Search engine optimization is, at its core, a social science of discovering what people are looking for, how you can serve them, and enticing the user to visit your site.
When building a strategy to increase search traffic or increase the quality of the traffic to your site, some people focus too much on a lot of the technical aspects, and forget the core of SEO – what your user’s actual end goal is.
Using Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster tools to see the queries coming to your pages can be an incredibly powerful tool. But without the insight to be able to process the data into actionable insights, growing your traffic and conversions may prove difficult.
Developing the mindset to be able to think about user behavior to take this data and critically analyze it strengthens your ability to drive traffic and conversions to your website and web properties.
The 3 Types of Search Queries
Many people search things in different ways, and with the rise of voice search through Siri and Alexa, searchers are submitting queries in entirely new ways that SEOs haven’t seen before. Traditionally, user queries are dissected into a few categories:
- Navigational search queries or “Go” queries
- Informational search queries or “Know” queries
- Transactional search queries or “Do” queries
WordStream did a good job of covering the difference back in 2012, but with 6 years of more advanced searching, the landscape of search has changed. With the rise and popularity of social media and alternative search methods (voice, smart suggest based on user history, more advanced “did you mean?” options), users have new ways of asking questions and obtaining information.
While clumping most searches into one of these three types of queries helps categorize what users use your site for, it isn’t enough to base SEO strategy decisions off of. As a forward-thinking SEO, you’ll want to be ready and willing to accomodate all types of searchers. This is why Google and other search engines are building smarter and smarter widgets. One query can mean hundreds of different things.
One Query, Multiple Intents
Let’s take a real-life example. I want to go see the new Fantastic Beasts movie.
By itself, this query could mean a ton of different things, as the auto-suggest shows.
- Am I looking for the first, or second movie?
- Am I looking for showtimes?
- Am I looking for the cast?
- Maybe I’ve already seen the 1st and 2nd movie, and now I’m excited to see news about when the third is coming out?
- Maybe I’m looking for the book, and not the movie?
When searching just the term “Fantastic Beasts” – there are so many options that come up for results on Desktop.
I get recent news, I get an information card, I get the Wikipedia article and branded Tweets all in the first display. But if my intent was to find showtimes, I don’t immediately get my answer. Even on the mobile search, tickets aren’t an option anywhere on the first page. As a user, I have a few options:
- Append information to my search query to get a more specific answer (fantastic beasts 2 tickets or showtimes)
- Search something entirely different (movie theaters near me)
- Use an app I’m familiar with (in this situation, maybe my local movie theater’s app, or something like Fandango)
- Give up
Let’s say we go with the first option and change our search query to be a little more specific.
By simply adding “2” to denote that I’m looking specifically for information about the second film, which is currently in theaters, I immediately get a widget for showtimes at local theaters. The information about the news and the widget on the side are now specifically for the second movie.
If I click any of the times, it presents me with common places to purchase tickets for that venue. Upon an interaction, I’ve presented to Google that my search for “Fantastic Beasts” did not provide me with the information I was looking for, but “Fantastic Beasts 2” did.
Google’s search algorithm works like this on all types of searches – including yours. If users search “Query A”, do not get an answer, and then search “Query B”, immediately find their answer, click on it, and do not bounce back to their search, Google’s AI-powered search engine will crunch that information into “when users search Query A, they may mean Query B – and we should present information accordingly.”
This is a huge opportunity for SEOs and business owners to be able to make their website and other web presence logical for users. Developing and executing an SEO strategy is not just about ranking for keywords. It’s about answering questions.
Understand the different ways users ask questions
Keyword research usually involves finding keywords relevant to your website and what you want to rank for. SEOs and digital marketing experts find a lot of ways to discover new terms and spend tons of time and money trying to rank for those terms. That’s why SEO is commonly thought of as a science of increasing your rank.
However, in today’s digital landscape, thinking about keywords is only the beginning.
Why does a user search something? Fundamentally, every search query is a question. A user has a problem, question, or action they’d like to perform. What can this mean for the queries you’re seeing in Search Console, or the keywords you’re optimizing for?
Let’s say you are a business owner, and you run one of twelve fine dining restaurants in a neighborhood.
What do people do to discover and find your business? What do they search? What tools do they use? What’s their situation? Are they visiting the area that you operate in? Do they live there? Have they heard about your restaurant from someone else? Did they see a billboard or printed ad for your restaurant?
The possibilities are endless. How are you optimizing for all these different possibilities?
Build intent personas
If you’re in the marketing business, you’re no stranger to making buyer personas. The idea to generalize your consumers and give them personifications with their buyer habits to help you imagine and work with your ideal customers’ behaviors, patterns, and goals. Are you including your search strategy in with these customers?
Imagine instead of people, you built personas for questions. I challenge you to make a list of problems that your business solves. Continuing on with the imaginary fine dining restaurant that we’re running. What problem do you solve? It’s not just food – if you wanted to just serve food, you’d have opened a cheaper restaurant. You’re a destination – an experience.
Imagine you’re playing Jeopardy, and every square is your restaurant. What are the questions? Where can people find those answers? A majority of them will be through search engines, but not every question gets immediately asked. Many others will be through word-of-mouth, print and digital ads, press releases, social media, and other niche-specific applications. Knowing the questions people are asking that are answered by your service or product is the crucial tool in your marketing kit.
Be a problem-solver on and off your website
In the late 2010s, and likely well into the 2020s, I suspect that there will be more and more consolidation of websites and web properties into fewer, but stronger and easier-to-use solutions for users.
