Understanding Search Intent: A Pre-SEO Guide For Business Owners

It’s easy enough to find out what specific words and phrases land people on your website. But what does it actually mean? Why are they searching? What are they looking to do next, and when?

No, we can’t read their minds (thank goodness, or someone would be analyzing ours too, right?). But we can figure out a good bit about what’s going on in your visitors’ minds, and it won’t require rocket science or psychic abilities.

The goal of this article is to help you truly understand what your audience looks for online, and why — instead of guessing. Then, when it’s time to write a blog post or craft a marketing campaign, your ROI will be better because you’ll know what content to create to truly connect with the readers that matter most to you.

Before we move on, I need to say a word about why “pre-SEO” is in the title of this article, and what to do if your website has been up for a while. Ideally, you’ll think about search intent when you plan your content. But what if you don’t?

To borrow from an old Chinese proverb about planting trees, the best time to consider search intent is as your website is in its planning stages. The second best time is now. So whether you’re just getting started on the web, or you’re well established, it’s always a good time to improve on delivering what visitors want.

What Is Search Intent?

At its core, search intent (sometimes called ‘user intent’) is the ‘why’ behind a search, or the primary goal a person has when typing a word or phrase into a search engine. Are they looking to purchase? Just seeking information? Or maybe trying to visit a specific website? Once you learn to recognize this intent, you can use it to guide what kind of content will be most impactful, and the best ways to present it.

Although you can’t always tell exactly what people are after, certain words and phrases will give you pretty good ideas. Further down the page we’ll get into some examples, which should help you decipher your visitors’ queries.

Why It Matters

Imagine spending time and money on a great-looking website, only to realize soon after launch that too many of your visitors aren’t sticking around. The culprit is often a mismatch between the content and visitors’ search intent. If people aren’t clicking through from search results at all, that can also indicate a mismatch.

To be clear, you should never change your content in a way that doesn’t align with your goals. It’s better to have the right people coming to your website – who could eventually be customers – in smaller numbers than it would be to attract larger numbers of people who aren’t a good fit for what you offer.

When you understand and optimize for search intent, you can:

  • Enhance User Experience: Deliver exactly what your visitors are seeking.
  • Boost Conversions: Align your content with transactional intent searches, leading to increased sales or sign-ups.
  • Avoid Missed Opportunities: Ensure potential customers find you during their ‘investigational’ or ‘local’ searches.

What to Do About Search Intent Before You Launch Your Site

Considering search intent is always important. When building a new website, there’s an opportunity to improve SEO from the beginning, by making search intent a main strategy. Here’s how:

  1. Know Your Audience: Understand who your target customers are and what they might be looking for. Are they seeking information, looking to make a purchase, or trying to find your physical location?
  2. Plan Your Content: Think about the questions your customers might have and create content that answers those questions. If you’re opening a bakery, for instance, potential customers might search for your menu, opening hours, or customer reviews.
  3. Simple Navigation: Ensure your website is easy to navigate. If a visitor is looking for your contact information, it should be readily accessible, not hidden away.
  4. Mobile-Friendly: Many people search on-the-go, so your website should look good and function well on mobile devices – including tablets.
  5. Collaborate: Assuming you’re working with professionals (who should insisit on your input), communicate your business goals clearly to them. They can offer insights on how to align your website’s design and content with search intent.
  6. Feedback is Gold: Before the official launch, share your website with a few trusted individuals. Their experience can highlight any glaring mismatch between what they expected to find and what’s actually on the site.
  7. Stay Updated: Search intent can change over time, so regularly review your website’s performance and be open to making adjustments based on visitor behavior.

The key is to anticipate what your ideal customers will be looking for, then ensure your website meets those expectations.

Types Of Search Intent

Search intent can be grouped into some broad categories. Having a basic familiarity with search intent types will be really useful when you begin looking through the keywords that bring visitors to your site.

The table below is a practical cheat sheet that will quickly get you up to speed on search intent. Here’s a printable (PDF) version.

