How do you understand user search intent? It starts with defining target keywords and categorizing them into intent groups — which is easier than it sounds. Learn how to do it, and more about search intent here.
Intent is a fairly simple topic to understand. After all, everything you do has some sort of intent behind it, whether you realize it or not. That’s the same with online search intent. Everyone has a purpose behind why they are searching – but it may not be quite as clear on the other side.
For example, I may search something like, “The Blacklist” in order to watch the latest episode online. But you wouldn’t know that was my intent from that simple search unless I changed it to something more specific, like “watch the latest blacklist episode.” Here, I’ve made it easier to understand my intent with modifiers (which could also easily be a voice search), and Google has tried to guess the difference between my intent with two different search result pages:
This experience has become the norm on Google. As marketers, we must change our SEO strategies to reflect changes in intent. It all starts with understanding your target keywords and bucketing them into intent-based groups. This sounds easier than it is for the exact reason I mentioned above – a lot of keywords can have multiple different types of intent behind them.
We use five different intent groups to define our keywords:
Now that you’re familiar with the intent groups, let’s walk through how to turn a keyword list into an intent-based keyword list.
Find Your Seed Keywords
This entire process starts with your potential customers and business priorities. The goal is to understand what they could be searching at all stages of the funnel. To do this, you may have to do customer research to find potential user journeys, personas, and common demographic behaviors.
You also need understand what is core to your business. Some companies have 100+ products, and you may need to focus on only a handful to start with. Otherwise, you could end up so overwhelmed that you get nothing done.
Once you’ve done the research, pull out key terms to use as your seed keywords. These will most likely be your services or product lines, and you’ll layer in the search funnel on top of them.
Use Keyword Tools
There are a variety of great keyword tools out there. In the past year, I’ve been most impressed with SEMrush’s keyword magic, a tool they’ve built that makes it easier to filter and bucket keyword groups. Moz has also updated their keyword explorer tool to make it filterable and customizable. I haven’t spent quite as much time working with it as I would like to, so I’ll stick to SEMrush for now.
Start by putting your seed keywords into keyword magic:
As you can see, the seed term “example” can bring a large variety of keywords that may not be relevant. SEMrush has included multiple features to narrow the list down based on your inputs.
- Match Type – Adjust your match type to be broad, exact, or phrase, depending on how specific you want to go.
- Questions – Change your list to only show terms deemed as questions. This is great for content ideas.
- Include / Exclude – Add in keywords you know are irrelevant or should be included based on your research. Exclude is especially nice for competitor brand names.
- Filters – Use word count, volume, keyword difficulty, CPC, competitor, and SERP features to quickly narrow down your list.
- Sort – Change how the modifier list is sorted by number of keywords versus total search volume.
- Modifiers – This is one of the most helpful features of Keyword Magic when you are just starting out. It groups common modifiers by the number of keywords or search volume. This will give you ideas of common modifiers you may want to dig into. It has recently added the ability to narrow down modifiers within other modifiers, which is helpful to start building modifier groups.
- Add Keywords One by One to the Keyword Analyzer. You can also check off keywords and add as a group to keyword analyzer.
- Export to XLSX – I prefer working in Excel, so this feature is ideal for me. I end up exporting a lot from SEMrush (one time I even hit the limit...whoops!)
- Go to Keyword Analyzer – If you are utilizing the keyword analyzer, this will take you over to that screen to see the full list.
I’ve added a few example keywords to Keyword Analyzer:
- Filters – You can again filter by metrics here.
- Group – This identifies what group your keyword was found within. I’ve found this one gets a bit funky once you are adding lower volume keywords, but it’s still a great grouping method.
- Seed Keyword – This is great when you are working with different seed keywords to identify what bucket the keywords started from.
- Send to other tools – You can select and send these keywords to your tracking tools right from within the interface. I generally spend a bit more time in Excel first since I have huge keyword lists, but it’s great for smaller lists.
I generally always start with SEMrush for my seed keywords and build from there, using keyword idea tools like Answer the Public, Uber Suggest, People Also Ask results, and relevant searches. I’ve also found it’s easiest to train new coworkers on SEMrush rather than sending them out into the wild west of keyword tools right off the bat.
Once I have my full list of keywords, I finish documenting my modifier lists and label all the keywords by intent.
Build Your Modifier List
Labeling all your keywords sounds like a horrible, time-consuming process. I’ve heard of people doing this manually, or using filters in Excel to speed it up a bit. Both methods are okay, but I prefer using Excel functions to do the work for me—so I’ve built a template to input your intent keywords on one tab, and it will automatically label keywords on another tab.
- Start on the intent modifier tab. Input all the keyword modifiers you have found to the correct bucket.
- Paste your keywords on the intent bucketing tab. These will now automatically update with intent labels.
- It’s important to not work too much from this tab so you don’t mess up the array formulas. Copy > Paste special > Values onto the All Keyword Data tab, and add in all the relevant keyword data you want such as current rank, current ranking URL, difficulty, CPC, competition, etc. Use that data to start prioritizing opportunities.
- You can also use the modifier list to create more specific intent-based long-tail terms that may not have search volume. Use concatenation or a tool like this to build these lists.
- Build a pivot table with this data to help organize the list even more and discover opportunities. I’ll save the how-to for this for another post, but take a stab if you feel confident.
Note - informational may also be terms without any modifiers. The template isn’t setup to input “informational” for terms without modifiers yet, so keep that in mind. Don’t attempt to use this in Google Sheets either since the functions won’t work properly.
The best part of this template is that it will show when keywords have overlapping intent. Take for example the branded transactional & local transactional terms. Having two types of intent that could have high conversion makes those terms even more important.
At the end of this, you should have an intent-labeled prioritized keyword list that is ready to set up in a tracking tool.
Add Keywords to a Tracking Tool
This step may uncover even more insights, especially with current rank, ranking URL, and SERP features. Take all the keywords you have prioritized and set up in a tracking tool. My favorites are STAT Search Analytics, SEMrush, and Moz.
STAT Search Analytics
STAT Search Analytics is made for big keyword groups. One of their most powerful features is the ability to see SERP features and gain new insights. You’ll uncover new opportunities from your keyword list such as local packs, people also ask, related searches, and answer boxes. Use this data to build your strategies for each of the intent groups.
STAT is my preferred choice for large data sets, but may be too much for some businesses. Regardless, they have done some great research on intent modifiers you should read if you want to learn more about intent.
SEMrush makes it easy to transition from keyword research to keyword tracking. We use it for a variety of medium to larger clients. They’ve recently added SERP features to the tracking tool.
Moz is an industry favorite. We use Moz for smaller clients that don’t need as many keywords. Their tracking tool tracks SERP features as well, but doesn’t export some of the data we like acquiring from STAT.
Regardless of what tool you choose to go with, you should now have the ability to customize your strategy based on the intent buckets and what SERP features are appearing that you can leverage. Have any questions or comments? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!