SEO, Search Psychology
How People Search: Understanding User Intent
In the most basic terms, digital marketing and SEO can be boiled down to understanding user intent and then structuring your strategy to provide that as comprehensively as possible. As a business, you want to sell something—be it information, a service, or a physical product.
Marketing is all about finding ways to show your product to potential clients in a way that convinces them to buy it. And digital marketing, specifically, comes down to finding ways to match your marketing to the online searches of potential clients. They want something, they search for it, and you want the solution they find to be your solution. It’s as simple as that. Well, the concept is simple, anyway. Determining the most effective way of making that happen is a different animal altogether.
The Road to User Intent Optimization
What is User Intent?
It is what the user hopes to accomplish when they begin their search. Even if they haven’t specifically mapped out an endgame in their head, they always have a goal when they type something into a search engine. What they type and how they progressively adjust their search give clues as to their intent. Businesses that can accurately define user intent can customize their strategy to provide the most desirable information and dramatically increase their chances of generating business from this search.
In the past, efficient search engine optimization was all about keywords and links and using them to draw traffic to your content. Search engines have changed, however, and continue to do so as the types of searches continue to evolve. With mobile devices taking over the search landscape, Google has implemented “mobile-first indexing” to better tailor their results to those using mobile searches.
A New Type of Search
Voice searches now make up 1/3 of the 3.5 billion Google searches that take place every day, a percentage that is steadily increasing. Video searches are even possible now and rapidly gaining popularity. Therefore, in combination with these evolutions and a better understanding of the user’s end goal, the latest SEO focus is on “user intent”. Search engines are no longer satisfied to match results to the words the user searches for. They also want to determine exactly what the user was hoping to accomplish by searching for those words. Typically, those goals fall into one of three categories:
These are searches where people are, first and foremost, looking for answers. Those answers may lead to further questions or push them in a direction that changes the end search to one of the other categories but—at first, at least—these searches have one simple goal.
These searches occur when people are trying to locate a particular website, or at least a site that will meet their needs. Navigational searches aren’t usually very useful for businesses as users already have the site in mind they are trying to locate. Creating a post that gets decent results on searches for “Walmart” probably won’t generate a lot of business for you. Chances are they really are just trying to find Walmart.
Transactional (or Commercial)
This is the goldmine for most online businesses. These are people who are searching with the intention to purchase something. This group is most commonly the focus of marketing strategies, SEO or otherwise. Of course, there is a subcategory of commercial searches that is slightly less appealing, but still important:
These searches have the potential to bear fruit for businesses, although it may take a while. With so much information available on the internet, studies have found that 88% of people do at least some online research before making a purchase, even if that purchase turns out to be in-person at a physical location. So, while they may not be as immediately beneficial as transactional searches, the long-term potential still makes them worth targeting.
Alternative Search Tools and User Intent
Mobile devices have become such a massive part of the search landscape that Google has felt the need to revamp its entire platform to accommodate this trend. Mobile-first indexing, in a nutshell, is the recent overhaul of their algorithm. This means that any time there are both desktop and mobile versions of a given site, the information searched and the results provided will be based on the mobile version. While this will not have much effect on singular sites, it means big changes for businesses that have typically run a lighter, more basic mobile version as a companion to their main, desktop site.
This fundamental change in Google’s search patterns has flipped the script, meaning mobile now needs to be the focus. Typed searches aren’t necessarily that different on mobile devices as opposed to desktops. However, people do tend to keep their searches shorter and simpler, something that should be taken into account when planning keywords and SEO. The larger effect, however, is how the growth of mobile searching ties in with the rapid increase of voice search.
Estimates suggest that 50% of all searches will be done by voice by 2020, meaning voice is no longer just the added wrinkle in your SEO plan that you get to if you have enough time. Rather, it needs to be given just as much emphasis as traditional search methods and SEO. While there is an entire science behind voice search SEO, there are three basic differences.
- Natural Speech Patterns
People use different wording when speaking than they do when typing. As more searches shift toward voice usage it is important to consider the way people actually talk. For example, a person who might type in, “Olive Garden Orlando hours” would probably just say, “What time does the Orlando Olive Garden open?”. The wordier searches are likely to give better clues as to intent, as well.
- Long-Tail Keywords
This is a search pattern trend across all platforms but is particularly noticeable in voice searches. Because of the greater sophistication of today’s search engines, people increasingly realize they can, or need to be, very specific in their searches. Instead of just saying “car dealership Los Angeles”, they are more likely to narrow things down to “Where is the nearest new Volkswagen dealership?”. More detailed data in your keywords are more likely to capture these searches. They also tend to fall further down the conversion funnel and closer to making a purchase.
