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What is “Search Intent” and Why is it Important?

With SEO, plastic surgeons can provide good content and user experience. But it won’t generate results if the content doesn’t match the user’s search intent.

Weeks after my whole family got theirs, I finally got the vaccine. Speaking of which, if you search for “vaccine,” you’re going to get different results. It’s a pretty generic keyword. Google may only guess what you mean.

  • You may be searching for news about it.
  • You may be trying to learn about the risks.
  • Or you may want to book your appointment.

This is called “search intent.”

To understand why this is important to your SEO efforts, above and beyond “keywords,” let’s take a closer look at what it is and how to optimize for it.

Actions Speak Louder Than (Key)words

More and more SEO experts are offering services beyond just Search Engine Optimization. Many offer User Experience Optimization (UXO) and Search Experience Optimization (SXO). The reason is simple: rankings don’t matter if the results, such as your content, don’t satisfy the searcher’s query.

Search engines like Google use machine learning to pay attention to how people respond to search results. They try to gauge if the result meets their needs. For example, if someone types in “how to increase organic traffic to my website” into Google, this may happen:

  • They get a bunch of results.
  • They click on one of them.
  • They visit the page.
  • They scan the content.
  • They hit their back button.
  • They return to the results.
  • They choose the next link.
  • And so on.

This may signal to Google that the link they provided isn’t what the user is looking for. So it could be either one of three things:

  1. The content is bad,
  2. The user experience is bad, or
  3. It doesn’t meet the user’s search intent.

Called “pogosticking,” this back-and-forth process tells the search engine that the site is not meeting the user’s needs. It’s not providing good content or a good user experience or matching the user’s search intent.

You may have great quality content and a fantastic user experience. But what if the content was simply wrong for what the user is looking for? What if it’s perfect but delivered in the wrong way (e.g., they wanted video and not text)?

If you rank well, the mismatched intent will deliver poor quality traffic and inflate your bounce rate unnecessarily. But chances are you will not rank well, anyway, since Google uses machine-learning to know what people are looking for and serve results that match their intent.

What are “Long Clicks” and “Short Clicks”?

A bounce rate is calculated based on single-page visits, where users bounce out after visiting one page and without navigating to any other page on your site. Pogosticking may add to the site’s bounce rate. But it doesn’t mean the content is bad. Users may have read the entire article and left.

That’s when the concept of “dwell time” comes in.

High bounce rates are not enviable. But pogosticking is important to pay attention to, specifically because it’s indicative that the site is not relevant to the user’s search. It doesn’t match what the user is searching for.

This metric called “dwell time” provides context and indicates if the content was appropriate. A visitor who clicks on a search result and bounces back after a few seconds is called a “short click.” If they stay a lot longer and dwell longer on the page, even if they do bounce back, this is called a “long click.”

Both bounce rates and dwell times (i.e., short clicks and long clicks) are just two of many SEO signals that tell Google the content is a fit and matches the user’s search and intent. In short, content is good, the user experience is adequate, and the result is relevant to their search.

The Three Types of Search Intent

Relevance is based on intent. There are three kinds of search intent (and a fourth, which is a variation). Your content should aim to match either one:

  1. “I want to know” searches (informational)
  2. “I want to go” searches (navigational)
  3. “I want to do” searches (transactional)

The fourth is a variation of the third. When the transaction is a purchase, they are called “I want to buy” searches. Some SEO experts label them as “commercial intent” or “commercial investigation” searches.

However, the intent to buy may not be direct or immediate. The user may be unsure and doing some research. So the search is slightly more informational or navigational in intent (such as looking for sites offering reviews, for example).

Nevertheless, determining search intent is important because SEO relies heavily on how well your content matches the searcher’s query.

Let’s take a look at each one with some examples.

Informational Searches

The user is looking for information for educational purposes. They’re not looking to buy (at least, not yet). They may be looking for more information about their situation, problem, or challenge. They’re only researching this point.

Some of the searches related to your procedures may be:

  • “How long does a facelift take to heal?”
  • “Is abdominal plastic surgery safe?”
  • “Why do my breasts sag after pregnancy?”
  • “What types of liposuction are available?”
  • “Are hair transplants permanent?”

Many informational searches are formulated in the form of questions. But they can also be straight keywords or phrases, such as “lose weight” or “facelift surgery.” But the search intent may not be that clear (I’ll return to this).

The user is trying to locate something specific, which is mostly a website, a location, or a business/clinic. It might be a URL, an address, a social media profile, etc. It’s often based on a name, brand, product, service, or domain entered into a search form instead of directly into their browsers.

Some of the searches related to your business or services may be:

  • “Jane Smith, MD plastic surgeon Toronto”
  • “Dr. John Doe cosmetic surgery clinic”
  • “facelift post-op instructions Smith Surgical”
  • “phone number Dr. Linda Kent new clinic”
  • “nearest hotel to Eastern Surgical Centre”

By the way, the vast majority of branded searches are navigational. This is another reason you want to name your business, your services, and your processes, including your intellectual property. People may have heard about you or seen your name, but they’re unsure how to get to your website.

