Understanding how users, not algorithms, search online will help your SEO

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Studying how end users, not algorithms, search for solutions online can help improve your SEO efforts.

Coming from a background in neuroscience, I’m still learning about the technical side of search engine optimization.

I know a little about the terminology thanks to an array of online communities and experts like my ConsumerAffairs colleague and SEO expert, Jessica Sanford.

I’ve read the Google Search Quality Rating Guidelines from cover to cover and understand more about the content and signals Google looks for to signify quality websites

I know what’s at stake when it comes to the impact of SEO…

User behaviour on the first SERP

Around 84% of all clicks on search engine results pages (SERPs) go to the ads and results above the fourth organic result. Of those, more than 32% go to the first organic result, with the second result claiming fewer than 12% and click through rates (CTR) decreasing dramatically from there.

Dropping from the first to the second or third spot on SERPs can have a tremendous impact on revenue, leaving businesses scrambling to find the cause.

What I’m still not sold on is the obsession we seem to have with figuring out and gaming Google’s well-guarded search algorithm.

What we get wrong about Google


Entire companies have been built (and have subsequently crumbled) around exploitable quirks in Google’s algorithms—stuffing pages full of keywords at the cost of making sense, gathering backlinks through less-than-honest methods…the list could go on and on.

The reason this focus on figuring out how Google calculates SERP rankings feels wrong to me is that, for all of our effort, we forget about one thing that Google never seems to: the user.

Moz co-founder Rand Fishkin wrote about this disconnect as early as 2007:

“We need to realize that search engines are a tool—a resource driven by intent… The search box is fundamentally different than a visit to a bookmark…it’s unique from a click on the “stumble” button…or a visit to your favorite blog—searches have a direct intent behind them; the user wants to find something.”

One of the reasons Google has been so wildly successful (Google owns more than 65% of the organic search market, with its closest competitor, Bing, controlling around 33%) is that it never seems to lose track of this fact.

Google’s goal, as a business, is to understand exactly what search users are looking for and to provide the most accurate answer to their questions. Their success is a direct testament to their unwavering commitment to solving needs quickly and effectively. Google educates businesses on maintaining this focus on continuously improving the end user experience to foster increased visitor success.

A screenshot of Google search results for 'Isaac Newton', which show Wikipedia as the top search result, but also display a brief biography drawn from Wikipedia on the right hand side, giving information on his occupation, birth and death dates, and influences.

In his study on the search giant, John Battelle described Google’s goal to become a “database of intentions” able to understand your “desires, needs, wants and preferences.” 

Google pursues this goal maniacally, and I believe companies who follow suit to better serve end users and their needs will benefit from directing more focus on audience members and target audiences seeking solutions offered by those businesses.

With Google’s intentions so clear, it baffles me that so many companies are still focused on figuring out the algorithm rather than creating quality content designed to answer audience members’ questions.

And yet, here we are, with brands poised to spend $65 billion on SEO in 2016, much of which, according to Foxtail Marketing CEO Mike Templeman, will be wasted on efforts that are either fruitless and will eventually be penalized by Google’s engineers.

Defining search engine intent and values of queries for your business

There have been some earlier attempts by search engine experts to provide a taxonomy of search engine intent (SEI). Fishkin segmented queries into four groups of intent:

  • Navigational queries – Consumers use organic search as a white pages, to navigate to a particular site when they don’t necessarily know the URL.
  • Informational queries – Queries focused on finding specific information, whether local weather, the street address of the best ice cream parlor in town or in which films Meg Ryan appeared with Tom Hanks.
  • Commercial investigation queries – Focused primarily on research for future purchases, finding the best brand of scuba goggles or the best cat food for cats with eczema.
  • Transactional queries – Searches aimed directly at making a purchase, branded queries or queries that meet an immediate need (where is the best fried catfish restaurant in this neighborhood).

Although the first two types of queries could be important to your business, the last two are queries with high purchase intent—meaning the most likely to end with consumers handing over their credit card numbers—which makes aiming the content of your site and your Adwords campaigns to rank for these queries very important.

How does one figure out the relevant search queries with high intent?

Based on traffic or average cost per click (CPC), based on what previous competitors use for keywords (via SEMrush or Spyfu), or based on budget limitations that force you into pursuing only low-volume long tailed keywords?

