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What is user intent in SEO and how do we optimise for it?

Emily Barrington

Posted by Emily Barrington

21 September 2021

Like any marketing discipline, SEO has evolved over the years. The fundamentals of creating a keyword-optimised website remain true. But there are many ways in which SEO has moved forward and involved other areas of consideration in recent years, whether that’s the introduction of BERT and Google further understanding the semantics of human search, to the emergence of the Core Web Vitals bringing in aspects of user experience to the ranking factors. 

While the fundamentals still ring true, Google is getting better at understanding and rewarding sites that meet the user intent. This moves SEO considerations beyond the notion of simply targeting individual keywords in our body content and building high-quality backlinks. For example, while our keyword research tools show that we should target and optimise for a term such as “healthy vegetarian food”, Google may reward and rank sites that present this in a clear and digestible manner, say a table or listicle over a long-form article.

Users have got smarter in how they use search engines and Google is getting better at understanding this. As a result, the needle for success is changing and our processes of optimisation need to change with it.

So, what is user intent?

User intent relates to a goal or outcome that someone may have when they search for something on Google. This could be a desire to find out the answer to a question (“How many calories are in vegetarian sausages?”) or to purchase something (“buy vegetarian sausages”).

Many people in the industry have categorised these types of intent into three groups:

  • Navigational (brand-related searches): When a user types a brand name into the search bar, such as “Apple”, Google is smart enough to know the user is searching for the brand. Therefore, we typically find the SERP dominated by the brand’s website when the search intent is navigational. 

  • Commercial: When a user is looking to buy something, this is known as commercial (or transactional) intent. Google will typically rank commercial or e-commerce pages with product listings. This can be seen through a search like “buy an iPad”.

  • Informational: When a user is looking for information, this is known as informational intent. Google will typically rank blog posts, guides, or long-form content over more commercially led pages. This can be seen through a search like “What iPhone should I get?”. 

Historically, intent could commonly be identified through prefixed words such as “how”, “why”, “what”, “when”, and “who”, which were indicators that a keyword would have an informational intent. As Google understands intent better, we’re seeing an increase in long-tail search queries that may not be picked up by our familiar keyword research tools. One example of this would be “vegetarian meal recipes”, which wouldn’t be picked up by a number of third-party tools’ ‘questions’ filters, but is in fact a highly informational query. 

How do I optimise my website or URL for search intent?

While there is no one perfect strategy to guarantee you rank in the top position, there are a number of ways to approach research to increase the likelihood you’ve understood the user intent behind the searches, and therefore will know how to alter your website or URL accordingly. 

The SERP is your most powerful tool

While we may be able to inform our decisions to optimise in line with certain keywords, nothing tells the whole story quite like the SERP. By analysing the SERP and what is ranking, you’ll get a good idea of the intent behind the search. Are pages ranking with guides and blog posts? If so, you’ll likely need an informational page to rank well. 

Review your competitor content on a regular basis 

Once you’ve reviewed the SERP, more value can be added by reviewing your competitors’ content. By reviewing things such as average word count, format and structure, and common topics discussed, you’ll get a feel for what you’ll need to cover in order to rank well. A lot of intent optimisation ideas can be drawn from how the top-ranking pages style their content. 

For example, the top result for “best vegetarian sausage” is an article by Good Housekeeping detailing a tasting event devised by the editorial team with a scoring system for each brand. The article ranks the vegetarian sausages out of a score of 100, answering the query. Furthermore, the article goes on to detail where you can purchase these products, albeit with affiliate links, cleverly mixing in some purchase intent as well. 

The content is concise, segmented clearly, and has a good use of images to catch the user's attention. Interestingly, there's only one instance of the term “best vegetarian sausages” and the article is over a year old, featuring summer seasonality as its theme. Yet it consistently holds first position. 

While traditional SEO methods and ensuring your website are technically sound are still important, this is one example of how optimising the content to satisfy user intent gives you an advantage over your competitors. 

Format your page so it satisfies the user query 

On top of all the above, it can often be the simplest of tweaks to your page or how your content is structured that can reap the biggest rewards. Let’s say you have a long-form article that discusses the “top 10 richest people in the world”. List articles like this have historically done very well. Pumping out similar articles was a popular SEO content strategy circa 2014. 

Looking at the SERP, we can see we’re also being served with a Featured Snippet in a bulleted list format. Although Featured Snippets can be achieved through correctly structured data markup, coupled with a strong backlink profile, they could also be gained through restructuring the content. For example, you could include a bulleted list at the beginning of the article before going further in-depth down the page. 

Taking a look at the page holding the Featured Snippet, we can see the intent is answered straight away and structured in this way. 

This may be contrary to what you learn about content optimisation as SEOs and having our target keywords and content openers at the top of the page. But with the introduction of user intent and further user experience metrics slowly making their way into Google’s algorithm, it’s more important than ever to think of it from the user’s perspective. 

If they want to find out who the top 10 richest people in the world are, they don’t want a long list of articles. I want the details in front of me, right there on the page (or directly in the SERP).

What tools can I use to inform my intent-led strategy?

SEO suites

Don’t worry, what we’ve outlined doesn’t mean that keyword research is dead. If anything, a good, thorough keyword research is more important than ever. Capturing relevant, high search volume keywords and analysing the intent allows you to put together a robust SEO strategy and content plan. 

Many of our familiar SEO tool suites have improved their keyword research tools to include better and more long-tail and intent-based keywords. Type a competitive, short-tail keyword into Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer tool, for example, and you’ll be able to view additional keyword ideas, including questions (informational-intent queries).

Tools like this will only pick up keywords in their “questions” filter if they include pre-fixed words such as “how”, “what”, “who”, and “when”. Although this doesn’t include all keywords with informational intent, it casts a wide net and is a great place to start. It’ll give you an initial batch of keywords and get you thinking about other questions users may be asking around your chosen topic.

You can then go through the rest of the keywords you’ve identified during keyword research and manually check their intent, assigning them to one of the three intent categories discussed above. Typically navigational terms will be branded and therefore irrelevant from an SEO keyword research perspective.

Google Search Console 

While Google Search Console will only provide you data on 1,000 keywords, marrying up a fresh Google-provided dataset with your existing intent research can help consolidate your research further.

We’d suggest looking at which long-tail intent keywords have the highest impressions but poor or average clicks. To validate these queries, upload them to your preferred keyword research tool to get an idea of search volume and other related terms. 

Introducing the new Search Console | Google Search Central Blog
Bringing it all together

Optimising for user intent and carrying out keyword research in this manner isn’t easy. It can be a daunting prospect to think outside the familiar and comfortable world of tangible elements, such as short-tail keywords and a strong search volume. 

Yet this is the future of keyword research and content-based SEO optimisation as we know it. As users get savvier and more aware of their needs from a Google search, it’s inevitably up to Google to match this by rewarding sites that meet them.

With the introduction of MUM earlier in the year, where Google is experimenting with providing answers in the SERP that follow a storied narrative, based on what it deems the user wishes to search for after the initial query, the importance of user intent is only set to grow over the next few years.

Hopefully, by using some of the ideas and approaches detailed in this guide, along with your existing processes and toolsets, you’ll be able to identify plenty of opportunities where your existing content is ripe and ready for user intent optimisation.