It’s time to talk about one of the newer concepts in search engine optimization (SEO). “Search intent” is a hot concept because it goes to the root of what we’re all trying to do with our digital marketing strategies: attract more customers. It combines the sciences of artificial intelligence, human psychology, semantics, and a dash of sociology with the goal of gaining a better understanding of what our target customer wants.
We weren’t always able to talk about “user intent” when people searched the web because in the earlier days technology was doing all that it could to match up keywords. But over time as Google’s algorithms became more sophisticated, we began to dawn on the era of being able to not just match raw lines of text to each other but to parse the meaning of that text as well for a “smarter” search.
Why is this exciting? Well, maybe I’m speaking for myself, but when I was a kid hearing about the development of artificial intelligence, I was looking forward to this:
The Jetsons were always my standard for technological progress in the future. Having your own Rosey the Robot maid, who takes care of all those boring chores around the house and can even keep up a perky conversation, just like one of the family. I’m still disappointed that we don’t have one right now, aren’t you? A Roomba isn’t as versatile and doesn’t have anywhere near the personality.
We still got a little taste of the Jetsons’ future in other ways.
We got the flatscreen TVs and Zoom teleconferencing right on the money. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we might have to rely on this standard for a while. We’re getting used to telemedicine doctor appointments already.
As far as Rosey the Robot’s speech processing center, we’re getting close to that as well with virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Like text-based word searches, voice-activated virtual assistants have to recognize human speech and match its intent to resources it can find on the web. The actionable part of user intent is that we want to improve your website’s search rankings by matching:
What the user was searching for
Your content, which gives them what they want
But let’s back up first and get familiar with our understanding of user intent so far.
What Do We Want When We Search the Web?
There are a few different theories of modeling user intent. So far we have it broken down into broad general categories:
- Information: We want to know something
- Transaction: We want to purchase, sign up for, or subscribe to something
- Navigation: We want to go to a specific website
- Directional: We want to find the nearest physical location for something
The “Navigation” part is simply the part where we type in a website’s name because we don’t remember how its URL goes. The above list might not be adequate to explain every search, but it’s a starting point. You could say that the reasons we use Google break down something similar to this:
- Looking up how to spell a word
- Bored and wanting to look at funny cat videos
- Checking a balance on an account
- To find reputable mechanics nearby
- Trying to win an argument against a conspiracy theorist on Facebook as soon as I find that news story I saw a while back that proves him wrong
- Looking up the plot of a movie because it lost me
- Trying to fix something and I broke it worse instead
- “Why is this celebrity trending on Twitter? Did they die?”
- Who do we order lunch delivery from today?
- There’s a song I must listen to this instant and I’m sure to find it on YouTube
- I need two Jetsons images for an article I’m writing
- What restaurants are open near me?
- Is this couch durable and high-quality?
Incidentally, anyone can find out their recent activity by visiting Google My Activity, provided they don’t have privacy settings turned on. Study your searches, and ask yourself if the results you found matched your intent.
Most of our suggestions break down into the four general categories anyway. To those, perhaps we might also add search intent categories for “entertainment” and “resources” for when we’re looking for an image to include, a video to embed, a spreadsheet template for Excel, etc.
Now we’ve all known this one paradox where we can’t find something because we can’t think how to word the query correctly so Google understands us. That can sometimes be a failure to understand user intent when the query is ambiguous.
For example, here’s an ancient Asian board game called simply “Go”:
It’s pretty tough to identify user intent from a 2-letter common word. If you search for “Go,” Google is likely to toss in the Go programming language, Disney’s Go.com domain, a 1999 teen comedy film, and a few dozen songs and albums by that title. However, the most common user intent is the board game, so Google is still pretty good about showing results from the American Go Association, although the true fans of the game are likely to seek out the Sensei’s Library wiki website.
If you narrow a search down by intent, Google will bring up the sites it thinks you’ll want. It’s really good at this because of the use of things like keyword stemming, but it also helps that the website that popped to the top puts a definition in there for Google to work with.
Notice the bolded words in the website’s Featured Snippet text, which means Google thought those words, in particular, matched our intent. Even though we said “pieces,” Google knew that the pieces in Go are called “stones,” so it matched that word. Pretty impressive!
