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, 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.
I know because I searched for the term, and nine out of the ten results on page one — with the exception of one outlier Mailchimp homepage result — are lists of free email marketing software providers.
What this tells you is that Google is strongly convinced that what people are looking for when they search for the keyword “free email marketing software” is a list of free tools to consider. If you aren’t providing the information Google knows people are looking for, it’s simply not going to put your result on page one.
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 content — is:
- Open Google Search.
- Search for the keyword you’re planning to target.
- Review the page-one results.
If almost every result on page one 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, and Google is in the businesses of getting people to the answers they’re looking for in as few clicks as possible.
But what about that one Mailchimp result?
Even though nine of the ten page-one results for the keyword “free email marketing software” are lists of free email marketing tools, sometimes people will get hung up on that one Mailchimp homepage result.
If Mailchimp’s homepage is ranking on page one for that keyword, doesn’t that mean there’s a chance that your Mailchimp competitor product might be able to get its homepage to rank there too?
I’m not going to say there’s absolutely no chance, but I will say it’s extremely unlikely.
The reason Mailchimp ranks there is likely because it’s the free email marketing tool. It’s the most well-known tool known in its category. It’s what Gmail is to email or Slack is to messaging tools. Mailchimp appears on every single one of the lists in the other nine results on the page because if you’re writing about free email marketing software, you’re going to include Mailchimp.
When Google sees the keyword “free email marketing software,” it thinks: “We see that you’re shopping for free email marketing software, so we know you probably want a list, but you might also want to just consider this really popular tool that everyone recommends.” So if your product is the Mailchimp of its category, you’ll have an advantage in the search results that your competitors won’t enjoy.
If you’re not the Mailchimp of your category, don’t bother trying to get your homepage, a landing page, or a blog post that’s not a list of free email marketing tools to rank for that keyword. Save the keyword for the day you’re ready to create a list that features your brand and your competitors, and look for a different keyword to target — one where you can satisfy search intent.
The different types of search intents
I like to start my search intent lessons with that specific free email marketing software example because it illustrates the concept clearly, but now that you’ve seen that example, it’s time to take a step back and talk about search intent at a higher level.
Broadly speaking, there are three main types of search intent:
- Informational: Searchers are trying to learn more about a concept.
- Navigational: Searchers are trying to go to a specific place.
- Transactional: Searchers are trying to buy something.
To determine search intent when looking at Google’s page-one results, it’s important that you first understand these broad intents, so let’s take a deeper look at how these intents reflect in the search results.
Informational versus transactional intent
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”:
The top results for this search are mostly product landing pages and tool comparison articles. The search intent for the keyword “knowledge base software” is significantly more purchase-intent heavy. People who are searching for this keyword are much more likely to be looking for specific knowledge base software products.
So if you’re optimizing a landing page for your knowledge base product, you’ll want to target a keyword that has results like “knowledge base software” — one 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.
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.
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.
Now, this doesn’t mean that simply naming your brand the same thing as the type of tool/service you provide will get you the number-one spot for that keyword. This kind of goes back to the Mailchimp outlier we discussed before.
If you have a really popular tool called LiveChat, lots of your customers are likely googling “live chat” with the intent of navigating to your tool to log in. That makes it more likely that Google will, over time, understand this query as a navigational one and show your result on page one.
But getting to that place takes a lot of time, necessitates a lot of demand, and requires a lot of searches for your keyword that result in clicks through to your website.
Essentially, you have to grow so popular that you cause Google’s understanding of search intent for that keyword to evolve to include navigational intent for your brand, and that doesn’t happen simply by naming your brand “Live Chat.”
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.
But not all keywords have a single intent, and when that’s the case, you’ll end up with blended intent search results.
Mixed informational intent
Mixed informational intent occurs when a keyword means different things to different searchers — some people are looking for one type of information while others are looking for another. An example I ran into recently was 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.
Blended search intent
Blended search intent occurs when the results on page one are a mix of informational and either navigational or transactional results (or a blend of all three). The keyword “live chat” is actually a really good example of blended search intent results.
In position one, you’ll find a navigational result for LiveChat’s homepage:
In positions two and three you see transactional results for a couple of product landing pages:
In positions five and six, there are two informational results:
This means that some people who search for that keyword are looking to navigate to LiveChat’s homepage, some are looking for live chat tools to purchase, and some are just looking to get educated on live chat. So what content should you create in this situation?
There’s no definitive answer, but there are a few things to consider:
- Is there a consistent intent in the top three results? If the top three results are best X tools lists, then the results are telling you that while the intent is blended, more often than not people who search for that keyword are looking for lists of tools. When search intent is blended, focus on what’s in the top three results because that’s what Google feels is the most common search intent.
- What percentage of the results are each intent? If the top three results don’t all share the same intent, look at the percentage of results that can be applied to each intent. If 70% are informational and 30% are transactional, you’re probably better off trying to rank an informational post first.
- Is there a better keyword to target with more dedicated intent? You can remove the need to make a decision on the format of your content by finding a related keyword that has results that all satisfy the same intent. A keyword with a single intent is also more targeted — more than likely, everyone searching for that keyword is looking for the information you’re going to provide.
It’s important to remember when making this decision that SEO is just an ongoing series of hypotheses and tests. If you try to rank a product landing page and it never ranks, turn the content on that URL into an informational blog and see how that performs.
Best practices in SEO are great for making the right decision more often than not, but they won’t work 100% of the time. Every failure is just an opportunity to test something else. Don’t get too married to anything you create; you should always be willing to scrap it in order to find something that performs better.
Important note: Search intent can change over time
One final thing to keep in mind is that search intent is not something that’s static across time. It changes. Twenty years ago, people searching for the word “slack” were likely looking for a definition of the term. Today, Google is confident that they’re searching for the messaging tool.
This is why it’s important to reevaluate search intent and update your evergreen content regularly. Often, decreasing rankings have less to do with your content being old and more to do with the fact that the questions people are asking when searching for that keyword are different now than they were when you first did your research.
You can regain those lost rankings by determining how the intent behind your keywords has changed and updating your content to answer the questions people are asking now.
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 highly for that keyword, but also to provide readers with exactly what they’re searching for.