This post will reach across a variety of marketing disciplines.
Understanding the user’s intent behind each keyword has become a matter of best practice among SEOs. The organic traffic marketers who have been honing their craft over the last 20 years deserve a lot of credit for fleshing out user intent research.
But what makes this insight especially useful extends well beyond the scope of organic traffic.
Knowing why someone would even bother to search for a keyword reveals valuable information about them. In fact, user intent applies to any keywords you might optimize for or bid on all the way up and down your sales funnel. This should be a matter of digital marketing best practices.
The important thing to understand about a keyword is that it isn’t searched for in a vacuum. There is a real person on the other end of that connection, and she has a life full of rich context — wants, needs, the worries that keep all of us awake some nights.
Understanding user intent allows us to address that larger context, thus making our messages more relevant to the individual person receiving those messages.
SEO professional Nate Dame suggests three broad categories under which user intents could fall:
- Know keywords: The user is looking for specific information
- Do keywords: The user has a specific activity she is looking to accomplish
- Go keywords: The user wants to navigate somewhere online
Often, more than one intent can be applied to a given keyword. Let’s take an easy example. Here are Google’s results for [instagram] as a search term:
You can see all three user intents on display:
- The first result anticipates a go intent. Some users simply want to go to Instagram’s website.
- The second result, or group of results, anticipate know intent. Some users want to read information about the company. This is especially relevant when the queried company has big news.
- The third result is a do keyword. Some users want to download the app. By the way, the fourth result, just outside of the screenshot, was the App Store’s listing.
Brad Zomick at SkilledUp has a slightly different model for user intent that has four categories:
- Informational: This is basic information such as a sports score you might look up.
- Navigational: Same as Nate Dame’s model.
- Commercial: This is like an informational search, but it suggests a purchase intent. This could be a search for product reviews, for example.
- Transactional: This search indicates a user is ready to buy or at least take action, such as signing up for a freemium service.
Each intent category corresponds to different types of content, whether those are blog posts or sales letters. The important thing is not to confuse the two.
Or, as Dame says, “you can’t answer a user’s question with a sales page.”
In a PPC campaign, for example, understanding the different intents behind your keywords will inform what kind of landing page your ad would point toward.
For paid traffic, Zomick’s four-category model might be more helpful because it splits apart commercial intent and transactional intent.
“Commercial searches require more touch points, and a good way to provide needed information is through surveys, polls, subscription newsletters and white papers,” Zomick writes. “Transaction searches require a landing page with some sort of conversion mechanism with a purchase, buy, or download button.”
We will return to applications of this framework in a moment. First, it is important that you know how to identify the category (or categories) of intent a keyword falls under.
Strategies for Identifying User Intent
Some keywords are ambiguous in their intents, or at least are open to interpretation.
If you’ve selected a keyword to build a campaign around, try first throwing the keyword into a Google search, as Gravitate’s Joe Vernon suggests. Scan those results with an eye for intent, and try to imagine which category Google’s algorithm would assign to each result.
Here is a keyword that’s open to interpretation, [subaru wrx engine]:
There is a ton of action around this keyword just in the search results, but notice that they indicate two very different intents, informational and transactional.
The promoted box above the first search result clearly anticipates that the user is in the market for a WRX engine and is almost ready to buy.
On the other hand, the first natural search result is from Wikipedia. That anticipates a user who simply wants to know what kind of engine a WRX has under the hood.
The next four results after Wikipedia are from eBay and an automotive retailer, which is a good indication that Google treats this mostly as a transactional keyword.
Still, it’s useful to know whether your keyword is open to interpretation. Vernon has a few follow-up steps you can take to clear up this ambiguity:
- “Browse your help center or industry-related help center.
- “Browse industry-related FAQs.
- “Talk to your client-facing team members, especially the sales team, because they face the most common questions.
- “Set up a site survey.”
An ambiguous keyword can still mean different things to different users, but getting this far will at least let you know what the majority of users intend when they search your keyword.
PPC Insights Gained and Money Saved in the Wedding Industry
InfoTrust, LLC’s Andrew Witherow points out that his company saved 54% on a PPC campaign by doing the above research on one of their keywords, [wedding san diego].
“After a good bit of thought and research, we discovered that the majority of people searching ‘Wedding San Diego’ were looking for a list of wedding places in the area,” Witherow writes on Razorlight Media’s blog.
“We designed an ad to target exactly what our customers wanted when they conducted that search. In addition, when the customers clicked on this ad they were taken to a page with a list of wedding places in the San Diego area.
