The fun fundamentals of search and intent
When he received a group of seasoned professional football players, he would sit them down and hold up a football in front of them:
“Gentlemen, this is a football”
He talked about its size and shape, how it can be kicked, carried, or passed. He took the team out onto the empty field and said, “This is a football field.” He walked them around, describing the dimensions, the shape, the rules, and how the game is played.
This coach knew that even these experienced players, and indeed the team, could become great only by mastering the fundamentals. They could spend their time practising intricate trick plays, but until they mastered the fundamentals of the game, they would never become a championship team.
The fundamentals of Search
In the world of SEO we find all sorts of “trick plays”. We find everything from people caring about Penguin’s next refresh date to how many links to your site come from the same C Block. In the midst of all of this complexity, it’s fascinating to observe how simple, straightforward application fundamental principles can yield great results. Folks can get lost and distracted by the flashy fancies of SEO tactics, while forgetting the really simple and interesting fundamental strategies.
With that in mind, this article will write a bit about the fundamentals of search; query types and intent. This stuff is surprisingly interesting and fun to analyse: hopefully, this is written in such a way that it will entertain the beginners and even seasoned SEO champions.
The three types of intent
One of the most fundamental ideas in SEO that everyone should grasp is that:
Keywords are merely vehicles of intent.
Words don’t just magically get typed into Search Engines! There are actual human beings behind each search, and by performing search they reveal intent, their intent.
Search queries have three general types of intent:
- Informational (looking to know something)
- Transactional (looking to buy something)
- Navigational (looking to go somewhere online)
Understanding and categorising these three types of intent is one of the major tasks of Google. Google is great at it that’s one of the reasons why they’re so successful.
There’s perhaps no better way to illustrate this than through real life SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages). Here are some real examples of SERPS from Google Australia. Something to remember is that although search is generally divided between these three search types, that does not mean individual searches necessarily fall entirely into one type or the other. (In fact this exercise will go a long way to illustrate how diverse SERPS can be with regards to these three categories of intent. It’s not always very clear-cut.)
In fact, a great way to gauge the value and potential of search terms in the keyword research cycle is to judge where they fall on this three dimensional picture.
Examples from real search
Example 1: Pure transactional: “shoes”
Transactional queries are people looking to buy something, like car hire sydney.
For this example, I searched for another obvious transactional query: “shoes”. Here are the SERP organic results:
With only one exception, every single result in this SERP was a store that is about selling shoes. Google has deduced that if someone types in “shoes”, they are very likely looking to browse and / or buy shoes.
BUT, there was one result that was not transactional; the Google Images snippet. That was informational.
This SERP had 10 results, we we’ll give it a:
- 9/10 Transactional
- 1/10 Informational
- 0/10 Navigational
Already this SERP illustrates that even a very transactionally biased search may contain non-transactional results. Technically, this is not purely transactional, but very nearly.
This one was quite simple, the next few get more interesting.
Example 2: Ambiguous Navigational: “Ebay”
At face value, when we think of someone searching Google for “Ebay”, we’d probably assign this a 10/10 navigational type. It’s obvious isn’t it — they want to go to Ebay?
That’s very good — but it’s not the entire picture. If I go to Google now and type Ebay, here’s the SERP:
Note how, naturally, Ebay’s Australian website dominates the above the fold content with the main site, search bar and sitelinks. That’s exactly as we’d expect it to be. But there’s more on the page than just that. The moment that get’s out of the way we see a news article ‘I was tricked out of £369 but eBay won’t refund me’ and two others, with a news link. We also see Ebay’s Twitter (another navigational result), their Facebook, their iTunes app, a Wikipedia article and a flybuy’s result.
This SERP has more flavour and variety than what we might guess right off the bat! It shows how Google serves a number of results in an effort to serve multiple possible intents. Sure, someone typing in Ebay is very likely to want to navigate to the Ebay site, but they might also be looking for something else — and Google has catered well for that.
Notice something else, the results are quite dynamic. The first “technical” result takes up a lot of real estate (with fully 7 links and a search bar), and the news result has four of its own links and a snippet image.
Here’s my breakdown (please note, clusters of results were given additional weighting: main Ebay result = 3, news result = 2, so we can get to 10 in total. News counts as information, social media counts as navigation, iTunes app counts as navigation)
- 6/10 Navigational (main site result (3), 2 X social media (2) 1 X iTunes app (1))
- 3/10 Informational (Wikipedia (1) and 2 X news weighting (2))
- 1/10 Transactional (Flybuys is a separate brand (1))
This SERP illustrates well why Google can’t only have one single result. Often people’s intent can vary and Google needs to serve up a variety of results in order to satisfy multiple possible “angles” on a keyword (AKA, multiple possible intents)
Example 3: Heavy information bias with possible transactional conflict: “liquidation”
For this example I will include the entire SERP (AKA, with ads, not just organic results) to illustrate an interesting point.
This is certainly a dynamic and interesting SERP.
The first thing to recognise is its ambiguity. Liquidation is a process that a company can undergo, which means there’s bound to be information about it. AND it’s something a company can do for you, which means there’s a possible transactional intent behind it too.
But these organic results have been heavily skewed towards information. In fact, this is the organic breakdown:
- 10/10 Informational
- 0/10 Transactional
- 0/10 Navigational
BUT. There’s a big but. Notice how ads are plastered all over the place. Ads are almost always transactional.
Has Google flushed out transactional organic results for this SERP to “nudge” folks to go to PPC to rank for this search term? For this particular query I have additional research and data which suggests that they have and they do. (For another article another day).
So how do I rank well for “liquidation”? Will a strong salesy page do it? Probably not. Google has heavily skewed the organic results in this SERP towards information, even elementary definition. (More on this in another article)
Example 4: Pure informational : “Neil deGrasse Tyson”
So we’d expect that Googling “Neil deGrasse Tyson” would lead to almost pure information. (I mean, if something ambiguous like “liquidation” does, something very clearly informational should too) — and indeed it is very informationally biased.
This is also quite a dynamic SERP. We have news, images, videos, a profile with information about the man, etc. Quite a clean-cut, informational and dynamic SERP. Also notice the number of results is higher than the classical 10.
- Navigational 3/13 (we’re counting Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as navigational, they “sort of” get you TO the person)
- Informational 10/13 (2 X weighting given to news results as per Ebay SERP standards)
- Transactional 0/13 (however T-shirts with Tysons stuff on them were available through one of the links)
This exercise could go on forever.
But the main point is understanding how Google serves intent, and how we need to in order to rank well in search.
Google is continuously evolving. Something that might be picked up as a weakness of this article is that we are indicating how Google is interpreting queries right now (which is not necessarily ideal) — one of the jobs of the search quality team is to make Google evolve, and one particular area is the distribution of intent-serving results for different types of queries.