What is User Intent?

Posted by John Crandall on Jun 14, 2018 10:00:00 AM

What Is User Intent

Marketing today is customer-centric.

Top-performing companies are obsessed with providing customers with precisely what they desire. In fact, they have to do so in order to be successful.

However, what does customer-centrism mean from a ‘search’ perspective? Moreover, how does this relate to ‘user intent’?

There is more to search engine optimization than technical considerations, keywords, or even high-quality content. Getting traffic that converts requires that you provide exactly what your desired reader seeks.

It may seem obvious, but this point is often missed.

‘User Intent’ should be a major priority for all content creators, because it leads to far higher rankings and conversion rates. It determines whether visitors will stick around to read your content or click ‘back’ to the search engine result page (SERP) to find something else that better fits their needs.

Successfully aligning with user intent means creating content and a matching title that satisfies the search query.

If it fits what they were looking for, you win.

If it fails to provide that, they’ll leave within seconds and go somewhere else.

The goal is not to get as much traffic as possible. Drawing in disinterested users hurts your rankings due to an increased bounce rate. Those are the visitors that quickly click 'back' to the SERPs.

When focused on all the bells and whistles of SEO, it can be easy to forget the primary purpose of a search engine. Search engines exist to provide the most relevant results for any search.

For your content to build organic traffic, conversions or marketing value, it has to serve a clear user intent. This goes beyond keywords and semantic SEO. It means figuring out what searchers want.

Revisiting the Purpose of a Search Query

There are three basic kinds of user intent:

Informational: the user wants to learn something

  • Search - “inexpensive travel destinations” or “summer fashion guide”
  • User Intent - seeking an article that covers the respective topic of the search

Transactional: the user is seeking a specific product or service

  • Search - “kitchen cleaning supplies” or “personal assistant device” or the exact name of a product
  • User Intent - seeking an e-commerce site featuring that product

Navigational: the user is seeking a specific website

  • Search - “New York Times,” or “Wall Street Journal”
  • User Intent - finding a link to a particular website

Unless your desired audience has your exact website or product in mind when performing a search query, your site is unlikely to be visible in their SERP results. In this case, getting your website upgraded in the rankings hierarchy often requires relevant informational content. This has the dual effect of covering related topics that make your site more visible to a search algorithm.

Informational content generates organic traffic that leads users to a transactional opportunity (or a navigational match). In other words, it brings them into your online sales funnel by providing them with the information for which they’re looking.

This works as long as both the content and the product and service align with user intent.

Regardless of the particular case, it’s important to keep this in mind. Users perform searches to find solutions to their problems. Catering to their needs means understanding what your content is expected to provide in order to give them what they expect.

This requires going beyond the technical guidance often given by SEO professionals and focusing on content.

For a moment, forget about your company’s search goals and consider what the reader expects to get from engaging with your website.

Discovering User Intent

Here’s a simple way to determine user intent around a desired topic. Start with a ‘focus topic’ in mind that relates to the content you want to publish. Then, take a look at its top SERP results. The top ranking sites for that search are generally those that meet user intent; they answer searchers questions. However, sites with great domain authority can sometimes be exceptions.

If you’re trying to produce articles around a focus topic that fail to align with that user intent, you probably need to make some changes to the content.

The increased popularity of voice search means that users more often perform searches in the form of a question, which can help guide your title and focus topic.

Strategies that prioritize a buyer’s journey are also useful. However, let’s first take a look at some basic examples of approaches that fail to work - and are quite common mistakes.

Sometimes companies attempt to increase organic traffic with misleading titles, often based on popular keywords. The title makes it appear as though the article is relevant, but the content on the page turns out to be something completely different.

Take for instance the article you're reading. The title is "What Is User Intent?" and the purpose of the article is to answer that question. However, what would happen if we kept the title, provided a summary of our product, MarketMuse Suite, but didn't provide any content relating to user intent?

Most readers would undoubtedly notice the mismatch. They'd leave the site, undermining the domain’s credibility. Rankings could suffer due to a multitude of factors including high bounce rate, and reduced time spent on page.

Initially, traffic might go up, but visitors wouldn't stay very long. Trust would erode as they became aware that the page is misleading. The next time it comes up, they would be less likely to choose our website from among the other options.

Content that doesn’t speak to user intent results in traffic that doesn’t convert. It’s harmful both in the short and long term. It wastes the reader’s time, and it damages your standing. If you want higher conversion rates, you must first speak to the needs of your users. This will draw them to your site and keep them there.

Intent Mismatch

Sometimes people use different search terms than you would expect. Take for example the hub spoke model, also known as the content cluster model. Creating a post with a focus topic of “hub and spoke model” for the MarketMuse audience would result in an intent mismatch. 

Look at the search results in Google. They are dominated by the discussion of the hub and spoke model as it relates to transportation, NOT content marketing.

hub and spoke model

However, one word can make all the difference. In this case, changing the focus topic to “hub and spoke content model” would align the content with user intent, as can be seen in these search results.

hub and spoke content model

Buyer’s Journey

So how can you succeed in meeting user intent? It varies depending on your goals.

If your site is meant to be a sales portal, you could start by publishing content items that focus on solving the problems your products are designed to address. For instance, if your company sells home improvement products, produce ‘how to’ articles about carpentry. When users search to find information about this topic, they’ll find articles on your domain that meets their needs.

Now, your content strategy goals are in alignment with the intention of the user. You can bring them down a sales funnel to other parts of the website, such as e-commerce, where a transaction is possible.

Initially, this may sound quite simple, but it opens up the opportunity to create domain authority across all subjects that are relevant to your site.

If your company focuses on news or reviews, make sure it gives readers the answers they seek. Does your article follow best practices in editorial standards? Does it tell the story succinctly and engagingly? If it’s a review site, does the review provide enough information that a reader could decide on a product? Does it provide answers to their questions?

If you find that your articles are starting to get too long, consider breaking them up into smaller stand-alone content pieces that fit a more specific user intent. This process is similar to creating content around long-tail keywords. These are topics that tend to have lower search volume but are more targeted to the relevant segment and therefore get higher conversion rates.

The takeaway is that meeting user intent requires publishing on a host of secondary and tertiary topics that relate to your site’s primary focus.

Site Architecture and User Intent

A user-centric approach favors creating deeply textured site architecture with closely interwoven content experiences that allow people to access the digital information they want in the order that is most useful to them. With this method, you provide content based on the visitors' place in the marketing funnel, targeted to their level of interest.

If your visitor doesn’t know anything about your product, transactional content is unsuitable. Instead, an informational content item would be appropriate. Further down the sales funnel, when awareness turns into interest, a content item can address the value of a product more specifically and still meet user intent.

Providing for more varied user intents around your primary focus topic helps enrich your content architecture and content strategy. It attracts a larger group of readers to your website by increasing your website’s relevance to related search terms.

It improves the user experience by providing content that they’re interested in with more specificity; and it allows you to segment your audience with more precision when it comes to product and services offers.

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Topics: Content Optimization

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