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The real user intent:

The story behind a search

Bad boss

Bad day

Holiday search

Holiday purchase

User / search intent in SEO: What's behind a search?

My days spent in Conversion Rate Optimisation have given me an important lesson: search intent goes a lot further back in time than just the moment that someone hits “return” on a search query.

By considering the whole user journey, CTR, rankings and conversions will be positively impacted. 

But how?

Search intent .. or a user journey?

SEO specialists often build page titles, meta descriptions and landing pages based on the search query alone. They’ll consider words like “buy” or “best” in order to give them a clue as to what the person wants.

But the user journey for a search query starts at the literal birth of the visitor. Their entire life led them to that point. That search moment is a culmination of every moment before.

Considering their entire life is, of course, going way too far and wouldn’t generate any return on the time invested.

However, someones personality can tell us an enormous amount, and the advertising industry has been leveraging psychological needs for decades … and made it a very financially successful art form.

So maybe SEO should be moving in this way too?

A note on how users navigate the internet

Contrary to popular belief, users don’t read every word put in front of them. In reality, they often look for “trigger words” which seem to match their desire for their next step.

Why does this matter?

When considering how to match user intent, it’s important to make decisions based on the reality of how people navigate, rather than an idealised journey.

Analyse the search / user intent

Let’s take an example. What was the intention of a user who searched for “relaxing holiday Barbados”? If you only consider the words in their purest form, they want to research or buy a relaxing holiday in Barbados.

However, no one buys a holiday “just because”. In the case of holidays, there’s often a psychological need. It might happen something like this for them:

The full search journey for buying a holiday

User experiences effects of psychological need (eg. stress)

User performs Google search, in order to solve the specific need

User clicks some results, based on likelihood to solve the specific need

User contacts preferred company, based on likelihood to solve the specific need

The full search journey for buying a holiday

User experiences effects of psychological need (eg. stress)

User performs Google search, in order to solve the specific need

User clicks some results, based on likelihood to solve the specific need

User contacts preferred company, based on likelihood to solve the specific need

So ... why did they do this specific search?

The word “specific” is really important. In this case, they aren’t really looking for a holiday as such. They’re trying to solve some need. The holiday just serves to solve the need. 

Why are they thinking about a holiday right now?

Why do they want a relaxing holiday?

And why Barbados?

If we look at the obvious, maybe they’re at work and are tired, having a stressful day and believe that having something to look forward to will drive away the feeling at this moment; a feeling of stress and overwork. This probably isn’t the first time they’ve felt this stress..

They likely chose the word “relaxing” because it seems like the antidote to their stress, and they want some time by the pool or beach … just to exist, with a book and a cocktail.

So we’re developing a bit of information now about how to appeal to them with the page title, meta description and page content.

 OK … so who wouldn’t want to be in Barbados? (image copyright Petr Kratochvil)

Persona research in search intent

If you’ve not heard of personas, they’re an effective way of building a number of fictional characters who you can use to ask “virtual questions” of. Humans are very good at predicting patterns of behaviour when they understand someone. 

So you can ask a persona “why did you want a holiday today” and invent all kinds of fairly realistic answers to help you determine the reasons behind an action.

74% of consumers are frustrated when content isn’t personalized

- Infosys, 2013

Personas can go into quite considerable detail but for the sake of simplicity, let’s keep them lightweight here. There is a vast amount more information on the subject if you want to know more.

Where to get data for personas from?

Direct or indirect user research

By the the most effective research if from users themselves. However, it can be costly and if you don’t have the budget or the content doesn’t warrant the significant research, it may be a step too far.

There are a myriad of ways to do research about users though, and a cheap solution is to ask the site owner. They probably know an enormous amount about their customers.

You could also look at launching polls on the website or on social media, or even getting out on the street and asking some real people!

Google Search Console

If you are tuning an existing page, you might find that there are clues to the user desires hidden in search console. With my own recruitment site, we have a London landing page which Google Search Console tracks 1,000 queries for.

Within this data, we find fantastic hints at user desire. The most popular term for London is “London recruitment agencies”. However, that user didn’t really want a London recruitment agency – they wanted a Putney recruitment agency who covers the construction industry.

Some users will be more specific with their searches and it’s these people we can learn from. So, dig deep into your stats and see if some of your users can hint at what they really care about.

Educated guesses (stereotypes)

Like it or not, stereotypes are useful and relatively cheap to produce.

