Search intent is one of the most important factors to understand when producing content and refining your website’s most crucial and frequently visited pages.
While there are many SEO practices out there that are widely misunderstood, search intent has become a hotly debated topic in recent years, with some questioning whether the basic principles that have been followed for years by professional SEOs and copywriters alike are outdated, and whether search intent should be approached in a completely different manner.
Search intent is built around answering the audience’s question. Great search intent should be able to think beyond the basics of answering the initial audience question, for both the sake of the user and the business.
In this article, we will explore search intent and see how it can be expanded on to bring in a wider audience and create both websites and content that better serves their needs.
What is Search Intent?
Before you can start to approach search intent in a new way and explore how to optimise and experiment with your pages beyond an audience’s main question, it’s important to understand where the general consensus surrounding search intent is at the present moment.
It is typically thought throughout SEO and advertising professions that search intent can be categorised into four main types:
Informational: The user is looking for information in order to answer any questions they have. These can be short-form questions with a specific answer or long-form ones open to different interpretations. Even a name can be an informational search.
Navigational: The user is looking for a specific location (this is usually a website). Rather than entering in the search box the URL, they are searching for the website (or brand name) for speed and convenience.
Transactional: The user is motivated by money (buying or selling items). This is most traditionally used to find e-commerce websites or products at the best price.
Commercial Investigation: User interested in buying an item but undecided. Rather than knowing exactly what they want to buy and where they want to buy it, the user is open to suggestions from the search platform of the best price and provider.
These methods are part of a proven way of improving search traffic coming to your website, which you can read more about here.
Why are these methods important to know if we’re thinking beyond them? It gives us a foundation to infer what the user is looking for and how we may think beyond the basics of answering their main question (if we even really know what that is).
Why is Search Intent Important
Each of these four types of search intent offer website managers and content creators greater insight into how to better direct the creation of their webpages towards something that will please specific audience bases. It offers the rationale behind the search.
A website that lets these types of search intent dictate its content direction will be better served to get itself in front of customers and answer their questions, as it helps you rank higher in SERPs.
New brand discovery is very often based on this exact concept, as businesses in competitive markets will look to make their mark latching onto answering customer queries rather than focusing their budget on advertising presentation.
Search intent isn’t just important for practical brand promotional and financial reasons, it’s a way to help you understand what customers want and how you can better serve them in the future.
It’s an exercise in long term research for your business, industry and the changing face of general customer habits.
Now we know what search intent is, we need to understand why context is so important to it, and the potential of what it can be.
Great search intent is able to think a step ahead of the initial context of the question.
Let’s take informational search intent at the most basic level, for example.
If a user searches ‘Is Coffee Bad For You’ they may be looking for a specific answer to the question (perhaps they’ve had too many coffees and want to know whether a fourth one that morning is a bad idea), but once they have the answer (or even before) they may have a follow-up question in mind.
This follow-up question can come in a number of different forms.
They might want to buy healthier coffee immediately (and this example blends science, theory and product alternatives).
They might want to learn how to wean themselves off coffee. They might find that milk is the issue and look for alternatives.
You obviously can’t aim to answer all of these questions, but it’s important to be aware of the different, and ever-changing, mindsets that define them.
The user might even be a professional in the coffee industry doing market research, making medical sites their primary focus.
They might be trying to gauge public opinion on a topic for their own marketing or even search purposes.
To assume that every user is the everyman simply looking to buy a product or sign up to a newsletter and not someone more in the know than you is a mistake all too common when it comes to optimising for search intent.
Let’s take a look at another example.
When you’re buying a new car you don’t just focus on the car itself, you start to do a bit of research to learn about everything else you’ll need to sign up for and invest in.
For example, say you were looking to transition to an electric car. You wouldn’t just look up makes and models to try and make an informed decision about whether or not to buy an electric car or a hybrid, you’d want to immediately know about insurance too.
A web page looking to attract and retain users looking for this information needs to be ready for everyone at all stages of learning about electric car insurance (as this example shows, you don’t just need to inform, but be prepared to catch people at their most informed or just play to a crowd that wants a quote then and there).
