Skip to Content

What is User Intent?

13 min read

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. It goes beyond keywords or even high-quality content. Getting traffic that converts means providing 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. It leads to far higher rankings and conversion rates. It also determines whether visitors stick around to read your content or click ‘back’ to the search engine result page (SERP) in search of a better answer.

Successfully aligning with user intent means creating content and a matching title that satisfies the search query. This has become a necessary part of SEO strategy needed to maximize click-through rates.

User-generated content often performs well by these metrics. Although it may not be fancy, it has a dedicated fanbase. What intent comes down to is fairly simple.

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.

To build organic traffic and conversions your content 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 to rank well 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 leading users to a transactional opportunity. That’s also known as a navigational match. 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 thinking about how to meet search intent and searcher task accomplishment. Think about the main reasons why someone would search for a topic related to your website. If you provide content that has these answers, you’ll be rewarded in the rankings.

For a moment, forget about your company’s search goals. 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. In other words, 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 users more often perform searches in the form of a question. That 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. These are quite common mistakes.

Sometimes companies attempt to increase organic traffic with misleading titles. Often those are 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. In this case, there’d be clearly no genuine attempt to answer the user query.

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. Imagine if we kept the title and provided a summary of our product, MarketMuse Suite. Now image we 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. That has nothing to do with content marketing.

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.

Fractured Intent

Fractured user intent takes place when a SERP contains articles that serve different purposes. In these SERPs, the most popular user intent comes out on top, no matter how good your article is.

So, it’s important to make sure that your content is designed to rank highly on SERPs where the top-ranked articles match the user intent that you’re targeting.

Considering other types of search intent can also help understand how you want to go about content planning. For starters, there is a difference between explicit user intent and implicit user intent.

Though somewhat self-explanatory, the former takes place when the searcher performs a search query that tells the search engine quite precisely what he or she is looking for. Explicit searchers can, however, still contain a series of other implicit user intents.

For instance, a search for ‘content solutions’ could have a number of potential interpretations for implicit search intent. The user here could be searching for many things, including content writing services, informational articles about content marketing solutions, SEO tools for content creation and so on.

The more general the query is, the more possible interpretations there are for explicit intent. If you want to capture a SERP with your content, it helps to think about what search queries your target audience might make that wouldn’t immediately be obvious.

You can then split these intents up and use them as topics for different articles, as SEOs sometimes do with long-tail keywords and strategic intent. This alone should help give you a lot of great ideas for a blog post. It helps to play around with different search phrases to see what intents the SERP comes up with.

Google provides snippets at the top of SERPs to give searchers the answers they’re looking for as fast as possible, so getting selected for a snippet is great for your organic search.

For your article to qualify, it needs to first be good enough to rank highly. Then, reserve one paragraph to give the best concise answer to the reader’s question that you can provide.

If you’ve covered all the other bases of technical SEO, you’d have a much better shot at getting a featured snippet.

Buyer’s Journey

So how can you succeed in meeting user intent? It varies depending on your goals. A user-centered design will help guide your visitors to where they want to go on your site after entry. Cater site architecture to improve user experience, whether you’re selling an app or making marketing dollars. Sometimes, monitoring user activity can give you really important information about how to make changes to your website.

Creating content intended for specific buyer personas and their web queries is an important part of defining your audience in an online marketing strategy, the idea being to create content that services a specific consumer search intent or commercial intent. Often these are direct queries for specific products or for informational content that could serve as a conversion funnel. When targeted towards searcher task accomplishment (for the consumer), your content has a better chance of increasing your conversion rates.

Figuring out commercial intent requires reverse engineering the interests of your target segment and publishing the content they are seeking in order to introduce them to a sales funnel and/or a conversion funnel.

It’s important to understand the various buyer personas to provide the content they’re seeking, as different types of searchers – even those with similar purchasing habits – could be seeking something different in their content.

Not all queries that are of interest to an online merchant are for a specific product or product category. Many of them are more informational. In other cases, long-tail keywords are usually characteristic of a niche audience with far more expertise and a higher level of interest.

Digital marketing works best when you cater to a host of different possible buyer intents. This ensures that when you create content, it serves a specific purpose for all potential customers on your map, irrespective of their level of interest or expertise. This, in turn, maximizes your chance of success at inbound marketing. It’s a technique for conversion optimization that’s gaining popularity. After this, routine optimization is often required to keep your content fresh, particularly if it’s in a quickly changing subject matter area.

If your site is meant to be a sales portal, start by publishing content focuses on solving the problems your products are designed to address. For instance, produce ‘how to’ articles about carpentry if you’re a company selling home improvement products. 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 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 they 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.

There are also approaches to capture user information or to keep them on your site by engaging with user exit intent. You can’t stop users from leaving your website altogether if they want to, but if they navigate back from a page without spending much time there, you can engage them with a pop-up that speaks to an alternative intent.

You might choose to target a different specific intent here or instead go far more general to cover a wider audience. It’s true that people don’t exactly love pop-ups. Nonetheless, they are an effective means of giving you a second chance.

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. Plus, it allows you to segment your audience with more precision when it comes to product and services offers.

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.

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.