As SEO priorities have shifted over the years from a focus on keywords to a more content-centric approach, the popularity of the topic of user search intent has risen correspondingly — and rightfully so.Today, most SEO professionals agree that content constructed for particular user intents is not only more useful for visitors; it is more likely to rank in search engines when it counts the most.
Search engines (Google, in particular) have invested a great deal in sniffing out user intent for any particular query, having realized that users are more satisfied when content not only matches a keyword but addresses the intention of their search.
For example, better intent matching is an element of Google’s BERT project (the natural language processing AI engine that discerns the intent of a search query).
With BERT now affecting nearly 100% of search queries, it’s time for a deeper dive on the topic of user search intent.
Traditional User Intent Categories
For as long as search intent has been a topic for SEO pros and content marketers, we have relied on a few relatively broad user intent categories.
The list varies depending on whom you ask, but these are often included:
Informational: The user is seeking knowledge about a topic. These are typically who/what/when/where/why/how queries, though they don’t have to include those words.
Navigational: The user wants to get to some specific site or page. Typically this user has a particular task in mind or knows/suspects the location of the information they are seeking.
Transactional: The user wants to buy something, although the transaction does not have to be monetary. This user is ready to take action.
Local: The user is looking for a resource geographically close to their current location (or a stated location).
These traditional categories have served us well, as they neatly sum up the main reasons why anyone goes to a search engine (at least in broad terms).
They help SEO professionals and content managers plan and create content that is more likely to be useful to particular users and, therefore, more valuable to search engines.
From Broad to Micro Intentions
However, as with any such broad categories, it can often be useful to break them down further.
For one thing, while we can be fairly certain search engines use some form of the traditional user intent categories listed above, it’s likely that machine-learning driven tools such as BERT enable them to go deeper, to discern what we might call micro-intentions.
Google has talked about the usefulness of increasing granularity of broad categories in other contexts. One good example is the concept of micro-moments.
Micro-moments are an improvement on the traditional understanding of customer journeys.
The concept goes beyond the traditional funnel categories. In the online realm, consumers often have many small steps across multiple devices that influence their final purchasing decision. Studies on this topic underpinned Google’s “zero moment of truth” concept, an addition to the traditional marketing journey.
The “Zero Moment of Truth” (ZMOT) consists of all interactions a consumer might have on numerous devices over time that together influence their final purchasing decision.
We can apply a similar model to develop what I call “micro intentions” – the smaller, multiple search intentions someone might have within the more extensive traditional user search intent categories.
Why Micro Intentions
Remember that the “O” in SEO stands for “optimization.”
The act of optimizing for search is a quest to provide the most authoritative, relevant response to a query in the most user-friendly manner possible.
Micro intentions come into play in the middle of that authority/relevancy/usability triad: they hone the relevancy of content to particular user needs to a sharper degree than is possible with just the “big four” traditional intention categories.
Winning micro intent searches can add up to significant victories over time, much in the same way as an SEO professional would work to increase authority by obtaining better-targeted links or improving usability by making incremental tweaks to page speed.
Where Micro Intentions Are Useful
Admittedly, the usefulness of micro intentions is higher for some of the big four intentions than others.
For navigational and local user intent, the number of micro intentions matches the diversity of queries.
The micro intent is inherent in the query itself.
Someone searching “Microsoft website” clearly wants to go to microsoft.com, while the person searching “pizza north New Jersey” is seeking out the best pizza that exists on this planet, obviously.
My micro intentions concept is most useful for informational and transactional queries, so let’s see what this looks like in those categories.
Some Proposed Micro Intentions
Research data on what these micro intentions are does not yet exist, to my knowledge.
However, we can make some reasonable suppositions for the informational and transactional categories.
Informational Micro Intentions
I’ll start off with the tweet by Mordy Oberstein that inspired this article:
Something I’ve been thinking about.
“We” write things to “inform” – you know “informational intent”
I hate that term.
I think we should write to educate – educational intent.
One is focused on the content the other on how the reader will assimilate that info! pic.twitter.com/SzXsJ4c09P
— Mordy Oberstein (@MordyOberstein) December 17, 2020
I disagree with Mordy slightly.
I don’t think educational replaces informational intent; rather, it’s a micro intent of the informational intent category.
Educational content is just one type, too, although it’s probably the largest subset of that category.
So how is educational content a more specific kind of informational content?
I think educational content is that which goes into great detail on a topic. It satisfies the user whose desire is for more than a quick answer or a particular fact.
Educational content is created for the user who wants to expand their knowledge on a topic; to come away knowing a good deal more about it than before they entered their query. It is, therefore, typically longer than most other forms of informational content.
What are some other possible micro intentions under the informational category?
Factual: The user wants to learn about or verify a specific fact.
Instructional: The user wants to know how to do something.
Expansional: The user wants related topics or areas of expansion on a base topic.
Aggregational: The user wants to see a variety of thoughts or opinions about a topic.
Can you see that each of these calls out for a specific type of content?
That is valuable context that “informational” alone doesn’t give you.
To become the most relevant answer for specific groups of users, you need to think beyond the big four categories.
Transactional Micro Intentions
Many transactional queries are self-contained micro intentions, similar to how local and navigational intent queries work.
That is, they contain the micro intent within themselves. An example would be “buy Nikon d5600 digital camera.”
But there are true micro intentions for less specific transactional queries.
Here are a few examples:
The user wants to buy a kind of thing but does not necessarily care which of that kind they will purchase.
Users just want to see a display of options and will make their choice from there.
This might seem like an informational query, but it’s not (for search purposes) because this user is ready to buy.
Seeking out more information before buying is not their top priority.
This is an excellent example of how the big four intentions can bleed over into each other.
This user is ready to buy and just wants to know where to buy it.
Although the “where” does not have to be a physical location, there are elements of informational and local intent at play.
For this micro intent, you want to be the best option in every possible way.
This user doesn’t care what brand they buy; they just want to buy the thing they need.
Information on a landing page for this micro intent needs to go beyond the brands available to concentrate on other differentiating factors (price, features, etc.).
Micro Intentions & Content Strategy
The concept of micro intentions is most useful for SEO professionals and content strategists looking to increase traffic and site revenue by expanding the range of queries for which they rank.
At a certain point, after optimizing for all of the high volume head terms for your market, such growth can only come by digging deeper into long-tail searches.
This is where designing content for micro intentions is likely to produce better results than merely relying on the traditional big four intentions.
Remember that Google is actively seeking to improve its ability to match user queries with the content that most exactly matches their intent. And with BERT-style technology, it is highly likely they are doing that at a level much more granular than the big four.
That means there is significant traffic up for grabs to the sites that can create the most content aimed at micro intentions.
How do you discern what micro-intentional categories people are searching for in your topic areas?
One great resource, at least for informational queries, is Google’s ‘People Also Ask.’ The specific questions people ask can be clues to micro intentions.
Another may be Google Question Hub (just opened to US publishers as I write this article).
Listening to your customers, talking to your sales and customer service reps, and analyzing your internal site search analytics may also provide useful clues to micro intentions in your marketplace.
Screenshot taken by author, January 2021