I can easily think of 3 different back stories for people who want a relaxing holiday in Barbados, and there would be hundreds more, if you have the time. You can see them below. We’ll use these going forward, but remember there are plenty of ways to produce personas.

(please don’t read anything into the sexes or other details chosen for these personas!)

Persona examples

Couple in their 50s

Their children have recently left home to go to University and they’re keen to get away for their first personal, romantic and relaxing holiday in over 20 years. They’ve worked hard to raise their children, and could do with a fantastic break.

They envision sunbeds, candle-lit dinners and a great time to enjoy some time just with each other.

Both of them work in well-paying professions – he is a teacher and she is a doctor. They’d like to do some research but aren’t going to buy today.

Female entrepreneur in her 40s

She’s excited about opportunities day to day, but the constant use of mental energy means, come April when her company year starts afresh, she needs a break to recharge as she’s just exceptionally tired. She’s found Barbados has good weather in April.

She wants to go somewhere with blue skies and turquoise seas, but does like water-sports as sitting by a pool can get a bit boring..

She’s going to take her time deciding on a holiday and might buy today, but probably won’t.

Stressed successful male at work

He’s in his 50’s and has climbed the corporate ladder to senior management, but these days needs to know he has something to look forward to as he gets stressed with his workload and the pressures of achieving every day.

His friend once told him she loved Barbados.

At this specific moment, he’s having a bad day, and his clear intent is to book something today to use up his remaining holiday this year. He’d like to go in the next 2 weeks. 

What have all of the personas got in common?

  • Barbados isn’t cheap, so they are all at least fairly affluent.
  • They all work.
  • They are mix of men and women over 40.
  • In many cases, they’re stressed or tired.
  • They aren’t travelling with children.
  • Acitivity wise, they might want to do some water-sports .. or just sit by the pool.
  • They are a mix of researchers and buyers.

Building an effective search journey

Putting all of this together, we should be able to build a page which is more effective now at enticing the user to click their result in Google, and converting them, based on their wants, needs and psychological drivers.

Amount of space available

One of the key elements to consider at persona needs and desires to actual page elements is how much space you have available.

It will help to determine what you should and shouldn’t include each persona need or want.

~ 0 chars
Page title; include basic needs common to all
~ 0 chars
Meta description; embelish popular needs
~ 0 chars
H1; reinforce basic needs common to all
~ 0 chars
Lede; explore popular needs in increased detail
~ 0 k chars
Page content; significant detail on all needs

This is particularly key with page titles and H1’s, where you have only a few characters to get your message across.

Page title & meta description

A page title is short. You have very little space to get your message across. For that reason, I would tend to use the elements which are common to all personas. In this case, they might be:

  • Relaxed
  • Barbados
 With the meta description you have more space to play around with, and you might choose to include some extra but less important elements such as:
  • Hint at affluent nature
  • You’re having a break from life
  • Since it’s a holiday, some kind of representation of what you expect to see or experience, for example blue seas and white sands.

Page content ... and the 30 second scan

In “Hitch”, Will Smith said something like “She said yes when she could have said no. It’s no longer your job to get her to go out with you – it’s your job not to mess it up”. 

When looking at the quality of your page content I see a 30 second scan of the page in a similar way. It’s not your job to get the click any more – it’s your job to stop them leaving again! 

This 30 second scan is your elevator pitch to ensure someone stays.

In this phase, I’m most interested in the H1, page lede, H2’s and any particular visual elements like graphics, infographics, video and so on.

Since an H1 is similar in length to the page title the same rules will apply, although you have more scope to play around with it with sub headings, if you choose to.

Certain types of pages benefit from a lede of some kind to help orient the readers and entice them to continue. It’s here you can start to appeal to a few different and optional needs – ones which aren’t common to all personas. So, you might include a few of the optional ones in this case, to help present a more rounded vision of your proposition. Let’s add these two:

  • Romantic
  • Sports

From there, I would tend to outline the page with H2’s (and maybe H3’s) that are designed to appeal to the different persona desires, as well as the ones which aren’t common to all personas. 

They should hit all of the key desires and needs, in this case:

  • Barbados
  • Relaxed
  • Stressed / life break
  • Affluent
  • Adults
  • Visual / story
  • Optionally sports
  • Optionally romance
  • Barbados
  • Relaxed
  • Stressed / life break
  • Affluent
  • Adults
  • Visual / story
  • Optionally sports
  • Optionally romance

A quick & dirty approach?

