Over the years, users of search engines have become more demanding, perhaps without realising it. When search engines were just an index of the words on the web, it was all about those individual words. If we wanted to know the answer to a question, the best way to find it was to work out what words might be on a web page that answered that question, then enter those into the search engine.
For example, if we wanted to know “who won the World Cup in 1966?”, the best thing to type in wasn’t that question, but the phrase “the World Cup in 1966 was won by” …because that would be what we were really looking for.
However, users didn’t do that. They just typed in the questions. You’ll find articles on this very blog from way back when, suggesting that if people were effectively going to search for questions, we should put those questions on our pages.
The search engines realised that just sending users to these Q&A pages might do a job, but there might be better answers out there which were being overridden. They got much smarter, and began to assess pages based on what questions they were answering.
This is known as search intent.
Most discussions on the topic break search intent down into four categories: navigational (just using a search engine to get to a particular site); informational (straightforward queries); commercial (buying research); and transactional (direct buying intent). The search engines look at pages now and try to work out what types of search intent they’re targeting.
Notice how Google will give quite different styles of search results for queries like “wine” compared to queries like “programmable logic controllers”. This is because it now knows that people typing in the former usually have a transactional intent (they want to buy something) but people typing in the latter probably have an commercial (research) intent. Type in “buy wine” and we get a similar set of results to just “wine”. But type in “buy programmable logic controllers” and we get something quite different from “programmable logic controllers”.
Why does all this matter? For a start, we should have long ago moved on from targeting keywords. If our site’s main focus is to sell blue widgets directly, there’s far less point in worrying about why we don’t rank highly for the simple “blue widgets” query, because the search engines are returning sites with commercial (research) content for that. We need to be targeting “buy blue widgets”. If we think that people simply typing in “blue widgets” are a valuable audience, and we can lead them on to buy something, we need to ensure our site has something attractive to those with research intent: background and facts. And the best way to work out what the search engines are thinking? Study their results for different phrases and questions.
Content is more important than ever. But it needs to be targeting the people whose intent is what we want.