Our latest POV on how customer experience drives everything from concept and creative to design and technology

The Intent Behind Search

A story: Bob just bought tickets to a hockey game. Now Bob wants to know what’s available at the arena to help keep his kids entertained when they need a break. Do they have gluten-free food? Where’s the best place to let them run off some extra energy?

For Bob, it’s about getting to a very specific set of answers as quickly as possible. For the arena, it’s about customer satisfaction. Customers aren’t seeking just for a product or service, but a superior overall experience. At each step along a customer’s journey, uncertainty, anxiety, or disappointment can leave a bitter taste in their mouths that’s very hard to remove. Every brand out there is susceptible to these kinds of pitfalls. The good news is that they can almost always be remedied. But first, we have to overcome our misconceptions about customer needs and expectations. We need to gather actual evidence of what they’re looking for so that we can see the gaps in their journey and take intelligent, directed action.

It’s here that I’d like to direct your attention to search engines. I’m willing to bet that your company already has a robust SEO (Search Engine Optimization) strategy. When we talk about SEO, it’s common to think in terms of maximizing the chances that a brand or a website will be “found.” A crucial goal to be sure, but there’s also real value in digging deeper to understand the thought patterns that drive a person’s search behavior. What are people like Bob looking for? What needs are potential and real customers telling you about? How well are you satisfying those needs? This is search intent.

Search is a voice.

Think about the act of searching. Someone on this Earth has deliberately interrupted their daily routine, paused the cat videos, and taken the time to look for something. It could be information about their ongoing service experience. It could be exploration to see if your company offers a solution your rivals don’t. This search is a form of communication; a bite-sized chunk of a larger attempt to establish a sort of conversation with your brand presence. In fact, it’s a more honest voice than the one you may be used to hearing from your customers. How do you normally get customer feedback? Surveys? Focus groups? Third-party reviews? These are all extremely valuable inputs, but inherently weak if used alone. They rely on customers describing what they think or do. This means that their answers are removed from the real action and can insert any number of biases. We look to search intent for the same reason that we look to web analytics: it shows us an unvarnished view of what people are actually doing. Analytics shows us how people progress through a site, but not what they have in mind as they do so. Search intent allows us to fill this gap as people voice their needs and questions directly into a search box. Are you paying attention to what they say? To how they’re saying it? To the hidden meanings and implications for your strategy?

Search can be a cry for help.

Let’s go back to our hero. Bob tries exploring the arena’s website, looking for answers. It’s trendy, modern, and beautiful. But Bob can’t find what he’s looking for. He starts to search for tips on parking, activities, and getting around, but they just won’t show up. So Bob desperately tries a search for maps, hoping that the website might reward him with something akin to a set of restaurants on Google Maps.

Now pause for a moment. What does this behavior tell you? The answers lie in a combination of what Bob searched for, what pages he’s visited, and what content you do and don’t have on the site. Bob first tried to browse the site in his usual, natural way. It didn’t work, and he started to get frustrated. At this point, if he wasn’t already committed to attending this hockey game, the arena would probably lose him as a customer. But he stuck around and continued searching, using terms that make sense to him. This also didn’t work. Now Bob’s getting seriously irritated and trying one last time before he rage-quits. It’s not going to work this time either. Why not? Because only half of the content he wanted was actually on the site to begin with, and that half wasn’t tagged properly, so it never showed up in his search results.

It doesn’t take magic to make these connections; everything you need is right there in your search logs. But by not analyzing the behavior of real-world customers like Bob, the arena’s IT staff didn’t know to create the pages he’s looking for, or make sure they show up properly in the search engine. Now they’re in the unenviable position of pushing countless Bobs from excitement to exasperation. And it’s not like waiting for half an hour to get a $20 hot dog is going to help.

Search can be a qualifier.

How about another case: a potential customer. Instead of a somewhat captive audience that may quickly grow dissatisfied, we’re now thinking about converting someone who may be only casually interested. Obviously, no website converts every visitor. If someone comes to you looking for copiers but you’re in the waffle iron business, they’ll recognize the mismatch and look elsewhere. However, when the match between what a user is “saying” in search and the available content is close enough, we can optimize how that content is presented.

If the same person were to search for a Bluetooth-enabled waffle awareness system (don’t think too hard about that), and you have one, there’s an opportunity to tweak your content to capitalize on this uptick in activity from the smart-waffle crowd. This might seem like basic SEO work, and there is a degree of truth to that. But now you’re building upon your keyword management with the ability to tailor how the search engine itself works for you. You can even gain insight that might lead you to redesign how your search results are displayed. Now you have greater freedom to enhance the customer’s experience for a more meaningful conversation with your brand.

Understanding search habits can empower the future.

When speaking of search intent, it’s useful to frame conversations around search volume. Let’s look at this through the lens of building a product roadmap. You may have all the content in the world that you think is necessary to satisfy a potential customer’s questions, all right there on your website with a bow and a healthy packet of stevia on top. But your customer’s experience isn’t just about what you say. It’s about the environment you build around your message. It’s also how you provide features and tools to support the most pressing needs your customers express. Again, how do you become aware of the need? And once you’re aware, how do you scope and prioritize?

Taking Action

Once you understand what your customers are saying when they search, the right set of actions becomes infinitely more clear. Content doesn’t exist? Add it. Content can’t be found? Look at how your search engine is tuned, not to mention your site’s information architecture and navigation design. You may want to test with some actual users to expose trouble spots. Content mismatched with mental models? Look at your content strategy and vocabulary to make sure you’re making the most of your efforts to articulate value.

And what about opportunities? Remember that ranking by search volume? It’s ammunition. Especially when layered on top of strong site analytics and other research methods, you can quickly find yourself with robust support for functional enhancements, new interaction channels, retargeted advertising, and even adjustments to product or service offerings. Search intent isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s a very powerful view of customer intent.

Enough about Bob; what about you? When you look at your engagement stats, is something not adding up? You’re far from alone. Search intent mapping, like so many other research methods, is perfectly doable. It just happens to be specialized, highly contextual, and requires a degree of practice and expertise. That’s where we fit in.

Hi there, we’re Macquarium. Let’s talk.