Modeling Search Behavior

Making information accessible is hard work. Certainly, there are new tools that can analyze massive amounts of data in order to bootstrap information management. However, there’s a point at which human expertise is required.

I just read a report on how and why to model search behavior from Mark Sprague, Lexington eBusiness Consulting, http://msprague.com. Mark has been in the search business as long as I have. He helps organizations understand what their customers are looking for, and what the impact of their information access/search design will have on their customers finding what they are seeking. The report I read discusses a consumer search behavior model he built for the dieting industry. In it, Sprague explains that a good search behavior model starts by gathering data on what users are searching for, but that’s just the beginning. Building a behavior model can affect your information architecture, the content you post on your site, how to incorporate the search terms customers use into the content, which featured topic pages that will attract views, the SEO strategy this model drives, and the changes that will result in existing PPC strategies. Sprague finds top queries, then uses them to generate titles and tags that fit the terms users are searching for—particularly the phrases. He also categorizes queries into a set of high-level topics with subtopics. These categories can and should affect the organization of a Web site, enabling users to browse as well as search.

Sprague has observed that at each stage of the online buying process, from research to deciding to purchasing, the query terms differ. This difference can be thought of as an indication of intent, and it can be used to tailor results for an individual as the user moves from one part of the process to the next. Finally, Sprague uses the terms to perform a cost-benefit analysis to improve SEO.

This thoughtful approach starts with observing user behavior and models the information architecture and Web site to fit—not the other way around. That’s smart, and it’s good business.

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