Transactional Searches

This is where the searcher wants to do something, mostly to make a purchase. They’ve already decided they’re ready to make a purchase or do something. So the search is related to taking that action. It can be buying, downloading, calling, hiring, ordering, registering, emailing, etc.

Some transactional searches might include:

  • “book a consultation with Dr. Smith”
  • “buy post-op cream Doe Surgical Clinic”
  • “subscribe to Laura Jackson, MD newsletter”
  • “get a quote for breast augmentation”
  • “download facelift pre-op instructions”

Commercial/Investigational Searches

This is a variation of transactional searches where the user is looking to buy. But the user is unsure and either wants reassurances or wants to investigate further. It can be informational and navigational, too, to some degree.

Since it can blend all three, it’s important to match this intent specifically. Sometimes, the answer can be from third-party site. For example:

  • “best bariatric weight loss surgery”
  • “Dr. Jane Doe plastic surgery reviews”
  • “top cosmetic surgeon Rochester”
  • “Botox for crow’s feet near me”
  • “Dr. Smith before and after photos”

Therefore, the goal is to offer relevant content and optimize signals — including amplified third-party signals — that aim to help the user decide (e.g., comparisons, case studies, photos, testimonials, FAQs, etc.).

The Key is To Align Content With Intent

Ultimately, When it comes to creating content for any one of these types of queries, the goal may be to answer them directly. But you may have to do more than educate your audience with relevant content. You want content that targets, engages, and invites them, too.

For instance, if a user is conducting an informational search, they may or may not be in the market for your services. The user could be a student doing some research for school. It could be a tire-kicker. It could even be a competitor.

So the goal is to capture, educate, and retain your visitors, the right visitors, as much as possible, particularly if they’re potentially ideal clients. For this, you need quality content, user experience, and SEO signals.

But it’s also an opportunity to get them to enter your funnel, engage them further, prove your expertise, and invite them to invest in your services.

How Intent Alignment Improves SEO

So how you optimize for search intent? The process of discovering what Google thinks people want is a great tool for SEO research. It is often referred to as “SERP analysis,” where SERP, of course, stands for search engine results pages.

Now, I know you’re a plastic surgeon, and you’re not an SEO expert. But this is not about search engine optimization in a direct sense. It’s about something a bit more fundamental: market research. It’s about understanding what users are looking for, why they want it, and how to give it to them.

Understand that market research is the core of marketing. When I talk about “keyword research,” it’s not about keywords in and of themselves. It’s about understanding what your audience is looking for and why they’re looking for it.

It’s impossible to ask users what they want as they conduct their searches. So keywords are “observable traces” that users leave. They’re artifacts, if you will.

Like uncovering dinosaur fossils during an archeological dig, archeologists can only make educated guesses about how dinosaurs lived, what they ate, what their migration patterns were, and what happened to them.

Similarly, keywords don’t tell the full story. They certainly don’t tell us what’s on users’ minds when they use them. But search engines are becoming more sophisticated in understanding what people want and why.

Using clickthrough rates and user behaviour (such as click length), combined with the power of natural language processing and machine learning, Google makes educated guesses on the intent behind the search.

So market research, in this sense, is keyword research.

Understand The Desire Behind Queries

Fundamentally, SEO is the process of optimizing your website so that search engines (and therefore users) can find your content. They must be able to read, crawl, and index your content, even before they decide how to rank it.

A tad oversimplified, of course. But that’s what SEO essentially aims to do. SEO was (and still is to some degree) a technical process. In fact, if you look up the definition of SEO as far back as 10-20 years ago, you get something like:

“Search Engine Optimization is built on the foundation of information architecture and information retrieval.”

From “SEO: Search & Information Retrieval,” Jeffrey Smith (2009).

Market research, on the other hand, is what will help you rank higher. I often refer back to what my friend and top copywriter David Garfinkel, who said that the key to success in copywriting (and I could easily extrapolate that to SEO or any form of marketing in general) is to ask:

  • Who is your market?
  • What is their problem?
  • How are they talking about it?

If you know who your market is (which you likely do), you know their problem and why they want to solve it. But learning about how they talk about it can be uncovered by studying and reverse-engineering the SERPs.

For this reason, you need to go beyond keyword research.

Meet Users’ Needs, Not Their Keywords

Google’s goal is to satisfy the user’s search and to become more effective at doing so. They’re already showing you the results they think will serve the users best. In addition to machine learning, they’ve done countless experiments, hired many sophisticated engineers, and analyzed petabytes of data.

They’ve done the research for you. So use it to your advantage.

If you want to improve your rankings, your goal is to know what users are looking for and to give it to them. But it’s not enough. You also need to understand the intent behind what they want, i.e., the reason for their search.

Why? Because, as Google tries to identify what people are looking for and why, it serves results that more closely match what it thinks will satisfy searchers. So if your content doesn’t align with intent, Google will not give you the time of day — and your users won’t, either.

And therein lies the crux of the need for SERP analysis.

Think of it this way: the goal is not only to create content that your audience wants but also for the reasons they want to consume it.

