This Is How Search Engines Determine Intent

As search engines have become “smarter” by processing massive amounts of queries over decades, the algorithm has become better at determining intent.

By Lauryn Chamberlain

Jul 17, 2019

4 min

As the customer journey increasingly follows a non-linear path to purchase, intent marketing has grown in popularity, with marketers aiming for a more sophisticated way to predict which customers are likely to take a particular action. But while tactics like targeting high-intent keywords are an important part of intent marketing, let's first take a step back — how exactly do search engines themselves determine user intent?

In other words, how do AI-powered search engines decide which information to display (including map results and featured snippets, in addition to webpage links) when a user makes a query in the first place? And what does that mean for businesses?

Google and Search Intent: The Basics

There has been plenty of research conducted aimed at understanding the intent behind a query — which is reflected by the kinds of results Google displays.

Dan Taylor at Search Engine Journal elaborates, "Google's Paul Haahr gave a great presentation in 2016 looking at how Google returns results from a ranking engineer's perspective. The same 'highly meets' scale can be found in the Google Search Quality Rating Guidelines," Taylor writes. "In the presentation, Haahr explains basic theories on how if a user is searching for a specific store (e.g., Walmart), they are most likely to be looking for their nearest Walmart store, not the brand's head office in Arkansas."

Noted. As search engines have gotten "smarter" by processing massive amounts of queries over what is now decades, the algorithm has gotten better at determining searcher intent behind both keywords and more detailed questions. The Search Quality Rating Guidelines detail this: Section 3 shows the "Needs Met Rating Guidelines" and explains how to use them for content.

"The scale ranges from Fully Meets (FullyM) to Fails to Meet (FailsM) and has flags for whether or not the content is foreign language, not loading, or is upsetting or offensive," Taylor says. "The raters are not only critical of the websites they display in web results, but also the special content result blocks (SCRB), aka Rich Snippets, and other search features that appear in addition to the '10 blue links.'"

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Once intent is determined as accurately as possible, based on the search engine's predictive ability, the algorithm has to surface the best results. In a search result for "Italian restaurants," for example, per the rating guidelines, Google will assume that a searcher is looking for actual restaurants nearby — not to learn about the history of Italian cooking. This will then generate mapped results on the SERP in addition to blue links. And what are the "best" results for this search based on?

  1. Relevance: do the business name and listed business vertical match the search?

  2. Distance: is the customer reasonably nearby?

  3. Prominence: how many reviews does this business have, how recent are they and what is their rating?

More on how your business can factor into these relevant results below. And if you're interested in more technical details about how Google determines search intent, take a look at the extensive Google Search Quality Rating Guidelines for yourself.

How to Make Sure Your Business Surfaces in High-Intent Searches

When it comes to thinking about high-intent searches, it's important to know these four: Know, Go, Do or Buy. This is the concept that search queries can be essentially segmented into these four categories — and this determines, to an extent, the kind of results that Google will deliver.

These queries are closely related to micro-moments and Google offers a guide to marketing for micro-moments. It's worth reading because Google itself is the primary source for how its algorithm determines intent and surfaces relevant business results accordingly.

When it comes to answering users' questions, it is also critical that your business' information be stored in a knowledge graph — or a single source of truth online for the many public facts about your brand. When you make sure that this information is correct, consolidated and optimised for consumption by AI-powered search engines and services (not just Google, but Alexa, Siri and more) you stand a better chance of surfacing with perfect answers whenever consumers' perform a high-intent "know, go, do or buy" search related to your business category.

Relevance and Prominence: The Role of Review Management

So let's say your brand information is accurate and verified as discussed above. You're doing well when it comes to ranking for Google's factors of relevance and distance, but there's another piece of the puzzle — prominence.

In terms of increasing prominence, the best thing a business can do is to cultivate loyal followers through simply providing great service. A great experience creates natural brand advocates. Ratings are a reflection of the business you are already doing and they amplify your existing reputation publicly. Then, you can look to amplify your strategy for review response — improving your relationship with customers and (hopefully) generating more positive reviews in turn.

Explore more strategies inThe Complete Guide to Reputation Management.

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