An Introduction to Search Intent

If you’ve read my blog before (or been to one of the SEO MeetUps) you’ll know I’m a bit of a fan of the BrightonSEO conference.

One of the things I love about it is there’s so many great talks there from stacks of brilliant people. I hate it for the same reason. Inevitably there are talks I really want to see happening at the same time and, as they’ve yet to create a functioning human cloning device, I have to miss one of them.

The good news the BrightonSEO team produce videos and podcasts of lots of the talks. And that is how I happened across Anna Corbett. And why, when we got in touch via Twitter, I couldn’t wait to get her to come and talk at an Optimisey event too.

Her talk is about searcher intent. If you’ve worked in SEO for any amount of time you’ve probably come across a client that demands you get their site to rank #1 for a phrase – even though you know that people searching for that phrase don’t want what they sell.

Say, they’re a company that sells coach tours and they want to rank for “best coaches”. The vast majority of people searching for “best coaches” don’t want a coaching holiday. They want a personal trainer; or to compare Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola versus Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson; or Joe Torre, Clive Woodward, Duncan Fletcher (or whatever their sport of choice is).

That is intent. People searching for “best coaches” don’t intend to look up info on coaching trips to the Peak District. Probably.

I’ll let Anna explain it – she does it so much better than me.

Meanwhile, if you don’t want to miss seeing phenomenal talks like this, from super-smart people like Anna… for free… you should grab yourself a place at the next Optimisey event:

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Video

Sketchnotes

Sketchnotes (by Anne-Marie Miller) of Anna Corbett's Optimisey SEO talk

The brilliant Anne-Marie Miller from design agency CarbonOrange was in attendance again – and she’s kindly shared her awesome sketchnotes of Anna’s talk. Click the image to see a larger version.

Transcript & Slides

Download Anna’s slides (2MB PDF)

Hello! So we started with crowd participation so I’m going to carry on, although I hate it, so please don’t put your hands up have you ever been on a swing… yeah everyone brilliant that’s great. And have you ever fallen off a swing? Don’t put your hands up… so… great you can all feel my pain on that day when I fell off my swing. Let me tell you what happened.

So it all started with my cat and she bit me. Now this wasn’t like a casual bite she really went for it and she made a hole all the way through my finger. If it hadn’t been for the blood you could have seen daylight through it, so it was very painful and I fainted. And the next thing that I knew I was in the car and my Dad, this was not like recently this is like when I was seven, my Dad turned round and said “Oh we’re just going to your favourite animal park.” and I was like “Wow! I guess this makes sense…”

I looked down my Mum had bandaged up my finger and I was like “OK well alright I love that animal park because they’ve got loads of and wild cats and I love cats…” so we went there and after an hour of walking around on a sweltering hot day you don’t know what this is like like you don’t have hot weather… because I’m from Germany you see so… swelteringly hot day we walked around for an hour and there was zero cats out, they were all hiding in their enclosures there was just no cat show…

So now I didn’t only have a throbbing finger I was also really disappointed because there was no cats but don’t worry my Dad had a plan.

So he put me on the closest go-cart… “Go race your brother.” I was like “Wow! OK. I guess this makes sense…” and when I was seven I wasn’t all that good at driving so I lost control of my go-kart pretty quickly, drove into a sand hill which kind of threw me up in the air and I crashed down on the gravel and my right leg was… it was awful it was like covered in gravel and blood and it was painful. Worse than the finger!

But don’t worry my Dad came to the rescue he swooped me up put me on the closest swing gave me big push…

But I wasn’t ready and I fell off and hit my head… so that was the day when I fell off my swing.

And that was also the day when I realised that my Dad had no idea how to treat his children in moments of crisis.

He had this one mode: ‘Crazy Dad’ mode: ‘Let’s just get on to the next exciting thing!’ and he just used that in every situation and that’s how most brands treat their customers. With no regard to their current situation.

And that’s why I’m here today to talk to you about search intent, because that will allow us to understand our customers and treat them in their way that we need to treat them – not just ‘Crazy Dad’.

So let’s have a think about how this all works how can we understand users better? And it usually starts with like people creating content right? And it’s really easy to completely under… to completely ignore your customers without even realising it.