Sounds a tad pedantic, I know. But it’s actually quite simple. You can focus on keywords, for example, and try to successfully align your content’s title and description (i.e., what shows up in SERPs) that match the user’s query. This will undoubtedly increase clickthrough rates.

But what happens once they land on your site?

Avoid “Clickbait-and-Switch”

If they pogostick back to Google because your user experience (UX) is less than desirable, that’s one thing. But if it’s because your content fails to satisfy their query, even if the content is high quality and presumably what they’re looking for, you’ve failed to satisfy their intent. You failed to meet their needs.

Plus, failing to match search intent can hurt you.

Google has publicly said they don’t directly use click signals as ranking factors. However, Google engineers have stated that they do use click behaviour to help refine their search results. (“Refine” is an important hint.)

My personal opinion is that they use it in connection with other factors, such as going to the next result as opposed to conducting a new search (again, “short clicks” versus “long clicks”). How people engage with search results says a lot.

While click lengths may not necessarily impact your rankings, this data helps Google learn more about its users’ search intent. It then refines its search results when analyzing what people are looking for in combination with other factors.

The refinement may cost you in rankings — other results that more closely satisfy the user’s search will rise to the top. Naturally.

Also, consider that people may seek more than just information but also the format. How they want to consume the information is just as important as the content itself. They may prefer a video, podcast, infographic, or PDF.

Plastic surgery is a visual field. Visuals are key. If your content is only one long article when users are looking for photos, you may not meet their needs.

One of the reasons Google offers many new features, in addition to those traditional 10 blue links, is to provide the user with an idea of what they’re getting. It’s only my guess, but if Google offers video thumbnails, people know they’re getting videos — not a link to a page that “may” contain a video.

Search Intent and User Intent: Why Both?

Nevertheless, if you know who your market is and what their problems are, next is to know how they talk about it, revealing their stage of awareness.

By knowing at what stage of awareness they happen to be, you can then serve them with content that directly meets them where they are and takes them to the next stage — and hopefully closer to becoming your patient.

This goes to the concept of the content funnel I talked about before. It’s not always linear or perfectly compartmentalized. For example, it’s different for someone who has had other procedures done or who is unhappy with their results instead of someone who never had plastic surgery at all.

But for now, the thing to remember is that a content funnel is based on content that appeals to a certain level of awareness and then graduating the user to a new level of awareness. The way to do that is to understand intent.

This brings me to the differences between search intent and user intent.

  • Search topic is what they’re searching for.
  • Search intent is how they’re searching for it.
  • User intent is why they’re searching for it.

Remember that the stages of awareness are problem-aware, solution-aware, and product-aware (i.e., your solution). When studying the SERPs, this is where you can extract a decent amount of ideas and insights from your target market.

For example, problem-aware searches:

  • What (e.g., the problem, like “how to get rid of excess belly fat”);
  • How (e.g., informational search, long-form article, some visuals);
  • Why (e.g., they’re frustrated, doing research, want options).

Next stage of awareness is solution-aware:

  • What (e.g., a solution, like “recovery time for tummy tucks”);
  • How (e.g., investigational search, medical expertise, case studies);
  • Why (e.g., they’re interested, considering a solution, want details).

Then, of course, the next stage, which is product-aware:

  • What (e.g., your solution, “Dr. [X] before and after photos”);
  • How (e.g., commercial/navigational search, proof, patient reviews);
  • Why (e.g., they’re motivated, taking action, want assurances).

The Case For Long-Tail Keywords

The above are just examples. But you can instantly see how clearer both the search and user intent are when the query is either longer or more specific.

Many plastic surgeons would love to rank well for generic “short head” keywords (i.e., words at the top of the bell curve in terms of demand, volume, and traffic). But ranking for those is extremely competitive and difficult, and the resulting traffic, if any, has no clear intent and may contribute to shorter clicks.

“Abdominoplasty” is a very generic term. Are people interested in getting one? Are they researching it and checking out who, where, and how much? Or are they just looking up the definition?

As you can see, it’s impossible to tell. Chances are, if you analyze the SERPs, you might see that Google doesn’t know, either, and the results may include a mix of informational, transactional, and navigational intent results.

But with a search like “best tummy tucks near me,” you now know for sure what the intent is and what kind of content will best match it.

Nevertheless, the goal is to research your market.

With a SERP analysis, you can do this by identifying the search topics your market is interested in (based on their stage of awareness), their search intent (what Google thinks they want), and the user’s intent (what results come up, what do they offer, and how it helps the user).

Or as SEO consultant Brittney Muller said:

Paying closer attention to search results will give SEO pros a leg up in creating competitive content in the way that searchers desire to consume it.”

— Brittney Muller, from Search Engine Journal.

Bingo.

Avatar of Michel Fortin

By Michel Fortin

Michel Fortin is an SEO consultant, content strategist, and marketing advisor. For the better part of 30 years, he helped hundreds of thousands of professionals and businesses increase their online visibility. He is the Director of Search at seoplus+, an award-winning digital marketing agency in Ottawa, Canada. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.