What is User Intent and Why Does It Matter for SEO?

Published: Apr 08, 2020
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What are users thinking about when they search for things online? What exactly are they looking for when they use certain search terms? These questions, and shifting understandings of their answers, are at the heart of the way search engines display results.

In its move from keyword-centric to user-centric algorithms, Google has determined that user intent plays a critical role in determining relevant content. But what is user intent, and how does it impact the ways that marketers utilize search engine optimization (SEO)?

What is User Intent?

Simply put, user intent refers to what a user means when they type a search query into the search engine.

This intent can be informational, navigational, local, or transactional in nature, and Google answers each type of intent in specific ways. The SERP layout will respond to the dominant intent, though marketers should understand where a user might have dual intent and craft content accordingly.

The 4 Types of User Intent

1. Informational Intent

Informational intent refers to a user’s desire to find more information about the query. Sometimes the user is looking to answer a question or receive advice in response to a concern. Search results for informational intent queries appear as research, suggestions, or how-to steps.

In addition to a list of results, Google responds to informational intent queries with an answer box. The answer box quotes and links to website content that answers the user intent most succinctly and directly, and websites in the answer box have an advantage of appearing in results twice.

Content that fulfills user intent answers queries that ask “how can I,” “benefits of,” “steps for,” and “how to,” among others. In addition to integrating these keywords into your content on a given topic, consider structuring it as a list, including a video guide, or creating an accompanying infographic.

2. Navigational Intent

Far more specific than informational intent, navigational intent reflects a user’s search for very specific information, usually a particular brand or a specific page on a company’s website.

If a web page—such as a login portal or a list of service prices—requires a series of steps to reach, a user might choose to bypass the steps and instead search “Facebook login” or “MassageLuxe services.” Oftentimes, a user searches for contact information with navigational intent.

Alternatively, a user might forget the correct address for a website and turn to the Google search box instead. For example, www.coldstone.com does not lead to the ice cream franchise's webpage. As a result, a user searching for Cold Stone ice cream (whose web address is actually www.coldstonecreamery.com) might search for “coldstone” or “coldstone ice cream” in a search engine.

Ultimately, a user’s query manifests navigational intent when they want the search results to direct them to a specific place. To use the Cold Stone example, the user does not want more information about Cold Stone ice cream, as informational intent would suggest. Instead, they want to find a specific webpage. Navigational intent navigates users to an online destination.

Content optimized for navigational intent uses words such as “reviews, “testimonials,” “products,” “costs,” or “hours” to guide users to the correct page. In addition to product and service lists, content that fulfills navigational intent can appear as an ebook of reviews, an online form to accompany contact information, or a demo video with more information about a service.

3. Local Intent

Similar to navigational intent, local intent refers to a user’s intention of finding a location. Yet rather than navigate to a specific online destination, a user with local intent wants to find a physical location.

To indicate local intent, users often use keyword phrases such as “coffee shop near me,” “grocery store open now,” or “spa in Chicago.” In response to local intent, Google displays a map to guide a user to a location near them or to the specific location they searched.

In addition to integrating keywords, such as major cities in which your consumer-facing store is located or top items that you sell, ensure that Google can find your location through Google My Business. Consider also embedding Google Maps on a contact page to drive more traffic.

4. Transactional Intent

When a user’s intent is transactional, they intend to make a purchase as a result of the query. This usually means buying a product, but transactional intent is also present when a user wants to book a service or appointment.

Google’s SERP automatically displays ads when it detects transactional intent. Words like “buy,” “purchase,” “discount,” “coupon,” “apply,” “schedule,” “deals,” “download,” and “order” can help a page geared toward transactional intent stand out and receive better visibility. These pages can appear as product pages and live demos, as well as calls to sign up, book a service, or receive a free consultation.

Why User Intent Is Important

Since its creation, Google has worked to make its search results as relevant as possible to users.

Over the years, the search engine has altered its algorithm from responding to individual keywords to connecting all the words in a query before presenting a result. This allows Google to respond to not just the meaning of the words, but also the context and intention behind them. Content that answers user intention, not just matches keywords, ranks higher in Google.

The search engine’s progression to better search results has some history behind it. Google’s 2013 launch of Hummingbird, a significant algorithmic change, marked the search engine’s decisive move toward capturing the colloquial and conversational meaning behind queries.

Keywords still matter, of course, along with links, mobile responsiveness, and back-end structured data. But as Google’s ability to gather information on users has improved over the past two decades, so has its ability to produce results that fulfill a user’s intention. This might mean a more complex job for content marketers, but if done right, optimizing for user intent can help you target a more accurate audience, leading to higher ROI for your marketing efforts.

