With every passing day, Google becomes more sophisticated as it continues on its quest to get its users the best, most relevant, and high-quality search results when they type a query into the search bar. And in turn, content marketers need to become more sophisticated as well.
We see some type of change every year, if not more frequently. We follow the blogs of content marketing influencers and attend the best marketing conferences to learn from some of the industry’s leading marketing experts.
And we learn, of course, that things that were once cardinal rules have completely changed.
Search engine optimization is often thought of as using the most search keyword phrase in one’s blog post and on one’s website in order to secure the users typing in queries with that keyword. But of course that’s no longer the case.
What we’re seeing now, and have been seeing, is a shift towards understanding addressing search intent.
- From keywords and links to policing algorithms, Google has finally arrived at focusing on search intent.
- Google will continue to experiment with AI-based technology to reward sites that provide a great user experience in addition to relevant information.
- Google is moving from answers to journeys with “query-less” queries and more visuals instead of text.
What is Search Intent?
Let’s say you’re conducting research on the 2019 Ford Escape because you’re in the market for a new car. Typically, you could type in “Ford Escape 2019” and expect Ford’s website to be one of the top search results, and you may also see a lot of paid advertising.
But that query won’t direct you specifically to the answers you want (unless you want a complete overview), and we are trying to minimize the time we spend searching and get right to the answers we want. Instead, you want to know things like:
- Differences among available models
- Safety rating
- Differences from the 2019 Ford Edge
- Luxury features available
So instead, users will type in search queries that look less like “Ford Escape 2019” and more like:
- Ford Escape 2019 models comparison
- Ford Escape 2019 safety rating
- Ford Escape 2019 versus/vs 2019 Ford Edge
- Ford Escape 2019 luxury package
That is search intent: The motive someone has when conducting a search.
Then & Now: Search Engine Optimization
If you have been a player in the content marketing (or marketing in general) game for a while now, you will recall the early days of search engine optimization where Google’s algorithm for retrieving websites was simple. It focused on:
- The use of keywords that matched, specifically, the keyword query submitted by the user
- The frequency (i.e., density) of keywords in a blog post
- The PageRank algorithm
Of course, this was before the creation of now-fundamental Google algorithms, the “site police” algorithms that negatively rank websites that use black hat tactics. You know them best by names like Panda, Penguin, and Rankbrain.
How did we finally arrive at searcher intent? It was a natural progression, but again, it goes back to Google trying to get their users the most relevant search results based on exactly what they want.
Google’s 2038 (And Beyond) Vision
On September 24, 2018, Ben Gomes, Google’s Senior Vice President of Search, News, and Assistant, published “Improving Search for the next 20 years” on Google’s official blog. This forward-thinking post briefly outlines Google’s plans for improving Search in the next 20 years. As Gome explains, they are still committed to their mission as they were when they first started: To “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” And to do so, they follow some core principles:
- The User—Focus on the user, first and foremost
- Information Relevance—Provide users with results containing the most relevant, high-quality information
- Algorithms—Use algorithms to aid the Search process and manage the billions of search queries submitted to Google each day
- Change for the Better—Test all changes made through experimentation and rater feedback
Gomes then proceeds to describe three “shifts” the search giant is going to make that adhere to these three principles and make search easier and more efficient for all of its users.
Google’s Three Shifts
These shifts are meant to improve Google over time. As the Internet and technology have become more sophisticated, users are searching for information online at a whopping 40,000 queries per second.
Even if you have never raised or helped raise a young child, you’ve likely interacted with several throughout your life. And, still growing and with so much about life still shrouded in mystery to them, kids tend to ask a lot of questions (and sometimes tripping us up in the process):
Child: “Why do birds fly?”
Adult: “Because they have wings.”
Child: “Why do they have wings?”
Adult: “They evolved that way.”
At this point, you’d either try to distract them somehow or turn to Google for answers. But note the progression. Although the child got their first question answered, they had a follow-up question based on the answer they received. And a follow-up question to that answer.
Sometimes, users want a single answer. But other times they seek more information based on the results they just received. And herein is part of the “journey” Google wants to guide you on.
Additionally, it will start to remember where you left off (so you don’t have to “start over”) and will also help you find new interests and hobbies.
You’ve probably already interacted with a queryless query before and never realized it. In 2017, Google launched a feed—named “Discover” in the late fall of 2018—to provide content relevant to users, even if they aren’t actively conducted a search.
