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Exploring implicit search intent for better SEO

an image of author Veruska Anconitano, accompanied by various search-related iconography, including a search bar, key icon, and search volume chart

Despite a myriad of transformations in recent years, SEO remains a pivotal component of the digital user’s journey. However, traditional SEO approaches focusing solely on keywords or backlinks are no longer enough. The true game changer in today’s SEO is understanding the user’s search intent—the information they are seeking when they type a query into a search engine.


While explicit intent, dictated by the specifics of a query, has been a focal point of SEO strategies for years, implicit intent—the unspoken, often unrecognized motivations and desires of searchers—is frequently overlooked.


In this blog post, I’ll delve into the nuances of implicit search intent, highlighting its significance for an engaging SEO strategy and detailing how marketers can leverage it to drive traffic, improve user experience, and ultimately, rank higher on search engine results pages.


Table of contents:


What is search intent in SEO?


Search intent has been a widely accepted way to approach keyword research for a long time now, and understanding it is essential if you want to produce content that ranks well on search engine results pages and provides users with the information they need to convert.


Typically, SEOs group search intent into four categories:


  • Informational

  • Navigational

  • Commercial

  • Transactional


Marcus Tober has done an outstanding job of explaining keyword search intent and its four types in his article “Keyword intent: What you need to know about how customers search.”


An infographic showing the 4 stages of the customer journey (awareness, interest, decision, conversion) alongside their corresponding search intents (informational, navigational, purchase/commercial research, transactional).
Different stages of the customer journey correspond to different search intents.

This is what we call “explicit search intent”—the clear and direct purpose that a user has in mind when searching online. It is precisely what the user is searching for, as expressed directly by the keywords and phrases they use in their search.


In fact, the keywords and phrases a user types into a search engine serve as a window into their needs at that given moment. These specific and pointed search terms are not randomly chosen, but purposefully used to retrieve the most relevant and useful information as per the searcher’s requirements.


Let me break it down with some examples tied of the four search intent categories:


  • Informational intent: If a user searches how to grow tomatoes indoors, they are explicitly looking for information on indoor tomato cultivation. Their choice of keywords makes it clear that they need a guide, tips, or steps on how to achieve this.

  • Navigational intent: A search term like OpenAI Github repository shows that the user is trying to navigate to a specific web page (in this case, OpenAI’s repository on Github). They’re not looking for information about OpenAI or Github; they want to reach a particular location on the web.

  • Commercial intent: If a user searches best DSLR cameras 2023, they are looking for comparisons, reviews, or listings of the top DSLR cameras for the year 2023. They may not be ready to buy just yet, but they’re gathering information to make an informed purchase in the future.

  • Transactional intent: When someone searches the phrase order Nike Dunk Low online, their intention to make a purchase is explicitly shown through the keyword order. The user is likely prepared to buy and is looking for a retailer so that they can make the purchase.


While there are still numerous ways in which we still use explicit search intent today, such as when we search for experiences (e.g., best Paris food tour) a sole emphasis on this element can potentially jeopardize the effectiveness of our SEO and go-to-market strategies.


In fact, another aspect of search intent is often overlooked—implicit (or underlying) search intent.


What is implicit search intent?


Implicit search intent refers to the underlying reason behind a user’s search query that may not be explicitly stated in the search query itself.

It involves understanding the user’s search behavior, context, and preferences to infer their true intent. It also involves empathy.


When a user searches for the best way to track time (for example), we assume they are looking for software or apps to track their time (and probably thousands of companies think the same and see this as a huge opportunity).


Screenshot from Google for “best way to track time”

However, your audience may not be looking for products—people also often search for solutions to their problems and want to feel understood (remember: empathy).


What if the user struggles with time management and wants to find a technique or method to balance their personal and professional life? This is an example of implicit search intent—something the user doesn’t explicitly ask for, but implies through their search query.


