Deciphering search intent: 5 areas to get you started

As digital marketers, we depend on search engines to properly categorize and prioritize search results based on their intention, extension, and authority. Essentially, for digital marketing to be successful, we need to trust that search engines understand what users are actually searching for and that search engines can provide the best results to meet user intent.

In the field of linguistics, words and phrases are composed of intentions and extensions. Intension denotes the semantic meaning of a word or phrase, while extensions denote the objects that this phrase can be attributed to.

For example, the intention of the word “sock” is meant to denote a piece of clothing we wear on our feet. The extension of this term could be used to identify multiple characteristics and categories of socks, including men’s socks, women’s socks, high socks, ankle socks, blue socks and more.

Categorizing and providing the proper results for this requires massive amounts of data to provide the most informed decision about a particular search. For example, if we apply homonyms to this scenario, such as the word “apple,” we can see that search engines are forced to choose and ration out its limited real estate between the brand Apple and the fruit apple.

This conundrum is not limited to broad-tail phrases, either.

Let’s take the search term “interactive dog toys” with a Google Ads search volume between 10,000 and 100,000. Maybe when you search this term, you have a specific toy in mind or an idea of what you’re looking for, but you can’t quite put it into words. There are literally thousands of extensions or types of interactive toys to choose from.

Search engines choose these results in a number of different ways, including applying sentiment analysis to content on the web, extracting data from its product listing ad (PLA) platform, and even reviewing what competitors are using as ad copy for their Google Ads bid.

But what is the intent of this search? Are people attempting to buy an interactive dog toy, or are they researching the best one before buying in a store? Maybe the answer lies in the search engines themselves.

Understanding search engines

My next point is the main point of this article: understanding search intent helps marketers better understand both users and search engines.

According to best practices, we should always write for users and not search engines. This is undisputed. But can understanding how search engines prioritize results also give us more insight into our customers? Of course!

Keywords let us know what users are searching for, but search results and click data show us what users find rewarding. In fact, many people believe that click data actively influence results, and this makes sense even if Google will not confirm it.

Google and Bing also offer different search engine result page (SERP) blocks for searches of different intent:

  • Featured snippets.
  • Answer box.
  • Local 3-pack.

We obviously know that “interactive dog toys” is a high-volume search term, but this really gives us no insight into what users want. If we look at the results of this page, we’ll see a listicle of the best dog toys, and not a product listing, is the number one result.

Of course, search engines may be splitting hairs by providing results for both transactional and informational intent, but it also shows that, more often than not, people are actually conducting research for this term.

So what is the benefit of optimizing for intent?

  • Moving the needle on organic SERP results by offering more relevant results.
  • Increasing the click-through rate (CTR) of our advertisements.
  • Facilitating more on-page conversions for people who land on our site by meeting their intent.
  • Delineating between local and national content.
  • Offering answers that can make it into the featured snippets box.

With this in mind, I would like to outline five strategies to acquire more data about search intent to improve our overall digital marketing performance.

1. Start with keyword research

Generally, keyword phrases have four forms of intent:

  1. Informational. How, what, when, where and why.
  2. Transactional. Buy and sell.
  3. Commercial. Directions, reviews, store hours.
  4. Navigational. Branded and page/URL specific.

I would suggest different tools for different forms of intent.

  • Informational. SEMrush, AskthePublic.
  • Transactional. AdWords, UberSuggest.

For organic SEO, start with a crawl of your existing site using a tool like Deep Crawl or Screaming Frog to extract a list of keywords your pages are currently ranking for.

Leverage competitor research and the tools listed above to create a list of keywords you want your site to rank for. Segment them by intent to determine what strategy should be used to create the best result for them.

For example, keywords with the terms “how,” “guide” and “tips” would obviously imply the need for an informational blog post.

Pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns will generally rely on broad-tail keywords acquired from tools, such as Google Keyword Planner, that include terms such as “buy,” “sell,” “rent” or “quote.” Segment these keywords by intent to create coordinated campaigns that target user intent on multiple levels: curiosity and purchase.

2. Extract data from SERPs

As previously stated, keyword phrases do not always easily identify intent. Use search engines to your advantage for further analysis.

Run your list of seed keywords through a Google search in Incognito mode. Be sure to clear your cache so you can receive unbiased search results. Analyzing the results for similar keyword groups can help you understand why certain pages are outranking others. It will also show you what search engines deem most relevant to search intent.

For greater contextual clues of what users are looking for, consider consulting these resources:

  • Google’s recommended searches.
  • Google Answer Box.
  • Google and Bing’s autofill search function.

These contextual clues will point you to popular searches within a given industry and help you determine what topics are most relevant to a given query. With this information in mind, you can analyze these keywords to see whether users are looking to make a purchase or conduct more research.

Brand heavy and mostly transactional

A mix of informational and transactional keywords

3. Assessing the funnel

With this in mind, you should also look at your existing channels to optimize content to better match intent.

Log into Google Search Console (GSC) and filter by pages to check the CTR of your top-ranking URLs that are generating impressions. This figure will provide insight into whether or not your URL, title tag and meta description are meeting user intent for a given search.

I’d argue this also makes the case for including exact match keywords in your rich snippets in order to match intent.

  1. Exact match keyword terms are bolded by Google.
  2. Users actively search for these keyword terms or phrases in rich snippets.
  3. Dynamic SERPs will pull sentences from your content that features these exact match keyword terms.

When seeing pages that aren’t generating any impressions, you’ll need to go back and either update your keyword strategy or leverage competitive analysis to see how competitors are meeting that intent. Sometimes it just takes gathering some clicks from link building and paid social campaigns to show Google and Bing your pages are authoritative and relevant to search queries.

You should also evaluate your user behavior flow in Google and Bing analytics to see what elements of your site users are engaging with after landing on it. Are your internal links adding contextual information that satisfies additional intent? Is your landing page nurturing intent to facilitate conversions?

Analyze session times, bounce rates and your tracking code to implement conversion optimization strategies that meet the intent and result in some revenue for your business.

In your analytics, you’ll notice that sales pages should generally gather greater clicks for broad-tail searches, as well as more conversions. On the flip side, informational content pages should gather more clicks for long-tail queries and have longer session times, with sometimes higher bounce rates.

4. Monitor competitors’ Google Ads bids

On the paid side, use tools like SEMrush and SpyFu to see what keywords competitors are bidding on to find insight on what competitors deem most relevant for their campaigns.

Analyze ad copy and landing pages to see how keywords are implemented in titles, descriptions and CTAs. Leverage these keywords to fuel your campaign and experiment with split testing to see which campaigns are generating the best results. It makes sense that ad copy that matches intent generates more conversions and doesn’t waste ad spend.

5. Optimize for natural language searches

Finally, if you want to understand the intent behind searches better, you can also look toward the users themselves. Look at the language people use when conducting voice searches or typing out phrases of their own on forums and social media posts.

Create surveys and pose questions on social media to extract this information. Just engage with your customers to identify the intent behind the terms and jargon they use. You understand your customers better than anyone else, so you should be able to identify the intent behind most searches.

To help out, I’d suggest optimizing your on-site content to answer as many user questions as possible, whether it’s for a paid listing or informative blog post. This will make your content more relevant for users and search engines no matter its intent.

Go optimize!

We use keywords for virtually every aspect of digital marketing. Until recently, neural networks and deep learning were not available to help search engines understand the semantic meaning and intent behind user searches. They simply had to use links and exact match keywords to hope that their results were relevant enough for users.

As search engines become more sophisticated, I’d argue it’s easier for digital marketers to optimize for the best results. The data is clear in the keywords and search engine results.


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