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Cracking the Code: Determining How Google Interprets Intent

Digital Unlock

Search, as it is now, is all about user intent. What is the intent of a user when they enter a search term? In other words, what are the multiple layers of intent that Google sees in that query? What has Google determined to be important when showing results for a given keyword? Google has gotten far better at parsing search terms according to the multiple intents embedded within them. That means the sites that rank on page one of the SERP are a result of how Google understands user intent. But how are you supposed to determine how Google understands intent for a search term? How do you know what content Google thinks is relevant to users? How can you determine how Google understands intent? 

Here's a simple method that's worked for me. 

How To Understand the Way Google Interprets Intent for a Keyword

RankBrain and all of the other machine learning properties Google makes use of have resulted in a far more diverse ranking environment. For any given search, Google shows a more diverse set of results, i.e., search listings coming from unique domains. Why is that? Well, because Google has gotten far better at understanding intent. Meaning, when Google sees a search term, more often than not, the search engine can determine multiple things a user wants out of that search term. 

Take my alma mater, Johns Hopkins, which is both a university and a hospital. Thus, when you search for johns hopkins Google has determined multiple user intents. Namely, to learn more about Johns Hopkins the school as well as to either learn more or make use of Johns Hopkins the hospital:

Multiple Intent SERP

Not every search term is as easy to predict. I didn't need to run a search to know Google would show me results for both Johns Hopkins the school and Johns Hopkins the hospital, that's pretty self-evident. However, not every keyword is as transparent. In fact, the vast majority of keywords are not nearly as predictable. In those cases, how do you know how Google sees the search term through the lens of intent? 

Here's how you can. 

Step 1: Run a Query & Categorize the Sites on the SERP 

The easiest way to see how Google understands the latent intents embedded within a search term is simply to run a search (you'll probably want to do so by making use of an incognito browser so that any personalization is taken out of the equation). 

What you then want to do is analyze and categorize the different types of sites Google shows on the SERP. Why? Well, because Google shows different types of sites to meet different intents. 

Let me show you what I mean. I'm going to use the keyword buy car insurance which has become my go-to query to illustrate how Google interprets intent (you'll soon see why).  

Here's what we get for the search term:

Buy Car Insurance SERP

What I did here was split the results I was shown according to what each site was trying to achieve. In this case, I found Google served two types of sites, one aimed at making a transaction (highlighted in blue) and the other working towards helping a user learn more so that they can make an educated purchase (highlighted in red). 

Looking solely at the organic results I can see there is a 60/40 split. That is, 4/10 sites were sites aimed at learning about the product/service while 6/10 were sites where I could actually buy car insurance. However, the story doesn't end there. Have a look at the Featured Snippet. Here we have an insurance provider with their URL inside the zero position box. However, look at the nature of the content. This smart site knew that Google has a propensity to show "learning content" on this SERP, and created a post as such, which now ranks at the 0-position. 

The same can be seen within the People Also Ask box. The four initial questions relate to learning about car insurance. It's quite clear that within the term buy Google also sees learn

But how pervasive is this? Can we say that Google equates buy with learn? Perhaps this keyword is an aberration? Perhaps Google does see a sub-intent of learn within keywords aimed at buying something, but the proportions vary. That is, perhaps this 60/40 split only applies to car insurance or things like car insurance? This leads us to step 2. 

Step 2: Determine If the Intent Pattern Is Pervasive 

Let's assume that you have more than one keyword that you're trying to rank for and let's also assume a lot of these keywords are pretty similar. Now, let's consider that as time goes on you're going to have more keywords that you would like to target and that your list of "keywords" will be ever-growing and ever-changing. You could run each and every keyword and break down the SERP as we did earlier... or you could build a categorical understanding and be done with it (well not totally, how Google understands intent is always changing, so it pays to check up on things every once in a while). 

We need to determine categorical prevalence. The next step in determining how Google views intent is to see if the "parsing" you saw for that first keyword is categorical. This, of course, means first determining the very category of the keyword you initially tested. In our case, that's easy, we're dealing with "buy" queries (assigning a category to other keywords may be more difficult, so you may have to play with it a bit). 

In this case, it means running all sorts of "buy" keywords (buy a pool, buy a house, buy tax software, etc.). The number of queries you run is up to you and what you feel is enough to get a sense of things. That said, I would make sure to be diverse. Think about the various subsets of keyword possibilities and run a few for each sub-category. Let me show you. 

I ran 150 "buy" keywords (probably more than I needed to for "practical SEO purposes," but I was more in a "research" mindset). Within this set of keywords I made sure to include:

  • Simple products (buy toilet paper)
  • Complex items (buy a plane)
  • Intangible products (buy cloud storage software)
  • Services (buy home detection service)

I would say it doesn't matter so much how you go about thinking about the sub-intents within a keyword category (in this case eCommerce/buy queries) so much as it's vital to think into what the various possibilities may be. The research you undertake here will guide you a bit, as it did me. Observe. 

So I ran these 150 queries and guess what I found? 25% of the sites I saw on the SERP were sites that helped me learn about making that purchase. That's a significant amount of sites, but a bit less than the ratio seen on the by car insurance SERP. Hooray! We've done it, we've seen that for this category of keyword, there's a big opportunity for sites to share educational content, but commerce pages still hold the majority. 

