Understanding user intent is the cornerstone of modern SEO. Brands that want to succeed need to make sure that they have a firm understanding of what customers search for and what they want to see when they enter these queries. If you want to succeed with modern SEO, you have to understand user intent. Best practices for SEO continue to evolve and mature, seemingly at lightning speed. In just the past few years we have seen the dominance - now 57% of web traffic according to our research - of mobile, the growth of voice search, and the incorporation of RankBrain.
In the wake of these advancements in both technology and consumer expectations, brands have had to adapt their strategies for creating and optimizing content for visitors. The goal of the search engines has been provide the best possible search experience for users. Google in particular has been continually looking for ways to better understand search intent, including the push towards optimizing for micro-moments and differentiating SERPs based upon the anticipated content desires of the users. Brands that learn how to pull away from their competition and dominate the SERPs understand how to interpret the needs of the user so that the content directly addresses what they seek.
Breaking down search intent
Search intent means understanding what motivates the user. It requires going beyond simple one-to-one keyword matching and instead interpreting the meaning behind search terms to better understand what the person wants to achieve. This could mean that they want to find something, go somewhere, buy a product or service, or learn something. The micro-moments, which we've discussed a few times previously, comprise an important piece of this process. These micro-moments articulate the general stages that people go through to satisfy their needs. They can happen in any order at any time. Google has classified these moments as the following:
- The I-want-to-go moment
- The I-want-to-buy moment
- The I-want-to-do moment
- The I-want-to-know moment
How search engines began to understand user intent
When search engines first began, they had no ability to understand user intent. Instead, search results were based purely upon connecting the strings of letters in the query with the strings of letters in the results pages. SERPs were generated based upon the matches of these strings, rather than trying to understand the nuances of why different people might use similar keywords and keyword phrases. After a few years, the algorithms began to evolve and better understand what people meant when they typed in particular queries as well as how different words interacted with each other. This led to the introduction of the Knowledge Graph for Google, and the increasing ability of the algorithms to understand complex ideas conveyed through written language. As Amit Singhal of Google announced:
[...] we’ve been working on an intelligent model—in geek-speak, a “graph”—that understands real-world entities and their relationships to one another: things, not strings.
This was the beginning of Google’s attempt to understand natural language. In 2015, we saw another leap forward with Google’s introduction of RankBrain, the AI portion of the ranking algorithm. RankBrain works to help Google better understand the meaning and intention of words and queries, particularly the new queries that the algorithm sees. Since its introduction, RankBrain has risen to be the third most important ranking factor. These changes mean that marketers need to focus on user intent more than keywords. Exact match still matters, but Google doesn't just look to match keywords in queries with those in the website text. The algorithm works to understand the whole idea behind the query, including the intention of the searcher. Websites must similarly follow this pattern to provide the optimal user experience.
How does search intent impact page rankings and SERPs?
Google wants to provide the optimal search experience for users, which means connecting them quickly with the content that answers their needs. This impacts how the search engine constructs the SERP layout and how they rank the websites within the results page.
Google displays a variety of combinations of types of content including local 3-packs, featured snippets, videos, images, and carousels to connect people quickly with the information they need. Google’s ranking factors themselves also see influence based on user needs. Look at site speed. The search algorithm gives preference to quick sites because that's what human end users wants to experience. Humans also process images faster than text and elicit positive responses to the inclusion of images with text-based content. Thus, images with alt text can also benefit SEO. Across all of these factors, the common denominator is prioritizing user needs and intentions.
The role of personas when optimizing for user intent
Marketers who want to properly optimize their content need to understand buyer personas, the customer journey, and how they fit together with search intent. Different keywords can have different intentions behind them depending upon the persona. Consider someone searching for the term “fried chicken”. If that user is a college student, they might just be looking for the closest location to buy a bucket. On the other hand, if the searcher is a cook or even just an adult trying to get dinner on the table, they might be more interested in finding recipes.
SEO practitioners and content marketers must work together to align their marketing personas and user interests with relevant content. Technology that allows them to understand different terms and the likely intentions and personas behind them, such as BrightEdge Content IQ, make it even easier to accomplish this goal. Optimal search practices mean not only understanding search intent, but also creating relevant content that draws in the targeted customers. Note that search and content marketing are unique in their capacity to directly assist prospective customers this way. Other forms of advertising are more disruptive, reliant on hopefully hitting customers at the right time in their journey or at least building brand recognition that may factor into a future buying decision. Search marketing is designed to consistently hit customers at the right moment in their journey and give them the content and information they need at the decisive moment.
Optimize content for user intent
To properly optimize content for search intent, there are a few key steps that you should follow.
- Make sure that queries direct users towards pages that will be helpful for them. For example, queries with purchase intent should be directed towards product pages.
- Use available technology, such as the BrightEdge StoryBuilder, to track how prospects move through content and monitor the micro-moments to see how customers interact with the material and the website.
- Perform research with features like the BrightEdge Data Cube to better target demand. You can then create content that is more aligned with the applicable user intent.
- Optimize the meta descriptions and the title tags on your pages. This will provide searchers with a better idea of what they will see on your page, helping you better target the right visitors.
- Consider the customers who might be looking for rapid information on certain topics. You can optimize for these visitors by creating full question and answer sections on some pages. This can also help you earn positions with Quick Answers for certain queries on Google, capturing the I-want-to-know population, as well as for optimizing for the increasingly popular voice search.
- Monitor your dwell time throughout the process. Although marketers tend to pay attention to bounce rate as an indicator of engagement, dwell time - the amount of time people spend looking at the page they clicked on - can be a better indicator of how well you met the needs of the searcher. Even if the user only reads one page before leaving, if they spend sufficient time on the page it demonstrates that your content met their needs and you made an impression.
- Optimize all content based on data. Use data to guide your entire content creation process. Data can tell you what topics will be popular with your target audience, the likely intention of those users, and then how well your content meets those needs.
User intent is the cornerstone of modern content marketing. Although best practices and technology seem to change at lightning speed, they continue to progress towards a common goal: understanding what the user wants to see so that the search engine can provide it to them. Brands that focus on this goal will find it significantly easier to develop their rankings and traffic while also avoiding potential algorithm penalties.