My proposed solution, although it seems simplistic, is to ask end users what their search queries would be based on certain intentions (so they make the keyword list for you) and in asking what they think is a “fair price” (internal reference price) for the item that they are trying to find.

With that intentional information plus the traffic/costs information you have for those search queries, you can decide if those keywords are worth going after based on making a profit or loss with the fair price they have in mind.

That’s what I think would be efficient. But talk is cheap and I suppose, being a data scientist, I should probably share what I learned conducting my research. Based on the results, I believe my takeaways will be helpful in applying search engine intentions (SEI) to your SEO practices.

Studying search engine intent

After a screening process which included a battery of questions testing basic SEO knowledge, I was left with 57 participants who completed the survey and “failed” the SEO test. I wanted to study participants who failed the test (which included the question “what does SEO stand for?”) because I wanted to results that represented the average consumer, rather than those who work tirelessly to understand how to get their page to rank higher in SERPs.

I gave participants the following task: Below are some scenarios that I want you to imagine yourself in (even if you don’t have a kid or a pet in real life). In the two spaces provided for each scenario, I want you to answer the following:

  1. Exactly what would you type into a search engine to find it?
  2. What do you believe would be a fair price* for the item/service?

With that task in mind, I gave participants 20 intentions to provide answers to, from needing to buy a new washing machine to wanting to buy gold as an investment.

We then used Google Adwords and Bing Ads keyword planners to look up the traffic, estimated clicks and estimated cost per click for every search query our participants came up with. We calculated the profit/loss for each search query based on the following equation:

Profit/Loss = [Fair Price x Daily Clicks x Assumed Click to Sale Rate] – [Daily Clicks x Average CPC]

What we learned about search engine intent

1) Click-to-sale rate determines if you should use Google Adwords or Bing Ads for your PPC campaigns

One particularly interesting conclusion I teased out of this data set was how click-to-sale rate is critical for determining if you should run your paid campaigns on Google Adwords, Bing Ads, both or neither.

For low-converting verticals, Bing appears to routinely lead to more profit than Adwords (which will usually be a net loss). But, when the click-to-sale rate gets closer to 10%, Adwords appears to be the more profitable platform.

The big caveat is that even at a 10% click-to-sale rate, there are still categories that net a loss on one or both platforms.

2) Organic search is more profitable than PPC

I used paid advertising metrics to help valuate what these search queries are worth in the organic search context of SEO.

If we extrapolate these numbers based on our internal data, the profits from the organic would be much higher than what is stated in these sheets, and this is an important point.

Wordstream gives a good list of high-intent keywords in two categories: buy now keywords, and product keywords. Buy now keywords which include queries like:

  • Buy
  • Discount(s)
  • Deal(s)
  • Coupon(s)
  • Free shipping

These are typically expensive campaigns to run in Adwords and difficult to rank for in organic search. Product keywords include comparison queries like:

  • Affordable
  • Best
  • Cheapest
  • Comparison
  • Review
  • Top

These keywords, although highly competitive and difficult to rank for on your own, present a unique opportunity.

As marketing manager Danica Jones wrote in a recent post on Search Engine Watch, third-party review sites rank high for coveted root and consumer-focused queries, so using these listings to present a positive and transparent brand experience is one of the most cost-effective ways to climb the ranks and increase SERP (search engine results page) real estate quicker than more traditional SEO efforts.

Investing in third-party listings can be more cost effective than running pay-per-click advertising for high-intent keywords.

And while an ad may reach the right person at the wrong time, consumers who use review sites are by and large using review websites to actively research before a purchase, and often further along in the buying process than consumers who are not actively researching solutions for existing or future needs. 


There is still so much that can be taken from this study, and our team wanted to share it with peers in the spirit of focusing more on our end users and less on algorithms. We believe in focusing on visitor success as a driver in product development and user experience.

We want to empower you to run similar studies for your relevant verticals (where you can collect thousands of responses to intentions).

Ultimately this method could prove helpful for the individual needs and focus of your own company. Study the end user’s intentions and stop spending an outsized amount of time trying figure out search engine algorithms.

This is the real focus of Google’s efforts to perfect their search engine, and if the experts at Google are focusing on the end user, we should probably follow suit.

Related reading

A screenshot of visual search on Pinterest. On the left is a picture of a copper angle-poise lamp, with the words 'Visually similar results' above it. Down the right-hand side are a number of pins showing similar lamps.
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