Understanding user intent and how it works is the cornerstone of modern SEO. It is the secret ingredient that will bring your content strategy from alright to exceptional. Digital marketers are continuously planning SEO strategies to increase and maintain their rankings in search engines. While technical SEO is still an important factor, other aspects are becoming equally important.
If brands want to succeed online, they can no longer just stuff content full of keywords. Marketers should understand what their target audience will be searching for online and what answers they are hoping to get.
In this article, we will be covering what user intent is and its place in modern SEO. The topics we will be discussing in this article are:
- What is user intent (search intent), and why does it matter?
- How does search intent impact SEO and search rankings?
- How to optimize content for user intent?
What Is User Intent (Search Intent) And Why Does It Matter?
User intent is by no means a new concept and has been around for quite some time. It just wasn’t as developed as it is now. But the growing use of machine learning has allowed Google Search to elevate its use and make it a critical component of SEO. User intent, also known as search intent, is the user’s primary goal when using a search engine. When they type in their query, they have a specific information goal in mind.
Let’s use sushi as an example to demonstrate what search intent is. Searching for information on making sushi has a different intent than searching for the nearest sushi restaurants. Similarly, searching for where sushi originated and its history is yet another different goal. Although they all share a similar topic, the intentions are vastly different.
To implement a robust overall SEO strategy, you will need to understand the users’ intent behind their query and make sure that your content addresses this to rank in Google’s search results. When it comes to SEO, user intent is a rank enabler, which means that if a page does not meet the intent that Google Search deems fit for a specific keyword, it won’t rank for it.
Initially, search engines were unable to understand the finer nuances of user intent. Back then, search results were largely based on matching the string of letters in the query with the same ones in the content of result pages. This is where keywords took off and became a critical part of your ranking strategy. However, the algorithm that determines SERPs keeps evolving, and as the technology becomes more sophisticated, so does the algorithm.
First, the algorithm started understanding the meaning behind what users were typing. This was the launch of Hummingbird in 2013. This evolution of the algorithm led to the introduction of the Knowledge Graph mechanism and the increasing ability of the search algorithm to understand more complex ideas and concepts. Then in 2015, Google Search introduced RankBrain, the AI portion of the algorithm. RankBrain helps Google to understand the meaning of words and queries. Since its introduction, RankBrain has grown to the third most important ranking factor.
This is why the combination of a question format along with keywords is so effective. By using questions directly in the format of your content and answering those questions, you are providing Google Search with information that is easy to understand, interpret and rank.
What About Keywords?
Don’t think that you can forget about keywords just because user intent has become an essential factor. Keywords still play an important part in your SEO strategy and should not be overlooked. The only thing that has changed is that the focus has shifted. Instead of just stuffing your content full of keywords to rank, it’s more important to answer the users’ questions thoroughly as they relate to the keywords you are targeting.
This change in focus and evolution of the algorithm also means that Google Search no longer looks to match the keywords 100% as in the past. Although an exact match is better for your SEO, the search engine can now recognize the keywords even if they are in a different order. When it comes to using keywords and search intent effectively in your SEO strategy, you need to understand that the two work together with other SEO elements. These different elements all come together to create good SEO content that ranks high in search results. It is good to incorporate keywords with a high search volume and low competition. However, your content should support the keywords and address the queries associated with them.
How Search Intent Impacts SEO and Page Rankings
Google Search is focused on providing a good user experience. As such, the search engine needs to connect users to content that meets their needs as quickly as possible. This focus determines the SERP layout and how websites are ranked within the results page.
When a query is made through the search engine, Google Search displays a combination of content. This includes local 3-packs, snippets, videos, images, and carousels to quickly connect users with the information they need.
For example, suppose you were to type in how to bake bread into your search bar. In that case, you will likely see a video on how to do it, images of baked bread, and text-based recipes (with more images)—giving the user the option to go with the information that is most accessible to their needs.
Another user intent factor that’s considered is site speed. Why? Because the end-user wants their information quickly, so sites that load fast are given better ranking results. Users also prefer content with images as they interpret visual information faster. Having images with good alt text is excellent for your SEO and overall search ranking. The common element among these factors remains to prioritize the users’ intentions and their needs.
Types of Search Intent
There are an endless amount of search terms that can be used to get information on search engines. These terms can be organized into four different types of search intents, often referred to as the four pillars of user intent. However, it is important to note that these searches are not binary, and one search term may fall into two or more of these types depending on the user’s needs.
