The Science of Search Intent

Search Intent is the reason someone types a term into a search engine such as Google. Search Intent is the purpose, the motive, the ‘why’ behind a search engine user’s action.

Although the vast majority of search terms are not linguistically structured as questions, that doesn’t mean that they’re not still questions within the mind of the user.

Every single search represents a question for which the searcher is seeking an answer. In fact, one search can often represent multiple questions within the mind of the user. The broader or more generic the search term the more questions that may exist.

Take for example a search for “kate middleton dress”. This seemingly simple search contains multiple possible questions within the mind of the searcher. Such as:

  • “Which designer made Kate Middleton’s Wimbledon dress?”
  • “How much does Kate Middleton’s Wimbledon dress cost?”
  • And of course, “Would Kate Middleton’s Wimbledon dress look good on me?” 😉

In order to understand that a search for ‘kate middleton dress’ probably refers to the dress which she wore to Wimbledon in 2019, we need to look beyond the search term.

Why is Search Intent so important?

If you can understand the intent behind a user’s search you can better understand their problem and deliver a solution that meets or exceeds their expectations.

There is an unfortunate tendency by search engine marketing specialists to focus on the numbers – search volumes, traffic, clicks etc. Given that this is often what clients and bosses look for it’s entirely understandable, and indeed necessary. However, it’s not the whole picture. Numbers represent the ‘what’ but without the ‘why’ they mean nothing.

For example, a telco may see a large volume of searches for “unlock iphone” and assume that people are having trouble remembering or inputting their iPhone passwords. So they decide to create a dedicated support page to deal with this problem. However, a deeper investigation into the search intent will reveal that this search volume is largely driven by people trying to unlock stolen iPhones or ones otherwise traded on the grey market.

It’s clear that if we’re to achieve the numbers that matter – increasing revenue or decreasing costs – then we need to take a long hard look at the ‘why’.

How can I investigate Search Intent?

Search has moved on from the days when we tried to ‘think like Google’ inputting plus signs and other robotic search commands. Search engines are a lot cleverer now. Today, we think and we search like humans :-). As a result, our intents are both more obvious and more nuanced. Here are three steps you can take to investigate search intent today:

Take a look at the search engine results pages (SERPs)

This is one of the easiest and most effective methods of examining search intent. Google has thousands of software engineers making sure that search results remain relevant. So let them do the hard work and simply look at the results that come up for your terms.

If you’re working for an international brand make sure to use the relevant language and terminology plus a VPN router so the results you see are the same as your customers.

You should also look at the ‘Searches related to’ list at the bottom of the SERP, Knowledge Panels, ‘People also ask’ and other featured snippets. Click on the links to dig deeper.

Take a look at your website analytics

Next, you should look at your website analytics and Search Console. What terms did people search before coming to your site and what did they do once they got there?

Chances are if they exited your site straight away your page didn’t answer their intent. Or perhaps they navigated around your site and ended up completing an action deeper in the site. Does this action or page give insight into the intent behind their initial search?

Use your common sense

The third and most important method which you need to apply when investigating intent is common sense. Use your judgement, insight and intuition to aid your investigation.

Common sense is informed by your experience, knowledge of your product and understanding of your customers. You should also rely on the knowledge and experience of others within your organisation to provide you with greater insight.

It’s essential to note that just because the results of your investigation indicate that a particular search term has a given search intent this can change. As trends come and go, news stories break and markets shift your results and their relevancy will alter.

How can I use Search Intent to improve my performance?

There’s little point understanding a user’s search intent if you’re not going to do anything with it. All of ‘the 5 P’s of Marketing’ (Product, Price, Place, Promotion and People) can benefit from understanding the intent of relevant searches. Here we will focus on the most direct ones – the promotion of your product or service on search engines (place). 

Utilising Search Intent in search engine advertising (SEA)

In order to best utilise search intent in search engine advertising, you should first categorise it. Does the term suggest an informational, transactional, commercial or navigational intent? How focused and therefore far along the path to purchase is the searcher? A search intent approach to your SEA can be used to inform:

  • Account structure
  • Search terms
  • Ad copy and creatives
  • Bidding and budget
  • Landing pages

While you should always investigate search intent it is not always necessary to manually adapt your ads for it. Google’s increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence allows for campaigns which automatically adjust depending on the context of a search. Take a look at our previous blog series How to Prepare for AI in Advertising to learn more.

Utilising Search Intent for search engine optimisation (SEO)

Most businesses will benefit from taking a search intent approach to their SEO initiatives. The days of keyword stuffing are gone and we must now create content that addresses the underlying reason behind a customer’s search. We must answer related questions, provide easy navigation to more info. and simple interfaces to complete desired actions.

In order to address different and changing search intents, you may well need to create intent-blended pages such as Amazon does very successfully. Whether you decide that this is the right approach for your business or not if you build your content in a modular way you will end up with a flexible future-proofed website. Don’t forget to optimise your content modules to allow them to be picked up as featured snippets.

With the increased focus on intent, SEO has gone from a little nerdy to (almost) sexy. So, take your nose out of the spreadsheet, sit back, start using both sides of your brain . . . . . and enjoy!