Putting User Intent To Work For You
No matter what your business is, if you’re using content marketing with SEO keywords to bring in business from the web, you will benefit from addressing user intent in your site’s text. Your starting place is to find out what your intended customers search for. You will need an SEO analysis tool that includes keyword research capabilities to do that. Out of the six we list in that linked article, these all have some keyword analysis features:
- SEMRush: One of the most popular, great features
- Ahrefs: Nearly as popular, substantial features
- Google Search Console: Free, widely used
- Ubersuggest: Free, not many features
SEMRush is on the expensive side, but it’s also a powerful tool with rich data analysis and display capabilities. We’ll be using it for some examples here. In researching keywords, we have the following sub-tasks in mind:
- Find out the top keywords for our niche
- Determine related and stemming keywords and variations on phrases
- Check out what our competitors do right or wrong
- Analyze where we stand in our market and how we can improve
- Formulate a content plan that incorporates those keywords into our content
A Quick Example of SEO Keyword Research
We have to pick an industry here, so eenie meenie… solar-powered backpacks! The top website that comes up for this—that is not Amazon—is voltaicsystems.com, which gets lucky exposure from us today.
In the top keywords this site ranks for, we can start taking some guesses at user intent. The navigational searches are for the company site by name; these are likely to be users already familiar with the brand name. We mark two searches “transactional” because it sounds like they know what they’re looking for and in the market to buy it. The other three are what we’re guessing are informational; they’re looking for some kind of mobile power source but are just about to discover that solar-powered backpacks are a thing.
Turning to SEMRush’s Keyword Magic Tool, we type in “solar-powered backpack” and get a wealth of content insights:
It’s like having our content ideas handed to us. So we know some features that people look for in this product (USB adapter, phone charging, anti-theft), we know a couple of brand names people seek right away (Enerplex, Samsonite), and even a regional search (Canada). This is a highly niche market, as the low search volume indicates. Voltaic Systems also carries other solar-generating gear in general, so there might be a wider market to look at on their end.
Now, what if we want to compete against this company instead? Under “Organic Research” we hit the “Competitors” tag and see that there’s a pretty flat field of near-equal websites. ModernOutpost.com comes the closest to second place. In SEMRush’s Keyword gap tool, we’ll take a look at the two domains stacked up.
We can see in the shared keywords, Voltaic has the lead in most of the top brackets, but it’s such a niche market that pulling ahead for either website doesn’t look that hard. By the way, “Voltaic” literally means “producing electricity from a cell,” so the top website has a lock forever on that keyword. Modern Outpost is not likewise blessed with a descriptive domain name for the solar power niche. Yet when we go to their site, we find out they’re even more focused on solar energy.
Can we climb a little higher on the totem pole?
When we look at this chart, we see that Voltaic cranks out some 3x as much content as Modern Outpost and ranks miles higher than them because of that, but there is another bigger competitor: EcoDirect.com. Meanwhile, as we keep Googling, we find that searching for “solar power” typically just returns educational resources like Wikipedia, whereas adding almost any other word to that phrase (e.g. “panel”) takes us to places like Home Depot and Newegg.
What if we try targeting related ideas? For the phrase “solar power,” we find out from SEMRush’s Keyword Magic Tool some commonly associated words: “home,” “bank,” “system,” “charger,” “kits,” and “calculator.”
“High-Intent” Transaction Keywords
One more group of keywords we want to pay attention to is what is called “high-intent” keywords. When we have a user interested in doing a transaction on the line, their Google research runs a natural course from lower to higher intent. The intent is evidenced by whatever words they use along with the product. At first, they search with keywords like “best,” “compare,” “review,” “top.” They’re interested in the product but haven’t made up their mind what they’re buying or if they buy at all.
High-intent keywords are words like “buy,” “discount,” “deal,” “vendor,” “sale,” “shipping,” and “price.” These are the search terms of a consumer who has set their mind to buy something. Your customers may also use high-intent keywords unique to your industry or location. Don’t assume that the same words used to find legal aid are also used to search for a new garden bench. Every industry is unique.
