Here are five ways to use search engine results and smart key­word research to help deter­mine search intent for high­er rank­ings.

As dig­i­tal mar­keters, we depend on search engines to prop­er­ly cat­e­go­rize and pri­or­i­tize search results based on their inten­tion, exten­sion, and author­i­ty. Essen­tial­ly, for dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing to be suc­cess­ful, we need to trust that search engines under­stand what users are actu­al­ly search­ing for and that search engines can pro­vide the best results to meet user intent.

In the field of lin­guis­tics, words and phras­es are com­posed of inten­tions and exten­sions. Inten­sion denotes the seman­tic mean­ing of a word or phrase, while exten­sions denote the objects that this phrase can be attrib­uted to.

For exam­ple, the inten­tion of the word “sock” is meant to denote a piece of cloth­ing we wear on our feet. The exten­sion of this term could be used to iden­ti­fy mul­ti­ple char­ac­ter­is­tics and cat­e­gories of socks, includ­ing men’s socks, women’s socks, high socks, ankle socks, blue socks and more.

Cat­e­go­riz­ing and pro­vid­ing the prop­er results for this requires mas­sive amounts of data to pro­vide the most informed deci­sion about a par­tic­u­lar search. For exam­ple, if we apply homonyms to this sce­nario, such as the word “apple,” we can see that search engines are forced to choose and ration out its lim­it­ed real estate between the brand Apple and the fruit apple.

This conun­drum is not lim­it­ed to broad-tail phras­es, either.

Let’s take the search term “inter­ac­tive dog toys” with a Google Ads search vol­ume between 10,000 and 100,000. Maybe when you search this term, you have a spe­cif­ic toy in mind or an idea of what you’re look­ing for, but you can’t quite put it into words. There are lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of exten­sions or types of inter­ac­tive toys to choose from.

Search engines choose these results in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways, includ­ing apply­ing sen­ti­ment analy­sis to con­tent on the web, extract­ing data from its prod­uct list­ing ad (PLA) plat­form, and even review­ing what com­peti­tors are using as ad copy for their Google Ads bid.

But what is the intent of this search? Are peo­ple attempt­ing to buy an inter­ac­tive dog toy, or are they research­ing the best one before buy­ing in a store? Maybe the answer lies in the search engines them­selves.

Understanding search engines

My next point is the main point of this arti­cle: under­stand­ing search intent helps mar­keters bet­ter under­stand both users and search engines.

Accord­ing to best prac­tices, we should always write for users and not search engines. This is undis­put­ed. But can under­stand­ing how search engines pri­or­i­tize results also give us more insight into our cus­tomers? Of course!

Key­words let us know what users are search­ing for, but search results and click data show us what users find reward­ing. In fact, many peo­ple believe that click data active­ly influ­ence results, and this makes sense even if Google will not con­firm it.

Google and Bing also offer dif­fer­ent search engine result page (SERP) blocks for search­es of dif­fer­ent intent:

  • Fea­tured snip­pets.
  • Answer box.
  • Local 3-pack.

We obvi­ous­ly know that “inter­ac­tive dog toys” is a high-vol­ume search term, but this real­ly gives us no insight into what users want. If we look at the results of this page, we’ll see a lis­ti­cle of the best dog toys, and not a prod­uct list­ing, is the num­ber one result.

Of course, search engines may be split­ting hairs by pro­vid­ing results for both trans­ac­tion­al and infor­ma­tion­al intent, but it also shows that, more often than not, peo­ple are actu­al­ly con­duct­ing research for this term.

So what is the ben­e­fit of opti­miz­ing for intent?

  • Mov­ing the nee­dle on organ­ic SERP results by offer­ing more rel­e­vant results.
  • Increas­ing the click-through rate (CTR) of our adver­tise­ments.
  • Facil­i­tat­ing more on-page con­ver­sions for peo­ple who land on our site by meet­ing their intent.
  • Delin­eat­ing between local and nation­al con­tent.
  • Offer­ing answers that can make it into the fea­tured snip­pets box.

With this in mind, I would like to out­line five strate­gies to acquire more data about search intent to improve our over­all dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing per­for­mance.

1. Start with keyword research

Gen­er­al­ly, key­word phras­es have four forms of intent:

  1. Infor­ma­tion­al. How, what, when, where and why.
  2. Trans­ac­tion­al. Buy and sell.
  3. Com­mer­cial. Direc­tions, reviews, store hours.
  4. Nav­i­ga­tion­al. Brand­ed and page/URL spe­cif­ic.

I would sug­gest dif­fer­ent tools for dif­fer­ent forms of intent.

  1. Infor­ma­tion­al. SEM­rush, Ask­theP­ub­lic.
  2. Trans­ac­tion­al. AdWords, Uber­Sug­gest.

For organ­ic SEO, start with a crawl of your exist­ing site using a tool like Deep Crawl or Scream­ing Frog to extract a list of key­words your pages are cur­rent­ly rank­ing for.

Lever­age com­peti­tor research and the tools list­ed above to cre­ate a list of key­words you want your site to rank for. Seg­ment them by intent to deter­mine what strat­e­gy should be used to cre­ate the best result for them.

For exam­ple, key­words with the terms “how,” “guide” and “tips” would obvi­ous­ly imply the need for an infor­ma­tion­al blog post.