Search Intent Explained
Intent TypeExampleWhat’s Going OnReal-Life AnalogyContent Suggestions
CommercialBest DSLR cameras 2023Searchers are researching products but aren’t ready to buy yet.Visiting an RV show to see new models and features, without a specific purchase in mind.Highlight your product’s unique features. Consider creating comparison charts or guides.
TransactionalBuy unicorn slippers onlineSearchers are ready to make a purchase or perform a specific action.Going to a store with the intention to buy a specific item.Ensure a smooth checkout process on your site. Display trust signals like reviews and secure payment badges.
NavigationalAmazon customer serviceSearchers are trying to get to a specific website or page.Knowing the shop you want to visit in a mall and using a directory to find its location.Optimize your brand’s online visibility. Make sure your site’s name and logo are clear and recognizable.
InformationalWhat is search intent?Searchers are seeking answers or information about a topic.Visiting a library to research a topic for a school project.Create in-depth articles or blog posts. Consider adding a FAQ section answering common industry questions.
LocalHardware store near meSearchers are looking for local businesses or services.Asking neighbors to recommend a lawn care service that serves your area.Ensure your Google Business Profile is up to date. Highlight customer reviews on your website, and provide clear location details.
InvestigationalMacBook Pro vs. Dell XPSSearchers are researching specific products or services but might buy later.Checking out details of a new gadget before launch, or reading reviews after, to see if it lives up to the hype.Provide detailed product guides or service descriptions. Showcase customer testimonials and reviews.
Hurrying in to a store, on a mission to pick up one specific item you’ve already decided on.

A Terrible Story

Several years ago, I followed bad blogging advice. It had a terrible effect on my search engine results, for a very long time. The advice was around building an audience by providing content that people find useful. Generally, this is good advice. But it becomes problematic if that content attracts mostly people who’ll never be your customer, or otherwise undermines your business.

Imagine being a CPA, and writing blog posts on how to use TurboTax. People searching “how to use TurboTax” see your name in the results, followed by “CPA” and immediately click on the link to your post. Soon, you’re ranking #1 for “how to use TurboTax” — yee-haw!

There’s just one problem. You, as a CPA, are in the business of providing expert service to clients who pay you well to largely avoid doing their own taxes. People who want to know how to use TurboTax are searching with an informational intent. They’re looking for an answer to this specific question. and almost certainly intend to do their own taxes. Not become your customer.

When I used a blog post to answer a question from someone who had built their own website, and used a terrible platform to do it, I was helping a person who had searched for information, and who would almost certainly never be my customer.

OK, one blog post – no big deal. Time that would have been better spent elsewhere. Just move along and don’t do it again. Except…

Since that platform was so terrible, with awful support that didn’t answer their customers’ questions, my blog post began ranking fairly high in search results. The platform was not Wix, but it attracted the same customer base – people with tiny budgets who’d DIYed websites that didn’t work well, and were years off (if ever) from hiring the kind of professional help I offered. They all commented on my post, asking more questions. Which pushed the post even higher in the rankings.

Google and these poor DIYers all thought I was tech support for this terrible website platform, apparently.

This isn’t me, but her facial expression definitely captures my feelings. “What on earth did I do???”

People did find the guidance they needed in the post, so the search intent wasn’t a mismatch in that regard. But it was absolutely not in alignment with my business goals. For years afterward, Google had me pegged as some sort of support guru for that terrible platform. I couldn’t rank for website design, or WordPress tech support, or website care, or anything I actually, desperately needed to rank for.

At the time, I didn’t understand that website traffic isn’t just traffic. It’s individual human beings, all arriving on your site for a reason. And we have to make sure that the reason a) will be satisfied with what’s on the other site of the search engine results link they click, and b) aligns with our business needs.

Key Takeaways for Your Search Intent Journey

While it’s always good to work with a pro on comprehensive SEO, having a basic grasp of search intent can offer a competitive edge that helps your business thrive even before you hire an SEO expert. It’s not a stretch to say that understanding search intent can take you from the equivalent of navigating blind to executing a content strategy that guides you right to your ideal customers.

Let’s recap the main ideas:

  • Search Intent is the ‘Why’: Learn and understand the primary goal behind the search queries that bring you visitors.
  • Align with Business Goals: Make sure your content not only meets user intent but also aligns with your business objectives.
  • Stay Adaptable: Regularly review and adjust your content strategy — search intent can evolve over time.

It’s absolutely an unusual way to have a conversation – one party shrouded in mystery, and the other trying their best to understand. Their searches offer clues, though. It’s up to you to follow them and unlock the mystery.

Ready to harness the power of search intent?

Start by diving into your website analytics. Explore the ‘Queries’ report under ‘Search Console’ in Google Analytics to see the actual search terms people are using to find your site. Then, use the explanations and examples in the Search Intent Types table to decode what’s behind your visitors’ searches.