The intent behind search – Top 6 ways to tell

Do posh people get into trouble when they look for ways to ‘groom’ their children online? 

 “Officer, I was merely searching for Brylcreem and Old Spice I can assure you”.

What we say isn’t always what we mean, especially as sometimes the English language seems to be deliberately developed for the sole purpose of carry on style double entendres. 

Fnar! Fnar!

People who study and try to make sense of internet searches (like me) can sometimes find getting to the actual meaning of searches difficult (for example does someone searching for ‘laptop’ want to buy one? get one repaired? read reviews? complain or did they mean: lap dance?   

Even the boffins at Google HQ find this a difficult subject.  Their ‘did you mean’ function is used in a surprisingly small amount of instances and mainly to correct spellings (which are relatively easy ground).  When they stray from this safe ground, they find that determining intent behind people’s searches through a computer algorythm can be incredibly difficult (and sometimes amusing – see below). 

Google's latest 'sexist' version didn't quite take off in the way they'd hoped

So why is this a problem?  In a nutshell time and money.  Getting the intent behind a search wrong costs the user time (they have to redo their search or scroll through a heap of irrelevant results) which then costs the search engine money as there’s a risk the user will use a rival or get frustrated and give up altogether.  

The problem is  decreasing as searchers become more sophisticated though there will always be a need to determine search intent. 

So here are my top 6 tips on ‘determing search intent’ (or simply finding out what people mean)

1.  Keyword research.  

 Often, when people search, they’ll quickly follow it with a more defined search as they realise their original search was maybe too generic (so instead of the brain thinking hmmm ‘laptop’, ‘buy laptop’, ‘buy sony laptop’, ‘buy sony laptop on finance’ many people will actually search for thee phrases in succession without clicking a result so in effect, they’re using the search engine to bounce ideas off of as they go. 

We can capitalise on this by using keyword researh tools that allow us to order our keywords by search volume: 


So we can surmise by looking at the right hand number column that the large proportion of people looking for ‘laptop’ will be split between ‘laptop bags’ and ‘laptops’ followed by people searching by brand and so on.  

2.  Search by category

Searching by category (as shown below) can also help you to see the intent behind a search.  For example, a search for laptop under computer hardware would give you a fair indication behind the intent i.e. They were after hardware over accessories. 


3.  Allow for country variations

Searches will have different intent depending upon the country of origin of that search.  For example when we compare UK and Russian searches, we note that Russians have different brand intent as well as type intent – i.e. The vast majority of Russian laptop searchers actually mean they want a notebook. 

UK laptop searches
Russian laptop searches

4.  Allow for news

It’s important to know that your numbers aren’t being skewed in anyway when you look at them for search intent.  For example, if we were looking at the intent behind a search for oil using figures from over the last month or so, we may well be fooled into thinking that most people are concerned about oil spills rather than oil shares due to the amount of searches this takes up.  Google insights for search can show us peaks and troughs in search patterns and allows us to see where major headlines may have skewed things slightly so we can take this into account. 

Google insights for search

5.  Use other stats

If you use Pay Per Click advertising, you can test messages in realtime and see how it affects your numbers.  For example, including ‘free delivery’ in one advert and ‘cheapest on the web’ in another could give you some indication as to a customers preferences depending on which one the majority click on.  

Similarly, look at your own web visitor stats to see where people went on your site after using particular keyword. 

6.  Get advanced

There are new tools coming out on the market that aim to help us with search intent.  If you can afford the likes of Hitwise, then you’ll already have a valuable source of information at your fingertips in the form of ‘success rates’ or the percentage of people who clicked on a result after searching for a particular keyword.  

Microsoft have recently introduced a new tool that aims to tell you what people’s commercial intentions are behind a search.  The commercial intent tool shows the likelihood of people purchasing after typing in a particular keyword.

So we can’t please all of the people all of the time

But take heart.  As long as we keep this in mind when writing and creating content for searchers, there are ways and means to make sure that we please the majority of people, the majority of times.

Why don’t you take a look at some of the other posts on my blog?  Or make a comment below?  You can also subscribe to it by email using the really simple form in the top right corner of this page.

3 thoughts on “The intent behind search – Top 6 ways to tell

  1. Another excellent post. I like the idea of “bouncing ideas” off a search engine. The slightly arbitary results you get when searching for a generic term can set off some interesting thoughts. It’s like an individual brain-storming sesh . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s