The Importance of the Journey: Search Trails and Destination Pages

Two Microsoft papers being presented at this week’s SIGIR’10 conference in Geneva, Switzerland explore the topics of Search Trails – The pages that a searcher travels through after performing a search for a query before reaching a final destination page.

The idea of delivering searchers to a final destination page, a page where previous searchers for a specific query often end up at before they either stop searching, or changed the focus of their search, is something that Microsoft has explored in the past.

I wrote about a patent filing from Microsoft a couple of years ago which explored how user behavior signals, such as how searchers browsed through pages to find information might be used to rerank search results. The post, Search Trails: Destinations, Interactive Hubs, and Way Stations, took a look at how search trails – the pages browsed between an initial query and a final page visited, might offer useful query suggestions to searchers as well.

That patent filing, and the 2007 SIGIR best paper, Studying the Use of Popular Destinations to Enhance Web Search Interaction (pdf) by Ryen W. White, Mikhail Bilenko, and Silviu Cucerzan, focused more upon the final destination pages found than the pages visited along the way. Ryen White is listed as a co-author in the earlier papers and patent filing on search trails, and he is one of the authors listed on the papers presented this week in Switzerland as well.

It looks as though those intermediary pages may have some value as well, and the idea of including those somehow within search results may be worth exploring.

What route do searchers follow to get to a final destination page, and how important are the pages along the way? Might other searchers with similar information needs and situational tasks to fulfill benefit from a search engine showing the search trails that other follow? How would those trails best be shown in search results?

The papers are:

The authors of the papers tell us that ranking documents for specific keywords may be an easier task than helping people who have more complex informational needs. Those needs can include learning about a topic that someone doesn’t know much about, and may want to become better informed.

Some of the search behaviors cited in the papers about how people might start with one search, and travel through a number of pages after their initial query describe patterns used to meet those needs under names such as information foraging, berry picking, and orienteering.

If you’re not familiar with those concepts, they are definitely worth exploring if you’re interested in learning some theories behind how people perform complex searches. The following are cited in the two recent Microsoft pages:


Many search related papers about searchers’ behaviors focus upon query sessions – where searchers may start out with one query term or phrase and possibly perform additional searches adding words to make their search more specific, or removing words to make it more general, correcting spelling mistakes, or even switching over to related terms.

Some query session refinements include people adding geographic terms to their queries, which may indicate to a search engine that specific queries have geographic intents behind them. If those refinements happen frequently enough, they may trigger maps showing up in search results. Other query session refinements may help power some of the “Did you mean” type suggestions that you sometimes see when you search.

Looking at Search Trails may provide a whole different range of searcher behavior type information. By studying the pages that people travel down, from their selected page amongst search results to a final destination page, there may be information that can be related to that initial query that just isn’t captured by looking at query sessions and refinements alone.

Will Microsoft start showing some search trails that are often followed by searchers for specific queries in their search results?

It’s a possibility. It might be an interesting addition to the search results we see today, and could benefit people who don’t know too much about a specific topic, but are interested in exploring it more fully than someone else who may just be looking for a quick and simple answer in their search results.


Author: Bill Slawski

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