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Search Intent: Find Your Needle

Charles Samuel

When people tune in to a royal wedding, there’s a palpable sense of wonder that keeps them glued to their screens. Apologies to any Kardashian/Jenner prime-time events, but when 1.9 billion people around the globe fix their eyes on a screen to watch two people they don’t know, it’s an entirely different kind of spectacle.

A royal wedding is different because there’s an understanding that two worlds are converging. Perhaps even colliding. One person is literally born into the lap of luxury, and the other person will have to adjust. Where they came from and where they’re going? They’ll have to work through that together.

Digital marketers and their audiences represent a similar kind of union. Ultimately, brands that succeed online understand where their audience segments come from and where they’re trying to go. One way marketers bridge the digital divide is by focusing on the former—diving deeper into search intent.

But what is search intent? Does it matter that most of us don’t even use search engines like we used to?

What is search intent?

Search intent is the rationale behind a user’s search query. It’s the why that keeps them searching. Are they trying to buy something? Are they trying to learn something?

Understanding search intent is important because it helps content marketers differentiate between audience segments looking for more information about a product or service and those wanting definitions of market jargon. That’s a dramatically different set of contexts even if, ultimately, they’re both groups you’re trying to win over.

In years past, search engine optimization (or SEO) hinged on keyword volume. If there were a ton of searches for certain terms, marketers had all the ammo they needed to go out and fine-tune content or increase digital efforts. As search engine algorithms have matured, however, volume is no longer the only needle marketers can afford to focus on.

Back in 2002, Andrei Broder was the first person to take a stab at codifying the different kinds of search intent. He defined three, all of which are now universally accepted as the primary ways people retrieve information online:

  • Informational (know) queries. The typical digital searcher is looking for information—often in the form of a question. When is sunset today? What is bitcoin?
  • Navigational (go) queries. Other searchers have something in mind when they’re online, directing their attention to a specific website or brand. For these users—especially if they don’t know the exact URL of the item in question—it’s just easier to search for the website or brand right in their search bar.
  • Transactional (do) queries. Other searchers have their wallets in their hands, ready to make a purchase. Often they already know what they want to buy. Buy a 15-inch MacBook Pro. Other times, they’re doing a little bit of commercial investigation before they pull the trigger. Best laptop for video creators.

But wait. There’s more.

Studies show that almost 80% of search intent online is informational, while the other 20% gets evenly split between navigational and transactional. This spread has practical considerations for content marketers. If you want your brand to resonate with your audience, chances are you need more content that answers real questions and less content that tries to sell.

If you’re writing content with Natural Language Processing (NLP) in mind, you’ll have a leg up when trying to rank for this kind of informational content. Google’s focus on NLP means that the search engine is trying to better understand natural language and conversational user queries (i.e., queries with long-tail keywords) and deliver content that answers these questions.

You can use NLP to your advantage to focus on the specific long-tail keyword queries that your audience is searching for. Doing this, you’ll hone in on user intent and language and, in turn, give Google more context to analyze your content, decide that it is useful and authoritative, and serve it up to users.

Everything can change

Fans of FX’s animated series Archer probably started feeling awkward in early 2014 when real-life ISIS gained global prominence after driving Iraq into chaos. Search results for the term spiked for a year, starting in early 2014.

Search results for "isis" on google trends (screenshot)

Search results for “ISIS” on google trends (screenshot)

Until then, fans of the TV show were familiar with “ISIS” because it was the acronym for International Secret Intelligence Service, the fictional spy agency that kept the titular character employed and armed. Things changed quickly. The TV show’s producers had to pivot after realizing they needed to avoid any unnecessary confusion, opting to drop the name. It became canon.

Data from Google (like the kind we see in Google Trends) tells us clearly that intent can shift. Terms can take on new meanings. Entirely new terms can pop up seemingly overnight. For marketers, knowing search intent can shift is important because it means results and relevancy can shift, too. Staying out in front of your audience means unpacking data to stay ahead of trends that ebb and flow.

A great real-world example of this would be the term “vaccination.” Prior to the pandemic, this may have been an informational keyword for search users trying to learn the science behind immunization. Now it’s transactional—people want to know where they can book appointments for their COVID-19 vaccines.

This transience of search intent matters for brands. Those that optimize for shifting intent will help users get those appointments. The other brands won’t.


The journey matters more

So, you’ve gotten your page on Google and now people are landing on your website. Great … now what? Should they download something? Are they even ready to download something?

Search intent is only the first leg of the buyer's journey. Understanding intent well is a major win and worth celebrating. But it’s a piece of the larger puzzle, and it can get complex.

Remember the earlier stat about users performing informational searches? Content marketers have to consider funnel stages to make sure users aren’t left in the dust. Are the users searching for this specific term ready to buy? If not, what can you do to make them ready?

In recent years, smart technology has muddied the waters even more, challenging digital marketing professionals to think deeper about where the user is headed. You’re now as likely to make searches via voice command on an Amazon Echo in your kitchen as you are on your smartphone from the couch. What does it mean if you’re searching for food products in the kitchen? Is the intent different than when searching somewhere else? (The answer to that last question is yes. Maybe.)

Voice search is another arena where NLP can bolster your SEO strategy. Think about the way people query their voice assistants. They don’t string together single keywords like “dog strawberry safe” (that would be weird). They ask real questions instead: “Are strawberries safe for dogs?”

Creating informational content with these long-tail keywords won’t just help your content appear when folks open up a browser. It can also help when they’re standing in the kitchen, strawberry in hand, and patient pup at their feet.

As technology continues to change, the journey will become that much more important. Gone are the days of the linear path to purchase. Customers aren’t going from search engine to purchase as often as they used to. It’s up to your brand to make sure you have content that responds to each unique moment in their journeys.

Here’s how you start

Search intent today is more than just search volume and keywords that look good on paper. Dialing into the intent behind search queries can be the difference between just creating content online and creating the kind of content your users crave more of.

Sometimes brands need the right kind of support to reorient digital and content marketing around shifting search intent realities. Where are the content gaps? How should we leverage remarketing for different kinds of intent?

That’s where we come in.

At T3, we help organizations get a better view of their buyer journeys by helping them think through search intent—from informational to transactional. Learn more about how we help brands like yours meet audiences online. Everywhere.

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