Maybe you don’t have time to do all of the analysis above, or maybe it’s just a relatively short article and doesn’t warrant the time spent on it.

Let’s use a second example – “Buy gift for him” – to see how we can significantly shorten the process while delivering 70-80% of the value.

If you’ve not done this process before though, I would recommend not using the quick and dirty approach until you have a better understanding of how to analyse user behaviours.

Basic intent analysis

Psychological need

To start, the psychological need is likely to be approval and a continuation of the relationship; the woman will want her partner to be happy with the gift.

We should be selling that future happiness.

Breaking down the search

“Buy” is a buying signal, but it can also have a strong research intent depending on its use. It means someone is about to buy, or will do soon, or may be in a rush to buy.

“Gift” gives you a clue as to what the purchase is likely to be. It won’t be a boat, but it might be a watch. It also helps us with the intent of “buy” since we can infer that there will be a research element. This is not a specific product someone wants to buy, like a car, but an unknown gift.

63 percent of shopping occasions begin online

- Thinkwithgoogle, 2018
“For him” is a phrase commonly most often used by women who are buying for their partners. I would also say it’s likely that the person is over 35 because it doesn’t seem likely this phrase will be used by a younger woman.


We can’t tell anything at all about the price they’re willing to spend, or the type of gift they want. However, most gifts for men from women will be in the £20 to £200 range.Given that it’s likely to be for a partner, the woman will be looking for something nice – it’s unlikely to be a £10 “Secret Santa” jokey gift.Meeting the search intent in the SERPsAnd this is where search intent is so important, because this person isn’t necessarily looking to buy a gift .. but gift inspiration to make their partner happy, with the option to do further research or to purchase.This might lead us to a page title and meta tag of something like this, although a copywriter could do a better job! (I’m not a writer…)

To explain some of the elements, the “hand-picked” element of the title suggests that we will save the user time. It also suggests that the gift selection will be more effective since it was accomplished by a human. I don’t know about you, but with Amazon I often find the results can be random, and it takes me longer to find what I really would buy.

With the meta description, the initial word is “delight”, which meets the overarching psychological need. “Categorisation” is again a time saving option. “Every occasion” ensures they realise we don’t only offer Christmas or birthday gifts, but other occasions such as anniversaries. “Every budget” will encourage all users to click.

The final bit about the site focus is where you could sell what you offer most of.


Page content

Now let’s think about the page a little. 

The H1 would be similar to the page title. A short page lede could help establish the type of gifts and options that the user will see more quickly. While many users will scroll straight down past the lede to the content – the gifts – it might be useful for some.

While we think this is a woman, but it might be a man looking for a male partner. Does that need establishing, in order to show the correct gifts? 

Given we don’t know what type of gift they might be looking for, could we allow them some popular options to click quickly? We also don’t know the price range, so it would be helpful to allow the user to narrow it down.

Obviously, in reality, people buy most often when they’ve experienced a brand a number of time, sometimes across multiple medium, to build trust. I’m ignoring that here. 


Summary: Key steps for search intent

As we’ve seen, the user journey begins before the person even thinks about typing their search query. The search was a response to a need, and there are always nuances about that journey which can increase CTR and conversions.

And they should be some of the goals for any SEO.

The key steps below will help to achieve this.

  • Consider needs

    What are the psychological needs behind this specific search, at this specific time.

  • Identify the users

    Build personas for the types of users based on research (GSC, stereotyping, client communication, user research etc..)

  • Break down the query

    Take the individual words in the query and analyse how they can be interpreted.

  • Build search journey

    Create the page title and meta description which will meet the needs of the various personas.

  • Build a 30 second view

    Create an effective H1 and lede, plus major headings and graphics, which meet the need and entice the user to remain.

  • Build your page journey

    Create the full outline of the page to meet all persona needs and create content to back up your proposition.

So what now?

To me, search intent will be an SEO hot topic of the year and it may start to highlight why some of your content isn’t ranking as well as you would like it to.

I’d suggest taking a look at your content production pipeline to see if you can improve it.

  • How much are you considering the real user intent behind the searches that arrive at your site? 
  • How much are you really trying meet that intent? 
  • Are you attempting to rank just based on keywords, or are you providing a fantastic user flow all the way from initial need, through to the SERPs, and on to your site?

Are your pages missing the all important match with user intent?