The Tyranny of Keyword Intent

Written by Andrew Kaufman on August 12, 2012.

king henryThe online “Search” business is a billion dollar industry for one basic reason: it’s often the easiest and most efficient way for people to find what they’re looking for. Whether it’s finding out who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, when your flight to Las Vegas leaves, or where to buy that camouflage Snuggie©, search engines try to get us to our object of desire as quickly as they possibly can. But no matter how much search engines have evolved, they still don’t have the ability to read minds (yet). Because of this, they have to rely solely on the data that we (the users) give them in the form of our search queries in order to decipher our INTENT. And while some queries are easy to understand (“what time is the super bowl?”, “stock price of apple”, “trader joes locations”), others may suggest a wide variety of possible intents (“electric car battery”, “toilet broken”, “justin bieber murder dismember”).

Google is the #1 search engine because it’s the best at determining “Intent” based on user submitted keywords. If you type in a product name, it will usually show you a listing of where you can buy it. If you type in an address, it will show you a map of the location. If you are wondering who won the 1986 lawn bowling championships, it will probably show you a Wikipedia entry with that information. Obviously it’s not perfect, as different users may have slightly different expectations and the meaning of certain queries may change over time, but it’s as good as it gets right now.

If you are a webmaster or online marketing professional, chances are that you’ve experimented with (or possibly even built your business around) trying to capture some of the enormous amount of search traffic that comes through Google each day. The process of identifying popular search terms and then optimizing content to rank well in the search results for those terms is one of the most powerful tools for helping to grow traffic to your site. Whether you’re an all purpose instructional website with millions of pageviews a month or a small, niche oriented site that deals with a specific topic in depth, producing content that ranks highly and entices the reader to click on your link is a strategy that can pay off enormously (if done right). And while the process of figuring out which keywords you want to target isn’t that hard, the work of actually crafting compelling content that fulfills the user’s intent is often a tricky proposition.

Since we as search marketers and webmasters are at the mercy of what Google determines the intent of a keyword to be, we have to determine what that intent is and figure out whether we even have the capability to give the user what they’re looking for. Just because a keyword is valuable, doesn’t mean we have the resources to meet that intent. While we may wish that someone looking up “Ugg Boots” may want an informational article on the history of Uggs and the celebrities that wear them, Google knows that the majority of its users are simply interested in researching and/or buying Ugg boots directly. Unless you actually sell Ugg Boots on your site (or provide a link for where to buy them), you are going to have a hard time ranking well for that term. No amount of wishing on your part can change the “Intent” of the keyword in Google’s eyes. This is why you have to work WITH the tyrant rather than against it.

Now, if the query were changed to “ugg boot history” or “ugg boot celebrities,” than that would be a different story – but the question then becomes whether or not those queries have enough volume to make them worth your while. Some will, and those are ripe for creating content around. A lot won’t, and those you probably just need to forget about.

In my time as a content strategist I’ve seen a lot of page titles that seem to disregard (or misunderstand) the intent of the keyword they are targeting. This disregard for “Intent” spells doom from the beginning. No matter how interesting the article topic or how well written, it will still fail to deliver the results you are looking for. Here are just a few examples:

  • How Long a Car Battery Should Last – (Keyword: car battery)
  • Can I Pass a Smog Check if my Check Engine Light is On? – (Keyword: smog check)
  • Unique Facts about a Hyundai Oil Change – (Keyword: Hyundai oil change)
  • How to Replace the Water Valve on Portable Vehicle Toilets – (Keyword: portable toilets)

As you can see, this often happens when the keyword is very general while the title is very specific. There is nothing inherently wrong with these titles – they just don’t target the keyword that they claim to be targeting. The easiest way to check the intent of a keyword, as I mentioned before, is to just do a simple Google search. Let’s do one for “car battery”

But, if you were to simply change the primary keyword of the article to “car battery life” (a query which has 6,600 monthly searches) and the title of the article to include the new keyword, then your article about how long a car battery should last will be much closer to the intent of the keyword you’ve chosen. As you can see by looking at the results for that query, the intent that Google has assigned to that keyword is much more in line with the type of content you can provide.As you can see, the results that Google displays (including the ones you can’t see below) assume that the user is looking to BUY a car battery, rather than find out information on how long it should last.

Types of Intent
There are 3 main categories of user intent that we can identify when looking at search queries. They are:

Informational: These are the types of queries that people use when they are looking primarily for information on a specific topic. That information can involve specific data (such as historical dates, definitions of terms, contact information for businesses, instructions on how to do something, etc.) If you’re site is primarily an information portal (as opposed to an ecommerce site or web application), these are probably the types of searches that you are best equipped to handle. Here are some examples:

  • “how to change oil”
  • “types of floor tiles”
  • “dog training tips”
  • “2011 tax exemptions”

The problem comes when you try to make every keyword fit into the informational box.

Navigational: these queries are seen when users are searching for a specific site or location on a site that they already know about and are trying to find. We’ve all done it before: typing “Facebook” into Google instead of just typing www.facebook.com into the URL bar. Or you may have heard of a great restaurant and want to find its website, so you type “andys ribs los angeles.” Since Google is so good at its job, these types of users usually find what they’re looking for in the first few results and rarely, if ever, go further than that. In general, these are terms that you’ll want to avoid. Even if you were to rank #2 for “Facebook,” 99.9% of people searching that term would end up clicking on the actual link to Facebook rather than any article you could write about it.

Transactional: Other than informational, the bulk of the queries that Google processes each day are in some way related to making a transaction online. These don’t necessarily have to involve buying a specific product, although they often do. They can also involve signing up for a newsletter or free service, comparing price quotes between different providers of a service, or finding coupons to save money. While these types of queries are usually harder to provide targeted content for, they are not impossible. While your site may not actually sell car insurance, it can provide information on how to compare insurance companies (which is something people often do right before buying a policy). The main thing to avoid here is to try and make a transactional query fit into one of the other “Intent” boxes. For instance (primary keywords bolded):

  • “What is Car Insurance
  • “Pros and Cons of Olive Garden Coupons
  • “How to Get the Most Out of Your Flat Screen TV
  • “How to Use the Delta Airlines Reservation System”

While these titles might result in an interesting article with good information, there is no way that they are going to rank and bring in traffic for the primary keywords that they are targeting.

Takeaway:

  • Before coming up with a title for each keyword, identify which “Type” of intent that keyword most likely has. This will give you a better chance of choosing a title that closely aligns with the intent of the user.

Think Like a User

No, not a drug user – a search user. You use search engines every day (both at your job and at home). Each one of you has probably made thousands of each one of these types of queries in your life (and even a few of an “immoral” nature as well). You have clear expectations of what Google will provide you when you type in a specific query and you take it for granted that Google is able to discern your intent simply by looking at the words that you’ve types into the search box.

So, before you come up with a title for a keyword, ask yourself this one simple question:

“If I typed this keyword into Google,

what would I expect?”

If the title you came up with doesn’t meet the criteria, then scrap it. Start over. Try to put yourself in the user’s shoes. In Google’s shoes. This is one of those times in life when it’s better to just submit to the will of the Tyrant than to try and spit into the wind (or pull on Superman’s cape, etc.) Because in reality, we as users are the ones who determine intent, we are the ones who set expectations, WE ARE THE TYRANT!! (I just blew your mind there, didn’t I?)

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