The stage of the journey is almost as important as the actual question, as it dictates the context and mindset around the user searching it.
‘Taking Action’ Means Lots of Different Things
So now we understand the context in which people are searching and how they may stumble upon your content. But, what do they do when they get there?
‘Tacking action’ is the phrase used to describe what a user does when they land on a page after clicking a link following their initial question. It’s what they do next and what they can do on the page.
This, of course, can mean a lot of different things, depending on the nature of your website and the industry within which your business operates.
A user may be looking to purchase a product then and there or they may want to sign up to a newsletter for a reminder of when it goes on offer at a cheaper price.
Taking action can also be delayed.
Leaving the page may hurt your bounce rate, but creating content that sticks in the mind is an equal achievement if they eventually return having shopped around. That is thinking ahead of their question and supplanting yourself in their mind.
The different forms of ‘taking action’ must always be considered. You can focus on one, but trying to serve multiple masters through an inventive page structure is possible.
You Can Dictate the Pipeline
When we spoke about context earlier in the article we discussed the idea of a follow-up.
What is a user planning to do after their initial search? Do they have a list of questions they’re looking to follow and ticking them off one by one? Or are they open to being led down a totally new path?
Something that is often forgotten by content creators when working with search intent and choosing keywords to focus on is that they have a modicum of control over where the user goes next.
More than a modicum in fact.
When a user is on your website you have a moment to completely dictate the pipeline of their browsing session.
They may feel like they have free will to click off, but curiosity can be harnessed to keep them clicking through and direct them to your aims.
How you structure your page can lead them down completely different paths, which can be directed by looking at the initial customer query in another way.
A customer looking for fishing spots close to them may sound experienced in the sport, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to buy a rod and bait first.
The pipeline and the long term use of your website are there to be defined.
Search Intent Should Breed Creativity
Much of content creation may be built around four rigid types of search intent, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for creativity.
Going beyond the audience’s main question means offering them something completely different from any other page they might land on.
This can mean linking to related articles, products and even social media pages where users can enter into a discussion.
Creative use of the pipeline can build you little pockets of users who can all return to the site for various reasons.
Be inspired when creating your content, but in a manner that respects the research.
Research shouldn’t be a rigid format you follow without deviation, but a platform for you to be more creative. It’s a matter of longterm thinking.
How Do Audiences Feel About ‘Searching’
It may seem odd to us who are in-the-know when it comes to SEO and the power of search, but not everyone is familiar with the concept and some are even hesitant to embrace recent advancements as successful.
In many ways, the internet is still in its infancy. It may have grown significantly, particularly in the last few decades, but we are only now beginning to live in a world in which the majority are online and searching questions every day.
Intelligent content written around search intent needs to be aware of people’s unfamiliarity with how search works, and play to conventions.
In many ways, this is the concept of search intent distilled to its simplest level, but content creators need to make sure not to get ahead of themselves and try and appeal to an audience that may not understand the nuances of search.
Embrace people’s mistakes and lack of knowledge, using your content to put them at ease, answering their questions in the simplest way possible.
Optimised content is great if you assume everyone skim-reads, but older users may delve into the article in detail and want to commit time to the page.
Different users will find rewarding elements in different forms of content.
Thinking outside the box and creating content that is not just optimised for the four recognised forms of search intent but the points mentioned throughout this article will help improve your rankings significantly and create a more engaged relationship with the customer.
This may lead to further conversions or it might just offer you insight into how to prepare future content, but both conclusions will give you a greater holistic view of what customers want from their searches.
Remember, conversions are not the only worthwhile metric; increased dwell times and decreased bounce rates are the sign of a web page that is offering customers something, and that implanting in the customer’s brain is often the best you can hope for from content.
I’m a UK based freelance SEO consultant and digital marketer and I provide results-driven online consulting and digital marketing services to SMEs. Are you ready to grow in 2020? Get in touch today!