We’ve all done it. We’ve created this amazing piece of content and we think it’s really going to go down well with our audience they’re going to love it and and you think it’s like ‘oh this is a really great piece of content’.

But there’s a problem with that and that’s you.

Because it's not about you. It's about your customers. And if we don't understand them then the content we created is wasted. All of that time that we spent is going to be wasted. - @annaappenzeller

How to identify searcher intent

So let’s have a think about how we identify search intent but before we do that let’s talk about what it actually is and for me I’d like to split it into its meaning. What are the searchers actually looking for? What do they want to achieve? What does their query, what does the keywords that they put into Google actually mean?

And then the second one is in terms of stages so that’s more like what kind of stage is the user in in their journey, when you think about you know funnels and things like that? Are they just looking around, they don’t necessarily know what they’re looking for, that they’re even looking for anything.

They’re in the informational stage.

Or are they comparing? Are they comparing products? Then that’s the commercial stage.

Are they looking to buy something right now? They’re transactional stage.

Or are they looking for something local? They’re in the local stage.

Right so it makes sense now there’s so many ways of identifying search intent.

I’ve actually decided to just concentrate on two today and both of those are looking at the informational stage.

But that doesn’t mean I want you to ignore the others it’s just that you get started with these two that I’m telling you about and then – once you’ve used them a few times now this is actually really helpful and you’re getting a lot of good feedback – get in touch with me and I will help you out with the others more ways of identifying intent which will then also cover the different intent stages.

So keep that in mind and we’re going to start with how to identify intent using semantics and search. That’s how the queries are constructed and more specifically we’re going to look at the query itself.

The semantics of a search

What does the keyword, that people put into the search boxes, actually mean? What does it mean? Now most of the time – and this is what happens with my SEO clients – I ask them: “Okay so what do you think you want to be found for in Google? What do you think you should be found for?”

And they gave me like a list of two, three, five keywords maybe… and then they asked Karen from accounting and Tim from HR and they’re like: “Oh we should write for this… and oh yes this and this… and that…”

And it turns into a situation you’d see at an all-you-can-eat buffet – where we’re just loading our plates with keywords and there’s no reasonable kind of strategic idea behind it.

And it’s all because they want exposure right? We need the rank? We need to rank because we need that exposure.

But it has literally never happened that my customers, my clients have thought about their customers before they made this list and thought about what the searchers actually wanted and what they were looking for. It was always putting their mindset onto the audience rather than the other way around.

I’ve got – this is my favourite story – what client asked me a few years ago, well some years ago actually.

They asked me to rank for the term ‘London Olympics’.

Now this was just a few weeks before the event so that’s just like no way. But that wasn’t the problem – it’s much worse than that. The problem was that they were selling Union Jack rugs.

But at no time that they ever considered that the people searching for London Olympics didn’t want to buy their stupid rugs. No idea.

But it happens so much and it only just happened last week: somebody asked me to rank for the word ’emergency’ and I’m like: it’s just… it’s… it’s terrible.

It's all fuelled by this obsession to rank and we just need to let go of that because there's no point in ranking for something that's completely irrelevant for the user for the searcher.

First of all it’s not going to happen and second of all even if you did they would just can’t go back to the search results because they don’t want that. They don’t want to buy rugs.

So let’s go into how you actually, how we identify intent. And again it starts with the query. It starts with those initial keyword lists. And most of the time they’re short queries right? They’re fragments. They might be just a single word or there might be like two word phrases – that you get so often – they are still quite ambiguous and that leaves us a lot of room for interpretation.

Nouns, verbs and syntax in search

But it’s not just us who struggle with that, Google does the same thing. But they’ve been having their computer scientists look into how to understand natural language for decades.

But we as people – we already understand language. We, you can understand what I’m saying. We can understand what words mean and why they’re in a certain order. So we’ve got the advantage here and we need to use that.

So let’s have a look at what that means. We know that “can cats stand” and “standing cat” are completely different queries right? They mean different things. People want different things from them.

So the top one: “can cat stand” that’s more about the abilities of cats. Whereas the second one is looking for this little peach – you know whom you’ve seen him everybody should, I mean like if you haven’t let’s all watch him later together.

