Understanding User Intent
Understanding user intent has to be a major part of your Search Optimization strategy. If it isn’t today, you could be wasting a lot of your time trying to optimize for something that you may never rank for. The purpose of any search initiative is to increase your ranking on SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages). As I frequently say, search is a zero-sum game in that there are a set number of searches that are performed in a period of time and in order for you to get more clicks, you really have to take them from someone else. You win. They lose.
One of the innovations that Google has rolled out is thing thing that they call RankBrain. This is an AI engine that Google uses to help understand what a users intention is (based on a number of factors). RankBrain is then used to change the results on that users’ set of search results based on how they understand what the user is looking for. Some of this is based on the actual terms that the user types in, their history, and most importantly what other users were looking for when they typed in the same term.
Understanding this is pretty important for a number of reasons. First, you do need to tailor the content that you are creating for what that user is trying to accomplish. The bottom line is that what you are doing for the user is actually intended to help them, if you can make some money while you are doing it, excellent job. Secondly, you might be trying to focus your energy on content and terms that you may never rank for because the purpose of your site does not fit the intent of the user.
The diagram below is an updated illustration of the Consumer Journey that we discuss in our Content Strategy document, but with some additional text included to help discuss what we mean by an integration of the content and the intent of the user.
In the illustration above, there are 5 steps in how we view the Consumer Journey. The first being Core Research followed by Pricing and Purchase Research. The middle step is the actual purchase of the product, but that’s not the end of the journey for this consumer. The fourth step is where the consumer is trying to enhance the use of their product. The journey culminates with the final stage where the product that was purchased is at or near the end of its useful life and the purchaser just wants to keep it going, wants some help to fix a problem, etc.
On the illustration above, we’ve listed a couple of types of content that a user would be looking for when they are doing their initial research into a product. If the consumer is unsure of what is currently available or just wants to get a broad look at what products are available, the user is looking for a comparison between a lot of products. Many review sites opt for what we call the “Best Picks” page. On this type of a page, short product descriptions and review snippets are typically joined together for a high level comparison of these products. Another type of content that a user would want to see would be a detailed product review as well as [potentially] a side-by-side comparison of two of the products that they are interested in. These 3 types of content are very typical on a site that specializes in product reviews like a CNet or PCMagazine. We call this Quadrant 1 of the consumer journey.
The second stage of the Consumer Journey is after the consumer has determined which product they want to buy (and maybe a backup). At this point the consumer is interested in the money and the actual transaction (purchase) of the product or service. When people are asked if they do research on products before they buy, more often than not, this is what they mean. The consumer is looking for something very different in Quadrant 2 of the journey as compared with Quadrant 1.
Now how would Google know what it is that the searcher is looking for. It’s the combination of the words and the inclusion or omission of part of the terms. Let me give you a couple of examples to explain this. We will presume that we are looking for a laptop to purchase and that we are going to go through the steps in the Consumer Journey as a typical person would think about purchasing a product like this. We will illustrate how the user will change the words that they use in their search to signal that they are moving closer to their purchase and how Google will change up the results that get displayed on the Search Page.
The terms below are the ones that we put into Google to illustrate the journey:
- Best Laptop 2016
- Laptop Reviews
- Lenovo Yoga Reviews
- Best Laptop Prices
- Lenovo Yoga Deals
With each of the terms that we entered above, we were getting closer and closer to the conclusion that we wanted to buy a Lenovo Yoga laptop. [Please note, we are not suggesting that you purchase these machines, we are merely illustrating a point – we don’t want any complaints on this.] So I started out my research with the first term and the screenshot below is the SERP that I got from this search.
This result page very clearly wants to provide the user with a bunch of information about what TechRadar feels is important for the user at this stage. Google presented the fairly large Knowledge Box with information directly out of the TR page. The first organic link would move you over to their Best Picks page. Moving along the consumer journey to the next stage, users will begin to read reviews. The majority of Best Picks pages link directly to that sites product reviews, but a user could also start their journey with the search term, “Laptop Reviews”. You’ll note that the Knowledge Box does not appear on this page and Google has determined that you really want to read reviews of products, so it’s important to work that term into the Title Tag of the page. The 4 organic results illustrated below all contain the words Laptop and Reviews (and 3 of them have that exact term).
Continuing along this journey, we get to the point where we want to read a review about a specific machine. In our example, we entered the term “Lenovo Yoga Reviews”. Based on the actual intent inferred by this search term, I’m telling Google that I’m not really ready to purchase the machine, I’m still reading reviews and trying to understand what I’m going to be buying.
Again, this page is very different in that the Knowledge box here provides information that’s specific to the machine that I’m interested in. The first organic result is to a review page found on LaptopMag.com and you’ll note that all of the terms that I entered appear in the title tag of the first organic result “Lenovo” “Yoga” and “Review” are all there. Now based on a typical decision process, I’ve pretty much determined that I’m going to purchase this machine, so now i want to get the best deal so that I can buy the machine (and not get annoyed the next day seeing the price drop $50), so I’m going to start shopping for the best price. I’ve now entered the second Quadrant of this Consumer Journey.
The screen grab below illustrates the SERP for my next term “Best Laptop Prices”. Here the signals that I’m sending out are that I want a laptop and I want the best prices, so I’m trying to figure out WHERE to shop for the price, because I don’t want to miss it, so I type in “Best Laptop Prices”.
As you can see, the results on this page are very different from the SERPs previously. Two of the first 3 organic results are pointing to eCommerce properties, not product review sites. The exception here is that the page for PCMag for ‘Best Cheap Laptops’ is the first result. This could be because I didn’t clear my browser cache and one of the signals could be that I’m not entirely sure of what I want to do other than pay very little. Now we are ready for the final stage, where I know what I want and I just want a deal on my Lenovo Yoga, so I type in “Lenovo Yoga Deals”
In this page, there’s little doubt that I’m buying a Lenovo Yoga so RankBrain, i.e. Google has determined that the only things that should be displayed to me have to do with purchasing the machine. All through these first 2 phases of the Consumer Journey (5 steps illustrated), the results were changing based on what it is that I was telling Google that I was looking out for. I started my search pretty broad, and the SERP reflected that. I eventually got to the point where I knew what I wanted and the SERP reflected the “Buy Now” intent that I exhibited.
As you can imagine, as we move into the 3rd quadrant (post-purchase), it’s going to be less and less likely that search results will display Commerce sites, they will start to deliver results for Help sites and maybe some Getting Started tips from review sites, but based on the intent of the searcher (in this example, me), I’m sending Google different signals and they are responding differently.
Summary & Conclusions
Optimizing your pages for search will vary based on what it is that the user wants to know. If the user is broadly looking to understand a product, then from an SEO perspective, you need to think about how that user is going to type in their search query and optimize your page accordingly. The further along this Consumer Journey your page(s) will need to change their voice and what you say based on what it is that that consumer is looking for. Putting your mind into the mind of the searcher is really important.
Just as important is what you shouldn’t waste your time on. If you are a product review site, there might be no reason at all for you to try to optimize for the term “Lenovo Yoga”, maybe. If you do try to optimize for this term, you should have the understanding that the results on this page are highly likely to be very different than what is presented on the SERP for “Lenovo Yoga Review”. The Lenovo site isn’t likely to be the first organic result for a query with the word “Review” in it.
This is a fairly high level example of how searchers exhibit their intent through the search queries that they enter. You really need to think like a user sometimes and not an SEO person.