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User Intent - When Google Gets it Wrong [Case Study]

Multi-Intent Thought Bubbles

I'm on the hunt for user intent insights in 2019. I've resolved to make this year about going deep into intent and how Google handles it. Instead of getting into the finer points of user intent and Google's proficiency in meeting it on multiple levels, I'm going to showcase where it doesn't work. Meaning, while I generally think Google's increased ability to parse user intent and pick it apart is a fantastic step forward, it does not work universally. As Google offers users results that would satisfy any number of intents the search engine is going to increasingly be faced with the issue of not meeting any of them adequately. 

Allow me to demonstrate. 

Google's Problem in Trying to Satisfy Too Many Search Intents 

Before going into some of the cases themselves, let me better establish the problem. There are times when the age-old adage of 'less is more' is entirely applicable. When Google gets too diverse with its search results it runs the risk of presenting sites that align to multiple user intents while satisfying no one "search motive." This may sound like a strange concept. That's because when Google slices up user intent and shows multiple types of sites for a query, the intents catered to are more or less related to each other. 

Take a query for multivitamins (which I am now supposed to take at my young age since I don't ingest enough vitamin D - I need to get out more!):

Vitamins SERP

You may not realize it at first glance but there are multiple intents being met right before your very eyes. The first site, healthline.com is meant for a user who is unsure that such vitamins actually do anything at all. The second site, walgreens.com, is meant for they who have determined that multivitamins indeed help your body and would now like to order some! 

Nothing jarring here. Why? Well, because both intents clearly, if not seamlessly, relate to the same overarching topic... multivitamins. In such a scenario, even if I'm looking to buy some multivitamins, the appearance of sites offering additional information is not out of place nor does it really interfere with my search. Such sites are relevant to my query and even though they are not applicable to me, I have no issue with them on the SERP as they do not interfere with my search journey. 

But what about when that's not the case? What about instances where the multiple intents being catered to on the SERP don't tie into each other, but rather reflect different subject matters altogether?! 

A Case by Case Look at When Intent Targeting Goes Awry

We're about to see instances where Google offers way too much result diversity. So much so that Google runs the risk of not satisfying any user intent. That's really the issue here. When Google offers so many looks at a topic and when these variances are not related to each other in any way, no one user intent may be satisfied. Again, sometimes less is more. If too many unrelated topics are being represented on the SERP a user may have to execute an entirely new query in order to be satisfied by the search results. Obviously, this is not what Google wants. The question is, does Google at times offer too many intent variations as a means to a more energetic intent targeting or does it do so simply because it does not know how to relate to the query?

Let's see:  

Query 1: Fish Bowl 

There are queries, as you shall soon see, that better reflect an overdispersion of intent. So why start here? Because of the first few results Google offers us for the keyword fish bowl

Fish Bowl SERP

If you look at the results there is an intent cluster at the top of the SERP. That is, the first three results (and even the ad that shows above these results) relate to some sort of software. How interesting! Despite the fact that these are three unique pieces of software, Google grouped them all together at the top of the SERP. Seeing this leads me to strongly believe that the diffusion of user intents on this SERP is not due to Google's confusion as to what the true intent of the keyword is. It would appear that Google is of the opinion that a software purchase is the supreme intent on this SERP. 

That said, you can obviously see the other and unrelated intents Google is trying to meet. There's anything from a Local Pack with businesses that contain the phrase fish and bowl in their names to a product carousel selling fish bowls (you know, the thing you put a goldfish in to die a slow and miserable death) to a teaching strategy!  

Let's take the most obvious of the intents (at least in my mind): an actual bowl you put a fish in! I understand that if you were really looking for the " fish bowl teaching strategy" you would probably search for something like fish bowl teaching technique. However, that's the entire point! Why does a user looking for a goldfish deathtrap need results on a teaching method when the query does not lend itself to the latter?! 

To find anything related to a fish bowl I first need to make my way past a software ad, three software results, and a Local Pack for stores that have nothing to do with pet fish! How satisfied is this user? 

