In the early days of Google, the algorithm relied heavily upon things like keyword density, backlinks and metadata to establish website hierarchy and rankings. Nowadays, the Google search engine is a sophisticated product, designed to find and promote content and results that meet the searchers’ needs.

Traditionally, SEO has been a numbers game. Given businesses want to see their sites ranking higher, organic traffic increasing and sales improving, SEO professionals build their strategies and reports around hard metrics that can be easily measured.

These hard metrics mean that user intent is often overlooked as it can be a little tricky to define. Behind every search in Google, there is an intention, people are looking for something in particular when searching – information on services or a product, the answer to a question, or something else. Since Google recognises user intent, SEO professionals should recognise it too but first, they have to understand it.

What is user intent and how does it function?

A 2006 study from The University of Hong Kong found that search intent can be split into two segments: that a user is looking for general information about a topic, or that a user is looking to find answers to a specific question containing the keywords they have used. It’s also arguable that these two categories split again into users who are specific about their search (i.e. have a narrow search intent and don’t diverge from this) and exhaustive (i.e. have a wider scope of interest around a certain subject or subjects).

How do search engines satisfy user intent?

Google understands that if a user in London searches for the address of Adidas, they’re most likely looking for the shop nearest to them, not the brand’s headquarters in Manchester. Using this understanding, Google measures how well they satisfy a user’s search intent against their ‘Google Search Quality Rating Guidelines’, which helps the engine understand and apply the intention.

Words and phrases have multiple meanings, so when a user searches, Google lists the most popular definitions first to maximise the chances of meeting the user’s needs. Google doesn’t respond well to words that have unclear or ambiguous meanings, so the algorithm looks for clues regarding user intent and the query words they used.

There are a number of other ways in which the algorithm determines intent and fine-tunes specific results, which normally involves interpreting the queries according to a series of categories:

  • Common interpretations – if a query has a number of interpretations all of which are equally common or popular, Google will cover all bases by providing a range of results that cover all the interpretations.
  • Dominant interpretations – these are queries in which most users mean the same thing so that the interpretation should be clear from the beginning.
  • Minor interpretations – searches like these have less common or recognisable interpretations, but Google can often eventually interpret them accurately using location data.
  • Do, Know, Go – a series of concepts that helps Google understand what the user is trying to achieve in active terms, and allows it to supply the most relevant information as a result.

Mobile search and its impact on voice search

With around 57% of search traffic now coming from mobile and tablet devices, Google carefully monitors what mobile search can reveal about user intent. It seems that a significant proportion of mobile searches are exploratory and that users may not satisfy their final requirements with the information they find on a handset. Instead, many users will move to a desktop or tablet further down the line to complete a purchase.

With mobiles serving more and more as the starting point for purchase journeys, it makes sense that virtual assistants are playing an ever-growing role in kicking off the search process. And with smartphone penetration and technologies like Google Home and Echo devices populating our homes, it’s crucial that SEOs think about the kind of terms users are likely to apply when using voice search.

What can SEOs do to serve users well?

Understanding the different kinds of user intent is a step in the right direction, but there are other practical measures you can take to optimise your content and websites for specific search queries.

  • Confirm that your existing content matches the needs of your audience by examining your keyword performance on Google Analytics so that certain terms lead to certain pages within your site.
  • Consider search intent when you’re creating content: see things from the user’s perspective and keep your content as tightly relevant to the various possible scenarios as you can.
  • Develop strategies that map a user’s journey according to each kind of intent, and use these structures to guide the considerations in the point above.

Understanding and accommodating the complicated field of user intent can be a challenge for SEOs, and in some cases will require a radical and more highly developed approach. But if you can successfully master Google’s relationship with search intent, you’ll have in hand a rich set of opportunities to convert users into frequent visitors, and visitors into customers.