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Search intent – SEO driven by emotions and needs

How to identify micro-moments and respond to organic user-intent in SEO.

From this article you will learn:

  1. What is user-intent?
  2. How does Google determine users’ intentions?
  3. What is RankBrain and how does it affect search results?
  4. Google BERT Update – better understanding of individual queries and intentions
  5. What is dwell time and how it affects positions in Google?
  6. Why does Google pay so much attention to the user-intent?
  7. Types of intentions of search engine users (search intent)
  8. Hierarchy of needs in content marketing activities
  9. Why is user intent important for SEO?
  10. Why identify Intentions?
  11. A perfect match between landing pages and intentions
  12. What type of content will achieve good SEO results in 2020?
  13. How intentions drive emotions?
  14. 6 canonical consumer needs
  15. Same queries, different emotions
  16. How to differentiate micro-moments?
  17. Role of identifying needs of search engine users

What is user-intent?

According to a dictionary definition, an intention is:

“An act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result. The end or object intended; purpose” (source: https://www.dictionary.com/)

In practice, this means fully-aware action aimed at achieving the intended goal.

Correct identification of intentions fosters effective communication and establishing relationships.  Just as marketing does – an effective advertising message is the one where the right content reaches the right person at the right moment. Long since, marketers have been trying to find out the real needs of their consumers and adjust their products and services to their preferences. However, there are situations when consumers do not directly communicate what they expect or do not know what could be the answer to this need. This was perfectly described by Henry Ford, the famous car factory founder, Detroit, 1903:

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said faster horses.”

In such a situation, the effective marketing message has to be focused not on the product, but on its features that solve specific problems or needs of potential users.

Example of a product that meets users’ needs.

It is not much further than SEO where organic search results for a specific product are just a part of a long and complicated customer journey. SEO intent is all about the search intent.

Google’s search engine is a platform for associating users’ questions with websites where they find their answers. Long since search engines exist, the main goal of Google company is to develop complex search algorithms that increase the quality of organic results – that is, returning more and more accurate answers to queries entered by users. Currently, Google is very advanced at scanning and indexing content on the Internet. Much more effectively than before, it can also identify attempts to manipulate algorithms that assess the quality of content, author’s credibility and website’s authority.

How does Google determine users’ intentions?

Google has come a long way from evaluating site content through backlinks solely to machine learning. Initially, results were related closely to a phrase that user was asking about. Simply, the phrase had to appear in exactly the same form on the website or have a large number of backlinks suggesting it was the most appropriate destination for that phrase. As a result, website owners were placing (or even stuffing) keywords important for their business all around their websites. Needless to say, that way of keyword distribution was largely unnatural.

Early 2010’s was the time of three major algorithm updates roll-out: Panda in 2011 and Penguin in 2012. Panda meant to stop sites with poor quality content from working their way into Google’s top search results. Penguin intended to fight web spam. Then 2013 came with the Hummingbird update. It was a milestone in providing users with higher-quality results. Previous search engine that focused mainly on query semantics was replaced to better understanding the whole context and query meaning. Since then, results were better suited to the user’s intentions, and websites with low-quality content or a ranking manipulated (by positioners- wyrzuciłabym) appeared less and less in high positions.

However, the main challenge was that search engine users often simplify their questions to the form (of phrases) from which it is often difficult to read the intended result (intention).

What is RankBrain and how does it affect search results?

In 2015, the Hummingbird algorithm was supported by a search engine algorithm based on machine learning. RankBrain, as the new algorithm was called, was constantly analyzing phrases searched by users, looking for correlations between them and finally – learned to how to improve matching between the content of websites and a topic.

General scheme of creating search results in Google.

If RankBrain sees a word or a phrase it does not know, the machine tries to find synonyms with a word vector sorting method, also known as “distributed representations”. By converting words into a mathematical operation, it can return results with the best chance of matching and better interpret the relationships between words. It also analyzes patterns between seemingly unrelated searches to understand how those searches are similar to each other. Basically, RankBrain tries to guess what people mean.

In the following years, Google improved its search engine and updated the algorithm which resulted in better assessment of local results, optimization for mobile devices or featuring original journalistic content.

In recent years, the SEO industry has observed large fluctuations in position changes.

 Source: History of changes in Polish search results according to the Senuto tool.

