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Tapping Into Google's Algorithm for Searcher Intent

  |  February 22, 2012   |  Comments

If you want to use Google to determine searcher intent, you need to disregard your own common sense and be willing to accept that your intuition could be wrong.

Search engines strive to correctly determine a user's intent so that the user can be directed to the page that will most satisfy their need. To put it another way, search engines would like to be able to comprehend a request as well as another person would in a verbal conversation. However, one complication is that we "converse" with search engines differently than we do with people. For example, when with friends, I'll ask if they want to go and have pizza for dinner and they'll know immediately what my intent is. However, when I go to Google, I will likely type in just "pizza." So Google somehow has to figure out my intent, be it to order a pizza for delivery, to find a nearby pizzeria for a sit-down meal, or to find a recipe to make pizza at home.

Similarly, when we're doing keyword research for SEO, we need to also determine intent lest we chase a keyword that won't ultimately have any value. Using a similar example as above, let's say I have a site with the most comprehensive collection of pizza recipes in the world. Do I target a popular, but competitive keyword like "pizza" when it could be that 99.99 percent of those searching with that keyword just want to have a pizza delivered? Without more data, it is certainly a tough call.

Fortunately, there are some good ways to figure out intent. The first, and possibly the easiest, is to look at your web analytics data. If you can answer whether traffic from a particular keyword converts at a respectable rate or that those users are somehow otherwise engaged, you can infer the intent of at least a portion of those using that keyword.

If you're going after a keyword that isn't currently driving any traffic, an option may be to do some testing with paid search. Again, if you look at the conversion or engagement data, you can readily answer whether the intent of users aligns with your content. This option will cost you though and if you're battling for budgets with your paid search counterparts, constantly testing new targets probably isn't going to make you very popular.

Google to the Rescue

Now that Google has so much historical searcher data and mind-boggling amounts of computing power, we can use it to get pretty strong clues about user intent.

The only tough part in using Google is that you need to disregard your own common sense. You have to approach this sort of research willing to accept that your intuition could be wrong. If you can do that, the rest is easy. Simply take a keyword, type it into Google, and check out the top 10 results. What comes back will quickly validate your suspicions or cast some serious doubt on the value of a keyword.

For example, let's say I'm working on a site that rents storage units. At some point into my keyword research, I come across the term "storage solutions" and notice that it has decent search volume, which would in turn suggest it was a good target. If I were to then look at the SERP for this keyword, I'd see something like the following (I'll gloss over the impact of personalization for this discussion):

  • Two text results for sellers of closet storage solutions.
  • Three unrelated local results including one for IBM.
  • One text result for a commercial and residential storage company.
  • Three shopping results for storage bins.
  • Seven more text results including listings for Rubbermaid, Target, and Walmart, along with a seller of pallets and a seller of cabinets and racks. Mixed in are just two self-storage facilities.

So out of 15 non-paid results, only three are closely related to self-storage and none of those appeared above the fold. This tells me that Google's analysis of its own data doesn't strongly indicate that those looking for "storage solutions" are thinking about storage unit rentals.

If I were to continue my keyword research, I'd notice that "wine storage" is another potentially good target based on search volume. Do wine collectors really want to keep their wine in a storage facility? Do a lot of people have enough bottles to warrant offsite storage? Don't most people want easy access to their wine for when guests come by? Turning once again to Google, I'd see:

  • Three local results: a specialty wine storage company, an auction company, and a custom wine cellar builder.
  • One text result for a wine cellar builder.
  • Five shopping results for wine cabinets for the home.
  • Nine text results that are a mix of wine racks from the likes of Bed Bath and Beyond and Williams-Sonoma along with a Wikipedia result and a wine storage warehouse.

Not a single self-storage facility in the lot. Once again Google is strongly indicating that the intent behind searches of "wine storage" is something other than people looking to rent a self-storage unit. There is, in this case, an argument to be made that searchers could be convinced of the merits of storing their wine in a storage facility since there are dedicated storage warehouses, but that adds another layer to the SEO effort that may not be where you want to focus your resources.

I'll admit what I've described is a simple idea, but I've yet to come across anyone else that has written about it, so maybe just this once I'll be the first to share a trick! Oh, and if you do have some wine you'd like to store, I can keep it safe for you. I promise.


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Marios Alexandrou

Marios Alexandrou is the East Coast Director of SEO for Steak's Search Marketing team and has a background in web development and project management. While he loathes to tell people just how long he's been working with computers, he will admit that his first computer had just 16KB of memory.

His SEO experience includes work with both in-house and agency teams ranging from one-man shows to 20+ dedicated SEO strategists. He has worked with organizations of all sizes and across multiple industries including hospitality, financial services, publishing, and healthcare. He particularly likes to use his combination of skills to identify ways to scale SEO activities through process standardization and automation.

In addition to writing about SEO for ClickZ, Marios also writes on the broader area of Internet marketing for Infolific.

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