It is practically obvious by now to say that getting organic traffic is something increasingly complex and that these are no longer the days of the now legendary Ten Blue Links.
However, the transformation of Google from a simple search engine to a complex “database of answers” and the exponential growth of SERP features, which tend to keep users in the search engine itself, is just one of the reasons why the work of SEO has become more complex.
If we look at the mission statement of Google, we can easily understand the “most honest” reason why of the complexity of achieving the most organic visibility possible now:
Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it useful and accessible to everyone.
To be useful and offer the best answer, the first thing to do is to really understand why a person is asking a question or, in search engine terms, understand a person’s search intent.
This need for understanding is central to any marketing discipline.
In fact, if we do not know what our target audience wants and what are the pain points, which they want to see resolved, we will hardly be able to direct our messages in the best and most effective way.
In the case of SEO, however, there is a special peculiarity: our message passes through a medium – the search engines – that ask the same questions as we do about their users.
This means that if, on the one hand, it is true that we must know the desires and pain points of our users (God forbid!), on the other hand, however, we must know what the search engines determine these users want and search as an answer to their questions.
In this post, I will not go into the details of patents and papers (if you are interested in them, I invite you to follow and read Bill Slawski and Dawn Anderson). On the contrary, I will present empirical methods that some will consider “unscientific”, but which in reality have a lot of practical science backing it and proved to be correct and effective in identifying the search intent of my clients’ users.
- 1 Fundamental concepts
- 2 Search Intent and Search Journey
- 3 I Want to Go micro-moment, or about the Navigational Search Intents
- 4 I Want to Know and I Want to Do micro-moments, or about the Informational Search Intents
- 5 I Want to Buy Micro Moment, or the different shapes of the Transactional Search Intent
- 6 TL;DR
Before going fully into the description of how I identify the different types of Search Intent, it is better to define a few fundamental concepts, especially to avoid the risk, always present in SEO, of misunderstandings.
Search Intent is the explicit and explicit search intention that people have when they search in Google.
The Search Intent can be different depending on factors such as the device used, the time of day in which the search is carried out, and the personal search history and the phase in which we are in the search session.
Relevance is the ability of a document to respond positively to a search intent, which Google identified as implicit or explicit in the query of its users.
At the same time, relevance is also the ability of an information retrieval system to retrieve material that meets the user’s needs.
The presentation of documents that Google has calculated to be the most relevant to its users’ search intent.
This presentation, as we know, is made up of different elements or features, ranging from the classic simple search results, Rich Results and/or Featured Snippet to the different boxes (for example the Box Images or the Knowledge Panel) that make up the Universal Search.
Search Intent and Search Journey
So why is it so important to understand the Search Intent, so much so that it is considered one of the pillars of modern SEO? Because understanding the intents, which push our users to do the search they do, allows us to understand what content it is best to offer them and the type of format most suitable, with which to offer it.
And how can we understand it?
Actually, Google itself answered this question a few years ago when it published a guide to Micro-Moments in Think with Google.
In that guide, Google talked about Customer Journey … but in reality, that Customer Journey is nothing more than what we SEOs call “Search Journey”, that is the phases that make up a search session from the moment we start looking for information about something until that search eventually ends with some kind of conversion.
Google individuated 4 big groups of Micro-Moments:
- I want to know
- I want to go
- I want to do
- I want to buy
Each moment has a reflection on the SERPs and, as we will see, moments tend to mix with each other.
Retrieving a classic categorization, we could group these Micro-Moments as follows:
- I want to go moments > Navigational Intent;
- I want to know, and I want to do moments > Informational Intent;
- I want to buy moments > Transactional Intent
However, remember that SEO is not the realm of black and white but, rather, of the infinite variations of gray.
This is how Google defines the I Want to Go Micro-Moment:
When someone is looking for a local business or is considering buying a product at a nearby store.
As we can see, this Micro-Moment, in reality, is composed of 2 subtypes:
- I am looking for a local business;
- I am considering buying a product at a nearby store.
The Google definition is ambiguous, and it could be misleading, making us think that this Micro-Moment has to do exclusively with local searches.
In fact, we know that there is actually no difference between Online and Offline in people’s minds.
A good example of this OnOff mentality is showrooming, that is when we are in a physical store, we photograph a product that interests us and, perhaps using Google Lens, we look for where we can buy it online at a lower price.
Furthermore, many of the so-called branded searches are nothing more than an I Want to Go Micro-Moment.
