Under­stand­ing the intent behind the key­words you tar­get sim­pli­fies the entire SEO process, says con­trib­u­tor Mar­cus Miller. Here is a look at how to under­stand and cat­e­go­rize key­words based on intent.

Search engines exist to pro­vide users with results that are rel­e­vant to the search query. Smart SEO cam­paigns are built on an under­stand­ing of how your audi­ence search­es around your indus­try, prod­ucts and ser­vices.

A key point here is under­stand­ing the intent behind a giv­en key­word search. A user wants to find spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion, and search engines have advanced algo­rithms and large amounts of traf­fic they ana­lyze to deter­mine which results are the best match for a key­word.

Under­stand­ing the broad cat­e­gories of intent is cru­cial to devel­op­ing a search engine opti­miza­tion and con­tent strat­e­gy to tar­get not only the key­words but the intent behind the key­words.

In this arti­cle, we take a look at how to under­stand and cat­e­go­rize key­words based on intent to pro­vide a sol­id foun­da­tion for your search engine opti­miza­tion (SEO) and con­tent mar­ket­ing.

Understanding searcher intent

In many ways, search engine mar­ket­ing via SEO or paid meth­ods is strate­gi­cal­ly sim­ple. If you are a plumber in a small town, and some­one search­es for “plumber” plus the name of the town, then there is a pret­ty good chance you pro­vide what they need. Get­ting in front of peo­ple at the exact time they have a require­ment is good mar­ket­ing.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, com­mer­cial terms are high­ly com­pet­i­tive across paid and organ­ic search. For most busi­ness­es, there are oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for brand­ing and tar­get­ing cus­tomers high­er in the mar­ket­ing fun­nel. We just have to devel­op a greater under­stand­ing of the intent behind search key­words.

The first step here is to under­stand the three cat­e­gories of search queries:

Navigational search queries

Do you ever type “Google.com” or “Facebook.com” into your brows­er? Or do you just type “Google” or “Face­book” direct­ly into the address bar? This is a nav­i­ga­tion­al query, a search per­formed with the intent of going direct­ly to a spe­cif­ic web­site, or even a page on a site.

Not so long ago, folks would actu­al­ly type in “www.Google.com” or “www.Facebook.com,” as you could not search from the address bar. Google changed all of that with Chrome by enabling search from the address bar, and oth­er browsers soon fol­lowed suit.

There was no need for typ­ing in the “www” or “.com.” All we had to do was search the com­pa­ny or brand and pull the trig­ger.

There are two main things to con­sid­er with nav­i­ga­tion­al search:

  1. This is high-val­ue traf­fic for the brand or busi­ness being searched, so make sure you look the part in the search engine results.
  2. There is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get list­ed along with oth­er busi­ness­es and poten­tial­ly build brand aware­ness or even steal a click. You can also inflict fear, uncer­tain­ty and doubt about com­peti­tor brands; paid search and organ­ic list­ings can all be use­ful here.

Informational search queries

In terms of vol­ume, this is the top of the fun­nel. There is a huge range of poten­tial queries across the entire spec­trum of top­ics out there. Busi­ness, mar­ket­ing, health, fit­ness — the list goes on. With an infor­ma­tion­al search, the infor­ma­tion is the end goal. Near­ly all busi­ness­es will have oppor­tu­ni­ties in infor­ma­tion­al search.

From a busi­ness per­spec­tive, we are look­ing to iden­ti­fy queries that relate to the prod­uct or ser­vice you pro­vide. You will then look to devel­op con­tent that answers these ques­tions or pro­vides infor­ma­tion on cer­tain top­ics. This will posi­tion you in front of your poten­tial audi­ence. For exam­ple:

  • What is SEO?
  • SEO tips for [key­words].
  • Mar­ket­ing ideas for small busi­ness­es in the [indus­try type].

The key oppor­tu­ni­ty here is to get in front of your audi­ence and build brand aware­ness, cred­i­bil­i­ty and web­site traf­fic.

You may also look to use this traf­fic to gen­er­ate leads through forms of con­tent upgrades using phras­es like “Down­load a free guide.”

A pop­u­lar strat­e­gy is to use vis­its to the site to qual­i­fy areas of inter­est and build a remar­ket­ing list which will attempt to gen­er­ate leads or adver­tise your prod­uct or ser­vice.

Remem­ber that searchers here may not be ready to buy what you are sell­ing, and that’s OK. Look to build your brand so that when they are ready, you are in the run­ning.

Commercial or transactional search queries

Com­mer­cial or trans­ac­tion­al queries relate to the desired action that you would like a prospect to take.

These can range from the obvi­ous — like search­ing on “plumber” — to the more research-ori­ent­ed, like “best restau­rant in Birm­ing­ham” or “Sam­sung Galaxy con­tract.”

The action you want some­one to take will depend on the busi­ness and could include things like sign­ing up for a tri­al run, a newslet­ter or a new social net­work. The trans­ac­tion relates to a desir­able action for your busi­ness, such as increas­ing newslet­ter signup and mak­ing sales.

These key­words are all high­ly com­mer­cial in nature and there­fore high-val­ue. It is impor­tant not only to tar­get these key­words but to ensure you focus on help­ing the vis­i­tor com­plete their goal once they arrive at your site.

Ambiguous keywords and personalized results

Not all key­words are crys­tal-clear in their cat­e­go­riza­tion or intent. Take “SEO” for exam­ple. If a user search­es for “SEO,” what exact­ly are they look­ing for?