Pay-per-click (PPC) cam­paigns will gen­er­al­ly rely on broad-tail key­words acquired from tools, such as Google Key­word Plan­ner, that include terms such as “buy,” “sell,” “rent” or “quote.” Seg­ment these key­words by intent to cre­ate coor­di­nat­ed cam­paigns that tar­get user intent on mul­ti­ple lev­els: curios­i­ty and pur­chase.

2. Extract data from SERPs

As pre­vi­ous­ly stat­ed, key­word phras­es do not always eas­i­ly iden­ti­fy intent. Use search engines to your advan­tage for fur­ther analy­sis.

Run your list of seed key­words through a Google search in Incog­ni­to mode. Be sure to clear your cache so you can receive unbi­ased search results. Ana­lyz­ing the results for sim­i­lar key­word groups can help you under­stand why cer­tain pages are out­rank­ing oth­ers. It will also show you what search engines deem most rel­e­vant to search intent.

For greater con­tex­tu­al clues of what users are look­ing for, con­sid­er con­sult­ing these resources:

  • Google’s rec­om­mend­ed search­es.
  • Google Answer Box.
  • Google and Bing’s aut­ofill search func­tion.

These con­tex­tu­al clues will point you to pop­u­lar search­es with­in a giv­en indus­try and help you deter­mine what top­ics are most rel­e­vant to a giv­en query. With this infor­ma­tion in mind, you can ana­lyze these key­words to see whether users are look­ing to make a pur­chase or con­duct more research.

3. Assessing the funnel

With this in mind, you should also look at your exist­ing chan­nels to opti­mize con­tent to bet­ter match intent.

Log into Google Search Con­sole (GSC) and fil­ter by pages to check the CTR of your top-rank­ing URLs that are gen­er­at­ing impres­sions. This fig­ure will pro­vide insight into whether or not your URL, title tag and meta descrip­tion are meet­ing user intent for a giv­en search.

I’d argue this also makes the case for includ­ing exact match key­words in your rich snip­pets in order to match intent.

Exact match keyword terms are bolded by Google.

Users active­ly search for these key­word terms or phras­es in rich snip­pets.
Dynam­ic SERPs will pull sen­tences from your con­tent that fea­tures these exact match key­word terms.

When see­ing pages that aren’t gen­er­at­ing any impres­sions, you’ll need to go back and either update your key­word strat­e­gy or lever­age com­pet­i­tive analy­sis to see how com­peti­tors are meet­ing that intent. Some­times it just takes gath­er­ing some clicks from link build­ing and paid social cam­paigns to show Google and Bing your pages are author­i­ta­tive and rel­e­vant to search queries.

You should also eval­u­ate your user behav­ior flow in Google and Bing ana­lyt­ics to see what ele­ments of your site users are engag­ing with after land­ing on it. Are your inter­nal links adding con­tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion that sat­is­fies addi­tion­al intent? Is your land­ing page nur­tur­ing intent to facil­i­tate con­ver­sions?

Ana­lyze ses­sion times, bounce rates and your track­ing code to imple­ment con­ver­sion opti­miza­tion strate­gies that meet the intent and result in some rev­enue for your busi­ness.

In your ana­lyt­ics, you’ll notice that sales pages should gen­er­al­ly gath­er greater clicks for broad-tail search­es, as well as more con­ver­sions. On the flip side, infor­ma­tion­al con­tent pages should gath­er more clicks for long-tail queries and have longer ses­sion times, with some­times high­er bounce rates.

4. Monitor competitors’ Google Ads bids

On the paid side, use tools like SEM­rush and Spy­Fu to see what key­words com­peti­tors are bid­ding on to find insight on what com­peti­tors deem most rel­e­vant for their cam­paigns.

Ana­lyze ad copy and land­ing pages to see how key­words are imple­ment­ed in titles, descrip­tions and CTAs. Lever­age these key­words to fuel your cam­paign and exper­i­ment with split test­ing to see which cam­paigns are gen­er­at­ing the best results. It makes sense that ad copy that match­es intent gen­er­ates more con­ver­sions and doesn’t waste ad spend.

5. Optimize for natural language searches

Final­ly, if you want to under­stand the intent behind search­es bet­ter, you can also look toward the users them­selves. Look at the lan­guage peo­ple use when con­duct­ing voice search­es or typ­ing out phras­es of their own on forums and social media posts.

Cre­ate sur­veys and pose ques­tions on social media to extract this infor­ma­tion. Just engage with your cus­tomers to iden­ti­fy the intent behind the terms and jar­gon they use. You under­stand your cus­tomers bet­ter than any­one else, so you should be able to iden­ti­fy the intent behind most search­es.

To help out, I’d sug­gest opti­miz­ing your on-site con­tent to answer as many user ques­tions as pos­si­ble, whether it’s for a paid list­ing or infor­ma­tive blog post. This will make your con­tent more rel­e­vant for users and search engines no mat­ter its intent.

Go optimize!

We use key­words for vir­tu­al­ly every aspect of dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing. Until recent­ly, neur­al net­works and deep learn­ing were not avail­able to help search engines under­stand the seman­tic mean­ing and intent behind user search­es. They sim­ply had to use links and exact match key­words to hope that their results were rel­e­vant enough for users.

As search engines become more sophis­ti­cat­ed, I’d argue it’s eas­i­er for dig­i­tal mar­keters to opti­mize for the best results. The data is clear in the key­words and search engine results.