Industries related to health and money (referred as YMYL “Your Money or Your Life”) were put in the spotlight. Related EAT guidelines (“Expertise – Authoritativeness – Trustworthiness”) published in Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines gave us clear guidelines on how Google evaluates content and its quality on the Internet. These shifts in organic visibility have been called the Medic Update, and some specialists associate them with the later Florida 2: March 2019 Core Update.

However, the frequent changes in positions also applied to other industries. Websites increased their organic visibility to lose it again in a moment. In some cases it was difficult to find a pattern and indicate reasons for that. 

 Example of TOP10 organic visibility history. Source: Senuto

SEO specialists have observed changes depending on the kind of the landng pages that succeeded to score high visibility for given search quieries. And frequent changes in rankings for individual websites could indicate that Google tested matching different search results to users’ expectations.

Google BERT Update – better understanding of individual queries and intentions

At the end of 2019, Google introduced another major change to its search engine algorithms. The BERT update improves how Google understands user intent. BERT, or Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, is a natural language processing technique based on a neural network. It comprehensively analyzes queries in a bidirectional way, taking into account the meaning of individual words and their relationship between them. So far, the query has been analyzed one-way: word by word according to the order in which they were given by the user.

BERT was announced as one of the biggest and key changes in functioning of the platform. BERT pursues goals similar to RankBrain, but it works mainly for interpreting long-tail queries. It is still being discusses to what extend this system is able to deal with more complex languages, such as Polish. As for 2020, RankBrain and BERT functioning is synergized using machine learning to match search results to intentions.

What is dwell time and it affects positions in Google?

Another factor for assessing the results returned by the search engine algorithm (and also search intent) is the dwell time.

Dwell time is the amount of time that goes by from clicking on a search result and returning to the results in the search engine. It measures how much time users spend on a page, beginning and ending with the SERPs. It helps Google assess the relevance of the result received by users.

Google, using only internal data (without need to access website statistics), is able to determine or estimate the bounce rate and the duration of the session. Additionally, using the CTR data of the organic results of a given website, it can assess how willingly it is chosen by users as a landing page for organic queries. Analysis of deviations from average values can distinguish websites that are worth showing to users more often because they respond better to their needs. 

Why is Google paying so much attention to user intent?

Matching search engine results to intentions that has been consistently implemented by Google for many years, is aimed at providing us with more adequate answers to queries. That increases users’ trust in search results. As a result, users are more and more engaged with Google which in the long run provides more income from paid search engine services (e.g. Google Ads advertising).

All changes in the Google search engine show us clearly that it is worth taking care of valuable and useful content on our website. It should be constantly developed to meet the needs of users as much as possible.

Types of intentions of search engine users (search intent)

Until recently, digital marketing experts distinguished only three main types of intent: navigational, informational and transactional.

Navigational – a user is trying to get to a certain site.

Informational – a user is looking for information. 

Transactional – a user is prepared to buy or to perform some other specific online activity.

Three main types of user (search) intent.

Some sources also use the terms as Know, Go, Do. Regardless of naming it is quite easy to match a given query to the appropriate type of intent.

Informational search queries

This group probably covers the largest number of queries. It represents the need to obtain a piece of information quickly or wishing to research on some topic. That kind of queries can relate to weather, recipes, advice, opinions or comparisons. They often begin with words such as “how”, “where”, “when” “why”.

Navigational search queries

These are the queries where users try to reach a specific brand or company, place or person. Keywords and queries here are quite specific and usually include branded queries (walmart, facebook account, youtube, canva login) or relate to a location (hairstylist near me, Warsaw City Hall).

Transactional search queries

Here the user is prepared to buy or to perform some other particular online activity. These queries focus on service providers (carpenter Warsaw) or purchasing a specific product (samsung galaxy s10 online store). Therefore, these queries are usually highly convertible. Thus, website owners care about these the most. 

Hierarchy of needs in content marketing activities

In the classic approach, one of the main SEO strategies is to develop visibility for informational queries. The key to an effective content plan is to understand the hierarchy of needs and choose the appropriate content marketing strategy for our goals and capabilities (time, resources, budget).

Hierarchy of needs in content marketing.

Usually, costs of activities rise along with the need’s priority in the pyramid which we want to respond to. So, when planning content marketing activities start with ones at the bottom of the hierarchy in order to create more ambitious content on subsequent levels over time.

Why is user intent important for SEO?