Yes, we already discussed this, but it is even more important when it comes to voice searches as the vast majority will take place on mobile devices. In many cases, mobile users are also more likely to act on the results. This is because they are actually asking questions relevant to wherever they are or what they are doing at that particular moment. All of which means even more reason to optimize your SEO for mobile.
“On-page SEO is no longer satisfied by raw keyword use. Matching keywords to searcher INTENT is critical.” — Rand Fishkin
Ok, so now you know what the categories are, but how do you know which one to focus on? It is crucial that your content matches the search intent of your target audience. If a user is looking for information on a broad topic and they are given a link to a specific product they probably won’t be impressed, and almost certainly won’t click on it. But if they already know they want a specific pair of Bluetooth earbuds, for example, they probably won’t be interested in a long, detailed article comparing the pros and cons of earbuds vs headphones. Furthermore, Google has made great strides in determining user intent. Therefore, chances are if your content doesn’t match their interpretation of intent your site will never make it high enough up the rankings for them to see it anyway.
Choose Your Target User Intent
In most cases, this will be transactional. The majority of businesses are hoping to use their online content to generate leads, customers, and tangible business. There are exceptions, however. If your business happens to be an informational website that relies mainly on traffic numbers to generate ad income, then maybe informational is more relevant in your case. It is rare for businesses to want to target navigational user intent, although not unheard of.
This is the step where you experiment with all the different keywords that may be relevant to your business and attract your ideal clients. You need to take into consideration both intent, which you’ve settled on during this last stage, and competition.
Depending on your product and end goal it can be more advantageous to use common keywords or to go the other direction and try to corner the market on a smaller subset of unique keywords. In any case, try everything that comes to mind, as even the most experienced SEO specialists are occasionally surprised by which keywords are most successful.
Examine the results carefully using a resource like Google Keyword Planner or one of the many free alternatives. This helps to determine both which keywords are most popular and which occur in the type of searches you are hoping to generate.
This is a common concept in SEO marketing that differentiates the stages of a user’s journey from idea to transaction. There are three stages in the funnel:
This is the very start of the process when people have an idea or problem and they are starting a search for more information. They are nowhere near buying anything at this point, but rather are just starting to figure out what they might need to solve their issue, accomplish their goal, or track down the product they are interested in. They are looking for resources, opinions, advice, and education. These keywords should be more general, focusing on overall topics, and the content provided should be particularly informative and useful. These are the articles people will read and videos they will watch to help them come up with possible answers.
“Traffic to our business website continues to increase but lately fewer people have been clicking through past our landing page and both leads and sales are down.”
In the awareness stage, this business will be looking for answers. They try to find out if this is an overall market trend. Maybe there are new competitive sites or products available that provide better value. Or maybe they will read some articles about effective landing pages to see if they may be losing user interest because of their format or content. Or could it have to do with their marketing strategy? Maybe their campaign is bringing people to the site that aren’t actually in the market for their product.
At this point, they have found some answers and have a pretty good handle on what they need to do, buy or find. Now is the time for evaluation, where consumers browse the available alternatives, read reviews, and research advice articles. When they get the solutions narrowed down they typically compare and contrast them to determine the best choice for their situation. When targeting this stage, businesses should use keywords that provide specific advice. Now they know, more or less, what they need, but still aren’t sure which exact product is the right choice.
“It appears that our landing page is putting people off. It is overly complex and many users are having difficulty navigating it to get to the page they are actually looking for.”
Here they will have their marketing team working on revising the landing page to make it more user-friendly. They are debating whether this can effectively be accomplished in-house or if it will be worthwhile to engage the services of an outside web designer. They are probably looking at different web design companies and maybe even considering hiring a full-service PR firm to make sure all the components of their site match their end vision.
This is the purchase stage when all of your hard work in marketing and PR gets converted into sales. The user has made their decision, now all they need to do is be led to the specific site where they will complete the transaction. In the conversion stage, keywords should become much more specific. They no longer want to read about the industry or trends, and they are past the point of comparing different companies and examining the pros and cons of a product or service. They finally know exactly what they want and are just waiting for you to provide it.
“We want to hire Bob’s Graphics to completely revamp our landing page, making it more visually appealing and streamlining the links to more accurately meet our customer’s searches.”
