When people start talking about SEO, they tend to focus on the technical elements of websites. They start talking about Meta tags, structured data and backlink profiles. These are all very important to getting a website ranking in Google, but there’s a step before all of this that we tend to lose track of: The end user.
As google updates it’s algorithm we’re finding there’s more and more of a focus on user experience. If Google doesn’t think its users will find your website helpful, they aren’t going to rank it on the first page of the SERPs. This fact should be the starting point of how we approach SEO moving forward, but so far, it’s not. We’re still focused on getting keywords and technical elements right, even though things like structural data are going to offer only marginal gains for the most part.
If we need to pay attention to the end user’s experience, how can we do this? Again, as an industry we focus on data led areas like bounce rates, funnel drop offs and a/b testing individual elements on a page. Instead we should be looking at the wider content and how it serves the user. Does it meet the user’s requirements and expectations? Does it provide the answers they need in an easy to find way? In short: does the content meet the user’s intent?
Meeting the user’s intent shouldn’t be a particularly revolutionary thought for the SEO industry. When Google unleashed the Medic update on the world, they explicitly told us in updated guidelines that they were looking to assess how expert, trustworthy and authoritative content was. Whilst Google has a vast trove of knowledge at its fingertips, they don’t know everything. Therefore, they must always look to markers to measure expertise, and how users behave on a site or page is a good signal for quality. In order for us to optimise for expertise, then, we need to look to ensure that users are behaving in a way Google like, and the best way to do that is to provide them with the information that they’re after, and to d that we need to understand the intent behind the user’s search.
Back in 2006, the University of Hong Kong investigated the issue of how users searched for things online. Their findings revealed that search intent can be split into two sorts of segments:
1) Users who are looking for general information about a topic.
2) Users who are looking for answers to a specific question related to the keywords they use.
Google works in similar ways. Based on our investigations we’ve found that there are three types of terms:
Actions Terms: These terms are highly specific, and the user will have a specific end goal in mind. Take for instance the search term “buy red wine”. The user clearly has an end point they want to reach (purchasing wine). These end goals make action terms the sort of terms where understanding user intent really matters. If the user is looking to purchase, serving them a list of red wine facts or reviews isn’t going to help them. Serving them up the full list of red wines you have available to buy will.
For action terms, you need to match the user’s expectations to the content and then present it to them in an efficient manner. Anything less than that and they’ll go looking for their answers (and take their business) elsewhere.
Informational Terms: Slightly less focused than action terms are informational terms. They are generally broader in scope when it comes to User Intent. From an SEO standpoint we still need to present the content in an efficient way, but as the terms tend to be less focused on a specific action, and more research focused, you’ll need to present a wider range of information to the users. This is where learning how to present your information effectively and understanding visual hierarchies can come in very handy. If you’re able to present the information in a way that’s easy to navigate, the user will be able to locate what they’re after efficiently.
Mixed Terms: Put simply, Mixed terms are the broadest of search terms available. If someone searches for Red Wine as a term, they could be looking for any number of things; they may be looking to purchase, they might want reviews, or perhaps they want to learn about what sort of grapes go into making red wine and where they’re grown. We really have no way of knowing. For these sorts of terms, we need to go broad with page content, provide quick overviews of topics that are related to the search term, and then link off to more specific pages. Think of these pages as entry points for people who aren’t sure what they’re after to begin with. Once they find it, if you’re able to provide the next step on their journey immediately they’ll stick around. If you can’t they’ll take their business elsewhere.
Once you understand this breakdown of how key terms can be classified, you’ll be in a much stronger position to create content that aligns with the user’s intent. Overall, you’ll leave more users as satisfied customers. It then follows that, if you focus your SEO strategy on producing content that matches the user’s intent, you’ll be in a stronger position all around. Not only will Google be able to tell that people are engaging more with your website, but the user will also be left with a positive impression. This means that they’ll be more likely to return, and will naturally link to your content on social and other sites, allowing you to make gains in off-site SEO as well.