position yourself as a thought leader in your industry by writing blogs, posting helpful videos, creating educational infographics, etc.  Don’t focus on selling anything – remember that the traffic arriving at this content is looking for information, not a sales pitch.

The third type of search query is the transactional query.  With transactional queries, users are looking to make a purchase.  They may search for specific or generic product names, or even brand names (depending on how much they already know about what they want to buy), and will often include words like ‘buy’ or ‘purchase’.

When performing keyword analysis, be sure to think about the type of search queries you’d like to target.  Then do further analysis based on the keywords and queries you came up with.  Think about similar keywords and how people typically perform similar search queries to put your keywords in context.  Think about the social aspect and look at reviews of your product or service.  Which keywords or phrases stand out?  What other similar products or services are mentioned?  Perform a sentiment analysis – which adjectives are being used?  Think about the geographical impact – does your target market use different phrases to describe what they’re looking for?

To provide the right answers, it helps to understand the right (targeted) questions.  It also helps to understand how those questions are interpreted by the services your customers use to connect with you.