For a lot of small business owners, the world of SEO can seem overwhelming. If understanding the mysterious ranking systems that Google uses is hard enough, keeping up with the constant changes can feel downright impossible.
Over the years, SEO experts have developed a few metrics that can help businesses to understand how searchable their pages are. These metrics give us hard facts about what works and what doesn’t. For SEO professionals like us, these numbers help explain to clients how well their pages are doing. The most important ones are:
- keyword and search engine rankings
- organic web traffic
- volume of searches
- conversion rates
The problem is, Google often changes the things they prioritize. Which explains why user intent has become something of a game changer. User intent allows marketers and small business owners to determine a constant element in SEO. An element that Google puts before everything else. User intent poses a simple question:
“What does the user want?”
Of course, figuring out what the user wants from a few simple keywords is a bit complicated. But that’s why we’re here to try to explain it.
What is User Intent?
It helps to get a little context. Back in the day, Google’s search engine focused mainly on data metrics like keywords and backlinks. In the early days, you could get by with an SEO strategy that consisted of hidden text packed exclusively with keywords. Google’s algorithms would note that x, y, z, keywords were abundant on your page and you’d become searchable.
But all that has changed. Google now relies heavily on an ever-changing set of algorithms that incorporate geophysical locations, previous searches, semantic analysis, and more into their search engine. The main takeaway? Context now rules over content.
So when it comes to building a good content strategy, it’s never been more important to understand what goes into every search and how Google interprets those searches. That’s where user intent comes in. User intent allows us to better understand who our customers are and ultimately, what they’re trying to do by searching. For example, are they trying to buy something? Are they trying to get information? Are they trying to go straight to a specific page?
Each of these questions alters the way marketers create keyword strategies. Let’s take a look at three types of user intent.
Before Google Chrome introduced and popularized the searchable address bar, you had to type in a full website to go straight there. That meant, if you were looking for a site like YouTube, you had to type out the address in full: www.youtube.com. It was the only way to go directly to the page you wanted.
Now all you have to do is type “youtube” into your address bar, hit enter, and you’ll be brought straight to the YouTube page. Because this kind of search is done with a specific direction and objective in mind, it is called a navigational search. Navigational searches show that a user intends to go directly to a specific page.
Typically, only well-established brands can utilize navigational intent in their strategy because it implies a foreknowledge and experience, something lesser known businesses need to build over time.
Perhaps the largest portion of Google searches are aimed at learning something. In the SEO world, these queries are said to have informational intent. They imply that the user does not know exactly what they are looking for. They know that the information is out there, and they’re trying to find it. Informational searches need to come before all other kinds because they establish the knowledge base that the user will use to purchase things and navigate. They are at the top of the marketing funnel.
Informational searches are often written with questions or statements like:
- What is user intent
- Are reviews important
- How to create a social media campaign
- Tricks for getting more followers
Since we’re selling SEO as a product, there is the possibility of a sale down the line. It’s not the focus though. Users with informational intent are not looking for the product straight away. Pushing a product to users with informational intent can alienate them from your brand. They are looking for content that is relevant to their search. By providing quality, relevant content, a good SEO strategy can pave the way for future customers with brand awareness, loyalty, trust, and integrity.
Commercial or Transactional Intent
Users who use search engines to find the product or service that suits their needs are said to have transactional intent. Think of transactions as any kind of exchange that occurs on the internet. So while this includes purchasing products online, it also includes signing up for social media platforms, downloading a free trial software, liking or following brands, and more. The user’s goal is to find the company and product that suits their needs and then to engage with it.
Typical searches with transactional intent use keywords like:
- record store near me
- best ramen in X
- cheap flights to Berlin
Transactional searches imply that a user is already interested in purchasing or signing up for something. This makes these keywords highly competitive and high-value. Depending on your product, there might be lots of other brands for users to choose from. That’s why strategizing your SEO around transactional intent must be paired with conversion rate optimization as well.
The basic idea here is that when a user searches a keyword, Google pulls up a set of ranked pages that conform to the intent of that user. On the basis of one or a few words, it judges what the user’s end goal is. Exploiting Google’s desire for increased user satisfaction, creating an SEO strategy that conforms to what users really want.
Our job is to figure out what keywords tell us about a user’s desire. What structures their desire is a ton of contextual information relating to location, previous searches, transaction history, navigation, semantics and more. Keywords are kind of like planets: they have a gravitational field that draws material (data) towards them. And this material accumulates as they continue along their trajectories through the network.
