If you’re my age, you remember the bad old days of the Internet. Remember the flashing banner ads, animated GIFs, and website visitor counters? Back in the ’90s, the Internet was pretty ugly, because the technology was in its infancy.
SEO was also in its infancy. To rank high in the search results, simply repeat the same keyword over and over again. Eventually, Google joined the search game and its algorithm used off-page factors, like backlinks. Unfortunately, the focus on keywords was ingrained in the minds of webmasters, SEO consultants, and small businesses. So keyword stuffing persists to this day.
Keywords, of course, still matter. They will always matter. Some might even argue they matter most — they are the foundation for much of what we do in SEO. But the rise of search intent represents a sea change in how we think about keywords.
What Is Search Intent?
Traditionally, search engines focused on what people were searching for. Now, many more factors are at play—how they search (mobile, desktop, or voice) and why they search matter too. Search intent is about understanding why someone is searching for something and what information they’re looking for.
Targeting Keyphrases vs. Targeting Intent
When someone searches for “contract law,” what is the user searching for? It could be a class in law school; it could be a resource for attorneys or laypeople about the ins and outs of contracts. Odds are, though, that it’s not a search for an attorney to hire. That kind of search would be more likely phrased as “contract lawyer” or “contract lawyer austin tx.” If you’re an attorney optimizing a services page for the term “contract law,” then you’re not helping the user find what they need.
By targeting intent, we give Google contextual clues to better match their users’ queries. Optimizing for intent isn’t about repetition and stuffing the same, or slight variations of, keywords onto a page ad nauseam. Instead, it involves building rich, high-quality content with related keywords, context, and concepts. By meeting users’ needs better, we reduce bounce rate, and in turn, drive more leads and sales.
Types of Search Intent
Google’s rater guidelines define three types of search intent, although other sources sometimes list a fourth (more on that below). Searches can be:
- Navigational, where the intent is to find a specific website or page on a website. (Examples: “gmail login,” “facebook”)
- Transactional, in which the user’s intent is to purchase a product or service. (Examples: “purchase iPhone,” “contract lawyer austin tx”
- Informational, when a user is researching a topic or needs information. (Examples: “president of Canada,” “list of federal holidays”)
Commercial investigation is sometimes cited as another type of search intent; this type of search probably falls under informational, as its focus is finding information about a product before making a purchase, but it has the potential to convert, so it may also be categorized as a transactional search.
How to Use Search Intent to Match the Needs of Users
When we perform on-page optimizations for search intent for our clients, we add context to a page’s content to match the intent of the user:
- For a transactional search, we use words like “buy” and “purchase,” or for a service, we use words like “hire” and “consultation.” This tells Google that the page is not informational or navigational.
- A blog article or FAQ is often used to target informational searches. Tutorial and question-and-answer formats do particularly well. Instead of targeting one specific keyword, build rich content with a web of related keywords. For example, in a blog post about tonsillectomies, phrases like “sore throat,” “recovery,” “ear nose throat doctor,” “adenoids,” and “coblation” all add context to the page.
- Robust branding is the best way to boost a client’s ranking for navigational searches. Business information, including address, business hours, and services offered, should be readily available on the site.
- For commercial investigation, include words like “best” and “review,” or add product comparison charts and rankings.
It’s important to note that, as search has shifted away from simple keyword optimization to search intent, it means that not every page on a website needs to include a 500-word wall of text. For a blog post targeting someone researching a particular topic? Absolutely. For a product page on an e-commerce site? Focus more on conversion tactics, like adding big “Buy” buttons, shipping information, product specs, and customer reviews.
In the early days of search engines, beating a competitor’s ranking was a matter of mentioning a keyword 10 times if they mentioned it five. Now, the goal is to meet users’ needs better. When researching competitors, note what their sites are missing. This works particularly well for informational pages. If, for example, you’re adding a blog post about litigation to a contract law attorney’s website and their competitors also have blog posts about litigation, but none of them have details about what occurs during a trial, adding that information to the post can help you rise to the top of the SERPs.
We shake our fists at the sky whenever Google makes changes to how it ranks websites, but the focus on intent is actually a beautiful thing. Unlike those old website visitor counters that you could hit refresh on repeatedly, it’s hard to game the system when it comes to search intent — that’s good news for users, for us, and for our clients.
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