As you might have already noticed, terms such as “user intent” and “serch intent” alternate in this article. When it comes to the search engine, these two have basically the same meaning. Interpreting search intent correctly is closely related to selecting the right type of content for a given query.

Why Identify Intentions?

Understanding and adjusting to the intentions will provide us with more valuable traffic that is likely to convert. 

The right landing page increases the chances of a high CTR of your organic result. What is more, meeting users’ expectations gives us opportunity to encourage them to perform the next action. When users spend some time on a website, it is a signal for Google that our brand is effectively responding to the expectations of organic users, thus that content should be ranked higher on the search engine results page. 

Source: Google. Example of a landing page suited to the search intent 

A perfect match between landing pages and intentions

SEO specialists have recently observed that matching a landing page exactly to specific inquires is becoming more and more significant. Every time users enter queries into the search engine, Google tries to guess their intention and filters search results to so that all displayed website addresses are consistent with the identified intent.

Let’s see this with an example:

For similar queries regarding to real estate market Google interprets intentions differently and suggests different output.

Results for “new apartments London”:

Source: Google. Search results for “new apartments London”
Source: Google. Search results for “new apartments London”

Results for “apartments london 2020”:

Source: Google. Search results for “apartments london 2020”
Source: Google. Search results for “apartments london 2020”

In the first example, a developer’s only chance to feature their page of a specific investment is to have a well-optimized Google My Business location listing. Probability of showing such landing page for this phrase with a detailed description of the chosen investment only is very low. In this case Google prefers to list offers (10 out of 10 results in the TOP10) or even websites that aggregate various sales offers. That means users are apparently satisfied with this type of websites the most. In this case a recommended strategy would be focusing on high visibility in aggregate listings. An SEO specialist’s job here would be to analyze where the developer should publish their offer and recommend best practices for descriptions of these offers.

In the second example, Google did not associate the query with a local intent that would render the map. However, users here get a wide range of content where listings only make up 50% of the results. The first three TOP10 results are articles, one is an auto-generated ranking based on the number of views of the investment details, and the last place on the first page is the article listing tags page. Still, none of the results are pages of a specific offer. Therefore, the appropriate SEO strategy for this phrase will be to create highly informational content (newest industry reports, customer insights & market factsheets).

We can also find similar differences in other industries. See e-commerce as an example: inquiries about product groups (e.g., women’s handbags), a single well-optimized product page or an article with a lot of trusted backlinks has no chance to gain high visibility for this type of query, because Google identifies these phrases as a need to browse product lists.

Results for the phrase “women’s handbags”:

Source: Google. Results for the phrase “women’s handbags”

If the category level is neglected, our site has very little chance of good visibility for this group of queries (often these are the most popular and profitable phrases in the industry).

A sample of obtaining a high ranking for the phrase “women’s handbags”, even with the best article on the Internet, will not bring the desired result. Of course, the article will still have a chance to appear for other phrases and support domain authority. However, website owners should knowingly set realistic goals for this type of landing page.

Google is increasingly showing maps with local places for general (location-free) and category-related queries. This is a great chance to break through with our local site in a very competitive organic environment.

A very good strategy that works especially well in the fashion category, is getting visibility through Google Graphics and YouTube. This form of optimization usually does not require any off-site activities, so it can be implemented without the need to invest large media budgets.

What content to publish to achieve good SEO results in 2020?

Creating a vast majority of content that corresponds to different needs and reaches potential customers with our offer is the key to success, regardless of Google’s search intent classification.

Below you will find 8 types of effective content. Use them all!

