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How to Optimize for User Intent

10 min read

Search engine optimization and conversion optimization are part of the content marketing lexicon. However, smart marketers are paying increasingly greater attention to user intent optimization. Here’s why.

There is a growing body of evidence that Google and other search engines are looking beyond typical ranking factors (keywords, titles, meta tags, etc.) when assessing sites. Some point to the release of Google’s ranking guidelines in 2015. But, algorithms released as early as 2013 have shaken up the SERPs and cast more and more doubt on the value of SEO alone.

What’s influencing search rankings, if not SEO? Simply put, user intent.

Let’s look at a few examples of Google’s algorithms that support the use of user intent as a benchmark for quality content worth ranking :

Panda: First introduced in 2011 and still updated from time to time, it’s meant to scan sites for quality content. If your site contains what Google calls thin content (that includes content that doesn’t match user intent), then it will push you down in the rankings.

Hummingbird: Released in 2013, Hummingbird looks at a user’s entire query when matching content to keywords. Essentially, it looks for context in search queries that will help it deliver more accurate search results.

Pigeon: This algorithm, launched in 2014, allows Google to match search results to a user’s location, putting more weight on local search results users might find more useful.

When putting together your content marketing strategy, it’s still imperative to do your keyword research, map out your long-tail keywords and links, and write content that’s absolutely optimized for SEO.

But it’s also important to keep your audience foremost in your thoughts and understand the context of your chosen keywords. What are users really looking for when they search certain terms?

That’s user intent.

How User Intent Impacts SEO

Most likely, you’ve been relying on SEO to keep your content ranked high in SERPs. But maybe you’ve started to see a few of your consistent performers slip a little bit with no way to explain it through SEO.

It could be time to look back at your existing material, even as you look forward to your new content, to make sure you’ve captured user intent.

What Is User Intent?

To better understand what user intent is, allow me to talk about my kids.

We recently got a Google Home and put it in our kitchen. I have two toddler boys who love listening to pop songs at dinner.

And they love to talk to Google Home.

Now imagine a toddler trying to use voice search to find his favorite song. It sounds something like this:

Toddler: Google! Can you please play “Zootopia Song”?

Google: Okay, here’s “Try Everything” by Shakira.

While the song is called Try Everything, Google searched for songs in the Zootopia movie. It took the entire search query into consideration, rather than just giving my son results for Zootopia in general.

And it didn’t give him the entire Zootopia soundtrack, just the featured song sung by Shakira, the one people are most likely looking for.

In essence, Google is looking at the search query as a whole to find the best match. It’s trying to understand precisely what a user needs and ensuring that the content behind the most relevant keyword truly matches what the user is looking for.

As you can see from the Google Home example, matching user intent to search queries has become critical as people switch from desktop and laptop to mobile and voice-activated devices.

How Does User Intent Affect Search Results?

When a search engine like Google assesses a site for ranking on a SERP, it still looks at content relevancy, but it has to take several factors into consideration when determining if, in fact, your content is relevant; namely

  • Whether the user’s search is transactional, navigational or informational
  • The location of the user (if the search is navigational)
  • The context of the entire query
  • The linguistics behind the query

A transactional query is pretty straightforward in signifying commercial intent. A user is looking for a specific company or brand.

If you’re looking for the Home Goods website, Google is going to give you the home decor company’s site first because a) the keyword matches and b) Home Goods has domain authority.

After that, you’ll probably see more results having to do with smaller local businesses that might have the same name, and then home decor content that contains the keyword phrase home goods.

For navigational searches, if you searched for home decor stores, Google would give you the most relevant brick-and-mortar stores in your area, as well as online brands.

For informational searches, you might search for home decorating trends or trendy home accents, expecting the most relevant results to help you do a little research.

Content Relevancy Factors

Home decorating trends is a pretty straightforward term, so let’s look at trendy home accents to see how Google would rank a piece of content using that keyword.

If you’re searching for this term, you’re most likely looking for contemporary accent pieces to update your home. You’re not looking for accents in different languages or trendy homes, and Google has to understand that, using its algorithms.

Another example of informational user intent in action is the idea of answer engine optimization. This is where you create content that answers a specific question with the goal of capturing Google’s Answer Box or Featured Snippets.

Next, Google uses bots and human reviewers to make sure your content matches your keywords. It will crawl your content for metadata, titles, and subheads, elements that signal whether or not your article is truly about trendy home accents.