And we also know it because we can understand that there’s a difference between these queries. They’re completely different right?

So let’s have a look at how we can dissect search queries to understand the subtleties behind them.

And we’re going to start with nouns. Here’s some nouns. I’ve made them red, so identify your nouns and your query. Think about what they mean. Think about how they relate to each other if there’s several in there. And also think about whether they’re singular or plural because that has a huge impact, it actually really does so have a think about that.

Next let’s have a look at verbs. Now again [I’ve made it] red, that’s a verb. Think about what nouns these verbs relate to, what kind of tense they are in and then also whether they have one meaning – like a singular meaning – or whether they can mean different things.

So in this example [cat lie] it’s either about the actual, you know action of lying down, versus the fidelity of your cat. Big difference.

Let’s have a look at prefixes and suffixes because just a few little characters can completely change the meaning of the query. So for example “dream kittens” is completely different to “dreaming kittens”.

Let’s take that apart a little bit. So “dream kittens” that’s not something that we’re familiar with. It’s not like a known thing, a song or a band I would know because I know “bad kittens” but it’s like a fragment so I would interpret it like “dream comma kittens”.

And it’s not the kitten’s dream it’s my dream. I dream of kittens. So from a searcher’s perspective the way I would interpret that is: ‘what does it mean to dream of kittens’? That might be something that they’re looking for: “dream kittens”. ‘What does it mean to have a kitten in a dream?’ that kind of thing.

Whereas “dreaming kittens” immediately the “dreaming” belongs to the kittens now – they’re doing the dreaming. So what does the searcher want here? They want to have pictures of dreaming kittens… obviously.

So you can see there’s a difference.

Then let’s have a look at the search syntax: so that’s how the query is structured what words follow which, you know what order would are the words in and that again has a huge impact.

If we go back to kittens and my “dream kittens” example if we swap that round to “kittens dream” that changes the meaning of the query. It’s not I dream of kittens, it’s the kittens that are dreaming now. “Kittens dream” it’s like a statement: “kittens dream” yes of course they dream.

But having a look at another example “cats love” versus “love cats”. Cats love it’s like: “Okay Google complete my sentence… cats love…” bringing dead mice into the kitchen as a present to the family…

And the “love cats” that’s like a known entity right? It’s The Cure song.

So you can see that we can understand meaning behind even the shortest queries if we really think about it and if we use our ability to understand natural language.

But luckily for us queries are becoming much longer and more conversational, especially with voice search so we can get much more information about the queries themselves we can get rid of that ambiguity within them and also we can build a bigger picture around it.

Using search fragments to reveal intent

So if we start with our short fragments we can actually quite easily build the stories around those fragments and how do we do that? We go to Google and we put in our fragments.

So I used “cat bananas” because my cat is bananas maybe and what I would do I get again like a featured snippet at the top which talks about the adverse reaction of cats and bananas. And then so we already get some meaning from that right?

And then down here we’ve got ‘people also asked’ which are literally questions other people have also asked that are related to “cat bananas”.

And again we have two that are talking about the tolerability (is that a word?) of cats and bananas but we also have one that asks why cats are so afraid of cucumbers. So there’s like I mean that doesn’t really make sense because bananas and cucumbers aren’t the same thing so it implies that a lot of people have also searched for cats being afraid of bananas right? So we can really build the stories around our short fragments by just looking at what Google shows us.

And we can use Google more because there’s so many more ways of getting implied intent from Google directly, especially for organic search results.

If you think about why does Google rank pages in their search results? It’s because they’re relevant to the searcher not because they’re relevant because they’re stuffed full of keywords that are like the same as the searcher’s terms but because they allow the searcher to actually complete their task that they set out to do.

They let them achieve their goal you know?

So the searcher is looking for something in particular, they want to get something out of it and Google ranks pages highly because they think that they will be able to with those pages so that means that the results that we see here rank, highly match the intent of the user.

Well that’s what we think that’s what I think anyway so let’s use Google to understand what they think is the intent behind the searcher.

Let’s put in our query: this is again a fragment it’s like “good dog” and let’s have a look at the results and take them apart.

