If you’ve ever been handed a keyword and told to go off and write a piece of content targeting that keyword, you’ve been doing SEO wrong (and you probably need a better SEO strategist).
Picking a random keyword, writing a post about whatever you want, and plugging that keyword into your title and content a few times is a quick way to fail at SEO.
Just like you shouldn’t use words in your content that you don’t know the definitions for, you shouldn’t target keywords without knowing exactly what they mean.
When people search for a keyword, they’re asking a question. But what question are they asking? You can make an assumption, but you might assume wrong. And you know what happens when you assume?
Your content fails to rank.
There’s no optimization without search intent
Let’s say my SEO team has asked me to write a post targeting the keyword “free email marketing software.”
My company sells email marketing software and doesn’t have a free plan, so I decide that the best way to target that keyword is to write a post explaining why free email marketing software isn’t a good choice for businesses.
I write the best article I’ve ever read on the topic. I spend weeks talking to customers, listening to their stories, and collecting quotes and evidence to put together an amazing, in-depth argument against using free email marketing software.
Then I press publish, wait for my content to rank, wait for the leads to start pouring in.
But it never happens. My post sits on page three of the search results for a month, a few months, a year. The off-page SEO specialist on my team builds more and more links to the post, yet it still wallows in obscurity in the dark corners of Google’s results.
The 850 people who search Google for free email marketing software every month aren’t looking for a post talking them out of using free email marketing software. They’re looking for a list of free email marketing software providers.
How do I know?
Because I searched for the term, and every single result on page one is a list of free email marketing software providers.
Google handles more than a trillion searches per year. That’s a lot of searches to learn from. And the search engine has one job it must do well to keep people using it: Surface the exact information a person is looking for after typing a word or phrase into Google Search.
So while you might not know what question someone is asking when you look at a single keyword in isolation, Google almost certainly does. And you can find out exactly what that question is by asking Google yourself.
How to determine a keyword’s search intent
Let’s go back to the scenario above: My SEO strategist has given me the keyword “free email marketing software.” The very first thing I should do — if my plan is to write an article that ranks for that keyword — is:
- Open Google Search.
- Search for the keyword I’m planning to target.
- Review the page-one results.
If everything on the first page of the search results is a list of free email marketing tools, that’s what people are looking for when they search for that term. The question they’re asking is: “What options should I consider if I’m looking for a new, free email marketing tool?”
If you don’t intend to answer that question, don’t write the post. You’ll just waste your time.
No matter how high-quality your content is, no matter how many backlinks you build to it, no matter how many times it’s liked and shared on social, your post will not rank well because your content doesn’t answer the question people are asking.
The simplest thing you can do to better optimize your content for search is to search Google for your keyword before you ever start writing to determine search intent — see what question people are asking so you can answer that question with your content.
It’s so simple, but it’s the number-one mistake that I see writers and content marketers make when it comes to content SEO.
If you take five minutes before you start writing to search for the keyword you’re targeting and determine its search intent, you’ll see a dramatic increase in your success with optimizing your content to rank better in search.
Getting more granular with understanding search intent
You can start simple and improve your content’s SEO by just searching for your keywords and uncovering search intent before you start writing, but if you want to get even better at it, there’s definitely more you can do.
Understanding blended search intent
Sometimes what people are looking for when searching for a keyword is clear: All of the top-ten results are lists of free email marketing tools, so it’s safe to assume that people are looking for lists of free email marketing tools.
Other times, you’ll see blended intents. An example I ran into recently was when I was looking at search intent for the keyword “remote management”:
Some of the results on page one are related to managing employees who work from home. Others are related to a type of software that’s used in IT support. What this tells me is that “remote management” is a blended-intent keyword. Searchers aren’t all looking for the same thing when they type it into Google.
So if I’m looking to write a post about leading remote employees, should I target this keyword?
I can. There’s definitely an opportunity to rank my content for this keyword, and I know that because other, similar posts are ranking on page-one for it. But I’ll also be competing for rankings against content that targets the IT-related intent for that keyword.
Here, you have to make a choice. You can choose to target that keyword and compete with the intent that doesn’t match the one you’re writing for, or you can look for a different keyword with only results that satisfy the intent you’re writing for.
Informational versus transactional intent
Another important distinction to make as it relates to search intent is the difference between informational and transactional queries.
Sometimes, a keyword will seem really great for a post or page you’re putting together. Take “knowledge base” as an example. If you’re optimizing a landing page for your company’s knowledge base product, “knowledge base” might seem like the perfect keyword to target.
Look at the top search results for knowledge base:
These are all informational results: Each offers a high-level explanation of things like what a knowledge base is, why companies might need a knowledge base, examples of great knowledge bases, etc.
None of the top results are product pages. Why? Search intent for the keyword “knowledge base” is informational: People are looking to learn something, not to purchase something.
Now let’s look at the results for “knowledge base software”:
There are still some informational results, but there are also product landing pages and tool comparison articles.
The search intent for the keyword “knowledge base software” is blended, but it’s significantly more purchase-intent heavy. People who are searching for this keyword are much more likely to be looking specifically for knowledge base software.
So if you’re optimizing a landing page for your knowledge base product, you’ll want to target a keyword that populates other product landing pages in the top search results because that’s what people are looking for when they search for that keyword (in this case, “knowledge base software”).
On the other hand, if you’re writing an informational blog post about knowledge bases, you would want to target the keyword “knowledge base” — a keyword that produces primarily informational results — because people are looking to learn when they search for that keyword.
User preferences are another thing to keep an eye out for when doing search intent research:
- Is there a video carousel in the search results? This suggests that people searching for this term may be interested in watching video content. Consider creating a video instead of writing a blog post or embedding a relevant video into your blog post.
- Is there an image pack in the search results? This suggests that people searching for this term are interested in seeing examples rather than, or maybe in addition to, reading about examples. Make sure to include relevant images in your blog post.
- Are all of the top results lists? This suggests that people are looking for lists of options to consider to help them complete whatever task or research they’re trying to accomplish.
Navigational vs. informational intent
Navigational intent refers to searches where the user is just trying to get somewhere. That can refer to searchers who are looking for driving directions to a specific location, but it can also refer to searchers who are trying to navigate to a specific website.
This one’s important to understand because some businesses have generic names. If you don’t do search intent research, you could end up trying to optimize your content for a keyword that has navigational intent and will always show the brand with that name at the top of the results.
Say you’re writing a blog post about live chat software. The keyword “live chat” in isolation seems like a great choice for a target keyword. Unfortunately, “LiveChat” is the name of a product, and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever overtake the top search results because Google believes “live chat” is a brand search.
Understanding search intent helps you write better content
Understanding search intent and conducting search intent research before you ever start writing will definitely help your content rank better in search engines, but that’s just one benefit. It also helps you write better content.
Search intent research teaches you exactly what questions people are asking, arming you with the information you need to answer those questions better than any other piece of content on the internet. It can also tell you what formats and types of media people prefer, helping you cater your content to readers’ preferences.
Google’s goal is to show searchers the perfect results for every query they come up with, and if you’re willing to spend some time reverse-engineering those results, you’ll set yourself up to not only rank for that keyword, but also to provide your readers with exactly what they’re searching for.