A def­i­n­i­tion?

Some tuto­ri­als?

An agency?

The searcher may not be entire­ly sure and may sim­ply be start­ing to inves­ti­gate a top­ic.

Where intent is not always clear, Google will typ­i­cal­ly show a page of results that cov­ers a wide vari­ety of poten­tial answers. Search results for “SEO” include a beginner’s guide, a def­i­n­i­tion of SEO, some begin­ner-lev­el tuto­ri­als and some news arti­cles.

We also see some light cus­tomiza­tion of search results based on your pre­vi­ous queries or brows­ing habits. Where Google feels it has an idea of your intent beyond what is implic­it­ly stat­ed in your key­word, it may adapt search results to show bet­ter results.

Mapping searcher intent to keywords

Under­stand­ing searcher intent allows you to build more strate­gic lists of key­words. This then helps us under­stand how to best tar­get a giv­en key­word and where that key­word fits into our over­all SEO and con­tent mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy.

To do this, we will want to add a few new columns to our key­word research spread­sheet to cov­er intent and the poten­tial finan­cial val­ue of the key­word.

  • Intent will break down to: nav­i­ga­tion­al, infor­ma­tion­al and trans­ac­tion­al.
  • The finan­cial val­ue will be: low, medi­um and high.

Here we have three key­words across a range of nav­i­ga­tion­al, infor­ma­tion­al and com­mer­cial intent. Let’s break each type down for val­ue:

  • Google Search Con­sole. This phrase shows huge vol­ume but with nav­i­ga­tion­al search intent. This is of lit­tle val­ue, since it’s hard to tar­get and not real­ly able to offer a use­ful alter­na­tive.
  • SEO tips. This term shows low­er vol­ume and infor­ma­tion search intent. These search­es like­ly point to a web­site own­er want­i­ng to opti­mize their own web­site. There are some oppor­tu­ni­ties for brand­ing, cred­i­bil­i­ty build­ing and adding the user to a list of poten­tial prospects. There is poten­tial to dri­ve remar­ket­ing and lead gen­er­a­tion for fur­ther per­mis­sion-based mar­ket­ing here.
  • SEO com­pa­ny. This term is asso­ci­at­ed with trans­ac­tion­al search intent. The user is look­ing for an SEO com­pa­ny. This offers high finan­cial val­ue and is a desir­able key­word.

AdWords CPC and competition

At my agency, we also include AdWords cost per click (CPC), AdWords com­pe­ti­tion and key­word dif­fi­cul­ty in our key­word spread­sheets to help us get a full pic­ture with regard to the poten­tial val­ue of the key­word. The Key­words Every­where plug-in for Chrome makes this a quick and easy job.

Using the tool, I see the aver­age CPC for “SEO com­pa­ny” is $28.77, where the CPC for “Google Search Con­sole” is $0.00. This helps fur­ther con­firm our think­ing that “SEO com­pa­ny” is a great key­word. How­ev­er, “Google Search Con­sole” is unlike­ly to lead to any busi­ness, despite the lure of the huge search vol­ume!

How to clarify searcher intent

Searcher intent is not always 100 per­cent clear, and it is easy to clas­si­fy key­words as com­mer­cial when in fact they may be more infor­ma­tion­al in nature.

An exam­ple here is “small busi­ness SEO.” My ini­tial take is that this would be a com­mer­cial key­word, and the intent would be small busi­ness own­ers look­ing for an SEO provider.

How­ev­er, if we use Google to search on the term “small busi­ness SEO,” I don’t see much in the way of com­mer­cial results once you get past the ads. In fact, the con­tent returned is almost exclu­sive­ly infor­ma­tion­al.

My ini­tial thought here was incor­rect. How­ev­er, by search­ing for the key­word and review­ing the results, I can bet­ter under­stand what Google sees as the intent and use this to help inform our strat­e­gy.

This relates to a prob­lem we often see, more in the small busi­ness space, which is an attempt to rank the wrong kind of con­tent. If you are attempt­ing to rank your home or ser­vice page for an infor­ma­tion­al key­word, then you will strug­gle to get any trac­tion.

The take­away here is that you shouldn’t just trust your gut with regard to intent. Search the key­word and care­ful­ly review the results, and you can clar­i­fy what Google sees as the intent.

A fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of suc­cess­ful SEO cam­paigns is to under­stand the intent and get best-of-class con­tent assets in place. Your SEO cam­paign then becomes about pro­mot­ing those con­tent pieces to help build organ­ic vis­i­bil­i­ty.

Content strategy and clarity of intent

Under­stand­ing the intent behind the key­words you tar­get sim­pli­fies the entire SEO process. Try­ing to rank con­tent where the intent of your mes­sage is dif­fer­ent to the intent of the search term is doomed to fail­ure.

Cre­at­ing con­tent that ranks well and con­verts users requires a crys­tal-clear under­stand­ing of what the searcher is look­ing for. By sim­ply search­ing for the terms we want to tar­get and review­ing what con­tent ranks well, we can iden­ti­fy what type of con­tent we should be cre­at­ing.

Once we under­stand the intent, we can review the con­tent that ranks and look for oppor­tu­ni­ties where we know we can improve the con­tent that is already rank­ing.

If we know our answer to a giv­en ques­tion is the best and most use­ful answer out there, then the remain­der of the SEO process becomes far eas­i­er.