Searcher Task Accomplishment, or How Search Engines Read Minds

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Oftentimes, there’s a difference between the exact words that a searcher types into the search bar and their intended result of performing that search. Phrasing, generalization, typos, and misinformation are all factors that can get between a searcher and their goal. With each algorithm update, however, search engines are becoming better able to close the gap between intention and execution.

Searcher Task Accomplishment, Defined

Searcher task accomplishment is the idea that search results should be determined by the objectives of the user performing the search, and the satisfaction the user experiences when they receive those results. While STA is not yet part of the search engine algorithm, we know that this is the direction that Google is headed based on existing ranking factors and recommendations. Because Google is getting ever closer to being able to read searchers’ minds, we as SEOs should begin including “searcher task accomplishment” tactics and factors in our optimization practices.

Identifying a Searcher’s Intent

Macbook and iPhone on table with computer logged in to Google.

When a searcher begins typing into a searcher bar, their query becomes an “expression of need.” This expression of need could be transactional or informative; these words, in whatever combination makes the most sense to the searcher, are the only information being given freely by the searcher to the search engine.

Behind that expression of need are “underlying goals” – what the searcher plans to do with the information they’ve found. The searcher’s underlying goals are specific, drilled down to their individual purpose based on the unique factors of his or her situation.

These underlying goals are not directly communicated to the search engine in the searcher’s expression of need, but most searchers subconsciously expect that a search engine can essentially read his or her mind. That is most often how a searcher performs an “evaluation of results” – he or she will peruse the search engine results and determine which result will best help satisfy their need. In his or her evaluation of results, the searcher will review the SERP, looking at URLs, titles, and metadata (or will simply read the result that shows in the featured snippet or knowledge graph, where applicable) to inform their decision.

Then, they actively select the result that best satisfies their need. This selection is the first indication that a searcher gives to the search engine that the search engine has given them the information he or she is looking for. The search engine logs that data alongside the expression of need to build a better user experience.

By reviewing this search engine result selection, the searcher can determine whether the content actually includes the information that he or see is looking for – based both on their active expression of need and passive underlying goals. The searcher may either a) decide that the result didn’t give him or her the information she or he was looking for and/or b) find more information within this result that piques their interest further. This discovery of additional needs often leads the searcher back to the search engine to either rephrase their existing expression of need or write a new one.

In returning to the search engine, the searcher is giving the search engine yet another indicator of success or failure. This data is again logged. From there, the cycle is repeated with the new “expression of need.”

How Search Engines Use This InformationVintage black and white image of a mind reader.

Because search engines can’t read the minds of every searcher who inputs a query, they look to the information that a searcher actively provides:

  1. What was the expression of need?
  2. What search result was selected?
  3. Was there a discovery of additional needs?

The search engine follows the searcher’s “train of search” in order to give SEOs a better understanding of their train of thought. This is coupled with an innate knowledge of what types of ideas, concepts, and keywords are correlated. For example, if I search for something like “can I get an FHA loan,” that might mean I’m in the mindset of thinking about real estate or, more specifically, my first house. That probably means that I need to know about conditions by region, the application process, the providers in my area, and more.

The coupling of action and existing knowledge is how search engines can a) autofill your search query and b) give suggested search engine results.

Applying This to Your Optimization Strategy

As SEOs, we are dedicated to helping searchers accomplish their tasks. We’ve been seeing more and more searches where the results that win aren’t those with the most links, the best anchor text, the best keyword targeting, or the highest authority. Instead, we see sites and pages winning with content that does the best job answering the searcher’s query — accomplishing the task at hand.
In order to provide content that will perform well, we need to understand what drives searchers to search, as well as what makes some searchers come away unsatisfied. This understanding comes both from the human side and the technical side.

  • Human: Perform interviews, create surveys, have conversations, and see what your competitors are doing.
  • Technical: Peruse autosuggest and related search results, review analytics performance, and track SERPs for rises and falls in results.

High-quality, informative content performs better in search because it is better at helping the searcher accomplish his or her task. The more we understand who our audience is and what information they’re looking for, the better our content will perform and, as such, the more audience members we’ll reach.

If you need assistance bridging the gap between what information your audience is searching for and what information your content is providing, we can help! Get in touch with us to get started.

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