Are You Conflating Keywords With Intent? Here’s How to Tell


In the earliest days of search engine optimization, keywords were really the only thing that mattered. Knowing what search terms brought people to a website allowed you laser-focus on those terms, often to the exclusion of all else. It didn’t take long for that approach to fall out of vogue.

Today, keywords are more often a secondary consideration where SEO is concerned. You still need to know them, obviously — to know how people are finding your website through Google’s search engine. But it’s more important that you understand why they’re searching.

What Is Intent, Exactly? 

To put it simply, intent (also referred to as keyword intent) is what the user wants to achieve with their search. Virtually every algorithm update released by Google in the past several years has been focused on predicting and understanding intent as thoroughly as possible. This means that. from an SEO perspective, intent is something you also need to understand.

Per SEO and marketing expert Yoast, there are four different categories of search intent

  1. Informational. The user is looking to learn something. They may be trying to find a recipe for a particular meal, information about traffic on their commute to work, or details about a celebrity. Informational searchers aren’t interested in making a purchase, they simply want to learn.

    To target informational searches: 
    • Think about the type of content your audience likely wants to see. If you sell construction tools, for instance, an explainer piece on how to repair a patio could be valuable from an informational perspective.
    • How-to videos and infographics are your friends, especially if you can align them to your brand’s unique personality. 
    • If you’re targeting a B2B audience, thought leadership content like case studies, white papers, and surveys can also be immensely helpful. 
  2. Navigational. When a user performs a navigational search, they’re looking for a specific page or website. Generally speaking, navigational searches are irrelevant to your business unless you’re the one people are searching for.

    To target navigational searches:
    • Don’t. 
  3. Transactional. People looking to buy something in the immediate future. Closely, but not directly related to the commercial investigation.

    To optimize for transactional searches: 
    • Create descriptive headlines for each product or service.
    • Feature high-quality product photos with each product listing (if relevant). These photos should include relevant keywords in their name and alt text. 
    • Write comprehensive descriptions. A customer should be able to learn everything they need to know about what you’re selling simply by looking at your product page. 
    • Include calls to action in your blog posts and other web content where relevant.
  4. Commercial Investigation. A fusion between transactional and informational intent. These searchers are interested in eventually purchasing something, but they want to cover all their bases first. Commercial investigation is much more common in the B2B space than in the consumer space.

    To optimize for commercial investigation searches: 
    • Ensure you’re optimized for transactional searches.
    • Consider drafting datasheets or product comparisons that pit your offerings against the competition. 
    • Encourage reviews, both on your website and through channels like Google My Business.
    • Maintain NAP (Name, Address, Phone number) information on every page of your website.  

Understanding Intent Through Keywords

Even a keyphrase as simple as that could have a ton of different intents behind it. The searcher could be looking to:  

  • Purchase a new pair of running shoes online.
  • Research the best running shoes on the market.
  • Learn about the history of running shoes.
  • Read about what running shoes are and how they work.
  • Find places to buy running shoes nearby.

Intent is often (but not always) indicated by qualifiers attached to the original keyword. So, if someone is looking to purchase running shoes, they might search for ‘buy running shoes’ or ‘running shoes for sale.’ While you can target those phrases to some extent, it’s far more important that you create your content with intent in mind. 

It’s also important to note that you shouldn’t target keywords with overly broad intent. Simply knowing someone is looking to make a purchase or learn something isn’t quite enough. You need to dig deeper and understand not only why they want something, but also the specifics of that purchase. 

For instance, to go back to our running shoes example: 

  • What type or brand of running shoes is the customer looking to purchase?
  • Where are they looking to purchase those running shoes?
  • What size of running shoes does the customer need? 
  • Does the customer have any color or material preferences? 

There are two avenues you’ll need to explore in order to answer these questions. The first is the search engine results page (SERP). The second is your audience itself. 

Performing a SERP Analysis

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you think a particular query means. It matters what Google thinks it means. The best way to understand this is through a SERP analysis. 

For each keyword or key phrase you’re thinking of targeting, carry out a Google search. Take a look at the top results. What kind of websites show up, and what sort of content is on those websites? 

You’ll want to keep tweaking your search terms and their intent modifiers until they mesh with the type of content you wish to target. If you want to know a bit more about which modifiers Google typically assigns to each intent, analytics platform STAT has published a very comprehensive list. I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the information there, though you can largely use your best judgment. 

You can also potentially use a SERP scraping tool to give yourself a higher-level view of the SERP in terms of how it pertains to your business, as described by Search Engine Journal. You have plenty of options here, including Serpstack, SerpMaster, and SerpWow.  Note, however, that you use these tools at your own risk — Google looks down on SERP scraping, and if you’re incautious, this has the potential to land you in hot water.

Researching Your Audience 

Intent modifiers aside, the best way to understand what your audience is searching for is to understand your audience.  Know who they are, where they’re from, what they value, what they’re looking for, and why they’re looking for it. There are multiple avenues you can take to carry out this research, all of which I’d recommend you explore, with the goal of building a few buyer personas that you can then use to inform both your content and your marketing. 

  • Social media. Look at the demographics of the most active and dedicated fans on both your own social feeds and the social feeds of your competitors. Look also at how they communicate with one another, and how they engage with the brand.
  • Influencers. Is there a particularly prominent influencer in your field? There’s a good chance that anyone who falls into their demographic may be interested in your brand. Moreover, you can do further demographic research by examining their audience online, as well.
  • Surveys. Whenever you successfully lock down a lead, encourage them to fill out a brief survey about themselves. You may offer additional incentives to further motivate them to do so. 
  • Sales teams. If you employ salespeople in any capacity, engage with them to find out what demographic their most common leads fall under. 

The technical side of SEO still matters. To some extent, it always will. However, it is now far more important that you understand the intent behind each keyword — that you can deliver content that meets the needs of your audience as completely as possible. 

About the Author

Terry Cane is the COO at SEOHost.net, a reliable and supportive SEO hosting partner. You can follow/tweet her @SEOhostnet

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