This is usually the first stage of the user’s journey. For now, they are just trying to understand more on a particular topic. As the name suggests, these are the types of searches that look for specific information. This is also the most common type of search intent used as it can find answers to an infinite amount of questions. Users with informational search intent may be looking for definitions, how-to guides, recipes, and similar.
Informational search intent is typically question-based, such as how, who, what. Here are a few examples of informational searches you may find:
- How to bake a cake?
- What is a tornado?
- Bill Gates
- Directions to the Grand Canyon
In these searches, users know where they want to go. Sometimes users will use the search bar to get to a specific website because it is easier than typing in the URL or because they are unsure of the whole URL. These searches are usually centered around a specific brand and will include that name in the query along with additional specifications. The intention of these users is to be navigated to a specific page or website, such as a login page.
Here are a few examples of navigational searches you may come across:
- Facebook login
- Olive Garden menu
Commercial Investigation or Preferential
The user intent behind these searches is usually to research products or services before making a purchase. In this case, the users usually know what product or service they need but want to determine which would be the best option. They are already past the informational point and are close to purchasing once they’ve decided which product, brand, or service to support. These searches may include mentions of specific brands or even non-branded localized terms. The results you can expect from these searches will usually be comparative articles, best of articles, or reviews.
Here are a few examples of commercial investigation searches that you may see:
- McAfee vs. Kaspersky
- Best SEO software
- Shopify reviews
- Wix or WordPress
These users are ready to make a purchase. They’ve already done all the research and know which product, service, or brand they want. These searches usually include brand names and intent-to-buy phrases.
Here are a few examples of transactional searches that you may come across:
- Buy Macbook Air
- Cheesecake Factory coupons
- Shop Gucci bags
- Adidas sneaker sale
Let’s take a look at some of the challenges you may experience when optimizing your SEO for user intent.
User Intent Changes Over Time
Users heavily influence user intent. Over time a searcher’s goals might change, and that can affect their intentions. For example, Wuhan used to be a popular search term for the town in China. However, after the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, the search intent changed as more people started searching for Wuhan to find information on the pandemic.
User Intent Is Challenging to Identify at Scale
Many factors make it difficult to identify at scale. One of the popular methods of identifying user intent is searching the keyword and seeing which results rank highest and what type of content it is. Another method is looking at the search modifiers to identify the type of content users are looking for. However, this cannot be done on a large scale as it takes a lot of time, and searching every single keyword can bring conflicting results.
User Intent Is Affected by Devices
The Google algorithm also takes the user experience into account when evaluating their intentions. Therefore, the device that you make a search query from will also impact the results. If your content is not optimized for a certain device, the user intent will not be met, and you will not rank in the results for that search.
Google Might Affect the Results
Google Search might change the information they show depending on trends that they see emerging. For example, if you Google Independence Day, you might get results about the famous movie. However, when the 4th of July approaches, Google Search changes the results to show information about the upcoming holiday.
Keywords Can Be Interpreted Differently
Many keywords have multiple meanings or do not have a clear intent associated. In these cases, it can be difficult for Google’s algorithm to interpret the search intent accurately. The shorter the keyword, the wider the range of search results can be.
Keywords Can Be Affected by Your Location
A user’s location directly impacts the search results that they get shown. For example, if you search for Tumeric and there is a restaurant with the word in the name near your location, it will appear in the results. However, if there are no businesses or brands with the word nearby, you will receive results for the plant or spice.
How to Optimize Content for User Intent?
Now that we’ve covered what user intent is, we need to consider how to optimize SEO for it. Here are a few tips that can be used to ensure you optimize your content for user intent.
- Match content type and all the metadata to the search intent.
- Examine the competition for the keyword to see what content type is ranking well.
- Format your content for relevant SERP features such as numbered lists, videos, etc.
- Identify gaps where you can add more value above your competitors.
- Arrange your content around existing search queries.
User intent now forms one of the cornerstones of modern content marketing. It is a critical step in ensuring your rank in search results. The focus has shifted from superficial keywords to the user experience and how much value the user receives from the content. Keep the user in mind and ensure you create valuable content that answers their questions quickly and effectively while still targeting relevant keywords. You will have a strong SEO content strategy in place.
If you are ready to start implementing user intent in your SEO content strategy, take a look at our content creation services to see how we can assist you.