SEO 12 min read
A Marketer’s Guide to Understanding Search Intent for SEO
- 30 Jan 2020 10 min read
It’s easy to optimize the whats and hows of Search, but how do you optimize for whys? This guide will help you learn more about search intent and why it's important for your strategy:
- What is search intent?
- The growing importance of search intent
- Types of search intent
- The benefits of optimizing for search intent
- How to determine the search intent
What is search intent?
Search intent, or user search intent, is the why behind every search and every query a user enters into the search engine. It focuses on the reason why someone performs a search on Google.
Remember that everything you do has intent. When you ask someone a question in person, you intend to get the answer you need. Same as when you ask a question on search engines, once you type words into the search bar, you intend to know and learn about something. Once you hit search, your expectations are set for Google to deliver the best answer to your query.
Let’s use my recent Google search as an example to define what search intent is. As a fan of music, I wanted to know who of my favorite artists won in the recent 2020 Grammy Awards.
The words I typed in are Grammys 2020, and here are the results:
Most, if not all, of the results, show the winners, highlights, and performances— just what I needed to know to keep me updated on the recent awards show.
Did I get the answers that I wanted? Yes. Was I satisfied with the results Google gave me? Yes, definitely. Then this means that the content Google displayed for me has the right search intent. The following results provided me the informational content I needed to know just by typing in a simple search term of ‘Grammys 2020’.
Let’s take on something a bit more complicated. With the recent Taal volcanic eruption and the current spread of coronavirus, I searched for ‘N95 mask’ in Google, hoping to gain more information about the item and determine if it was the item I needed to stay safe.
Here are the results that Google showed me:
The first result was an ad for Amazon selling me N95 masks on their site. On the right side of the SERP, sponsored links for ecommerce site Shopee that are selling N95 items as well.
When scrolled further, it was only then was I provided information about the mask and if it was the one I needed to avoid catching the virus.
This is an example of a query with multiple meanings as it provided both Informational and Transactional on the search results page. Google has interpreted my query as a user who is already in the buying stage since I already have a specific item in mind. But the search engine also provided me with informational content to learn more about the product. Confusing? Don’t worry; we’ll talk more about this later on in the article.
Google’s algorithm is smarter than we think— it’s providing answers for all types of users whatever stage they are in their search or buyer journey. This is the challenge Google has made for digital marketers, like us, to provide the content users might be needing at that specific time.
Nobody has an accurate way to determine search intent yet. This is where most, if not all, SEOs fail: carefully and accurately understanding the user’s search intent. We can’t blame you; even as a long-standing SEO company in the Philippines, we’re in constant pursuit to fine-tune our process to deliver the best content and result for our users.
The growing importance of search intent
Search engines weren’t always this complicated. Back in the day, posting regular content and using keywords was enough to get you on top of the SERPs. But as Google’s algorithm evolved, so has SEO and their best practices.
But the concept of search intent didn’t just appear out of nowhere in the SEO landscape. It’s been accumulating relevance for quite a while, and it’s only now that marketers have seen and noticed its significance.
The value of search intent began with the release of Google Hummingbird update where the search engine released an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the intent of searchers' queries to match and provide relevant results to the users.
Then came RankBrain, Google’s first-ever AI-centered algorithm update, sorting the search results carefully and introducing the concept of interpreting the searches that might not have the exact words that were searched for, yet still delivering the closest answer possible to answer the query.
By the time the Google BERT update was introduced in late 2019, SEOs weren’t surprised when ‘search intent’ was given significant emphasis in terms of SERP rankings. This was a call-out to SEOs and content marketers to create better content that will satisfy the user’s intent and much less on Google’s algorithm.
Types of Search Intent
Search intent is classified into three different types, all coincide with Google micro-moments of know, do, go, and buy. Here are the different types of search intent:
The intent to know or and intent to do.
Most people do their online searches because they are looking for information. It could be about a local business, children, cars, online marketing—anything under the sun. People doing informational searches have an issue or situation in mind, and they are searching for a name to place it with.
Say I want to learn more about Kobe Bryant; when I search his name online, I’m expecting to see everything I need to know about him and his career as an NBA legend.
Google provides me with the following information: Bryant’s Knowledge Card, a summary of all the information published about him, top stories, and the first organic result is Bryant’s Twitter account, where he used to be most likely active.
The intent to go.
These are people searching for a specific place or desire to go somewhere and interact with the physical world or to a particular online location. The user can search for a physical store or area like “digital marketing company near me” and show these results:
Searches under this search intent can also be navigating through website pages. This means that the user knows what website and what page he/she wants to go to, the user is just unsure of what the exact URL is like this:
Whichever of the two, the search intent is to find and go to the place, whether physically or digitally.
