How to understand searcher intent and use it to boost SEO rankings

Search engines exist to provide users with results that are relevant to the search query. Smart SEO campaigns are built on an understanding of how your audience searches around your industry, products and services.

A key point here is understanding the intent behind a given keyword search. A user wants to find specific information, and search engines have advanced algorithms and large amounts of traffic they analyze to determine which results are the best match for a keyword.

Understanding the broad categories of intent is crucial to developing a search engine optimization and content strategy to target not only the keywords but the intent behind the keywords.

In this article, we take a look at how to understand and categorize keywords based on intent to provide a solid foundation for your search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing.

Understanding searcher intent

In many ways, search engine marketing via SEO or paid methods is strategically simple. If you are a plumber in a small town, and someone searches for “plumber” plus the name of the town, then there is a pretty good chance you provide what they need. Getting in front of people at the exact time they have a requirement is good marketing.

Unfortunately, commercial terms are highly competitive across paid and organic search. For most businesses, there are other opportunities for branding and targeting customers higher in the marketing funnel. We just have to develop a greater understanding of the intent behind search keywords.

The first step here is to understand the three categories of search queries:

Navigational search queries

Do you ever type “Google.com” or “Facebook.com” into your browser? Or do you just type “Google” or “Facebook” directly into the address bar? This is a navigational query, a search performed with the intent of going directly to a specific website, or even a page on a site.

Not so long ago, folks would actually type in “www.Google.com” or “www.Facebook.com,” as you could not search from the address bar. Google changed all of that with Chrome by enabling search from the address bar, and other browsers soon followed suit.

There was no need for typing in the “www” or “.com.” All we had to do was search the company or brand and pull the trigger.

There are two main things to consider with navigational search:

  1. This is high-value traffic for the brand or business being searched, so make sure you look the part in the search engine results.
  2. There is an opportunity to get listed along with other businesses and potentially build brand awareness or even steal a click.  You can also inflict fear, uncertainty and doubt about competitor brands; paid search and organic listings can all be useful here.

Informational search queries

In terms of volume, this is the top of the funnel. There is a huge range of potential queries across the entire spectrum of topics out there. Business, marketing, health, fitness — the list goes on. With an informational search, the information is the end goal. Nearly all businesses will have opportunities in informational search.

From a business perspective, we are looking to identify queries that relate to the product or service you provide. You will then look to develop content that answers these questions or provides information on certain topics. This will position you in front of your potential audience. For example:

  • What is SEO?
  • SEO tips for [keywords].
  • Marketing ideas for small businesses in the [industry type].

The key opportunity here is to get in front of your audience and build brand awareness, credibility and website traffic.

You may also look to use this traffic to generate leads through forms of content upgrades using phrases like “Download a free guide.”

A popular strategy is to use visits to the site to qualify areas of interest and build a remarketing list which will attempt to generate leads or advertise your product or service.

Remember that searchers here may not be ready to buy what you are selling, and that’s OK. Look to build your brand so that when they are ready, you are in the running.

Commercial or transactional search queries

Commercial or transactional queries relate to the desired action that you would like a prospect to take.

These can range from the obvious — like searching on  “plumber” — to the more research-oriented, like “best restaurant in Birmingham” or “Samsung Galaxy contract.”

The action you want someone to take will depend on the business and could include things like signing up for a trial run, a newsletter or a new social network. The transaction relates to a desirable action for your business, such as increasing newsletter signup and making sales.

These keywords are all highly commercial in nature and therefore high-value. It is important not only to target these keywords but to ensure you focus on helping the visitor complete their goal once they arrive at your site.

Ambiguous keywords and personalized results

Not all keywords are crystal-clear in their categorization or intent. Take “SEO” for example. If a user searches for “SEO,” what exactly are they looking for?

A definition?

Some tutorials?

An agency?

The searcher may not be entirely sure and may simply be starting to investigate a topic.

Where intent is not always clear, Google will typically show a page of results that covers a wide variety of potential answers. Search results for “SEO” include a beginner’s guide, a definition of SEO, some beginner-level tutorials and some news articles.

We also see some light customization of search results based on your previous queries or browsing habits. Where Google feels it has an idea of your intent beyond what is implicitly stated in your keyword, it may adapt search results to show better results.

Mapping searcher intent to keywords

Understanding searcher intent allows you to build more strategic lists of keywords. This then helps us understand how to best target a given keyword and where that keyword fits into our overall SEO and content marketing strategy.

To do this, we will want to add a few new columns to our keyword research spreadsheet to cover intent and the potential financial value of the keyword.

  • Intent will break down to: navigational, informational and transactional.
  • The financial value will be: low, medium and high.

Here we have three keywords across a range of navigational, informational and commercial intent. Let’s break each type down for value:

  1. Google Search Console. This phrase shows huge volume but with navigational search intent. This is of little value, since it’s hard to target and not really able to offer a useful alternative.
  2. SEO tips. This term shows lower volume and information search intent. These searches likely point to a website owner wanting to optimize their own website. There are some opportunities for branding, credibility building and adding the user to a list of potential prospects. There is potential to drive remarketing and lead generation for further permission-based marketing here.
  3. SEO company. This term is associated with transactional search intent. The user is looking for an SEO company. This offers high financial value and is a desirable keyword.

AdWords CPC and competition

At my agency, we also include AdWords cost per click (CPC), AdWords competition and keyword difficulty in our keyword spreadsheets to help us get a full picture with regard to the potential value of the keyword. The Keywords Everywhere plug-in for Chrome makes this a quick and easy job.

Using the tool, I see the average CPC for “SEO company” is $28.77, where the CPC for “Google Search Console” is $0.00. This helps further confirm our thinking that “SEO company” is a great keyword. However, “Google Search Console” is unlikely to lead to any business, despite the lure of the huge search volume!

How to clarify searcher intent

Searcher intent is not always 100 percent clear, and it is easy to classify keywords as commercial when in fact they may be more informational in nature.

An example here is “small business SEO.” My initial take is that this would be a commercial keyword, and the intent would be small business owners looking for an SEO provider.

However, if we use Google to search on the term “small business SEO,” I don’t see much in the way of commercial results once you get past the ads. In fact, the content returned is almost exclusively informational.

My initial thought here was incorrect. However, by searching for the keyword and reviewing the results, I can better understand what Google sees as the intent and use this to help inform our strategy.

This relates to a problem we often see, more in the small business space, which is an attempt to rank the wrong kind of content. If you are attempting to rank your home or service page for an informational keyword, then you will struggle to get any traction.

The takeaway here is that you shouldn’t just trust your gut with regard to intent. Search the keyword and carefully review the results, and you can clarify what Google sees as the intent.

A fundamental component of successful SEO campaigns is to understand the intent and get best-of-class content assets in place. Your SEO campaign then becomes about promoting those content pieces to help build organic visibility.

Content strategy and clarity of intent

Understanding the intent behind the keywords you target simplifies the entire SEO process. Trying to rank content where the intent of your message is different to the intent of the search term is doomed to failure.

Creating content that ranks well and converts users requires a crystal-clear understanding of what the searcher is looking for. By simply searching for the terms we want to target and reviewing what content ranks well, we can identify what type of content we should be creating.

Once we understand the intent, we can review the content that ranks and look for opportunities where we know we can improve the content that is already ranking.

If we know our answer to a given question is the best and most useful answer out there, then the remainder of the SEO process becomes far easier.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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