Optimizing Search for Intent

Posted on July 29, 2019 by Media Culture

Topics: Digital

The average web search is only three words long.

While that may not seem significant, knowing how consumers use search engines such as Google and Bing is just as important as knowing what they are searching for. If your SEO efforts don’t take the how into account, then there is a good chance that your web content is not as optimized as you might think.

The issue here is what is known as “search intent.” This is how search engines interpret the search inputs to deliver meaningful results to the searcher even when their query is only a few words long. There are over 40,000 Google search queries every second, and if you don’t optimize your content with search intent in mind then your company may miss out on a significant number of hits.

How does search intent work?

When a user enters a query into a search engine, they are likely trying to do one of three things:

  • Learn some piece of information
  • Make a purchase or transaction
  • Visit a specific website

These are often referred to as informational, transactional and navigational intents, respectively. When a search query is run, keywords in the query are used to determine exactly what the user is trying to accomplish so that the query can be matched with the most relevant results.

Consider this example to see how this process works (and how ambiguous it can be.) A search for “US shoe sizes” is likely looking for information about shoe sizes in the United States (as opposed to the United Kingdom or other locales where sizing is different), whereas a search for “US shoes” could be interpreted as wanting to buy shoes that are sized in U.S. sizes. A search for your company’s name is likely looking for your website, whereas a search for your company’s name and a product is either looking for information on the product or looking for a place to buy it.

Types of intent

Beyond these basic categories, search engines classify intent in a few more specific ways.

Google search queries are classified into one of four different types of intent:

  • Know – Discover information about the query topic
  • Do – Accomplish a task on a smartphone or mobile device such as downloading a file or calling a local business
  • Website – Find the website for a company or online platform
  • Visit-in-Person – Locate nearby results for the query topic such as restaurants or the Post Office

Google also classifies some searches as “Know Simple” (a direct search for very specific information) and “Device Action” (a mobile device query asking the phone or device to accomplish a specific action, such as calling a contact while in hands-free mode). Knowing how these intents are classified can give you an advantage in keyword target selection because it can help you avoid selecting keywords that are not typically classified as “Know” or “Website” searches (which are the two types of intent that are most likely to be beneficial to your business.)

Tracking search intent

One way to evaluate keywords is to perform searches on Google or on other search engines to see which results are ranked highest.

This exercise provides you with a firsthand look at how specific keyword phrases are interpreted by the search engines. If a keyword phrase defaults to local results or provides results that seem more focused on smartphone usage, focusing your SEO efforts around them is likely to be ineffective.

As an alternative, several SEO tools are designed to track search engine results for specific keywords and can be used to check intent at scale. Keywords that return map data are likely interpreted with an intent to visit locations in person, whereas keywords that return a short text snippet are likely searching for specific knowledge.

By evaluating the types of results generated by keywords you can adjust your keyword usage to better fit user intent. This allows you to optimize your content and avoid wasting effort on keywords with the wrong intent.

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