Eyes on the goal (or goals): Plurality and user intent in search
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Our own Paul Smith recently discussed the need for brands to focus on making their search strategies more attuned to the customer journey, and in the spirit of his prediction for 2014 – “making search results customer centric” – let’s take a look at some examples we’ve seen since Google’s new user-intent centric algorithm, aka the infamous Hummingbird, rolled out. The cited aim is to move away from the currently widespread keyword-obsessive culture and towards a more conversational approach to search – but how does this actually work in the real world?
The number one message I get from Hummingbird is not to throw the keywords list out of the window but to pay closer attention to what they might signify. What’s the intent of the user underneath those keywords? For long-tail searches this is often clearer as users are starting to more freely use open questions like “where is…” or “what is…” but the challenge comes in with the broad phrase match end of the spectrum.
One of the biggest impacts that I’ve seen thus far has been due to plurality, which is one of the most interesting drivers of user intent. Think about it – if you type in something like “Canterbury hotel” what is the underlying aim you most likely have in mind? What “questions” are you asking as a user which have caused you to visit Google to seek answers from the search engine? Here are some examples of potential user intent for this sort of query:
- Finding a particular hotel in Canterbury to book a room
- Finding a particular hotel in Canterbury to get their contact details
- Finding a particular hotel in Canterbury to get directions
- You stayed at a hotel in Canterbury in the past but can’t remember what it was called
- You’re in Canterbury and your train is cancelled so you need a nearby room for the night
- You’re visiting Canterbury on business and looking for the hotel where a conference is being held
- Now, how do those user intent ideas vary if you instead consider something plural like “Canterbury hotels?”
- Finding any hotel in Canterbury to book a room
- Comparing the prices or amenities at different Canterbury hotels
- Researching the area for a trip or holiday to see what accommodation is available
- Looking at reviews for different Canterbury hotels before making a booking decision
- Finding a map showing the locations of different hotels in Canterbury to see which is easiest to get to
- Looking for special offers or discounts on hotels in Canterbury in order to choose which to book
These aren’t exhaustive of course – and neither will they ever be 100% accurate (well, until Google’s Psychic Algorithm makes its debut!) – but by thinking like this you can get away from thinking in old-fashioned keyword lists. This will naturally lead into a strategy which produces content on your site that targets users who are looking for what you can offer them – meaning better engagement, more conversions and generally more profitable digital marketing plan.
Taking the hotels example above, an individual hotel in Canterbury like the ABode could expect to do well for the top set of queries. It is a “Canterbury hotel” so provided it supplies all the right information that users are likely to want on its website, integrates well with maps, social and local services, and produces a nice mobile-friendly site (which is alas not the case at the moment – ABode Hotels take note!) which can be reached by potential customers on the go, it should be on a nice solid road to success. This isn’t always the case right now, depending on the user’s local search bubble, but is a logical next step for semantic and conversational search so is something that all businesses should be carefully considering.
In this conversational scenario the ABode would have less success if it tried to gain organic visibility for the plural “hotels” variation in Canterbury. Here is where comparison or mass booking sites like TripAdvisor and Booking.com start to throw their weight around – because they specialise in providing options for different hotels in the area they more closely match the likely requirements of the user so get pushed higher in search results.
Don’t forget paid search though! Google’s primary aim (whatever they’d like you to believe) is still to drive Adwords revenue, so keep on top of your PPC and keep it integrated closely with the organic semantic signals on your site to make sure you don’t get left out in the cold (plural or otherwise)!
As well as providing content which is targeted around the intentions of your desired audience, brands both big and small will need to start taking semantic markup a lot more seriously in order to ensure as much organic visibility for relevant terms as possible. This applies to everything from eCommerce site products (consider, for example “silver bracelet” vs “silver bracelets” user intent and how likely each one is to convert to a same-visit purchase) to the travel industry and even B2B and professional services (same again for something like “London management consultant” vs “London management consulting”) which is why the semantic web can be so powerful.
Schema.org is my markup of choice as it is so flexible, but many businesses have been very slow to adopt this (or any other) sort of meaning and context-centric identification for their content. 2014 is likely to see early adopters celebrating better results than the slowpoke rank and file, along with a changing search landscape as Google continues to gain an understanding of what users actually want to get from their search results, rather than just which words they type in and where those words can be found. Review your content plan now, or get in touch with the 4Ps “special forces” digital marketing consultants for help reviewing your content strategy and putting together a semantic markup plan for your website today.
Advanced Search Consultant
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