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SEO | Apr 19
Jack David Hildebrand on March 22, 2021 (last modified on March 23, 2021) • 17 minute read
Search intent has taken a central place in SEO as search engines have increased their algorithmic sophistication. The days of rising in the ranks by packing your text and HTML code with keywords are long gone, and today, in order to earn a spot at the top of search engine results pages, your content must address not just what users type into search engines, but why they type it.
So, how do you optimize content for search intent? Here’s everything you need to know.
Ultimately, search intent is a reliable insight into the user’s needs and desires. It’s no wonder savvy marketers increasingly rely upon it as an essential strategic advantage.
Among the people we surveyed, most of them offer some kind of professional services, while other respondents work in the software/tech industry, e-commerce, education etc.
There’s more to user intent than better SERP results. Understanding what users are looking for can help you design pages and craft content that delivers more value. It can even help management plan new products, services, policies, and pricing plans. Paying attention to user intent can help you attract more prospects and satisfy their needs more directly.
But to explain things simply, Google and other search engines keep track of user behavior. If a search leads to your content and the user searches no further, that’s a plus. And if the user returns to the search results and tries a second and third page, that’s a minus, meaning you didn’t satisfy the user’s intent.
Also, note that Google knows how long users spend reading your page and how quickly they click away when they don’t find what they want.
To conclude, a consistent, deliberate focus on user intent can help you ensure that everything you do, from social media posts and landing pages to blog posts and email campaigns, addresses customers’ needs precisely. Employed thoughtfully, user intent can help you make all of your communications with customers and prospects more efficient.
User intent can be broadly divided into four types: informational, navigational, transactional, and commercial.
Queries based on informational intent often contain the word “how,” but not always. Here are some informational search intent examples:
Navigational queries help users find their way around the internet. People sometimes use these queries because it’s faster than typing a long URL into the browser:
When users are ready to buy, they use transactional queries. These searches are intended to take them to commercial sites where they can make a purchase:
Finally, there are commercial queries. These are the searches consumers make when they are gathering information to help them make a buying decision:
Web logs, analytic engines, and other tools provide raw data about website visitors. Actionable intelligence comes from looking beyond the statistics to the real people who are making the queries.
Here are some techniques for discovering search intent in the data.
“We identify search intent mainly by thinking like the person Googling us,” says Jonathan Cohen of Cohen & Winters. Cohen says that empathy help the firm match search intent with customer personas.
Liam Carnahan helps implement SEO strategy for clients at Inkwell Content Services. “You must know as much as you can about the client’s audience,” Carnahan says. “Any time I am taking on a keyword research project, I send my client a questionnaire that asks all about their customers and prospects. It’s much easier to interpret intent when I am already thinking through the lens of the target audience.”
BrittanyBerger.com’s Brittany Berger says she identifies user intent by playing a kind of Jeopardy game with keywords. “We start with the information the user is searching for, and then look back at the questions they’re asking.”
Analytics data can help with this task. “For example, if someone searches for ‘microSaaS,’ the most likely Jeopardy question is ‘What is microSaas?’” Berger says. “But users could be searching for examples of microSaaS tools.” Berger looks at the user’s after-search behavior to see which meaning the user intended.
When we asked our respondents whether or not they create content around a specific search intent, more than 60% answer they do so for some content.
Here’s how some of our respondents study SERPs to identify optimization opportunities.
“When I look at the top 10 results for a keyword, that tells me what Google thinks the searcher is trying to find,” says Nelson Jordan of nelson-jordan.com. Google has powerful AI engines and data from trillions of searches, so its SERPs are based on solid data. Jordan relies upon Google’s engine to say what sort of search the user is conducting.
David De Haan of Fantastic Kayaks concurs: “The best way to identify search intent is by looking at the top Google results,” De Haan says. “Are they how-to articles, product reviews, lists of benefits?” De Haan says it’s important to check out the ads that appear on the page too, as well as the “People also ask” section at the bottom of the page. Taken together, De Haan says, this information will give you a good idea of what the user is searching for.