Let's turn this on its head. Let's say you are indeed looking for the " fish bowl teaching strategy." How happy are you to sift through an ad, three software results, a Local Pack, an Amazon URL to buy a fishbowl, and a product carousel, only to arrive at your first taste of teaching within the second question within the People Also Ask box? 

To really play devil's advocate, let's go with Google's top results on the page... software. If you are looking for fish bowl software... would you be satisfied with just three results for unrelated software products? Maybe... maybe not. 

So who is happy with this SERP exactly?  

Query 2: Roots 

"Roots" is an apparel brand, the house band for Jimmy Kimmel Live, an epic mini-series from the 1970s, and more. So how does Google handle a query that has such a broad meaning? By catering to anything and everything roots and ultimately not catering to anything roots. 

Roots SERP

Let's break this SERP down a bit by starting with the Local Pack. In many of these queries, it almost seems like Google is just plopping a Local Pack on the SERP for the sake of plopping a Local Pack on the SERP. How's that? Well, none of these "roots" stores relate to the clothing brand, which takes center-stage at the top of the SERP. Nor is the pizza restaurant shown in the second to last organic result listed. In fact, the Chicago pizza place listed in that result stands in sharp contradistinction to the Kansas businesses listed in the Local Pack. 

What if your intention was to find more on the band, The Roots? Well, in this instance Google gives you a Twitter Box with the band's latest Tweets. That's nice and well, but if you were looking for something on the band how helpful are a few mere Tweets? That is, why take up the "intent" at all if all a user will see is the Twitter box as surely they will need to execute a new query to find what they are looking for? 

You could say the same for the last organic result, which is for a car insurance company called Root Car Insurance

The point is, this SERP seems geared towards the Roots clothing brand and Roots TV show. The other intents being met are here either seem irrelevant (such as the Chicago pizzeria or car insurance company) or are hardly addressed (the Roots band).  

Query 3: Notebook 

Keeping with the film industry, here's the SERP for the search term notebook

Notebook SERP

This keyword is both all over the place and a prime example of varied intent targeting gone a bit too far. There are so many legitimate ways to take this keyword, each reflecting a highly prevalent usage of the term notebook. This is the very issue with this keyword and why it might just be the paradigm case.

As opposed to the term fish bowl, which I'll go out on a limb and suggest that for most, the immediate association to the term is a bowl where one places a fish, hence fish bowl, the term notebook could just as much refer to a bounded book with blank paper as much as it could to a movie or a computer. The problem that presents itself is that each "entity" demands to be dealt with adequately, which Google actually does a decent job with, in so far as the Notebook movie and notebook computer is concerned (far less so with actual paper notebooks). 

For the movie, Google offers users multiple SERP features as well as results from IMDb and Wikipedia. As far as the computer is concerned, users have a product carousel as well as results from Amazon. I will say, there is a lack of informative site representation here. A notebook is a complicated electronic product with many variations available for consumers. By utilizing precious SERP space to showcase the movie associated with the search term, Google has left out of the equation sites that help users find the best notebook computer. 

That said, the most pressing issue here is manifested within the Related Questions box where we have a mishmash of intents represented: 

Notebook Related Questions

It's simply "confusing" from a user experience perspective. Who is this feature directed towards? Would a user who is on the SERP for an electronic product feel confident engaging with the feature when three of the four initial questions relate to a movie? No. 

The People Also Ask box is simply a microcosm of the overall issue presented by this SERP. Google has long advised webmasters to create a fine-tuned user experience. This SERP goes against that very advice. Users on the SERP for a computer product are left wondering why so much movie content is being thrown their way while movie enthusiasts are left to grapple with the inverse. The product of which is a befuddling user experience where 50% or more of the content on the SERP is irrelevant to a given user. Of course, the appendage of a poor user experience is a lack of confidence in the content being consumed. Isn't that entirely the opposite effect of what Google intends to achieve by presenting multiple intent SERPs?    