Not quite. What we've established in this case is that breakdown of intent is pervasive, but is it universal throughout the keyword category? 

Buy Paper Towel SERP

Even the keyword 'buy paper towels' produces an informational site

Step 3: Isolating Subcategorical Intent 

Since I diversified my "keyword portfolio" I was able to see a bit of a pattern emerge despite the overall averages. When I actually looked at the data on a per keyword basis and ignored the average proportions it was clear that some keywords showed with almost no informational sites while others had far more informational sites than transactional sites (as crazy as that sounds). 

Your next step on the path to determining how Google sees intent for the keywords that matter to you is to separate the outliers. 

In this case, I created two separate lists of the buy keywords. One list contained keywords that produced few informational sites while the other contained keywords that I saw produced SERPs filled to the brim with informational sites. 

When you do this, you'll more than likely find a pretty clear pattern within each keyword subset. This is vital as it helps you know how to handle the diverse set of content you produce. Meaning, go through your lists and see if you can find any patterns. In our case, did the keywords that produced SERPs with either an abundance of informational sites or a lack of them have any commonality? 

Looking at the two lists I created, I found that simple products did not produce SERPs with many informational sites. The keyword buy duct tape did not produce any informational sites, as what are you going to discuss when it comes to buying tape! Conversely, I found that more complex products, particularly software products were heavy on informational sites, which also makes a good deal of sense. 

Where Real Intent Insight Happens 

Digital Light Bulb

At this point, you'll want to dig deeper into these sub-categories to see how Google handles intent for them.

This is where real insight occurs. You either already have or will produce a wide variety of content. Take eCommerce sites, who all things being equal, produce content associated with a host of different products and even types of products. How you go about your content strategy depends on what we're about to do next. Understanding how Google sees your content via the lens of intent is all about knowing how Google relates to specific sub-categories of keywords.  

In my case, I saw that Google tended to show a large number of informational sites on SERPs produced by transactional queries when software was involved. Intuitively, that fits quite well. Nothing confuses people more than technology. So I ran an additional 100 buy keywords for software products (i.e., buy voip software, buy billing software, etc.) and found that the 25% of results being informational sites brought up for the original keyword dataset was no longer accurate. Rather, the buy software keywords produced SERPs where 40% of the organic results reflected informational sites, not transaction sites. Much like the original query we looked at (buy car insurance), Google was showing a serious amount of informational sites for transactional queries related to software. 

Buy Accounting Software SERP
The keyword 'buy accounting software' produces a SERP where two of the top three results are informational sites and where an informational carousel appears above a transactional carousel

Going deep into subcategories of keywords lets you take decisive action. At this point, you could look into any variety of keyword subsets and walk away with a solid understanding of how Google treats various subsets of search queries. By looking at keyword category, understanding how Google views that type of keyword via intent and then breaking that category into even smaller pieces you walk away with the ability to form a nuanced approach to content creation. 

Formulating a Content Strategy Based on Google's Breakdown of Intent

I just want to show you how this process plays itself out, how it all comes together. By running through the steps highlighted above we now know the various types of sites Google wants to show users for a certain category of keyword

At this point, if I'm a content creator, I'm already thinking about creating a diverse set of content to meet each of the intents I've discovered. Using the example I've employed throughout this post: If I'm a content creator for an eCommerce site, I'm jumping on creating a lot of informational content around purchasing whatever it is my site offers. That goes without saying at this point, so let's do one better.

Since we segmented the keywords we analyzed into subcategories we now know that Google treats these subcategories differently. A content creator can then prioritize accordingly. 


Again using our case of "buy keywords," if I am a content creator for an eCommerce site that offers all sorts of products, I'm already going to create informational content, as I outlined a few lines above. However, I am going to prioritize doing so for my more complicated products since, as we saw earlier, Google allocates 40% of the slots on those SERPs towards informational content (remember the overall average was "just" 25%). 

By moving down the layers of keyword categorization you obtain the ability to not only know what to do but where to start!  

Don't Go Nuts! Crack the Shell of Google Intent! 

Squirrel Nuts

I've talked about the future of SEO reporting being automation that breaks down how Google views intent. Until that time, knowing how Google sees the keywords you're targeting via the lens of intent and understanding what content Google "wants from you" is of self-evident importance. Surveying how Google understands user intent via the steps listed above, while not overly complicated, can take a bit of time (especially if you break your keywords up into multiple sub-categories). But it's time that is well worth it. Having access to how Google sees the latent intents behind your keywords tells you what content to create and where that content is of the most importance. 

Think back to the Featured Snippet on the SERP for buy more car insurance. The URL within the SERP feature is held by a site that sells insurance. Six months ago (from the time of this writing), there was no Featured Snippet for that keyword. Now the insurance provider shows up in the zero position box and not because it has a page that offers you the opportunity to make a purchase. No. It's because it took that page where you can buy insurance and added content about how to go about buying such a policy.

That right there should be enough to show you the importance of knowing how Google understands intent! 

Now go forth and crack the intent code!  

About The Author
Mordy is the official liaison to the SEO community for Wix. Despite his numerous and far-reaching duties, Mordy still considers himself an SEO educator first and foremost. That's why you’ll find him regularly releasing all sorts of original SEO research and analysis!

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