  1. Answer to ideas or questions
    Create rankings, precise answers to specific queries: smartphones up to PLN 1000, what washing machine to buy, cheap vacuum cleaners, how much is a good dishwasher.
  2. Educate users to help them specify their need
    Publish technological tips and educational content in a given field: a smartphone with a good camera, a washing machine with a turbo function, a mobile phone with face recognition, eco bubble washing machine, wireless charging.
  3. Advise on the purchase of specific products
    Through tests, expert reviews and product comparisons: iphone 8 or samsung s9, amica X cooker reviews, iphone X reviews
  4. Use the potential of Google My Business
    Local business cards are not just a single pin on the map. It is also a path for communication of events in nearest location, offers, sale, and even quick contact via phone, text message or chat. Complete your profile with photos and videos to make your offer more attractive. Remember that a number of high ratings makes offers and service providers more credible among organic results.
  5. Create listings of offers
    Properly optimized listings can be valuable landing pages for potential customers. Do it through expanding category tree, tags or filters. Consider if even a simple offer can be developed as a listing, e.g., key services list or a list of available bids from the entire investment portfolio.
  6. Optimize product and offer pages
    Make use of all the possibilities of extending the search results (price, opinion, availability, FAQ, anchor links, etc) to draw attention. For instance, meta description tag is a perfect tool to highlight your value proposition and encourage users to click on that specific result. Take care of the brand’s reputation on the Internet, since a strong brand can further improve the CTR of the organic result. 
  7.  Remember about off-site activity
    What if Google does not want to display your pages (e.g., study offers) and prefers aggregated offers? It is important to make sure that the offer has high visibility in external offer catalogs. Usually, an effective strategy is publishing inspirational articles on websites with strong domain authority. It is also worth considering outreach activities that are a complex content marketing campaign. It needs probably more media budget however it pays off afterwards. 
  8.  Don’t forget about rich results
    Today, Google is nothing like the old traditional Internet search engine with a bunch of text links covering the whole page. Along with the rise of UX awareness and rapid tech development, Google returns results in a layout that increases their usefulness for specific users. Now it consists of:
  • Graphics and galleries 
  • Video results 
  • Maps
  • Booking boxes for travel, hotels, libraries
  • Direct Answers (a feature that appears at the top of the SERP in response to implied or explicit queries for information which can be answered briefly with publicly available information)
  • Knowledge graph from trusted sources
  • A local business listing on the Google Knowledge Graph
  • And organic results with an extension created with structured data (schema.org):
  • News with a thumbnail
  • A carousel of articles, recipes, courses, restaurants, films
  • List of courses
  • Reviews
  • A quote of the opinion or review
  • List of events
  • Frequently asked questions about the topic
  • Instruction with video, graphic and text content
  • Interactive list with job offers or trainings
  • Product information
  • Recipe with graphic or a video thumbnail
  • and more, depending on a category of queries.

Observe the organic results of the phrases that are key to your business and make sure that your site uses the potential of the extensions displayed in your industry. If you neglect this, even your lower ranking competition may steal your traffic by taking advantage of being featured and a higher CTR of results with the extension.

How do intentions drive emotions?

Let’s be honest – a decision-making process is far from being rational. It is based mostly on our emotions and how people feel at the particular moment. 

Upon this, in May 2019, Justin DeGraaf, Head of Research and Insights at Google, presented a new method of classifying intentions. He studied functional, social and emotional factors that influence consumer behavior and tried to find what ultimately determines users’ behavior when typing words and phrases in the search bar.

He proposed a new approach to intention based on needs. He explained that people usually do not wake up in the morning with an already set goal for the day. The human brain does not work that way. On general, an impulse will appear first (“I need something” or “I want something.”) and end up as an intention.

For example, if people search “interesting places in the center of Warsaw”, probably they are interested in spending free time with family and they need extra help or inspiration to plan their weekend. The need behind the question “the safest SUV cars” is not the offer to sell a specific model, but rather a desire to see rankings – a list of different car models in a specific order or independent opinions or facts why a given car is considered the safest.

Justin De Graaf identified six canonical consumer needs: Surprise Me, Help Me, Reassure Me, Educate Me, Impress Me, and Thrill Me. Each state of need is a combination of emotional, social and functional needs.

6 canonical needs of the consumer

Source: Justin De Graaf, Think with Google

Same queries, different emotions

It also turns out that the emotional motivation leading to a specific query is shaped not only by the categories of the need, but also by the stage of the consumer’s shopping journey.

Old-fashioned SEO strategies based on keywords only are no longer effective. Same queries at different stages of a customer’s shopping journey can have a far different meaning.

 Think With Google research provided us with a very interesting case study on search vs user needs in the long and complex process of booking a trip. The entire shopping journey lasted 126 days and consisted of 2,000 micromoments.

Micro-moments are impulses when we often instinctively seek answers to questions that appear one-by-one in our consciousness.

The Think With Google case focused on one part of the journey – the Niagara Falls trip, as it involved interesting user behavior upon arrival at the destination.

Source: Think with Google – Google / Verto, US, n = 11.660, A18 +, customer and brand names have been anonymized, 2017-2018.

