The Problem Of User Intent

Lately, I’ve been focusing my posts on some pretty basic stuff, so I wanted to throw a bone out to you folks out there who are looking for some more advanced concepts. Today, I want to talk about user intent, and its implications for search engine marketing.

It’s undeniable that the advent of search engine technology has made information more accessible in ways we couldn’t even imagine only a few decades ago. However, it’s easy to forget just how far away we are from a complete search solution. For all of their merits, search engines are unable to look beyond the face-value meaning of an entered search term and probe the actual intent of the user. To do this effectively, we’d need some pretty impressive technology (think Google MentalPlex). Unfortunately, a solution like this seems pretty far off into the future.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that I type in the search term “best pitcher.” Now, I could be looking for the best crystal drink pitcher to buy for my friend’s wedding gift, or I could be looking for stats on the best pitcher in major league baseball. Using this vague term, search engines would only be able to come up with their best guess of what I actually meant, using esoteric search engine algorithms that us mere mortals are not worthy to understand. If I viewed my results and decided that the search engine did not return what I was looking for, I could always go back and add more search terms. Research indicates that about 50% of searches in the English-speaking world are made on only two or three keywords, though (source). As search engine marketers, we need to ensure that we capture as many users as possible on those vague terms, while filtering out searchers who don’t want what we’re offering. If I’m in the business of selling crystal pitchers online, I certainly don’t want to pay for traffic from baseball fans.

Granted, it’s unlikely that a Nolan Ryan aficionado is going to click on an ad for a crystal pitcher anytime soon. However, if they see your ad for crystal pitchers, that’s a valuable impression that could have gone to that wedding guest. So what are we to do about these vague keyphrases?

The easiest solution would be to build out your negative keyword set (these are called “excluded words” in Yahoo, but it’s the same concept). By adding terms that your “undesirable” users might also be using (like “baseball” for our example), you can get the search engines to not show your ads when a user types in the negative keyword along with their search term. Using negative keywords can be tricky, though, and you can run the risk of excluding too much traffic and making your ads invisible to potentially profitable users.

Another strategy involves the effective use of ad text. By being more specific in what you’re offering in your ad text, you can drive away the clicks that you might be attracting with ambiguous phrasing. Compare these two ads:

Ad 1:

Best Pitchers
Looking for the best pitcher?
Find one here today.

Ad 2:
Discount Drink Pitchers
Find the perfect crystal
pitcher. Free shipping.

This is a pretty simplistic example, but you can see where a user might get potentially confused due to the ambiguity of Ad #1. Always be careful when writing ad text, especially when using dynamic keyword insertion in the ad headlines (more on this next week).

About Shawn Livengood

Shawn Livengood is a search engine marketing professional based in Austin, Texas. He has extensive experience managing pay-per-click ad campaigns for clients in various industries, from small home-based businesses to large international companies. You can connect with Shawn on Google+.
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5 Responses to The Problem Of User Intent

  1. Amber says:

    What’s just God Awful is getting into a situation where the user KNOWS they aren’t seeking the product or service listed in the ad, but they’re clicking anyway.

    Like the recent client we discussed whose clicks were coming from people looking for jobs as a painter, when the company offers house painting services.

    The economy sucks. If only Google could rectify by giving us the ability to load a big red sign that says DON’T CLICK MY AD IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A JOB. :)

    The client is refocusing SEO efforts, hoping organic results might distract people from the ads, but no go so far. We’ll see what happens.

  2. Reader says:

    Great! Thank you very much!
    I always wanted to write in my site something like that. Can I take part of your post to my blog?
    Of course, I will add backlink?

    Regards, Your Reader

  3. michelle says:

    Great insights… understanding what we DON’T know about potential shoppers is half the battle. This article and its sources need to be force-fed to all those people who keyword stuff and ALWAYS use dynamic insertion for their headlines!

  4. AnomaNerNom says:

    Hi. Your site displays incorrectly in Explorer, but content excellent! Thank you for your wise words =)