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What Are They Thinking? 7 Techniques to Decrypt Search Intent

Pamella Neely
What Are They Thinking? 7 Techniques to Decrypt Search Intent

What would you rather have — 100 visitors a month from a keyword that converts at 50 percent, or 1,000 visitors a month from a keyword that converts at 1 percent?

Unless you don’t actually like orders (or whatever the goal of your conversions are), you’d pick the keyword with the higher conversion rate and the smaller search volume. Fifty beats 10 any day of the week.

But ironically, most of the keyword research that’s been done over the years has focused largely on search volume, with more advanced SEOs also checking search competition. We have assumed, almost unconsciously, that most of the conversion happens on our landing pages or in our checkout carts. We’ve generally thought of keywords only in terms of search volume and competitiveness. But that’s not the whole story.

Each search query is not just empty words. It holds an elusive but critical intent behind it, and that “search intent” contributes to conversion rate. In this sense, search intent is basically the user’s aim. The query is their arrow, and hopefully your offer (or opt-in, or download) is the target.

Pay per click advertisers have known for years that some keywords convert far better than others. There have also been keyword tools that tried to gauge a keyword’s commercial value. Smart SEOs have known all this for years, too. It’s why they go after long-tail keywords — because while the search volume for long-tail keywords is low, the conversions can be high and the competition is often very low.

The best long-tail keywords hit all those sweet spots. They can become quiet, under-the-radar treasures for those who can rank for them. It’s a great feeling to look at a Google Analytics goal report and see a handful of long-tail keywords converting faster than kudzu grows.

Search intent is a newcomer

Of the three key metrics — search volume, competitiveness and intent — search intent is the newest. It reflects how sophisticated the Google of 2014 is compared to the Google of 2005, or even 2008.

Search Intent Google TrendsSearch intent is a relatively new concept — no one was searching for it until March of 2008. The term “user intent” is even younger. The term “search intent” didn’t even surface until March of 2008. That’s nearly three years before Panda appeared in February 2011, and more than four years ahead of Penguin’s entrance in April 2012.

But search intent, aka “user intent,” is definitely a product of our newer, far more sophisticated Google. It complements semantic search and is probably part of the underlying architecture of the Knowledge Graph. This is all good. It means we can measure and understand search intent using some of those same tools.

Before I give you the details on deciphering user intent, I should explain the four types of search intent. Just defining those will immediately give you most of the high-level information you need to know about what’s going on behind the query.

Google homepageWhat causes your organic visitors to stop their hurried lives and search? That’s what search intent aims to answer.

4 Kinds of Search Intent

Navigational Queries

Searches for the name of a specific company, or for a specific website are navigational intent searches. Examples would include “American Airlines flights” or “” If searching for a domain name seems odd, you’re right; but it happens, and it happens a lot.

Information Queries

These are the basic, persistent questions of life turned into search queries. Example would include “how many teaspoons in a tablespoon,” “how many days ‘til Christmas,”“weather in Boston,” “Sunset time in Fiji” or “flight 5646 arrival American.”

Transactional Queries

These can include the classic “buy” searches, or they can be something like “Best Mexican East Philadelphia.” Searches to sign up for any online service or app also qualify as transactional.

Commercial Investigation Queries

These are very similar to transactional queries, and often signal the beginning stages of a transactional query. Examples of commercial investigation queries would include “Sony Vaio reviews” or someone trying to find a drop-shipper.

What’s Worth the Most?

Generally, transactional queries are considered to have high commercial value, because there’s a clear intention to buy something. Commercial investigation queries are considered to be mid-value. Navigational and informational queries are low value.

These designations won’t give you a deep psychological understanding of what these users are thinking, but they do give you a way to assign almost any search to a particular search intent bucket. The buckets are helpful, but let’s delve even deeper.

7 Ways To Determine Search Intent

1) Check the bounce rate of your pages

This is one of the easiest ways to see if your content is fulfilling your visitors’ expectations. High bounce rates can happen for reasons beyond mangled search intent (for example: pages that aren’t mobile-friendly) but once you’ve eliminated that kind of low-hanging fruit, the next possible cause may be search intent.

2) Check your click-through rates

This will tell you whether or not you’re hitting the mark very early in your user’s journey. Of course, you’ll have to reveal at least a little about what you’re offering, but the typical PPC ad is plenty long enough to do that. Ads with high click-through rates that lead to landing pages with miserable conversion rates may not necessarily mean you’re not delivering on user intent, but it would be consistent with poor user intent. In the reported words of an AdWords rep, “Don’t write ads your landing page can’t cash.”