Emparion’s Paul Sundin takes Google SERPs a step further, conducting custom searches to identify intent. “I perform searches like ‘benefit planning,’” Sundin says, “then add a word like ‘best.’”
This strategy helps Sundin gauge which percentage of the audience is gathering data in anticipation of making a purchase.
Sundin studies the top-ranked pages, which collectively account for about 90% of organic traffic. “To optimize, I need to create content that answers the user’s query directly so they can easily find what they are looking for on our website,” Sundin says.
There’s more to a search results page than a list of websites, says Russell Michelson of Gift Kosher. “We use a simple hack that few marketers remember to do,” Michelson says.
Michelson notes the autofill options that appear when a keyword is typed into the search bar. That gives the company-related questions and topics that Google considers relevant.
“We top it off by scrolling to the bottom of the page and noting the ‘related searches’ list,” Michelson says.
At Searchlight Content, Ashley Cummings starts exploring search intent by using customer data and market research to identify the needs and pain points of the target audience.
“When I know what problems my target audience has, it’s easier to understand the questions they ask via search,” Cummings says. This approach lets Cummings understand why customers use specific keywords and what topics should be addressed in content.
“Next, I take a deep dive, researching competitors, keywords, and intent,” says Cummings. The goal is to understand how potential customers use keywords and what they are searching for with each particular query.
“Once I understand why customers are using specific terms and how they are using them, I can pinpoint where they are in the customer journey and optimize my content accordingly,” Cummings says.
There’s nothing wrong with reverse-engineering the success of top-ranked competitors. “I examine the top 10 Google posts that rank for a particular term,” says Vale Creative’s Eric Clay.
If your competitors are achieving high ranks with how-to articles, for example, then the same format should work well for you. If you respond with a different sort of content, Clay says, you are unlikely to rank.
Daniel Reeves of Dandy Marketing agrees. “If you were marketing an SaaS tool for personalizing websites, you would want to rank for ‘website personalization tools,’” Reeves says.
But a quick Google search of that keyword shows that all the top results are blog content, mostly focused on identifying the “top X website personalization tools.”
“If you still want to rank for that keyword, you’ll need to write a blog post rather than trying to rank a service or solution page,” Reeves says.
Editor’s note: Google Analytics can help you take your first steps toward analyzing search intent. Download this free Google Analytics Organic Traffic Dashboard Template to get started.
“Identifying search intent for optimizing content is all about going straight to the source, says Lauren Shroll of Camille Outside The Box. Shroll uses social media spots like Facebook groups, Reddit, Discord servers, and Clubhouse.
“These are gold mines,” Shroll says. “I note the questions that come up and record them in a document.” If a question comes up repeatedly, it means that many people need answers and they’re not finding them with their everyday web browsing.
Shroll uses these questions to create content that answers the core questions directly and concisely.
“Search intent can be identified by following your audience to online places where they speak openly about their pain points,” says Mitch Harad of Expert Opportunities.
Harad monitors conversations on Quora, Reddit, and various online forums to boost understanding of just what customers need to know.
“These places foster frank discussion about wants, needs, pains, and desires,” Harad says.
Social media platforms can help you discover quickly whether potential customers are finding the content available to them satisfactory or there are gaping holes. “If you spot an opportunity to approach your content from a new angle to meet their intent, you’ll have first-hand evidence that you’re on the right track,” says Harad.
A focus on search intent helps you get in your customer’s head. And that’s a big win, says Code Signing Store’s Casey Crane. “This gives us a starting place for writing content and it plays a key role in our optimization efforts,” Crane says.
“What you want to do is put yourself in your user’s shoes,” agrees Jonathan Aufray of Growth Hackers. Studying queries can help you understand whether the customer is at the brand awareness, consideration, interest, or conversion stage. The content can then be optimized accordingly.
At Hive19, Aaron Thomas analyzes searches to identify how the company can provide the most value, whether in informational, commercial, navigational, or transactional terms.
