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How User Intent Impacts SERPs

12 min read

Good content marketers working today are well aware that publishing quality content is an integral part of SEO strategy. However, the need to target SERPs correctly is often ignored, as is the role of user intent in determining SERP rankings.

General search queries yield high volume SERPs with tens of millions of websites.

In fact, many factors come into play before one can even rank in the top 100, let alone on the first page of search results.

Beyond fixing technical SEO, user intent, comprehensiveness, and authority are deciding ranking factors.

Let’s take a few moments to discuss how content planners can better meet user intent to get more consistent ranking results and also why it’s necessary to aim for certain SERPs, where readers are seeking the type of information that will lead them to your website.

High-quality, comprehensive content continues to be a significant driving force behind organic search success.

Quality standards don’t just include fixing typos and grammatical mistakes. They mean ensuring that the thrust of the content you’re providing serves a purpose to the user in a highly relevant area (it needs to meet user intent).

Content needs to be optimized for a SERP or focus topic. That requires topical comprehensiveness, which means covering a host of subtopics that derive from your subject matter. It means answering questions users are asking around your focus topic.

When users become engaged enough to give your content a thorough reading, your bounce rate reduces, time on site increases, and a host of other factors work in your favor to keep you at the top.

For beginners, SERP is shorthand for ‘Search Engine Results Page.’ It refers to the URLs Google or Bing surface in response to a given semantic search query. The purpose of a SERP is to rank URLs according to relevance and usefulness.

There are many ranking factors search engines employ and machine learning plays a vital part in understanding how searchers interact with these organic listings. Click-through rate (CTR) calculates the ratio of users that click on a link to the number of total users viewing that page.

Search engines use this data to fine-tune their ranking. For example, if a page that is ranking in position 4 has a higher-than-expected CTR, the search engine may rank that page higher because more people are interested in that result.

That’s just one way users play a role in deciding which sites get to the top of the SERP. By bouncing from sites that fail to satisfy user intent, i.e., to meet ‘searcher task accomplishment,’ users signal that the results lack utility. In turn, these sites may rank lower in an organic result next time around. If you’re new to this concept, take a look at our other blog post on user intent for more detailed information.

Choose your SERPs Carefully

Each SERP has a different user intent (or a number of them) driving it.

In your choice of a focus topic, a SERP comes with it.

Your topical coverage that follows will determine whether a content item is found relevant to the SERP(s) in your ‘subject universe.’

Targeting SERPs is a precise approach to topical authority that entails writing content tailored to the user intent found there.

You have to go with the flow of a SERP rather than going against it. If the working title of a content item yields a user intent that is irrelevant to your subject matter when translated into a search query, you are risking wasting effort on the wrong readers. Instead, try to rank on a SERP that matches your targeted user intent. This approach often takes the form of knocking out tails with highly useful informational articles that can foster the beginning of a buyer’s journey.

Optimizing content for the wrong SERP is a waste of resources.

The bottom line is that your on-page SEO requires two things. First, when covering a subject, you need to meet relevance benchmarks by covering the right topics to hit the jackpot according to Google’s related topic matrix. Second, you need to match user intent as discovered by the articles already present on the relevant SERP.

Here’s a good example to illustrate this point.

If you are a printed circuit board manufacturer, you’re going to have trouble ranking an article that’s focused on the search term “what are pcbs used for.” The first page of the SERPs reveals that the PCBs searchers are referring to is the chemical compound polychlorinated biphenyls, and not printed circuit boards.

The thoroughness of your content is irrelevant in this context, because it doesn’t match the search intent. Every single entry in this SERP focuses on the chemical compound PCB, so that should serve as a warning for anyone creating content or running PPC ads for that matter.

If by some miracle you do make it to the first page, you won’t stay there very long. People using this search term aren’t interested in printed circuit boards, so you won’t get the CTR normally associated with that position. Google will quickly determine that your page does not belong in this particular SERP and switfly make that adjustment.

Meanwhile, it’s worth paying attention to all sorts of changing metrics, as user behavior continues to evolve, itself. The increased use of voice search, for instance, has resulted in many queries taking the form of questions.

However, most importantly, on-page SEO comes down to quality, content depth, and content comprehensiveness. Produce high-quality content on a regular basis that genuinely attempts to answer user questions around a given topic, and you’ll start to build legacy traffic to your site.

Digital marketers are shifting their efforts from ad-driven campaigns on social media to content plans based on informational content items. High-quality content can have a longer lasting impact than ads because when content is really excellent and stays relevant, it tends to stick to the top of the SERPs for much longer.

Be Wary of Divided User Intent on a SERP

Search engines are great at differentiating between content items that have significant semantic differences. But not all SERPs are subject to the same user intent dynamics.

Some SERPs have articles – even on the first page – that are intended for dissimilar user intents. This situation often takes place when a search word is ambiguous, when it has multiple interpretations, meanings or applications in unrelated industries. In other cases, divided user intent can occur for high volume umbrella search queries that entail many various subtopics.

