SEO used to be black and white. All it took to rank well in the organic search results was selecting a keyword, putting in the right places – the right number of times – on your site, and sitting back to watch your traffic roll in.

Of course SEO is more complicated these days, thanks to the introduction of machine learning and other algorithm advancements. But our understanding of what keywords are and how they function hasn’t kept pace. Many marketers still miss the nuance that, today, a keyword isn’t just a keyword.

That’s where search intent comes in.

What Is Search Intent (And Why Should You Care?)

Let me give you a simple keyword: small business website.

What does that keyword mean to you?

Your mind may have jumped to a single definition, but this keyword could actually represent a number of different intents. For instance, the user in question might be looking for:

What’s even more interesting is that you can see these different intents play out in the search results. Here are the first six results for this query:

The first three examples here are all ads placed by companies that will either create your small business website for you or give you the tools needed to do so on your own. After that, you see educational content around website builders, followed by an inspiration piece intended to share good examples of small business website design.

The ordering of these results isn’t an accident. Google is serving up these results based on intent, in the order in which they believe users are most likely to click. So here, we can assume that people who are searching for “small business website” are most likely looking for a solution to build one – not necessarily guidance on how to do it, based on the placement and frequency of service – or tool-based results.

How to Work with Search Intent Data

There are two significant takeaways that can be drawn from the example above. Rand Fishkin, in a Whiteboard Friday video for Moz, describes them both.

First, he states, “if you are doing SEO or creating content to try and target a query, but the content you’re creating or the purpose you’re trying to serve is in the lower ranked stuff, you might be trapped in a world where you can’t rise any higher.”

But conversely, he explains, “If you perform this [analysis] and you see a single intent being served throughout and a single intent in the related searches, you can guess that it’s probably going to be very difficult to change the searcher intent or to serve an entirely different searcher intent with that same query. You might need to look at different ones.”

To help you better understand what these considerations look like in practice, here’s the general process we use at Windsorborn for evaluating search intent data:

Step #1: Separate out keywords with clear intent

The keyword “small business website” is vague in nature. But add any of the modifiers below, and the intent becomes clear:

  • Best small business website design tool
  • Buy small business website design services
  • Great ideas for small business website

If the keywords on your list include a clear transactional or educational component, you can infer intent as-is.

Step #2: Perform a basic intent analysis on top-level or ambiguous keywords 

Once your list is pared down, perform the basic analysis we walked through together in the example above by looking at the available results and asking yourself the following questions:

  • What possible intent could searchers have when inputting this query?
  • Which of these intents are represented in the search results page?
  • In what order and to what degree are they represented?
  • What type of results – ads, images, videos, business listings, etc – are appearing?

Step #3: Use this insight to determine your approach

 Now that you know the type of content that’s likely to rank, you can decide to either create content that’s in line with the intent distribution you see or to pursue other opportunities.

This isn’t an exact science, and it may seem like an unnecessary extra step in a process that’s already becoming too complicated. But by taking the time to understand how Google is prioritising results based on intent, you’ll be able to produce better content that drives great results, as well as save time on content that isn’t likely to perform.

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