“Consumers often feel overwhelmed when browsing for product information,” Bremner says. Google reports that 53% of shoppers say they always do online research before buying. Bremner says consistently providing helpful information can help transform your brand into a trusted resource.
If you’re an established brand with a large customer base or social media following, surveys can help you understand customers’ needs even better, Bremner says. If you’re working for a start-up or small business, you can rely on free tools like Answer the Public to help you identify search intent and suggest related queries for SEO optimization.
When we asked our community of experts how they optimize content for search intent, most of them focus on more specified or micro-search intent.
A lot of our contributors target more specified search intent optimization by matching search intent and conversion points.
Justin Smith of OuterBox shares an example: “Let’s say you have an eCommerce website that sells toy trains,” Smith says. You have a product page that ranks #2 for the terms ‘free toy trains’ and ‘toy trains for sale.’ While the keyword ‘free toy trains’ drives 500 organic visits every month, ‘toy trains for sale’ brings you only 50.”
That doesn’t mean you should optimize for “free toy trains,” Smith says. “Toy trains for sale” is closely tied to consumers who intend to buy, and that’s who you should target with your product page. Place it strategically through the copy, in H1 tags, in anchor text, and so on.
You may also want to reach out to consumers just entering your marketing funnel. That’s where “free toy trains” comes in. “You’ll eventually want to create content that caters to all phases of the buying cycle,” Smith says, “from awareness to final purchase.”
“Top-of-the-funnel keywords usually have to do with defining a particular problem,” says Paul La Vigne of DVS Marketing & Advertising. “We keep that in mind as we map keywords to various stages in the sales funnel.”
At early stages, keywords are likely to be general. Many are formatted as questions.
Middle-of-the-funnel keywords can be transactional, La Vigne says, but most often the focus on specific products and how they compare to the market’s other offerings. These queries often incorporate industry jargon or brand-specific terms, which show that the prospect has defined the problem and is engaged in exploring possible solutions.
“Content optimized for the keyword and sales funnel stage should be helpful, engaging, and informative,” La Vigne says. “We don’t view this as a sales pitch, but as a way to offer value, make the searcher’s life easier, and begin building trust with our audience.”
Pay attention to the content Google provides in response to queries, advises Marcie Lord of Digital Dynamo.
“I recently audited and optimized page copy for online photo and image editors,” Lord says. “The search results for our keywords typically pulled up content with instructions for how to use competitors’ tools.”
With this information, Lord optimized the site by referring to the four-step process required for using the company’s pho0to and image editors. Lord included detailed instructions on the page – tagging them with keywords.
At Digital Silk, Emma Debeljak uses search intent to help outline and structure content. “We outline content to cover all the faces of users’ queries,” Debeljak says, “making sure to answer follow-up questions.”
In addition to query terms, Debeljak relies upon FAQs, Google snippets, related searches, and results from SEMrush.
Google provides lots of information in SERPs, notes marketing consultant Nikola Roza. The information is free and useful.
“The first thing I look for is content type,” Roza says. “Is it blog posts? Yes? Then I know I need to create a blog post and not a video.”
There’s nothing wrong with matching formats to the designs employed by the top-ranking websites, Roza says.
Roza notes whether the top-ranking pages are listicles, reviews, comparison posts, or checklists. “Whatever it is, I take note,” Roza says. “Then I try to create something similar but better.”
Tools for optimizing content based on user intent are starting to appear. In many cases, tools and services intended for other uses are also helpful.
SEO tools are among the first to help harness the power of search intent. “SEO tools like Moz, Clearscope, and BrightEdge can help identify search intent at scale,” says DiDi Global’s Takeshi Young.
These and other tools surface intent indicators that you can use as guideposts in optimizing content.
“I use Ahrefs Keywords Explorer to get some idea of what keywords are best for different user intent,” says Will Ward of Translation Equipment HQ. “It’s a handy tool that gives some good suggestions.”