“The results from this test were impressive. We experienced about a 300% increase in click-through rate (CTR) over the other ad. Additionally, our cost per click (CPC) was cut in half.”
Auditing Your Own Sites and Campaigns for Keyword Intent
If you have incoming traffic already, you can also reverse-engineer a model for understanding user intent. This step alone could plug a big leak in an ongoing campaign’s conversion funnel.
PPC pro Rachael Law has a very useful step-by-step guide at PPC Hero for inferring user intent via Google Analytics reports.
“In paid search our first goal is to get people to the website,” she writes. “What happens after they get there, however, is sometimes a mystery. How users interact with your site post click can be a good indication if a) your site is clear and easy to use; and b) if you’re getting qualified, converting traffic from your PPC efforts.”
One tactic she suggests for qualifying that traffic is to map Behavior Flow once users are on the site. She uses an example from a branded campaign in which she filters for sessions with transactions to see who makes the journey from ad to purchase.
Now, imagine you have a sales page where anyone who clicks your ads lands. Imagine 99% of those users either bounce immediately or navigate to an informational page on your site, such as your About page.
That’s a clear indication that you are hitting people with a sales pitch too early in the journey. That’s when you check your keyword(s) in Google.
If a keyword you target contains an informational or commercial (not transactional) intent, then sending people to a sales page would be incongruent with their needs.
Applying This Knowledge to Your Sales Funnel
As Tiffany daSilva notes at Unbounce, an ad/landing page combo that ignores the larger context of why someone would search that keyword ends up being a catchall “experience that speaks to no one.”
She recommends breaking down your keywords into their user intent categories, then aligning those with a sales process.
Let’s take her three steps that mark the graduation from prospect to lead to buyer.
First, there are the keywords that indicate some basic exploration. These keywords are either generic, such as [ergonomic mouse], or they have modifiers such as “best,” “cheap,” “tips,” or “versus”:
- [best ergonomic mouse]
- [cheap ergonomic mouse]
These are commercial keywords in Zomick’s framework, but daSilva splits that off into a subcategory she calls “Kicking the Tires.”
Next, you’ve got commercial keywords that indicate comparison shopping:
- [ergonomic mouse reviews]
- [ergonomic mouse X versus ergonomic mouse Y]
Finally, you’ve got keywords that indicate a purchase decision is imminent. Sometimes, you’ll see the word “buy” or “purchase” right in the keyword. Other times, you might have some other action such as “contact” or “sign up.”
This last group is your set of transactional keywords. If you are running a PPC campaign, ads for those keywords can point to a sales page.
PPC Ad Copy
Ad copy needs to align with the user’s intent, as well.
If you are going to target that [cheap ergonomic mouse] keyword, your ad’s copy should probably include a price point, then feature a CTA that invites the viewer to check out a selection of ergonomic mice at that price point.
Likewise, the [ergonomic mouse reviews] ad could mention a couple of the reviewed products right in the body copy, and the CTA could invite the reader to compare the two to determine which is a better fit for him/her.
In either case, ensure that whatever page the user clicks through to matches their intent.
“This is where it’s easy to make another big mistake, and that’s losing the ‘scent trail’ between the ad you’re showing and the landing page that users end up on after clicking,” SEO pro Kimberly Treacy writes.
“If you run a bunch of different, customized ads that all go back to your website’s home page rather than individual pages that relate to the ad, you’re losing the scent trail and making it harder for potential customers to find the information they’re looking for.”
Converting That Traffic on the Landing Page
To maintain that scent trail after the clickthrough, CRO expert Jeremy Smith advises a few fundamental things:
- Repeat (or at least reflect) the keyword intent in the page’s headline
- Use the same call to action from the ad, or at least something similar (perhaps “Get your free demo” in the ad and “Try it out now” on the landing page)
Smith also suggests creating several landing pages to capture all of the various intents around your keyword. So, besides the sales page for [buy company X’s ergonomic mouse], there could be informational pages that target [cheap ergonomic mouse] or [ergonomic mouse reviews].
Tying This All Together
These steps might seem daunting and numerous, but don’t lose sight of the real goal for conversion optimization (and even SEO and marketing in general).
As Smith puts it, this kind of intelligence allows us “to get in the mind of the user and deliver exactly what they want.”
This is the same know-your-audience mandate that reporters and political speech writers must follow.
The rules might flex a little across devices or depending on the realities of a specific market, but in the end you are just finding ways to connect your offer to the most relevant audience possible.