The theory goes that it’s more important to target the high-intent keywords. Those are the searches that are going to bring you immediate sales. When people have money that they’re trying to spend, you want to be first in line. However, just because some keywords show lower intent doesn’t mean you should neglect them, especially if you have a long sales cycle. If you sell widgets and a user found your helpful list of “top five best widgets,” they have a greater chance of returning when their intent increases.
Lessons Learned From This User Keyword Research
- Content is still king! Sheer volume often wins the day (but it can’t be garbage content)
- It can hurt when you have a non-descriptive URL
- Small niche markets can be easier to compete in
- We can get a clearer picture of what users want by studying their keywords
- Many businesses have high-intent keywords unique to their industry
Of course, minutes ago we all didn’t know beans about solar energy products and now we see this market. So for all we know, we could be missing something because we’re not steeped in solar energy culture. We might hazard a guess that the motivations to buy anything solar-powered are split between environmental concern and plain selfish motivation to save money on the power bill. It also seems to be an industry that attracts rugged camping enthusiasts and occasionally survivalists.
What we would need to do is scout around the web for places where people discuss this topic. Long story short, there are several places to check for forums where your potential customers meet to talk among themselves:
- Reddit: One of the top-visited sites on the web, always stop here to type in some industry keywords and find forums related to that industry.
- Quora: The web’s top question-and-answer website; if you can imagine it, somebody has discussed it here.
- The Stack Exchange network: Originally a technology-focused site, it has now expanded to cover almost any topic.
- MetaFilter: One of the oldest community blogs on the web. Its archive goes farther back than Reddit has existed. It’s like a highbrow Reddit (membership is not free!).
- BoardReader: This is a search engine which only searches discussion forums, useful for finding niche communities.
From that last link, Board Reader led us to several interesting discussions about this niche industry. This thread has somebody asking about solar power banks, with several responses. One savvy camper advises the poster to opt for separate power bank and solar USB chargers, since segregating those functions makes the individual components easier to replace when they fail. There’s a content marketing topic right there.
The Reddit hits for “solar-powered backpacks” leads us to /r/preppers, /r/gadgets, /r/OutdoorHacks, and /r/environment. Browsing around on these forums will help us learn about our intended customers in this niche and what they’re looking for with our product. Entrepreneurs get bright ideas from Reddit all the time and then they run off to Kickstarter.
Discussion forums are an often-overlooked component in search intent research. People head for Google to answer a question first, and if they don’t find it, then they often turn to a forum to ask around. There are many topics where it’s surprisingly hard to find an answer to a specific question.
When developing your keyword strategy to enhance your SEO, you should also talk to your customers and listen to how they describe their path to purchase. What words do they use as they approach a decision? How do they describe what they want? If you’ve conducted buyer persona research interviews, you likely have nuggets of information there to help you better understand your customers’ search intent.
Search Intent Means “Read My Mind”
That may sound funny, but trust us, there has never been a marketer alive that has not wished for psychic mind-reading powers. The eerie thing is that in the modern digital world, between social media, ad demographic data, and keyword research, we’re kind of able to read the crowd’s mind. When you piece together the massive data points available to marketers, you get a peek into people’s motivations and how they behave online.
With that information, it’s possible to draw visitors to your website using the right keywords.
If they’re just looking for information, you can compose helpful content to establish yourself as an industry thought leader and expert. Informational queries make up the majority of web searches. Positioning yourself to be the helpful answer people are seeking can place you at the top of an information search, giving you valuable brand strength and name recognition for the relevant topic that led that user to you.
When they’re ready to take the next step, they’ll head back to Google and search using high intent transactional search terms. At that point, they’re likely to remember the brands that helped them solve their problem—and click on their listing in the SERP.
Understanding search intent is essential for successful SEO strategies. At Cardinal Digital Marketing, we conduct thorough research to truly understand your customers and how they conduct searches. As experts in the digital marketing industry, we’ll develop an effective keyword strategy that’ll increase your website traffic and drive qualified conversions. Feel free to contact us to receive a free consultation or ask us any questions about digital marketing, PPC, SEO, keyword research, or anything in between.