Summarizing, therefore, we can thus make the I Want to Go moment equivalent to the classic of Navigational Search Intent, and further define it in these 3 variants:
- Offline (we are looking for a physical store, for example, a restaurant);
- Online (we are looking for a website or a specific page of a website);
- Mixed (the case of Showrooming but also the opposite case, i.e. looking for information on a specific web page and then buying its product in its physical store).
How can we tell if a query implies an I Want to Go Search Intent?
If we search “Buying Games Workshop minis” (“Comprar miniaturas Games Workshop” in the screenshot above), Google interprets it as “Where can I buy Games Workshop minis” and, therefore, presents us with the option to go and buy them online at the official website of GW (Navigational Online and brand search) or other sites that sell the Games Workshop brand products or to go to the nearest Game Workshop store.
The presence of the Local Knowledge Panel or the Local Pack, therefore, is a clear indication that the query is navigational or largely interpreted as navigational.
There are, however, more ambiguous searches.
Take the case of “Lord of the Rings Warhammer minis” (“Miniaturas Señor de los Anillos Warhammer”):
What is the Search Intent in this case? Informational, Navigational, or even Transactional?
If we look at the type of search results, we can see that almost all of the first results are category or filter pages and that the first search result is from Gamesworkshop.com.
Then, if we go back to reading the definition of I Want to Go Micro-Moment, we can read “I am considering buying a product at a nearby store”.
Finally, in the query, we can see the name “Warhammer”, which – despite being a product line of Games Workshop – has come to be practically synonymous with Games Workshop itself over time.
So, Google essentially rewrites the query to interpret it as “Where can I buy The Lord of the Rings minis from Games Workshop?”.
We are therefore dealing with a Navigational Search Intent, which we could specifically define – reusing a name that was quite common a few years ago – as “Commercial Investigation“, that is: I might be interested in buying something and I want to know where to buy it.
However, if the query is navigational, why doesn’t Google show us the Local Knowledge Panel or the Local Pack?
Most likely for a very specific factor to the example, which I just presented: only a few physical stores of Games Workshop sell minis of The Lord of the Rings and, therefore, in the Google My Business cards of GW they almost never refer to them. In other words, GMB cards are not considered relevant because those miniatures are not sold in the physical Games Workshop store near me.
I Want to Know and I Want to Do micro-moments, or about the Informational Search Intents
Google separates Informational Searches into two Micro-Moments:
- I Want to Know
- I Want to Do
The first case is when “someone is exploring or researching topics or products but is not necessarily in purchase mode”. This could be defined as “intellectual” or “theoretical knowledge” and queries such as “list of Roman emperors” or “how black holes are formed” are a typical example.
The second case is when “someone wants help or need instructions for completing a task or trying something new”. This could be defined as “practical knowledge”, and queries of the “how-to” kind are the most typical example.
However, there is one exception to note. Queries that imply wanting to know how a conversion/transaction can be concluded are not considered by Google as an I Want to Do moment but – as we will see later – an I Want to Buy moment.
So how can we tell if a query is informational? How can we understand what kind of information people are looking for most? As I like to say very often, we have the answer to these questions before our eyes when we observe a SERP.
Let’s start answering the second question first.
What kind of information people is looking for most with their informational queries?
Let’s take as an example a super generic search such as that of the name of a city: “Wroclaw”.
Since this is a real case related to an Italian client of mine and that I have been monitoring for a long time now, I will use the Italian SERP to develop this example.
In any case, my observations are valid for every language and every local version of Google.
When we see the SERP of “Wroclaw”, we see this:
The Knowledge Panel appears evident and deserves some observations:
- First of all, we note that Wroclaw (the original name of the city) is indicated and not “Breslavia” (the Italian name of the city). This is the main indicator that we are faced with a feature-based in Entity Search, as the entities are not changing in nature even if, for obvious linguistic reasons, they can change in spelling.
- Secondly, we see both in the Knowledge Panel and in the main bar of the SERP the reference to the Travel Guide of the city of Google. In this case, it is important to immediately pay attention to how Google categorizes information about Wroclaw by themes, as this categorization is a hint that it gives us about the possible subtopics that we can deal with.
- Finally, at the bottom of the Knowledge Panel, we meet Related Research. Being within the Entity Search, these too are entities and we should take them into account at the time of designing a cluster-type architecture for Wroclaw. Be careful! Related searches are subject to seasonality and may have an additional row due to it.
If the presence of the link to the Travel guide (and to the Events) in the Knowledge Panel clearly suggests the informational nature of the query, the presence of the links also to Hotels should still put us on alert and make us understand how Google identifies this informational query as part of a much longer Customer Journey, which has a high possibility of ending with transactional queries.
