How People Use Search Engines

We’re going to flip our brains from thinking analytically and technically to a more creative way of thinking. At this point I usually recommend we take a break in our workshop, so if you can put this eBook down for a moment, get a glass of water, or find a reason to turn your mind off from it for a few minutes and come back, I believe it will help you as we continue forward. 

Understanding how people use search engines to find what they are looking for will help you as you continue to organize and develop your content for your website. 


No matter what anyone is looking for on the internet, they always begin by researching. Whether it be a Flash Drive for their computer, someone to mow their lawn regularly, someone to help them move, or looking for information after a diagnosis from their doctor. From the research phase they eventually focus on a specific product or person/company to provide a service. 

A perfect example of the process in which someone begins their search is looking at someone looking for a new computer.  They will most often start with a search engine they are familiar with and type “computer”. The results they see are for all types of computers, including desktops and laptops complete with specs and accessories. The user searching learns through researching that they need a computer that fits their lifestyle of traveling and working from home or office frequently, so their search becomes more specific as they research with the two word phrase “laptop computer”. As the user continues to research the types and sizes of laptop computers, eventually coming to the realization that a 1TB laptop computer will best fit their needs. When they know exactly what they want, they then type in “1tb laptop computer” and decide what company is best to purchase from. 

It is up to you to understand what phase your user is searching, what keywords match that phase, and how you want your website to show up. 

Yes, it is beneficial to your business to show up for more specific searches as users are in a buying phase rather than just researching. It is also in your best interest to show up for all search phases as users will come to recognize your brand, your website, and any information you might have. People tend to purchase from brands they trust and know as a knowledgeable resource. By appearing at all stages of research, and providing helpful information that allows the user to make the best decision, they will most likely choose your business to purchase from than any other random site they might come across in the final stages of their buying process. 

The Results 

Just as simply showing up for all phases of the researching phase, it is equally important to not only understand what your results look like, but also how your users will be viewing those results. Let’s use Google for an example. Google understands the user’s intent when searching and makes it’s best attempt to provide the user with the best experience based on that search. If a user is looking for “computers” as they are beginning their researching phase, Google provides them with a simple results page including a list of shopping suggestions (from Google’s shopping engine) some ads on the right and natural search results that are more of a broad match and in some cases provide research information. You will also notice there are further links to help the user onto their next phase (notice the “Laptops” and then “Desktops” links below the first “Best Buy” result there. Those are what we call “Site Links”. 

As users get further down their purchasing phase and search for the “1tb laptop computer” they see Google’s shopping results focused more specifically on the exact type of computer they are looking for, in addition there are more ads in the main results as well as the right as more advertisers want to appear for those specific terms. The natural search results, or as SEOs tend to call them “Snippets”, provide more information including visual star ratings, number of reviews, pricing information, and in stock or out of stock information just before the description. 

Before beginning any type of optimizing for your website, it is good to perform a search on what you believe your first, second, and third level search terms might be and get an idea of what your users might be seeing. When doing this make sure that you are not logged into your Google account as 

Google will provide more specific results based on your behavior, and therefore may not necessarily show you the same results your users would see. Also, check your location when performing your search by clicking “Search Tools” then “Location”. You can either set it to the “United States” (or whatever country you might be in) or perhaps the state you are in, maybe even the city (trying out different locations to see of the results change). 

 What The User Looks At 

When a user is searching and sees the results a search engine presents them, it’s not always clear what their eyes are drawn to first. More sophisticated marketers and companies have performed their own analysis to best understand what their core audience might focus on first. While spending my time at as their SEO Manager in 2006 I worked with the in­house Market Research team to understand what would drive a user to search and click on our results. We found 12 people that had never heard of and presented them with the scenario of “You are curious to find someone you had attended High School with and want to try to get in touch with them again. How would you go about it using the internet?” All 12 research participants said they would go to a search engine and type that person’s name with the school they had attended. We then showed them results we mocked up with what was showing up on the major search engines at the time as well as our result in the first position for half of them and then the third position for the other half. A majority of the people we interviewed clicked on the result regardless of what position it was in. One man immediately clicked on the first result without thinking it through, and one woman clicked one of the ads to the right. We determined the brand at the time (this was when was a well known social media network) contributed to the clicks. 

The practice itself was very beneficial as we learned some of our audience will just simply click the first result without thinking it through, and some will click the advertisement. This lead us to strive for that first result, always mentioning “” in the title and description, and spend money on advertising in addition to our SEO efforts. 

Performing the same, or a similar study is fairly easy even for smaller businesses with a limited budget. Ask a friend or family member to help you out. Have them open up a browser on their own computer and present them with a scenario that would match that of your audience. See what they would do from there without guiding them in any way. I have even been known to ask people I see in coffee shops, that appear to fit my client’s audience, if they have a minute to help me out. Then buy them a coffee for taking the time to help me out. 

If you do some searching, there are many white papers and other primary research data sources available from companies such as Forrester Research. The information within can give you some insight into your target audience and help you optimize for them better. 

With new technologies and more users searching on multiple devices it is even more important to understand what your users will be searching, on what device, and what the results look like to best optimize your site for the optimal position and your snippet.