This content is based on particular topics that Google has determined you’ll be most interested in. It curates various articles based on this topic. The great thing about Google’s Discover is that there are options to customize and provide feedback on content suggested to you so that, ultimately, Google will provide only the most relevant feedback.
Another cool feature? Google will learn how to predict your level of expertise in a topic, such as cooking. If it recognizes that you are pretty experienced in the topic, it won’t suggest articles for novices, such as an article that discusses cookie sheet color and oven temperatures.
A lot of text can, at times, be overwhelming. And when it comes to searching for information that you want, it’s a lot easier to find that information in visual form versus trying to find it by skimming blocks of text.
Google’s third shift for its 20-year plan includes adding in even more visual content to Search results and also redesigning Google Images. Since 2000, Google has started adding in more visual search results like images and videos because sometimes that is for what people are searching.
But Google isn’t stopping there—they are looking to make all of the Internet a more visually rich place. They worked with the AMP Project to create AMP stories so text content because more immersive visually. And in turn, they’re pulling these AMP stories into their search results.
The Types of Search Intent
They way Google goes, search engine optimization goes too. As content marketers, we are always needing to change up how we are producing and distributing our content based not just on our audience’s demands but those of Google. So if you have not yet already started optimizing for searcher intent, now is the time.
When you think of searching and intent, the possible reasons for user intent are not as broad as some may initially think. All search queries can be categorized into one of three intents:
Navigational intent is when a user submits a query in order to find a website address Some we may know off the top of our head (Facebook.com), but others may have longer website names or we are just entirely unfamiliar. We may also be searching for something with the same or similar name as something else. Pandora is the name of both a brand of jewelry and a music streaming service. So who is Pandora.com and who is Pandora.net?
Informational intent is the most common, and it is when a user submits a query for more information. This query could be in the form of a question (“Why are poison dart frogs poisonous?) or a series of keywords (location of the Blarney Stone).
Transactional intent isn’t necessarily related to making a purchase, which is why this intent is also referred to as “commercial.” Instead, “transaction” refers to the action you hope the user takes, such as visiting your restaurant or signing up for your newsletter.
But how do you optimize for it?
How to Optimize for Searcher Intent
According to Marcus Miller of Search Engine Land, to optimize for searcher intent, you need to map searcher intent to find the right keywords to use. He recommends creating a table with the following columns:
- Financial Value
You’ll use these criteria to determine which keywords best suit your goals. For example, a keyword that has transactional intent and a high financial value but is also highly competitive is less of a desirable keyword than one that is transactional with high financial value and moderately competitive.
Remember that what you think Google views as the “intent” isn’t necessarily the case. So be sure to check the keywords by researching them in the search engine and see what results Google turns up, which will give you insight into what they view as the intent.
Social Search in the Mix
There are many predictions (and indications) that the next generation of search will be informed by social—sometimes referred to as social search. In other words, search engines will increasingly be driven by personal interaction such as voting, ranking, and commenting in order to better understand the intent of the reader. This social layer will add a new, personalized dimension to search results.
Social search is amplified by the fact that social content is on the rise. People are creating content as fast as they are consuming it. I first noticed this phenomenon a few years back while shopping for a Halloween costume. The leading organic search result was a Pinterest page. “Wow,” I thought, “How have brands missed this opportunity? Why didn’t Target or the Halloween Store do a better job finding the algorithm to pop into my reader?” Today, that’s a common sight.
The fact is, it’s getting harder and harder for brands to compete with the power of the personal network. According to Search Marketing Land, a significant ratio of the top 100 results for more queries is consumer-generated media such as blogs and social networks. This is why social media is so important to brands. If you’re still focusing on outbound communications and search engine optimization without building a groundswell of social content, you’re likely losing in the war for online eyeballs.
So add social search to your kit of SEO and paid search. Building influencers, online communities, and social at scale is the new search. Forward thinking marketers are beginning to use social search to understand the social behavior of their clients and acting on it.
If social search is discovery, traditional search is the validation of that discovery. Brands are using social data to understand consumer intent and pushing out relevant data to consumers—before they even know they’re interested—by using sophisticated purchase intent models.
So tell me Google, what might I be interested in? No hints this time around. Or perhaps this is one for Watson?