Therefore, we too must keep in mind the position our content will have within the Search Journey of our potential users, and to not create it as an isolated element.
What else can observe in the SERP?
We can see these three more elements:
- The image box, which is now presented as a real preview of the Google Images vertical with the tag carousel included.
- Searches related at the bottom of the page.
- The “People Also Search For” box under the organic results, and which are activated if – once we have clicked on a search result and entered the page – we go back to the Google search result page.
“Ok, interesting … but what does this mean for us SEOs in practice?”. A lot!
In fact, if we grid the data that we can extrapolate from related searches and People Also Search For, we can get this:
Once we have gathered these data in a grid, then we can do a little like the protagonist of “A Wonderful Mind” and start seeing patterns about what people search about Wroclaw:
- Generic tourist information (in purple as “Next events in Wroclaw” or “Wroclaw airport”);
- Attractions (in brown as “Wroclaw gnomes” or “Wroclaw Market Square”);
- Time of the year (in red as “Christmas Wroclaw”);
- Breslavia as the starting point for visiting concentration camps (in pink as “Gross Rosen”)
- Wroclaw as the starting point (or stage) for a bigger trip to Poland (in black as “Distance between Wroclaw and Warsaw”).
This information is gold to be able to design a content strategy, so much if this content will then develop into a single document or as a series of linked contents (cluster).
Then, if we add to this data those that the tags of Google Images provide us, then the degree of granularity increases enormously as well as the ability to design a content, which responds to what people are really searching:
If we want to retrieve even more information, we could look at what Google Suggest presents us when typing “Breslavia”, but this info would not add that much (and usually less) to what we already have discovered.
Observing the SERPs, however, also means analyzing the organic results that are positioning themselves on the front page.
For example, what are the characteristics they have in common?
A search result, this below, is impactful:
How can a site like this, clearly amateur and with a far weaker link profile than the others, which have an average of 6857 unique linking domains, and I have not counted Wikipedia, compete on a par with sites like Civitatis (very important European excursion portal tourist) or Treccani (historical Italian encyclopedia) or even beat Skyscanner, Booking, TripAdvisor and Expedia, which are only found on the second page?
The answer is Relevance.
If we visit that page —-, we can see how this amateur guide presents practically all the “entities” that we had previously identified by analyzing in detail the SERP of “Wroclaw”.
- The post talks about the Oder river and river cruises, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the Covered Market, the Wroclaw gnomes, what to eat, and the most famous breweries in the city.
- Not only that, there is a section dedicated to the history of Wroclaw and another to what to see in its surroundings.
- It even presents a map with directions on how to reach the Polish city by car starting from Italy, highlighting the greatest beauty of the route that involves passing through Krakow.
- Finally, the guide is very rich in original photos, each of them (unintentionally?) Optimized on the SEO side and, presents a video that is also original, another extremely relevant content element considering that, depending on the time of the year, Google tends to show a video carousel in the “Wroclaw” SERP, thus indicating an interest in the consumption of this type of content.
In other words, the site is amateur, and its link profile is ridiculous, but this guide is so relevant to the query that it deserves to be on the first page.
How to tell if a query has an informational Search Intent (and what kind)
Again, the answer lies in the SERPs.
What we see in a SERP can not only tell us if the query is informational (or otherwise) but also its variants.
If among the SERP features we encounter things like Instant Answer or Knowledge Carousel, then we are dealing with a query with Search Intent Know Simple, in which people are looking for an immediate answer and for which they most likely do not want to read 10,000 words before finding the answer they seek.
Personally, if I spot this type of query during a keyword research, I tend to discard them because they have a CTR close to 0.
If among the features there are Featured Snippet (I know that it is no longer a SERP Feature now but a real organic result, however for practical purposes it is practically a feature), Knowledge Panel, People Also Ask, then we are at that dealing with informational queries such as classic I Want to Know and I Want to Do Micro-Moments, and in which users tend to prefer text-based answers.
If in the SERP Google presents us with elements such as Top News or Interesting Finds (only on Mobile), then the Search Intent is still informational but with a preference for fresh or updated content.
Normally this variant is present for these reasons:
- Seasonality. For example, if we search for “Black Friday” today, this being an upcoming event, then we will see the Top News box highlighted. If we had done the same search at the lowest point of its seasonality, this feature would almost certainly not have been present.
- Breaking news. The best way to individuate them is by checking for sudden spikes in Google Trends.
- The need to be constantly updated on something, being “Coronavirus” the most classic example to do, unfortunately.
