Determining Search Intent

Behind every search is a living, breathing person turning to a search engine with a specific problem in mind, looking for answers, ready to act…or a toddler who went rogue on Mom’s iPad. And when that user performs a search (or query), the results served and links clicked vary wildly based on what they are trying to accomplish.  

Queries are also getting longer and more specific, with 69.7% now containing four words or more, according to Ahrefs. Marketers have access to more data on how our audience is searching, providing opportunities to gain insight into user intent to create content that satisfies their needs. But how do you sift through all the data to find out exactly what users want, or if they are ready to buy?  

You go straight to the source. Research is the best way to determine the intent of users searching for you online. Here’s how we approach the process of determining search intent: 

Stakeholder Research 

You make a living out of knowing your customer. You already have a clear vision of who you’re targeting, how they find and engage with your business, and (anecdotally) what appeals to them. Tap into your organization’s insights by gathering knowledge from a diverse representation of departments and people – with special emphasis on those who deal with the end-consumer – to get a better picture what role search plays in your business.  


What do you know anecdotally about how people find us? What do you hear from customers about whey want to hire or buy from us? What competitors are we consistently up against?  


Whether you have the budget to engage in audience research with an agency or are keeping your efforts small and in-house – this is the most important step. Determine what questions are relevant to your audience and who in your organization has the best insight into the people behind the keyboard. 

Industry Keyword Research 

The next step is to identify areas of opportunity on the SERP by analyzing and identifying high priority keywords. There are numerous paid and free tools that will help you audit your ranking, identify keywords, and analyze what your competitors are doing.  


Where are we ranking currently? Who are our competitors and what are they doing? How many people are searching for keywords important to our business?  


Go through your website content and make notes on what words show up the most often or are the most important to your product or service, use a keyword builder to find related terms and validate the relevance of your keywords by looking at the search volume for each. 


Insights from research are collected, and responses are coded to find frequency of keywords and themes. The data are compiled into search personas, which inform your content and keyword strategy.  


What are the needs of each persona? What content will resonate with my persona? At what phase in the customer decision journey is each persona turning to search? How will this impact my content, ad creative, and bidding strategy?  


Create search personas based on themes uncovered during research. For example, when moving across the country, you find that Persona A wants to find best value moving company, and Persona B is looking for the most dependable moving company. Having clear pricing on your website and in your search, ad satisfies Persona A, and testimonials and reviews appeal to Persona B.   

Audience Research 

Hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. While you can supplement your research strategy with other tactics, there is no true replacement for primary audience research. Thanks to the mass adoption of digital tools like Zoom, it’s easier and more cost effective to collect audience insights on a global scale. To find search intent, we leverage three research approaches: (1) panel discussions, (2) search intent surveys, and (3) UX testing to help our clients get a 360 view on when, why, and how users leverage search to find what they’re looking for.   


What search terms would you use to find our services? What links would you click on in this results page? Which ads do you remember? Does this landing page answer your question or need? Where do you go to find reviews or recommendations? What search terms would you use? 


Create prompts specific to your user personas or business in general to see how users would approach finding the answers to that problem. For example, a moving company may ask: Imagine you are relocating from Portland to Cincinnati and are looking to hire a mover. How would you start your search? What is the search term you use? What platform would you go to (Ask for recommendations via Facebook, Google search, etc.)  

Types of Audience Research  

Side view of happy beautiful teenage girl with bun hairstyle in casual clothes using cell phone, feeling excited of chatting with friends, scrolling social network. indoor studio shot, pink background

Panel Discussions:

60 to 90-minute sessions with a small sample of users (6-8 participants per panel), making it an ideal tactic for highly targeted audiences and B2B businesses. Panels allow you to talk and ask pointed questions to your customers and potential customers directly, giving you an opportunity to explore topics more in-depth than online surveys alone. Results are recorded and transcribed for analysis.  

Search Intent Surveys:

Unmoderated and self-paced virtual surveys that record responses to hypothetical scenarios and collect real search queries to provide qualitative and quantitative data. These are ideal for consumer B2C businesses trying to reach a larger sample.  

UX testing:

These are moderated (or unmoderated) virtual user tests, where users conduct searches based on test scenarios where the results are recorded. These prompts are used to get information on the path you take when making a search and help evaluate what types of content, placement, and information users are clicking on in ads and on landing pages