For example, sites like Yelp and FourSquare have revolutionized local search, alongside Google’s own Maps & Google My Business solutions. Apps like GrubHub and DoorDash are now restaurant search engines. Many users won’t even use Google to find restaurants near them, they’ll use applications that they’re familiar with that have better filters and more accessible reviews to peruse.
Even social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Medium are popular search results for queries, especially news and viral posts. While users may not go to their site to search, they may search in Google, click a Twitter post, and arrive back at your website. It all requires a forward-thinking, user-first model that puts you in the shoes of searchers.
Dissecting queries for intent & actionable advice for marketers
Let’s take a real-life, complicated example. Say a user in Atlanta wants to find food, they want it delivered, but if delivery makes their order total over $20, they’d be okay if they had to pick it up. It must be vegan, and if they have to pick it up, it must be within a mile, and it must be accessible without getting on the highway, since there’s always such bad traffic on the highways.
If you haven’t picked it up yet, I’m not a huge fan of the traffic in Atlanta.
Primary goal: food
Presented modifiers: vegan, in my city, open now & accepting orders
Hidden modifiers: how close they are, what route they must take, how much is delivery.
What might they search?
Search example #1: “Vegan food Atlanta”
- Likely search results:
- Google My Business Map Pack in or before the results
- FourSquare, Yelp scattered throughout the first 3 listings
- Foodie blogs scattered throughout the first page
- Vegan Directories scattered through the first page
- “People also ask” widget
- Websites for Vegan Restaurants at the bottom of the first page into the second page
- Analysis of the query:
- Atlanta is a big city, and it’s unlikely that any of the results would be within a mile.
- This may result in a lot of options that are outside of the bounds of the user’s hidden parameters, but there may be options to deliver to the user’s location.
- Many options will be eliminated because of their location
Search example #2: “food delivery Atlanta”
- Likely search results:
- Map pack before the listings
- Uber Eats, GrubHub, Doordash, Amazon Prime Now, and other 3rd party aggregators and service apps
- No restaurants listed on the first page at all
- Analysis of the query:
- The user will have to rely on the apps and services to have filters for vegan options
- This will result in a lot of new searches through the different food delivery apps that will take place off of Google
- User may have to bounce back to Google to make additional queries if they don’t find a solution
Search example #3: “vegan food delivery near me open now”
- Likely search results:
- Map pack before the listings with filters for “open now”
- 3rd party food delivery services and aggregators landing pages directly to vegan options
- “People Also Ask” widget
- Vegan local blogs with favorite picks, links to websites and contact information
- Vegan restaurants’ websites that match the map pack listings websites for being “open now”
- Analysis of the query:
- The user is likely going to find their results highly-tailored and informative
- Almost all of the modifiers needed are presented, except for price, which the user will decide at checkout
It seems that it would make sense that a user would be more informative with their searches when they have extra requirements, but many people search simpler queries and spend time navigating their options and results before converting, especially on mobile.
With mobile searches constantly increasing and plenty of baby boomers and children getting in on smartphones, searches can be entirely different from what most marketers and SEOs can expect. Some users who are new to Google and other applications use search an entirely different way than people who grew up with or experienced search engines throughout their adult lives.
Here’s what you, as a business owner, as an SEO, or as a marketer, can take away from this:
Ask your consumers how they found you
Finding the path by which people find you or your business can help you discover new ways that people discovered you. By nurturing all of the different channels that people find your business, you’ll find that people have very different ways of searching for information, both on and offline.
Think about the problems that your business solves
Have you ever thought about what makes McDonald’s products and service unique? If you ignore their brand entirely, what problem does McDonald’s solve? At the root, hunger – but if you look more closely, it’s feel-good, cheap, accessible food that is consistent from store-to-store.
So when someone experiences a moment where they think, “I want food, I want it now, I don’t want to wait long, and I don’t want to be surprised”, they think McDonald’s.
How does your brand solve problems? Are you a plumber? How do you stand out? Are you the fastest? Highly rated? What issues do your customers have that they might search? Maybe things like “faucet leaks when I turn it off” or “Best plumber near me”
The problems that consumers have may be able to be quantified, and they may not. Earlier, I asked you to think about query personas. I encourage you to take a whiteboard or piece of paper, be honest, and gather you and your employees and spend some time writing down all of the problems that your business solves. Use real examples you’ve had from your customers to really strengthen your ability to understand the flow of your users.
Does your content on your website reflect these personas? How about your social media posts? Your online reviews?
Once you’ve found some of these questions, go to search engines yourself and see what happens when you search for them. Look at the results critically, see what digital spaces come up. Are you in those spaces? Is there anything that you can learn from those results that will help you help consumers?
Examine your web properties outside of your website
If your listings in directories (like Yelp) aren’t perfect, and don’t detail your services and products well, users may not find you. Not everyone will find you directly from a search engine. Depending on your business, you might find that your consumers find you and your competitors in different spaces than you’d expect.
It varies from business to business, but there are a few places you should check to see if your business could hold a space in:
- Service sites like Bark, Angie’s List, Thumbtack
- Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube
- Local or national blogs that discuss your niche
Be genuinely helpful to users
Not every piece of content needs to be a sales piece. Building a trusted brand, navigable site, and good user experience can bring just as many sales as ads. It takes time, but users will trust businesses that focus on an idea over a product. This is how businesses like Apple built such an iconic brand – they focused on selling an idea, and didn’t skimp on the product’s quality.
Deliver that experience, deliver that assistance, and assist your consumers with delight and your search traffic will likely increase with it.