Search Intent: How to Analyze and Optimize Your Site

By Derek Gleason

What answer is a searcher looking for? For sustainable, valuable search traffic, you’d better provide it.

Satisfying search intent is Google’s fundamental goal. But algorithms haven’t always kept pace. Proxies like backlinks and keywords have long been—and still are—stand-ins for the likelihood that a web page will satisfy user intent.

Optimizing for intent is the long play, for Google and your site. A page that’s well-matched for user intent can outperform those that optimize primarily for search engines—in search and after the click.

It’s an SEO strategy that focuses on making users happy rather than hitting a particular keyword density or winning exact-match anchor text.

Still, to translate the “make users happy” bromide into something executable, you need to know a few things:

  1. How Google (and others) define search intent;
  2. How to evaluate your target keywords for intent;
  3. What to do with search intent data.

1. How Google (and others) define search intent

For Google, understanding search intent is the key to returning useful search results. (And, by extension, the key to maintaining and growing its search market share, thus capturing more eyeballs for ads.)

The classic division of search intent offers three variations of queries:

  • Informational. Learn something (e.g. how to train for a marathon).
  • Transactional. Buy something (e.g. running shoes order online).
  • Navigational. Go to a specific site (e.g. runners world training plans).

Past studies have estimated that as many as 80% of queries are informational, with the remainder split equally between the other two types.

Google’s latest Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines identify four main types of intent:

  • Know. “The intent of a Know query is to find information on a topic. Users want to Know more about something.”
  • Do. “The intent of a Do query is to accomplish a goal or engage in an activity on a phone. The goal or activity may be to download, to buy, to obtain, to be entertained by, or to interact with a website or app.”
  • Website. “The intent of a Website query is to locate a specific website or webpage that users have requested.”
  • Visit-in-person. “Some queries clearly ‘ask’ for nearby information or nearby results (e.g., businesses, organizations, other nearby places).”
Examples of Know queries from Google’s guidelines. These informational queries are the bulk of searches. (Image source)

The guidelines also identify two sub-types:

  • Know Simple. “Know Simple queries seek a very specific answer, like a fact, diagram, etc. This answer has to be correct and complete, and can be displayed in a relatively small amount of space: the size of a mobile phone screen. As a rule of thumb, if most people would agree on a correct answer, and it would fit in 1–2 sentences or a short list of items, the query can be called a Know Simple query.”
  • Device Action. “Device Action queries are a special kind of Do query. Users are asking their phone to do something for them. Users giving Device Action queries may be using phones in the hands-free mode, for example, while in a car [. . .] A Device Action query usually has a clear action word and intent.”

Many keywords fall …read more

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