Six months before the trip, the user started searching for hotels and places to visit. Once getting there, the user looked for “interesting events near me today”. That show a clear interest in inspiration for activities in the area the user was currently visiting. By using a single query, the user actively browsed several different pages that responded to different needs – starting with a website with opinions on local trips, going through a tutorial article, and finishing at an encyclopedic entry from Wikipedia.

Internet marketing specialists face a new challenge of forecasting a vast majority of needs at various stages of the customer journey.

The internet user looks for something with a clearly expressed intention, often out of the need of the moment, and wants immediate results – this is the micro-moment mentioned above.

Google, noticing the enormous increase in this type of organic search, analyzed and divided them into several categories.

How to differentiate micro-moments?

Categories of micromoments

I want to do

Example of the query: “How to build a grill on your own”.

From the marketer’s point of view, you should consider what a potential user could do with your product. The best answer to this is a how-to guide that would inspire users to buy specific products. For DIY related inquiries, it is also worth considering video content.

Porta makes excellent use of the micro-moment in which the consumer considers re-styling the living room. In a long article with many valuable tips for the user, there was room for presenting the Porta’s offer in a subtle non-intrusive manner.

I want to know

Example of the query: “what size of TV depending of the size of the room”.

At this point, the user expects reliable information. If the quality of the answers satisfies the user, our brand will gain credibility and the reputation of an expert. This gives you the chance to pass the lead to the store immediately or facilitate conversion later in the shopping journey.

Sony Center provides users with universal, comprehensive answers to frequently asked questions. Thanks to this strategy, they are able to reach people who have not previously considered buying Sony equipment when they specified their need.

I want to buy

Example of the query: “abs suitcase” or “cheap smartphone for a children online store”

This is the most attractive micro-moment for the seller. The user is very close to convert, but we can implement it in many ways, not only by responding to this query with a product page. For example, half of the customers in the beauty category buy products while watching a video about them at the same time. Including a “buy now” link in videos reviewing your product can be a great sales strategy.

Wittchen is well prepared for different intentions for the same-looking search queries, with both the article and the product category for the “abs suitcases” query. Our gut feeling can often let us down – for this query, Google mainly shows articles. Also, Wittchen uses a very attractive form of product presentation throughout the whole article. 

I want to go

Example of the query: “carpet shop, Łódź center” or “paintball near me”

This category of micro-moments is particularly important for local companies or networks with local points of sale. Local queries are a great opportunity for small businesses that have to compete with big industry leaders in Google. Use the potential of Google My Business. It is surprising how many popular and attractive phrases appear in the form of Google Maps results. 

This is an example of a situation where a user is interested in receiving information about pharmacies closest to his location. Those brands that neglect the Google My Business channel may lose very valuable traffic, oriented towards quick on-line conversion with personal pickup, or fail to take advantage of the potential of the ROPO effect (Research Online, Purchase Offline – search online, buy in store).

If website owners or ecommerce sellers ignore micro-moments, they will lose their customers at the key moment of an impulse purchase. A brand may lose a potential customer, even if it managed to interest them with their product earlier. The budget invested in an advertising campaign may be wasted, because of the absence of the brand at some stages of the shopping journey.

Summary – the role of identifying the needs of the search engine user

That article covers topics related to consumer (user) needs in terms of the SEO. Some of the marketing concepts or techniques mentioned here probably deserve separate articles. Summing up, marketers and sellers should remember about 4 main goals of identifying the needs of a search engine user.

The role of identifying the needs of the search engine user

The best content isn’t for everyone

Marketing specialists face the challenge of tailoring the message to the needs expressed by users at a given moment, a specific stage on their shopping path. One-size-fits-all messages are no longer effective. The key to success is a spot-on interpretation of user intent and guiding users to places (landing pages) that gives them the answers they seek. Still, many marketers are hesitant to guide users anywhere else than product pages where, as they believe, chances for conversion are the highest. Then there is a question:

Does it pay off to change your current product-focused marketing strategy?

Let the Olay case be the answer. In a Google Ads campaign, Olay stopped promoting its offer and targeting products. Instead, it decided to solve real problems of their potential customers and guide them to a content section with how-to articles. As a result, featured products gained more clicks and more sales!

Source: Think with Google. How one CPG brand turned search into a useful dialogue

The average click-through rate of the Olay campaign increased by 87%, and the average cost-per-click decreased by 30%. There was also a 100% increase of the conversion rate. 


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