Long before I started working in SEO I was an educator for an organization that taught computer skills to total neophytes. You learn a lot from working with completely fresh users. It makes you realize how much of your ability comes from deeply ingrained basic assumptions and how these can work for or against you.
By far, the greatest conceptual barrier for new computer users is that they see conscious, dynamic reactions in automated processes. It takes practice for them to learn that Google only responds to their input, not the intentions behind it. Search engines behave like they understand text. If you’re not computer literate, the first connection you make to that behavior is a conscious intent, because the only other things in your experience that exhibit it are other human beings.
Now at this point, I’m sure a lot of you are feeling very superior to these “n00bs,” but the fact is, a lot of you may be making the same kind of mistake when you analyze search traffic. You’re a search pro, so the tendency is to assume that even if people aren’t search pros, they’re approaching Google with a basic search skills – but they aren’t. There’s more to it than assuming people won’t use quotes or other inline commands.
The modern web is multi-competent. I think this insight is so important that I had to make up a word, so bear with me. Multi-competence doesn’t just mean that searchers don’t all have the same web literacy, but that web literacy doesn’t always say anything about other skills. There are ignorant master searchers and IT pros who can’t find anything.
In practical terms, this means we have to question our assumptions when we check analytics. Sometimes we have to get really basic and go back to the core of the search experience. For instance, this article discusses “navigational searches,” where people enter full URLs into search bars. Why do people do it? To find out, do the following:
- Go to Google
- Type in a URL
Where does the URL appear? If you followed my steps exactly, it appears in the search bar. If you’re search literate, you might have ignored my instructions by reflexively clicking in the address bar – but many searchers do not have this reflex! They’re not necessarily aware of the cursor’s location or for that matter, the difference between search and URL fields. Search engines as default home pages and address bars defaulting to searches create even more confusion. Teaching the differences was one of the hardest parts of my old job.
Thanks to multi-competence, you can’t tell this is a search skills issue by examining keywords for “dumbness.” Lots of smart people have bad search skills. So based on my hands on experience with new searchers, I’m pretty confident that it boils down to how the basic, home page search interface works. There probably isn’t any hidden service demand behind navigational searches – there are just guys typing, pressing Enter, and living with whatever comes up.
This is just one example of how competence differences can confuse your analysis. Here are some more:
- New searchers often believe they must add the .com TLD suffix to the end of their search term, even if they aren’t looking for a URL.
- Much of the time, they also think they must omit spaces from searches, because they were told to omit them from URLs and don’t know the difference between a keyword and URL.
- New searchers don’t necessarily know it is even possible to go directly to a URL. They’re used to word searches or mistyping domains, so when the address bar defaults to a search page, they believe that this is how it’s supposed to work, all the time.
- They may add their country code to a search or address, instead of the TLD suffix of where they actually want to go.