Keywords Explorer covers all types of intentions, Ward says, whether informational, navigational, transactional, and commercial. Commercial intent is best for generating sales, but Ward says Ahrefs helps identify opportunities to address informational queries that draw prospects to the website.
Mostly Blogging’s Janice Wald says she uses both Ahrefs and the KWFinder keyword tool to discover what search engine users are interested in reading about. “Once I have my focus keyword, I optimize my content,” Wald says.
Wald relies on free tools like Yoast and Rank Math to ensure that the keyword doesn’t appear too frequently.
“We create a list of keywords related to our offering and run them through SEMrush to discover search intent in terms of monthly volume,” says BIS’s Jesse Spencer. The company then assesses the keywords to see how hard it will be to get a high SERP ranking.
“After we settle on a keyword, we check competing pages to see what additional keywords they use and rank for. This helps us flesh out the content of the page we are writing,” Spencer says.
BIS webpages are optimized for multiple keywords, Spencer says. Optimization is tweaked manually to prevent content cannibalization and other potential problems.
Chris Wilks of Brand Extract relies on SEMrush too. “The product’s content template tool is fantastic for analyzing intent and optimizing your content accordingly,” Wilks says.
Editor’s Note: SEMrush can help you identify search intent and build content to address it. You can download this free Blog Traffic Distribution Dashboard template to get started.
“Our content creation process revolves around a tool called Frase,” says Niles Koenigsberg of Real FiG Advertising + Marketing. “At our digital marketing agency, our content creation process currently says Frase is perfect for identifying search intent and creating content that speaks directly to that intent.
You start by typing a keyword, Koenigsberg explains. The tools analyzes search engine results and displays data alongside the document you’re working on. Frase analyzes SEO ranking factors like word count and external links for all the top SERP sites – so you know exactly what you must do to hit page one.
“You can use Frase to understand what searchers are looking for by comparing search results and analyzing common questions associated with each keyword,” Koenigsberg says. The tool pulls up questions and related sites to help keep content on track.
At Zoewebs, Y.Y. Lee relies upon the Google Ads keyword planner to do keyword research. “Google tells me the volume for each prospective keyword and it suggests related keywords with their search volume,” Lee says.
There are fancier tools, but Lee says the Google Ads keyword planner provides all the information necessary for mapping out content that matches search intent.
“We use HubSpot to track the exact pages contacts have viewed,” says Insynth Marketing’s Dorian Wallace. “That helps us tailor our strategy to encourage them to convert.”
HubSpot helps Insynth track customers through the sales funnel as their search intent evolves. “If a contact views pages based around email marketing and downloads our email marketing ebook, we will enroll them onto an email marketing workflow,” Wallace says. That’s a solid marriage between user intent and content.
“When creating content, it is important to know what consumers are searching for and what they are interested in learning more about,” says Annika Lile of Giant Partners. The firm uses AnswerThePublic and Answer Socrates to track user searches, using the data to create a content calendar.
The first step is to identify topics, Lile says. Then you can use AnswerThePublic and Answer Socrates to analyze search intent. The tools provide important information that you can use to create a content outline, including common questions.
“The more niche the term or search intent keywords, the hotter your leads will be from content that addresses them specifically,” Lile says.
Search intent is an invaluable concept, but Amplitude Digital’s Jeff Ferguson cautions that the term was invented by SEO marketers. “The phrase isn’t even officially recognized by Google,” Ferguson says, “except maybe in a few patent applications,”
That doesn’t mean the concept has no value, but it does explain why there are so many competing approaches and so few tools for analyzing and capitalizing on search intent.
What’s clear is that the top-rated pages on Google results pages are those that provide the best answers to questions that are only implied by the keywords users type. Whether search engines explicitly recognize different kinds of searches or not, the reality is that some queries are informational, some are navigational, some are transactional, and some are commercial.
With that information in hand, reaping the benefits of search intent analysis is a simple matter of formulating appropriate content and ensuring that it provides a clearer, more comprehensive answer than the competition’s.
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