The search has gotten very specific at this point and is possibly just the exact name of the company, which means the business needs to be equally specific in their choice of keywords. Of course, they need to cover all the close variations, such as “Bob’s Web Design”, “Bob’s Graphic Design” and “Bob’s Digital Graphics”. The point is, the customer really wants to give Bob their business, so he just has to make sure they don’t accidentally find someone else they like better.
Common Keywords for Each Stage
Through your keyword research, you should have a solid list of appropriate keywords that fit your target search intent. Now you need to analyze them using a variety of criteria, prioritizing them based on accuracy, volume, and effectiveness. Then that list can be broken down into sub-lists to match each stage of the consumer funnel. This will provide easily sortable information to be used in our next section.
“With audience targeting, you combine search intent and the knowledge you’ve collected about the user to create a more personalized experience.” – Neil Patel
Match Content to User Intent
Getting your site high up in the Google page rankings is only half the battle. Just because your link comes up when someone initiates a search doesn’t mean they will click on it. And even if they click on it, that doesn’t mean they are going to like what they find or end up becoming a customer.
As all serious digital marketers know, quality content is extremely important. There is so much information available and so much competition for the same customers that it is crucial to have content that can set you apart. But quality isn’t all you need to think about, it also needs to line up as closely as possible with user intent as well. Make sure your articles, blogs, and videos correspond to the section of the funnel you plan to target:
People in the awareness phase are probably looking for more general information. They probably don’t know exactly what they want or even know much about the subject they are looking up. Compelling, informative articles that educate and inform on broad topics and subjects are likely to be most effective.
Now we’re dealing with consumers who have their own ideas on things. They either already know a fair bit about the subject they are searching or have read the informative articles they came across during the awareness phase and are now ready to get down to brass tacks. They don’t want “Trends in Artificial Intelligence for 2019”, they want “6 AI Products to Improve Your Business Website”. It is time for answers, not theory.
Here we get into market info and product specifics. They’ve read up on how artificial intelligence is the future of digital business and they’re on board. They watched your videos on chatbots and read your articles on the best AI products and now know exactly what they want. At this point, they are looking for product details, pricing, and service packages. Essentially, this is finally the time to talk about yourself.
Create an SEO Plan
It is easy to get bogged down in the details of keyword research and user intent. However, when all is said and done, you need to make sure you have put together one solid, cohesive SEO plan that incorporates all this information, as well as a plan for implementation.
- Analyze your business in an honest and thorough manner. Decide which phase, or phases, of user intent are relevant for your company and then rank them in order of priority.
- Focus on each stage individually and get to work on keyword research. Weigh the importance of common vs. unique and be sure to take into account the frequency of mobile and voice search in your situation when making your decisions.
- Divide your content into sections and tailor each section to match a different phase of user intent. The content should match up very closely with both your keyword choices and wording styles.
- Implement your strategies in order of the prioritization list you set up in step one. Take care to structure your content in a way that clearly separates the different types of content and user content. A good SEO plan will gently lead the user through each of the stages to conversion.
Maximize Your Sales Conversion Rate
Payoff time. This is the crucial point in the process, where you attempt to turn traffic into business. A good conversion rate relies heavily on effective calls to action. And I say, “calls to action”, plural, because that is the key to maximizing sales. As we are now well aware, every visitor to your site falls into one of the three phases in the conversion funnel. It would be foolish to think they will all respond to the same call to action.
So, what does this mean, in practice? Each user type needs to be approached and treated differently. You should have multiple unique landing pages set up to match each area of content. Just as someone in the awareness phase doesn’t want to read an article on the specifications and payment plans for a new laptop, they are also not interested in a pop-up window that gives them the chance to add that laptop to their shopping cart with just one click.
For someone at the tail end of the process, however, that may be exactly what they are looking for. They are no longer interested in subscribing to your newsletter about laptops – they’ve already done that – now they really just want to buy a laptop.
It is clear at this point that internet searches are irretrievably different than past searches, and they are continuing to evolve on an almost daily basis. Keeping up with these trends and changes is essential for those hoping to keep their business ahead of the curve and solidifying their spot near the top of the Google rankings. But it is no longer enough to generate clicks, companies need to focus on three things:
- Matching their keyword strategy to the type of searches that are being performed.
- Producing content that corresponds to the user’s search intent.
- Strategically leading the user through the process to maximize the conversion rate.
While this all sounds simple enough, the reality is that devising the most effective strategy for any given business is now more complex than ever. Coordinating with an experienced digital marketing company that specializes in user intent, keyword research, and content creation can make the difference between losing ground to the competition and becoming an innovative leader in your field.
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