So we start where the title’s “good dog dog walking services” that’s pretty straightforward top walking services the “good dog” is the brand.

Then we have “there’s no such thing as a good dog”. Not really sure what that means, looks like an article, don’t know but not quite sure about it.

“Good dog see it at The Albany” so The Albany is a theatre, “the good dog” might be a show.

Let’s look at the descriptions to verify that. Let’s ignore the first and the third because that’s already really clear.

The second one’s got a date so it’s an article. “Good dog it’s a well-trained dog… Wiley’s built like a pitbull…” I’m not sure.

Still I mean that’s unclear but what is clear is that each of these results has a different intent. Sometimes you’ll get the same intent for all of them. Sometimes you’ll get different intents. So note down what you get but to be able to really understand what it all means take it a step further and actually go and visit those websites.

Think about what the content was created for on there, like what does it allow the user to achieve? And was it created with just one keyword in mind or is it like, you know, like a FAQ page where they’ve got loads, answering loads of different questions?

Just bear that in mind and always think about what the user what the searcher can achieve when they look at the content and really understand those stories that the search engine result pages are telling you, because they do tell you stories.

For example with us here we understand now that people that are looking for “good dog”, this was in London, I’m not sure whether you’d get the same result in Cambridge, but people are looking for a “good dog” in London I’m most likely to look for the good dog walking services right?

So they click on that and then there they might be able to just find out information or they might actually be able to book their local dog walker. So you get that journey, that user journey straight from search right through to potentially conversion.

And in that example you could even think about what users stay there and because it might be transactional but also understand the competitive landscape behind it and know that whatever ranks highest, in Google‘s eyes, is most relevant.

So you can say “Okay well… I’ve got like five intents here but I can number them…” I can literally give them an order of priority and also at the same time while you’re doing this always remember that some search results are a lot more competitive than others.

So for some you might get completely garbage stuff at the top because they’re not very competitive so don’t you know. Don’t copy that.

It's just common sense to look at {a SERP} and say: Okay well this is not relevant. I know it ranks but this is just not great - and that's that's perfect because you can do better right? - @annaappenzeller

But for some competitive searches obviously there’s been a lot more time and effort put into the into the results. So think about that when you’re looking at it.

But the main thing I want you to do is write this stuff down. So make like a cheat sheet. Start with your fragment, with your keyword list and then do this in a spreadsheet because – I like spreadsheets, I see a lot of spreadsheets – you put like your starting term and at the beginning you put your related searches, everything else that you found in there and then you say okay well what does it mean? What’s the meaning?

One column is for your meaning and then what’s the different types of intents that I found for this particular keyword?

Every single keyword needs to have its own intent and sometimes it might have several.

And then think about taking Google‘s hint of prioritising them and then – while you’re there – make some notes on your competition. What do they do well? What can you do better?

And then use that to create new content on your website or adjust existing content or just convince your c-suite or your client (if you’re like an agency SEO) which you should target and which terms are just not relevant to target because the user is not, you know that the user’s journey, the user intent is not aligned with yours.

Or if you really want to target those terms make sure that you create content that does that does fulfil that task that the searchers set out to do.

And please don’t ever be tempted to sell your products to people that don’t even know that they’ve got a problem yet because if you do you’ll just give them too much of a push… like my Dad.

Thanks very much.


Told you it was good.

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2 thoughts on “An Introduction to Search Intent”

  1. Same here. Totally agree… One of the things I have done with my teams, when attending conferences (to address wanting to see multiple presentations) is have them take notes, even sound, write up a summary (like a blog) turn it into a slide deck on what was presented, they took away and learned, and present it back to the teams at the office (internally only) to help educate everyone after.

    Teaching the material makes them that much smarter when actually working on it later.. as it’s now applied and they have studied it.

    Also helps them build confidence in public speaking, and they can get great insight from other team members while they prepare their doc’s.

    This goes for a full group of staff gone together or even 1 off’s visiting a conference on a specific element (SEO, Technical SEO, Social, Content, UX, Design, etc) Great stuff!

    1. Love that idea Rob. Teaching or even explaining something to someone else can really help solidify that knowledge. Great tip 👍

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