This accumulation can make it difficult for Google to interpret a particular keyword. This is why it’s helpful to also look at the way they interpret information.
How Google Interprets Intent
There are three basic ways that Google interprets searches to determine which results will be relevant to the searcher. A good example is the keyword “apple products”. Following this keyword through various types of interpretation will help clarify the way Google deals with ambiguity.
- Dominant interpretations: these are determined by what most users mean when they type in a particular keyword. A user looking for local products that use apples, they won’t have much luck searching with “Apple products”. Instead, they’ll get a list of products, retailers, and information about Apple the brand. That’s because most users using that keyword are looking for the brand, not the fruit. Dominant interpretations are based on search volume.
- Common interpretations: notice that “Apple products” brings up both retailers and information. This is because Google can’t tell whether the user shows an informational or transactional intent. The solution is to display both. That way both types of intent are covered.
- Minor interpretations: because of the dominance of the brand Apple, the minor interpretation doesn’t play a big role on this keyword. Minor interpretations are concerned with other contexts related to the user. These can be based on location, the user’s previous navigation history, and other user-specific criteria. If the user searches for “apple orchard” Google will find local apple orchards, as well as information on apple orchards generally.
How to Incorporate User Intent Into Keyword Strategy
The easiest place to start is to use Google to search for your keywords. This will give you a fairly clear idea of the way that Google is interpreting them. The thing is, it’s not always intuitive. There are situations where you’ll have a keyword you’re sure is transactional, but when you search for it’ll come up as informational. This can be interpreted to mean that a majority of Google users are using that keyword to direct them towards information rather than actual products.
And this is the problem that many small business owners face. If your products page is optimized for informational intent, it won’t actually be relevant to users looking to buy a product right then and there. You want to accelerate conversion, not slow it down with a long boring read. They’ll tend to ignore it or at best, open and then close it again.
Same goes for your Home or About page. These pages are meant to advertise your business. So if you’ve optimized them for information, a user will be likely to ignore them. The ambiguity of your own content will throw off your ranking.
And if you are trying to offer information, don’t use keywords that optimize for transactional intent. Let’s say you’re providing information on replacing spark plugs in a lawnmower. Don’t optimize that page with keywords like “affordable lawnmower repair”—no one who is reading a long-form article on replacing spark plugs is going to want a lawn mower repair service. Unless they totally screw it up. But then they’ll probably be searching: “lawn mowers for sale near me”!
Take a Walk in the User’s Shoes
User intent is all about bringing intentions to bear on marketing strategies. With updates to Google’s search engine, it’s becoming clear that what is considered relevant information is always changing. That’s why it’s important to optimize content for things that remain constant. Both of these constants should be organizing principles to create relevant content. They form the basis of every good content strategy.
Know Your Customer
Try to get into your client’s head. It’s a bit of a psychology game. In order to properly optimize your content to user intent, you need to figure out how the client is thinking. Ask yourself: why are they using this keyword to search for this thing? Who are they? Why do they want your product? Where do they live?
All these questions will give you a good basis for judging user intent. Without asking these fundamental questions, there’s a good chance you’ll fall behind on rankings.
And think about your own content. Are you providing information or products? This is very important. Keywords will inevitably be ambiguous from time to time. But your content should not be. Your content should be aligned with the kind of user that you want to visit your page. There’s no substitute for precisely optimized content. It changes the whole objective.
If you’re marketing for transactional intent, your goal is to make your products visible and easy to purchase for users that already want the thing you’re offering. Time is of the essence. You want clients to find your page and click subscribe, follow, like, sign up, check in, check out as soon as possible.
If you’re marketing for informational intent, offer information. You’re building something here. It’s a long game. Eventually, it will pay off.
Combining these two in an effective strategy can lead to enough visibility so that, eventually, you will have users searching for you and only you. Navigational intent is the goal for big businesses. But it requires a lot of groundwork.
At the end of the day a good SEO strategy has to balance a few things:
- the intention behind a query (embedded in the keyword)
- the way Google interprets the keyword and organizes relevant information for the user
- optimizing your own content to become relevant both to Google’s search engine and to the user’s intent
These three things are essential to good content production. As much as it’s possible to do all this work yourself, we recommend hiring a professional SEO marketing company. We have the tools, resources, and experience to optimize a range of content in many industries.