3 Top Types of User Intent & How They Impact Marketing

March 27, 2017

Man's hand using GPS navigation in car

What is that guy who types the word “coffee” into his search textbox looking for exactly? Taken out of context, there is no way to know what this person wants–his user intent. He could be searching for the nearest coffee shop, for example, or maybe he wants directions on how to make a cup of coffee. Perhaps he’s searching for an address located on Coffee St. In the early days of search engines, it was common for a user to make this error. The world was still trying to understand how mechanical searches worked, so keyphrases tended to be vague.

Today, algorithms attached to mainstream search platforms like Google are more sophisticated. They have to be, because the expectations of people doing the searches have changed. Users are tech-savvy and know exactly what they want to see in the search results. In response, you have to stay a step ahead by applying focused SEO—that is, if you want to make it to the top of organic searches. A big part of your success depends on anticipating User Intent (UI).

What Did You Mean by That?

As a marketing strategist, you have to accept this simple fact:

A person performing a search always has a goal in mind.

woman's hands searching mobile with coffee in cafe

Sounds simple enough. If your searcher typed “coffee” into the textbox, he wants something. This mysterious “something” is at the very heart of User Intent. What did he intend to find? This singular search word brings up a list of local coffee shops. Google has decided that the UI in this case is to find a cup of coffee nearby. It’s a safe assumption because, as the user enters the word “coffee,” the search engine offers prompts with more specific options. He would see:

  • Coffee shop your town
  • Coffee cup
  • Coffee maker

If the searcher’s intent is more complex than simply finding a hot cup of coffee, then he or she is likely to pick from the list of specific prompts, or add to the word to narrow the search. The user understands the importance of specificity during the search when he sees the additional choices listed.

The Anatomy of User Intent

Today, marketing professionals dissect search terms to understand the minds of people doing the searching. A study authored by Andrei Broder for IBM back in 2002 still serves as the blueprint for identifying User Intent. Broder created three classifications for UI:

  • Navigational
  • Informational
  • Transactional

Each one indicates the user’s goal when performing the search. Navigational searches mean the user wants to find a specific site, for example:

Navigational search = myhometown.com

Man w Telescope Navigating

The user has a known item in mind and is using a search engine to find it. There is just one answer that is right in a navigational search.

Informational searches are about finding a more specific piece of data. This is our guy looking for that cup of coffee. His intent is to find information about coffee shops in the area. His lack of specificity is what Google uses to make this assumption. Informational searches can be broad or narrow, depending on the user and subject matter. Someone who has already had their cup of coffee might narrow it down either by a specific brand, neighborhood or signature drink.

Transactional searches involve a web-mediated function like online shopping, a form of some kind or perhaps site registration, for example:

“Login Walmart”

This person is looking to interact with a website. They could probably guess the address for Walmart but can’t navigate to the login page, or don’t want to have to look for it.

How Ignoring UI Hurts Marketing Efforts

Understanding UI is a little like learning algebra in high school. The novice marketer might not really see a reason to bother with it, but with a little experience, you do see some practical application. The truth is, if you don’t consider it when creating content, webpages and SEO strategies are weakened. Understanding your target audience is at the very heart of successful marketing. In this case, that means factoring in probable UI when developing online marketing assets such as:

  • User personas
  • User testing
  • Site analytics
  • Page optimization schematics
  • Persuasive web designs
  • Marketing campaigns

Without it, you miss the opportunity to connect with potential users in a way that matters most to them.

Learn from the Past

The concept of User Intent makes sense in theory, but how do you put it into practice? Looking at a little history is a good place to start.

What keywords work best for your business profile? Look at analytics programs to find industry-specific keyword phrases that perform well and break them down by classification, for example:

  • Buy coffee online = transactional – user is looking to interact with a website by making an online purchase perhaps of a specialty coffee brand
  • Buy a cup of coffee = navigational – user is looking for a place to purchase coffee

At the same time, see what your website’s top performing keywords are and if they make sense for your pages. A medical device manufacturer might want to redo their keyword strategy if the key phrase “buy x-ray machine” leads users to a blog post. Clearly, the intent here is transactional, not navigational. In other words, they want to buy, not just get information (let’s not get in their way).

Look to the Future with User Intent

If you really want to benefit from User Intent, then optimize for it. That means pinpointing your keywords to fit your average user’s intent. Obviously, the local coffee shop doesn’t benefit from the transactional phrase:

Buy coffee online

That is unless, of course, they have an e-commerce site, as well.

Search Engine Journal explains that effective brands investigate UI when creating SEO strategies, usually using a keyword research tool such as Ahrefs. The right navigational keyword can lead them to your door whether it’s virtual or physical.

When creating content for blogs, posts or web pages, integrate semantic terms that fit your UI to get the best results. Semantics has to do with the ways things are worded and how each word relates to the others in the search query. Make a list of the core concepts you want to cover and then string together keywords to support them, keeping intent in mind. LSI Graph offers a free tool that helps get you there. If you type in “coffee shop”, the keyword tool offers options like:

  • Top 10 coffee shop franchises
  • Coffee shop nearby
  • Famous coffee shops

These terms could improve SEO tactics for a coffee shop looking to enhance search rankings—they fit both the core topic and the UI.

User Intent may well be the future in SEO strategies, especially as more and more users understand the nature of search engines. As a marketer or business owner, it’s up to you to learn more about your average user, in order to keep up. Be sure and ask for help from our conversion growth experts,to make sure your User Intent strategies are up-to-the-moment.


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