Human reviewers look at your content for EAT: expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. You must show you know what you’re talking about, or the sources you’ve cited understand what they’re talking about. You or your sources must have some authority in the subject area, and you must show you are trustworthy — you haven’t included any shady links, for example.

Finally, Google will take into consideration how well-received your content is with users. Do they remain on your page or do they bounce? If they bounce quickly, it could be a sign that your content isn’t satisfying the intent of their search.

All of these elements are put together to understand who well you satisfy user intent. If you’re doing it right, you’re not only building loyalty with users, but you are quite possibly boosting your search ranking.

How to Align SEO With User Intent

At this point, you’ve probably figured out that when it comes to ranking in search, SEO and user intent go hand in hand. In fact, at every point of your content marketing research, your user intent should be top of mind.

Is This the End of Keywords?

In a word, no.

Keywords still have a place in search. It’s one method Google and other search engines use to match content with search queries.

It’s also, according to Search Engine Journal, a way to target your audience and focus your content. Your primary keyword provides the bones of your strategy, upon which you lay the flesh of your content.

Of course, you have your secondary keywords and terms. But that primary keyword sets the course for your piece. If your keyword is trendy home accents, you’ve got your direction. And you even have the parameters for your secondary keyword research.

Then How Does a Content Marketer Align the Two?

So how can you align SEO and user intent to increase your ranking in SERPs?

Start with your marketing persona. To truly understand what your audience wants, you have to understand who your audience is. If you are a home decor website, whether retail or content-driven, you have to determine whether your audience is made up of men or women, Gen Z or baby boomers, urban or rural dwellers, or the many possibilities in between.

This will help inform not only the keywords you target, but the kinds of content you create around those keywords that will best satisfy your users’ search intent.

If, for example, your user base is made up of budget-conscious members of Gen-Z who are just beginning to move into their own places, your secondary keywords and content should probably highlight trendy but inexpensive accent pieces, or perhaps accent pieces that are upcycled.

When I was running a parenting website, we targeted millennial moms who were having their first child. So content having to do with baby gear often included all-natural, organic and sustainable choices, which millennials are looking for.

As you write your content, make sure it covers a topic thoroughly and from every angle possible. If you need to take it beyond one piece and create a topic cluster, by all means, do it.

Finally, make sure your primary and secondary keywords are used regularly, but not exhaustively, throughout your piece. Make sure your metadata speaks to your topic, and include heads and subheads throughout your article. All of these are signals to Google that you’ve created a thorough piece that satisfies a particular user intent.

How to Optimize Existing Content to Align With Intent

Optimizing for user intent doesn’t have to be something you only do moving forward. You can look back on your existing content, too. (remember those high-performing pieces that are slipping a little?)

Create a list of your strongest pieces, including topic, keywords, length, and any relevant analytics, like time on page, scroll depth, and pageviews. You can pull a spreadsheet like this using any number of tools including Google Analytics.

Then, take a look at these pieces to perform a content gap analysis. Assess these pieces against your marketing persona. Ask yourself, what topics or keywords am I missing that would satisfy the search intent of my audience.

Hold your pieces up to those of your competitors. How are they covering the same topic? Are there any angles you missed? Are there any angles they missed?

You can either do this assessment by hand or by using a tool like MarketMuse. MarketMuse will analyze your content semantically, looking for gaps and missing topic areas. It will also provide related topics and linking opportunities you may have missed.

Now go back to your original content list and create a plan to optimize each piece. Weave it into your content marketing calendar so that you’re getting the right balance of new and optimized existing pieces.

Your SEO and keyword research are still an integral part of your content marketing strategy. They are the foundation upon which you will build your content.

Writing to fulfill user intent simply helps you create deep, engaging content that keeps your audience interested and coming back for more. And it tells Google and other search engines that you have created quality content work moving up the ranks in SERPs.

What you should do now

When you’re ready… here are 3 ways we can help you publish better content, faster:

  1. Book time with MarketMuse Schedule a live demo with one of our strategists to see how MarketMuse can help your team reach their content goals.
  2. If you’d like to learn how to create better content faster, visit our blog. It’s full of resources to help scale content.
  3. If you know another marketer who’d enjoy reading this page, share it with them via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

Laurie is a freelance writer, editor, and content consultant and adjunct professor at Fisher College.  Her work includes the development and execution of content strategies for B2B and B2C companies, including marketing and audience research, content calendar creation, hiring and managing writers and editors, and SEO optimization. You can connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.