Query 4: Roll of the Dice 

No keyword phrase could be more fitting for this post than  roll of the dice:

Dice Roll SERP

At this point, you get the general gist of what I'm trying to say, so this will be my last example, though I could really go on and on with various cases. This SERP, however, is so unique I had to include it. Maybe it's just me (though we all know it's not) but a roll of the dice is an idiom, nothing more and nothing less. I find the inclusion of any other intents to be capricious. Don't look the word up, here's the SERP for capricious: 

Capricious SERP

Well, would you look at that! The entire SERP for the keyword capricious is dedicated to its definition. So don't tell me Google was confused by roll of the dice, that it didn't know it was an idiom and pretty much only an idiom. Yet, by some bizarre twist of intent meeting fate we have Google offering us a video carousel for Bruce Springsteen's 1992 release Roll of the Dice.

OK, I accept that video carousel... just not as the 2nd item on a results page where an English language idiom is the dominant meaning (especially since the album sold terribly). 

Beyond that, the organic results include a site that allows a user to roll virtual dice (random.org), a link to an Indian novel of the same name (No disrespect to the book's author, but is this really 'page one' worthy?), and another link to another book of the same name (amazon.com)!

Finally, we get a Related Search box for games that use dice! As much as I love Yahtzee, it's hard for me to see the firm connection between a keyword reflecting a specific idiom and a Related Search box that can apply to literally thousands of board games. Too many intents being met and too loosely. 

Moving back up the SERP and to the Explore Panel is just fascinating to me (and I'm not just saying that, I mean it). First off, the panel's title does not match the query/idiom, yet surely is meant to deal with that very term (see the Panel's summary and URL). 

Explore Panel Roll Dice

However, I don't think that's an accident. I think Google is using the Explore Panel itself to hit multiple intents! The images in it reflect both "rolling dice" as well as the Indian book I mentioned earlier. This is further reflected by the 'People Also Search For'  element which shows actual dice or items related to the numbered cubes. 

Meaning, the reason Google uses such a "vague" or "inexact" title is precisely so that it can hit more than one intent in the panel. If you want my personal opinion, this just does not work for reasons that I think should be self-evident. 

How Google Should Handle a Wide Intent Net 

Throwing Net

What exactly is Google supposed to do? 

It's a good question. It's hard to really fault the search engine. How in the world do you deal with keywords that reflect such a wide array of meanings from across the intent universe? 

Well, I have an idea! 

The obvious issue is that with too many intents that are just too far apart from each other the user is left wanting and therefore in need of a more refined query. That said, what Google is trying to do is good, it's the method that is less than desirable. Since the problem is not intrinsic but purely a matter of formatting, you could devise any number of solutions. 

Indeed, Google has their own solution, the Disambiguation Box. The problem with this "device" is that it does not always appear on the SERPs in question and when it is there it's too "dim," too low-key. A mere box indiscriminately dumped on the side of the SERP is simply too unassuming to have any sort of true impact on user experience. But, the idea is a great one in that it lets the user choose the SERP they truly had in mind.

If the issue with the Disambiguation Box is merely its prominence, then why not offer a more visible version of it? That's why I suggest that for SERPs reflecting diverging and unrelated intents, Google offer a top showing set of large cards, highly visual cards, that would allow the user to choose which topic best aligns to their initial intent. In this way, a user looking for a computer can get the results they want, while those in search of film romance can find the version of the notebook they want, while my grandfather can order more spiral notebooks from Amazon. (Who am I kidding, my grandfather, God bless him, doesn't even know what Amazon is!) 

A Final Last Word on Google's Intent Targeting 

Target Circles

Having gone through the above I want to make one thing clear... this is not some sort of assault on intent targeting. Users, multiple users, having their intent needs met, is good in pretty much unequivocal terms. Google being able to meet many intents on the same SERP is not only a necessary evolution but simply makes "life better" for users. 

So why did I write this post? For starters, I thought the cases were just downright interesting. More than that, however, I wanted to point out the limits of a heightened targeting of user intent. The notion of Google's use of machine learning to better meet user intent on multiple levels has taken on a life of its own. That, however, does not mean the process is perfect and nor does it mean that it is appropriate across the board, as I hope the above has shown. 

I guess it's not true, you can have too much of a good thing...

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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