If elements such as the Image Box or the Video Carousel have an outstanding presence in the SERP, the Search Intent is always informational but with a clear indication that the best type of content, which people prefer to obtain as a response, is visual.
In the specific case of the Video Carousel, then, this tends to be present especially if the informational query is of the I Want to Do type, as happens for example in the case of recipes.
Obviously, thinking about doing this type of analysis manually on a large scale is impractical.
Fortunately, for some time now all the main SEO suites and rank tracking tools offer, some with more detail than others, the indication of the Search Features present in the SERPs:
are the most popular SEO tools offering this information.
I Want to Buy Micro Moment, or the different shapes of the Transactional Search Intent
Google describes the I Want to Buy moments in this way:
When someone is ready to purchase something and may need help deciding what to purchase or how to purchase it.
Again, we are dealing with a Micro Moment that can be segmented into different sub-types:
- I am ready to purchase;
- I am ready to purchase but I need help
- deciding what to purchase
- deciding how to purchase it
“I am ready to buy”
This is the case with the simpler transactional search intent.
Any query with words like “buy”, “offer”, “free”, “discount”, “3X2”, “Bargain”, “Subscribe” or any other lemma that implies buying something or making some kind of conversion implies a direct transactional search intent.
At the SERP Features level, this is the domain of AdWords, Google Shopping, Hotel Ads, Flights, and Top Products.
Those elements that we have seen to be essentially informational are not present, with the exception – sometimes – of the Image box.
In this case, the indication that Google offers us is not on the Search Intent, which remains Direct Transactional, but on the format with which it is best to offer the response to this Search Intent, which in this case is essentially visual.
In other words, if for a transactional query Google presents us with the Images and/or Google Shopping and/or Top Products box, then our product page will have to favor the visual content over the textual one.
Another non-transactional search feature, which can be shown in the SERPs of transactional queries, is the Local Pack, so we could confuse it with I Want to Go queries.
Its presence suggests that users are likely looking for information about a product, but tend to prefer its purchase in physical stores.
For us SEOs this information is of great value.
In fact, if our company or our client has both an ecommerce and a store or chain of stores, then we should pay the same attention to both the positioning of the ecommerce as to that of the company’s Google My Business cards and pages. of the shops on the website.
On the contrary, if we are an ecommerce present only online or without a widespread physical presence in the territory, then we will have to pay attention to all those contents concerning shipping times, return policy for online purchases and refunds, which are normally not well cared for and practically hidden in the product pages and which, normally, are one of the competitive advantages of a physical store.
“I’m ready to buy, but I need help…”
Very often, when we want to buy something and are unable to understand which of the available options to buy, we need the help of an expert. This is the case, for example, when we ask the clerk for information when we want to buy a gaming computer in a specialized shop.
And it is so when, online, we want to know which is the best analog camera.
Often, these searches are like, “Best [product name]” or “Which [product name] to buy for [action]”, presenting SERPs where we find transactional and informational features and classic search results at the same time.
This means that the user needs a final nudge to make the final decision on what to buy or help to decide what to buy (or how to buy something).
The most common mistake is to try to target these queries with only informative content.
A good content option, and equally valid than creating different documents targeting different Search Intents for the same query, is to create landing pages, which by their nature have a mixed nature:
- Informational Pillar, as they extensively explain the characteristics and strengths of a product or a series of products
- Transactional, because the information offered is intended to initiate a conversion process, which normally ends on another page.
What we must avoid is “Search Intent Cannibalization”, which consists of targeting the same search intent related to a query (or set of queries) with different content pieces. This is one of the main reasons why we see Google not showing in the SERPs the URL we want to rank for a keyword or that unnerving continuous changing of URLs we may experience for our website (one day a product page and another day a category page).
A good example of good targeting of the different kinds of I Need help transactional Search Intent is what we see in the screenshot below:
Here we can see ranking 3 different pages of the same website:
- A category page, which however also presents practical and relevant information (COVID-19 and information such as “I may need help deciding how to purchase it”).
That is a category page with a Pillar function of the “Studying abroad in Italy” cluster.
- A classic “best of …” post, which is ideal for targeting the transactional search intention “I may need help deciding what to purchase”.
These types of content always need to present a clear and tempting call to action.
- “Study Abroad Italy” is a query with mixed Search Intent, so it is not a problem to target it even with purely informative content.
In this way, considering how the Search Intent of a keyword have their own seasonality, we will always be able to be relevant during every period of the year and for every Intent
Investigate the Search Journey
Look at the SERPs
Understand the Search Intent
Create the content that best meets the users’ needs in the format they prefer.