Does ‘user intent’ herald the death of the keyword?
Among the numerous updates (500+ according to some estimates) that Google makes each year, one significant update to the algorithm happened around January 10th that – as usual – generated an heap of fluctuation and visibility correlation studies. One interesting study came from Searchmetrics.
One of the most relevant topics the analysis presents is the issue of fulfilling user intent. The study makes the point that content, or pages, with little or no text can still rank as long as ‘intent is fulfilled’. All digital marketers and SEOs love and gravitate towards longform (1000 words+) content which, according to many correlation studies, tends to rank better than shorter pieces. However, for some types of queries if your user’s intent can be fulfilled with a simple tool, then packing the page with reams of content is redundant. In fact in some cases it may even harm your rankings. A Google search page with its knowledge graph, carousels, answer box, local listing or image pack etc illustrates this perfectly.
For example, if someone is searching for ‘pizza’, he/she doesn’t need (or want) to read an essay on the history of pizza. The search engine understands that the intent is probably to order a takeaway or eat at a restaurant. ‘Intent’ is fulfilled in those cases by showing a map with the nearest pizza delivery place or by guessing that the user might be interested in knowing what the best pizza nearby is and including a listing with reviews or comparison of the most popular local outlets.
Intelligent behaviour by Google in search is only going to get stronger in coming years. A close examination of this wikipedia page reveals that some of the most significant investments by the search giant, or its parent company Alphabet, have been in the field of AI. Recently, we have seen so-called ‘phantom updates’, so we may already be seeing the effects of a ‘thinking’ bot. We at Tamar speculate that fulfilling user intent is actually well on its way to becoming a ranking factor. Google’s emphasis on ‘purpose’ in its latest search quality guidelines for the human raters is one of the strongest clues for this.
How can brands prepare for this? What needs to change when the goal is still to rank higher for popular terms and acquire traffic with targeted pages? A good place to start is to fully understand the concept of user intent together with the role post-click activity and user experience plays currently.
How is user intent defined?
User intent simply refers to the information that users are ultimately looking for when they search, and typically a user is either,
- Looking for a brand, place or a person
- Looking for information about a topic, subject or a product, or simply
- Looking to buy something
On many occasions the above three intentions are interconnected through a chain of searches.
In the past a brand would aim to fulfil either of the above three intentions by using exact keywords in its content. It wouldn’t have mattered if the person was searching on a mobile device or a tablet or the geographical location of the searcher. If a brand had enough links and had used the keyword at important places on the page, the page would have ranked and got the click throughs from users.
Now, however, Google also looks at post-click behaviour and interactions with the site and whether the searcher went back to refine the search. This also explains why Google rolled out the mobile friendliness update as it realised the value of showing mobile optimised sites compared to desktop to cater an ever expanding mobile search audience.
Keywords: Use them, but don’t obsess over them
Keywords are most definitely not redundant, the customer journey from the search box to the website begins with them. However obsessing over their exact usage in the light of expanding user intent does require a rethink.
For example, if a brand is aiming to rank for ‘best hair transplant clinic in London’ and it is a relatively popular term, then instead of creating a specific page with that term in its title, header and paragraph, a better strategy will be to focus on fulfilling the intent. This could be done by creating a page that has reviews about the treatment or clinic and ensuring it’s coded with review structured data tags and encouraging bloggers or journalists to visit the clinic with a view to getting a link or mention on their site.
Currently, the chances are that such a strategy will enable the site to rank without including the keyword even once on the page. Similarly, if the keyword is ‘car finance calculator’ then instead of focussing on writing a 500 words essay on car finance calculation, simply build a tool and allow users to use with it by placing it prominently on the site. Later you could amplify the effect by link building and other SEO tactic, but not before addressing the user experience.
However, if the solution to fulfilling intent is still best achieved by writing text content then make sure it is as detailed as possible and relevant. Ensure any content writers are using ‘proof terms’ and ‘relevant terms’. Proof terms are phrases that one would naturally expect to occur in an article about a topic. So proof terms for ‘car finance’ will be ‘interest rates’ , ‘monthly payments’ , ‘APR’ etc. Relevant terms on the otherhand are terms that might not always be expected to be included but could be used to build context. Relevant terms for ‘car finance’ can be ‘Hire purchase’, ‘lease’ etc.
Study customer behaviour and questions
Whilst Google is investing millions in buying AI companies to understand user intent for billions of searches, fortunately for brands decoding your own users intent is not that difficult.
The following are some of the places to consider within a company or organisation,
- Researching your internal searches, community forums and help centres
- The ‘contact us’ form log or the FAQs could highlight some interesting queries not currently considered
- Talk to the sales and the customer service teams. Remember these are the human-to-human interactions between your customer and your brand, and no technology can match this for understanding customers – at least not yet.
Be like Google
In summary, no matter what content format you choose; video, text, reviews or a tool of some kind, it’s no longer enough to just to have a one dimensional keyword approach. Google is now not just a crawler or a database of HTML files but an intelligent machine cognizant enough to decipher and reveal the meaning behind the search phrases we type. It’s never been more important to know your target audience and the purpose behind the phrases they type in the Google search box. Deciphering and understanding their true intent is the ultimate goal for naturally optimising any brand’s site for the future.