Prioritizing content for SERPs that reveal divided intent often minimizes opportunities for organic search expansion, especially in certain circumstances.

If you choose to optimize for a focus topic that has fractured intent, you’ll be competing in the ranking with content that is irrelevant to your interests. Your content piece is likely to accrue a ‘user intent penalty’ from users who were looking for a content item that answers an alternative interpretation of their search query. So you’re getting penalized for reasons other than the quality of your content item.

More importantly, if your content winds up in one of these organic listings and happens to be the second or third most favorite user intent for this search query, your article is going to get stuck at a lower ranking no matter how good or well optimized it is. Your content has to match the most popular user intent a SERP has to rise to the top of its results.

Changing your semantic search even a little bit could reveal a different set of related subjects that need to be covered in order to rank on the corresponding SERP. So it’s essential to get your ‘focus topic’ ironed out before you start the writing process.

So, be sure to check to see what the top articles are for a search topic. If the idea behind your article is not the same as at least three out of the top five, you probably should be targeting a different SERP.

If you’re not sure where to start, try playing around with different search queries that are a bit more unique to the field or the informational topic you want to cover. These could essentially cover more long-tail keywords, which will be smaller volume, possibly easier to dominate and should garner higher conversion rates.

Below is a Google search for ‘divided user intent.’ Let’s take a look at how the results came out.

The two top ranking articles are more generalized in their coverage, indicating that the majority of the people who made this search query were looking for a comprehensive guide to user intent.

The third URL provides answers more specifically about divided user intent, but only with respect to product-related searches. Ranked behind this is a site that is just definitional.

Finally, there is a content item that seems to address the topic, but from a much more generalized search perspective. The others are essentially off-topic.

Being competitive in this SERP would require matching the user intent of the top ranking articles found here or experimenting with another search query that better encapsulated the topic more specifically.

Unified User Intent

Unified user intent takes place when a semantic search yields first-page results that are highly similar. More or less, the vast majority of those who made this semantic search are looking for information on the same subject. Ranking competition then takes place concerning other more particular user intent factors, including higher-end quality standards that meticulously cater to the user experience. In other words, you’re in the right place, but now you’re competing for ranking on more minute points.

Ranking highly on one of these SERPs is ideal, although it can be far more difficult. In part, whether you’re ready to go for it will depend on what kind of resources you want to spend on content marketing. Some companies spend millions of dollars on ads and content to defend their positions on high volume SERPs.

Be sure to take a look at whom you’re competing against before going head-to-head with companies on a SERP that has tens of millions of results. It also helps to keep track of the algorithm updates.

Let’s look at an example. The following search was performed for ‘How to manage different user intents in content marketing.’

Above we see that pretty much all the top ranking articles would take us to content that addresses the same user intent. This search query, which essentially mirrors the desired focus topic you’d best be served by writing around, is highly specific, and therefore makes for a more niche topic. There is a bit of an art to finding the balance between generality and specificity.

A Content Planner’s Checklist

Putting yourself in the reader’s shoes helps a great deal when trying to figure out how to improve engagement as it relates to search engine optimization.

What would you, as a user, expect from a Google search? What should the top 5-10 URLs be in the SERP of a topic for which you’d search? In most cases, searchers might not know the name of your business.

Your only shot at capturing their attention is to target a SERP that prioritizes informational content. Try asking, ‘What do searchers actually want?’ Alternatively, ‘What qualities would a blog post need to be chosen for the featured snippet, which is even more prominent than top ranking?’

Which article does the best in providing the answer on the given topic? Which is most readable? Which is better written? Which conveys the credibility and topical authority that readers are seeking? Which balances the need to provide an immediate answer to the reader along with the thematic comprehensiveness needed to rank well? Also, what recent updates have there been to the search algorithm, as this tends to change quite frequently.

In the planning stage, you’ll probably want to come up with many content item topics that you can group into clusters to help establish domain authority.

However, remember that if you don’t choose the right focus topic for your content, you might fail to register on Google’s knowledge graph, and all the nuanced questions might as well not be addressed.

User intent can also be catered to through some simple technical solutions. Be sure to update the meta descriptions of your articles so that they provide clear signals to search engine crawlers. Descriptions should contain the search phrase or focus topic and accurately describe what’s discussed in your content item. It should be enticing to readers and should encourage them to click through to your content. Google’s artificial intelligence will pick up on this.

Also, rich snippets boost a site’s navigability by providing links to specific parts of a website directly from the SERP.

It doesn’t matter whether you are an e-commerce site, instructive and informational articles are the primary driver of organic traffic in digital marketing today.

Remember; happy readers will minimize your bounce rate, leading to higher rankings and better organic search. Moreover, they will be able to find your website, as long as you design your content to appear in the SERP they’ll be frequenting.

John is a Content Strategist at MarketMuse providing strategic deliverables to enterprise clients using AI and machine learning technology to increase organic traffic.  You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.