3) Compare your internal search queries to the queries the search engines are sending you

This will only work if a) you’ve got a search function on your site, or b) you’ve got a tool like SEMrush that will show you what hides behind “keyword not provided” data. But if you do have access to those two things, an hour spent comparing the two data sets will show you whether or not your content is delivering for your search traffic. One tip: Pay attention to exit pages.

4) Use SEMrush to see which keywords your competitors are getting traffic from, and which keywords they are bidding on

If a competitor is paying money for traffic from a particular keyword, they’re almost certainly making money off of it. And that means the user intent for that search query includes willingness to spend some money.

SEMrush Paid KeywordsUse SEMrush’s Paid Keywords Report to see which keywords your competitors are paying for. Those keywords probably have a transactional search intent. 

5) Try out the keyword database at, where they have categorized 600 million keywords by search intent.

6) Do a survey

This is the most expensive and time-consuming way to understand user intent, but it’s also the most effective. I learned it from Glen Livingston and have used it myself on many different sites. Writing a survey according to Dr. Livingston’s formula will not only give you detailed information about user intent — it will also give your copywriters the finest information they’ll get for writing killer copy.

So what’s the formula? It’s three questions:

• What’s your most pressing question about X? (x being your topic) • How hard has it been to answer that question? (rate from 1 to 5, 5 being hardest) • What prompted you to sit down and begin your search today?

To see how these answers change for specific keywords, just create duplicate landing pages with this survey, then send only one keyword (or keyword group) to each page. You’ll need at least 30 answers for each page to get a clear view of how each keyword is different, but at that point, you’ll be able to see where keyword searches fall in the buying cycle. You’ll have the information you need to create content for each phase of the buying cycle.

As I mentioned, this is not a free or instant way to find out what people want, but it is the best market research tool I’ve used to determine user intent or to write copy from.

7) Begin with the end in mind

How do your customers or clients describe your content, services or product? Are their descriptions on target with how you want to be perceived? What would someone with that mindset query into a search engine box? Those are your new keywords.

This may require talking to customer service people at length, or to talking to customers/clients/visitors as often as you can. Both of those are excellent habits.

Have I missed something? Do you know another way to gauge user intent? Let us know in the comments.

Image credit: Big Stock Photo

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Pam Neely is an award-winning writer with 16 years experience in SEO and Internet marketing. She’s currently on the hunt for a few steady freelance blogging gigs to write about SEO, email marketing and content marketing. Follow her on Twitter. Her last article for SEMrush was "5 Ways Search Behavior Has Changed in the Last 10 Years."
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We face a whole other level to this problem. i run a garage door/opener service and repair business. Understanding user intent for us is, in part, about looking for key phrases that we believe are over represented given the mathematical probability for the phrase use. This overrepresentation accounts for customer ignorance in distinguishing the difference between their garage door and their door opener. And the true problem they are facing.

The most sensible search for a customer having a problem with the operation of their door would be "garage door repairs - suburb". This search is under represented but still notable. We found that customers were querying "glidermatic gts garage doors" in large numbers. There is no such thing as a glidermatic garage door. What we discovered is that customers were making the assumption that their opener model was the model of their door.

Listening to our customers rhetoric during incoming calls and comparing it to the onsite reality is where we also make some interesting discoveries. Also comparing the reality I see every day and measuring that against keyphrase query data are can be very telling.

So next time you're sifting through your 30 page printout of query keyphrases and scratching your head at what the customer was thinking to enter X phrase into google. Remember that nothing will ever add up until you actually listen to your customers. When you start optimising your website for ignorance you will have a significant edge over your competitors.
Kathleen Garvin
Very true, Craig!

I once attended a class taught by an SEO associate at an agency. One exercise we did illustrated your very point.

The associate showed us two photos, and we had to write down the keywords we would hypothetically use to search for the items pictured. Needless to say, there were a variety of responses, and not all matched up with the keywords her agency initially chose based on standard research. A bit of an "a-ha!" moment in the crowd, for sure.
Dr. David Sewell
Try this tool for more ideas too
Michael Stricker
Thanks, Pamella, all of the methods you point out can provide insight into search intent. I would not invest in keyeword use (organically, or in ads) unless I had a fair idea about how far along the 'path to purchase' that searcher is likely to be. I like Google Auto-Suggest, UberSuggest, or SEMrush Phrase Report to dig in and discover mid- to long-tail terms that clearly reveal the searcher was looking for reasons to trust or mis-trust your company, or looking for quantities, or prices, or shipping options - all clear indicators of intent to buy.

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