The intent to buy or purchase.
This is done by people looking to buy something online. They are often searching for the best deals and where to buy.
Here’s an example:
It’s easy to spot transactional searches when it has the keywords “buy,” “for sale,” “cheap,” or “service.” These are modifiers that signal Google and SEOs that the user is already in buying mode.
But what if the search doesn’t have those buying-intent keywords, is it still considered transactional in intent?
Let's search for a simple keyword: “iPhone charger.” It has no indicators like “buy” or “sell,” but it’s providing results to product pages and online sellers that are telling me to transact with them.
Given this information, I can say that the query ‘iPhone charger’ is transactional, but as I scroll down further Google also gave me informational content below:
The majority of the content provided here should be transactional, but Google has also provided me informational content about the item. Thus, the query’s search intent isn’t one or the other; it’s both transactional and informational.
Keywords, queries, or whatever you prefer to call them to have different intentions, and it all depends on the person searching for it. Google shows a variety of results that the algorithm thinks the user needs, which makes our job as content marketers a bit difficult since we have to provide quality content for all users and searchers in their whole buyer journey.
The benefits of optimizing for search intent
For the longest time, SEOs have been hyper-focused on optimizing for keywords. There is no issue with doing comprehensive keyword research; these are an essential part of SEO as well. But we fail to remember and keep in mind the people making and creating the search.
The reason why you should optimize for search intent is simple: it works. In all lenses of SEO, it provides a holistic and beneficial approach with regards to optimization.
When you create content with the right search intent, search algorithms will reward you with a higher ranking and an increase in traffic. Just take a look at how Ahrefs' Search Intent Case study.
The Ahrefs team reviewed one of their non-performing blogs, the content was good, but it never received significant traffic or even ranked high in the SERPs.
Know the missing ingredient? Search intent.
Ahrefs took a look at the SERP competitors and switched the content from a case study to an in-depth guide. Now they have a top-ranking blog that gives them increment results in organic traffic alone.
Other than better website performance, optimizing for search intent enables you to deliver the best search experience to your users. Thus, your content meets the needs of the user wherever they are in the customer or buyer journey.
Think about it. Search intent optimization was the missing puzzle in our optimization process and strategy. Google, along with Kantar’s Needscope, identified six canonical user needs:
Searches don’t simply happen at random moments. They’re driven by needs.
All of these user’s needs are anchored to a person’s emotions—the driving factor for any decision a person makes. As digital marketers, we should think less about the transaction or the value of each marketing effort.
We should change our focus to emotion, not to drive sales or conversion, but to also provide our users' benefits that will help them in the long run.
How to determine search intent
We’ve been talking about what search intent is, the different types, and its importance, but how do you know what the search intent is? There are many ways to go about determining the search intent of a specific “keyword” or “query.” Here are a few examples of how to determine the search intent:
The first method is by grouping the keywords with modifiers to determine the search intent. You can use the following search intent guide by Ahrefs to know what certain modifiers can indicate:
In all honesty, there is no easy way to know what “search intent” a keyword holds. You’d have to have a deep level of language and user understanding to make accurate assumptions such as this. But there is one hint: Check the SERPs.
The second method is by performing a search on Google and manually determining the search intent based on the Google results page.
First, you perform a search and analyze the first page of the results provided by Google. Then, have a checklist of what results shown using the keyword or query. Here a few things to check:
- What are the SERP features being displayed?
- What type of ads is shown on the page?
- What is the intent of the top content shown? Is the content informational, navigational, or transactional?
- What are the types of content featured? Are there photos, videos, or product pages?
After you’ve done analyzing, you can base the search intent of the keyword from there. You can conclude that a keyword is informational because Google shows guides and how-to’s regarding the topic. Or you can also conclude that one keyword has multiple search intent since it provides two different types of results. There’s no one exact way to know the search intent of a keyword. One keyword can have two types of search intent — it all depends on what content you see ranking on the SERP.
Once you’ve determined the intent of the keyword or query, you can now create content similar in type and features to the top content yet provide more value than its competitors.
There are tools like SEOClarity to help you out, but doing a rudimental process of manually checking keywords and inspecting the top content will work. Just keep in mind what your users need to know and provide the answer they need.
We’ve discussed the definition, types, importance, and how to determine search intent lengthily in this article—but this is just the tip of the iceberg. If anything, here are a few takeaways we want you to remember:
1. Determine the search intent. Not only will it yield the results, but it also provides your users with the information they need to know.
2. Your content should align with the buyer’s journey. By determining the right search intent, your content accompanies the user in their journey from informational to transactional.
3. Focus on your users. Ranking on Google is important, but getting your user’s seal of approval is the best way to improve your business, may it be offline or online.