The rise of user intent marks Google’s ongoing journey of making machine learning more human-centric, and it signals to marketers that their content should be doing the same. Relevant, helpful, and human-centric content ranks higher in today’s search algorithms, meaning these qualities should be at the forefront of content marketers’ minds.

After all, the role of content is to help users achieve their goals. By understanding user intent, marketers create new opportunities to connect with customers and better meet their needs.

How to Create an SEO Strategy Around User Intent

Top search results for a given query reflect high quality, relevant content. To determine high quality content, Google looks beyond keyword stuffing and evaluates the purpose of the content to determine how well it satisfies user intent.

By carefully tailoring your content to your target audience and anticipating a user’s goals, you can strengthen your brand’s web presence and raise its SERP ranking. Here are a few methods for creating a content strategy with user intent SEO in mind.

Perform a Content Audit

Audit your existing content through keyword research.

Start this process by using your content’s primary keywords from Google Analytics to see how Google responds, both in what content it ranks highest and in how it displays results. Then move to add key identifying words and phrases, such as “how to” or “ideas” for informational intent, “near me” for local intent, and “buy” for transactional intent.

By researching how your content ranks when users search particular search terms and what keywords are associated with the content and services you provide, you can optimize your content to ensure that it gets in front of your target audience.

Use Buyer Personas

User intent for a particular search query can vary greatly depending on the user. A query for "hamburger," for example, will produce different results depending on the preferences and search history of the individual behind it. A student on a budget, a parent looking for healthy meals, a chef, and a romantic partner setting up a date will all have different goals when searching.

Understanding your target customer and creating content specific to their preferences, whether that’s premade food on a budget or high quality ingredients, will affect its relevance.

Craft for Transactional Intent First

Focus first and foremost on transactional intent and use it to frame informational intent.

In addition to seeing a more obvious return on investment (ROI), transactional intent can frame informational intent by gathering data on purchases and other customer information. This strategy will also draw and capture users who are already set on buying, or who have reached what Google refers to as the Zero Moment of Truth.

Develop Synergy Between Your Content and Keywords

Synergy exists when content naturally integrates keywords and stays on topic.

A step-by-step guide to selecting a sewing machine, for example, should primarily focus on the machine, not on how to sew or what type of thread to buy. Either of these topics can satisfy informational intent in future content but will hurt visibility on a piece about sewing machines.

Knowing your user intent will also help you determine how to structure your content. Quick reads might require a question and answer format while deeper research may use longer paragraphs.

View Your Content Through the User’s Eyes

Sometimes content with high topical keyword synergy does not rank because it needs more contextual keywords, such as “how to” or “buy.” Integrating these words into accessible, comprehensible writing about relevant content will better fulfill user intent.

Likewise, the content should answer the question the user is seeking, whether that is a call for advice or a location. By including keywords related to certain user intent then not fulfilling that intention, your content is likely to rank poorly and frustrate your target audience.

Create Diverse Content Forms

Google displays results to user intent in multiple forms, such as maps, images, ads, and the answer box. For your content to appear in at least one of these forms, use a combination of content types to answer the user intent relevant to your content.

Concise information, for example, is more likely to appear as rich snippets, while videos and photos that accompany text can appear in carousels and images. Utilizing different forms of relevant content increases your visibility in a search result.

Integrating Key Elements of SEO into Relevant Content

High quality content that fulfills user intent is a critical part of SEO, but other optimization techniques are also important for maximizing visibility. These include:

  • A quick load time: 47% of users expect a page to load in as little as two seconds
  • Sensible navigation: organize pages and menus in a way that logically and easily directs the user to the correct page
  • Mobile responsiveness: content should load easily and look good on a mobile screen for the 63% of users searching on a mobile device
  • Optimization for typos: a strong keyword strategy should cover quickly entered search queries, including misspellings
  • Analysis of dwell time: dwell time will tell you how long users stay on your page, which is important data for creating content focused on fulfilling informational intent

The Takeaway

When applying user intent to your SEO strategy, remember that your ultimate goal is to create content that fulfills what the user wants.

Good content helps users buy what they want to buy or book the appointment they want to book. It leads them to the closest grocery store on vacation. It does not confuse users but rather clarifies necessary information for them. Fulfilling user intent is what makes content successful in the eyes of users, Google’s search algorithms, and ultimately, your bottom line.

This article was written by Compose.ly writer Carmen Dahlberg.

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