In the past, users would type precise queries to ask Google for specific information. Today, users “search to optimize their lives. It lets them feel more confident and less anxious.” And over time, Google has become more intelligent and can now serve users customized search results based on their location and search behavior.


As a result, a search query is now made up of two parts: the explicit aspect (what the user types into the search bar) and the implicit aspect (the underlying intent or problem the user is trying to solve).


A graphic that says “explicit request + implicit request = search query”

For brands and SEOs that prioritize international and multilingual search, implicit search intent takes on even more nuance. This involves understanding the user’s context, the location in which they are searching, and what is happening in that particular place at that moment, which I’ll cover in an upcoming article.


Why context is key to search intent


In sociology, context refers to the circumstances, conditions, environment, or background information surrounding a particular event, situation, or concept. It provides the framework for understanding and interpreting what is happening and how what is happening influences life/culture/your audience in a specific place.


In other words, context is the broader setting that shapes the meaning of something, and it can include factors independent of the user.

Considering this, it can be inferred that contextual factors significantly impact our emotions, behaviors, and objectives, ultimately shaping our personal and social circumstances.


Imagine attending a live concert of your favorite artist in a large stadium filled with fans. The lights are flashing, the music is loud, and everyone around you cheers and dances. In this social context, you are likely to perceive the performance as highly enjoyable and memorable, as the crowd’s energy and the event’s atmosphere amplify your positive feelings.


Now let’s say you’re watching the same artist perform, but you’re streaming the performance from a bus on your way to school or work. Given this context, you may find the performance lackluster or underwhelming. Your environmental context dampens your expectations and impacts how you experience the performance.


If we look at this from an SEO and marketing perspective, the concept of context becomes easier to understand. In this case…


Context refers to the events, situations, and occurrences that happen in a particular location at a specific moment.

These factors can greatly influence the user’s need to search for information about a particular topic.



Implicit intent becomes more clear when you consider all of the factors above.


Implicit search intent pertains to a user’s unspoken needs or wants they may not even know they have.

This type of intent is often influenced by emotional or psychological factors affecting a user’s search behavior.


Think about it: When something happens around you (or something affects you), you need to find solutions, answers, and anything that can help you decipher what is happening in order to respond to it efficiently. This imperative translates into a specific way of searching online, both for physical and non-physical items (i.e., digital content, services).


This could manifest in search behavior such as emotional shopping, looking up trending terms due to FOMO, and so on.


Examples of implicit search intent


Different types of implicit search intent can influence a user’s behavior and search queries. On an elementary level, we can identify two big macro-categories of underlying search intent:

  1. Emotional intent: This type of intent relates to the user’s emotional state or desires, which may not be explicitly expressed in their search query. For instance, a user searching for comfortable shoes for nurses may be looking for comfortable shoes suitable for a nurse’s job (which requires a lot of standing and walking). However, if we consider the implicit emotional intent of the user, we can extrapolate more information about their underlying feelings and motivations. For example, the user may feel physically exhausted and need relief. Their implicit emotional intent may be to find shoes that provide immediate comfort and relief from their foot pain.

  2. Contextual intent: Contextual intent refers to the situation or context motivating the user’s search query. Let’s imagine a user searching for best pizza near me on their mobile device. Based on this search query, it is clear that the user is looking for nearby places that are highly rated and well-reviewed. But if we consider the user’s contextual implicit intent, we can identify more reasons behind this search. For example, if the user is searching for pizza places during lunchtime on a weekday, they may be looking for a quick and convenient option to order and eat within a short timeframe. Alternatively, if the user searches for pizza places just ahead of the Superbowl (in the US), they may be looking for a restaurant that can deliver numerous pizzas for a party on game day.


Implicit search intent

Description

Emotional intent

Relates to the user’s emotional state or desires, which may not be explicitly expressed in their search query.

Contextual intent

Relates to the situation or context motivating the user’s search query.

Within the two categories listed above, we can identify more specific subcategories that are harder to spot:


  • FOMO: The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a potent emotional driver that can prompt users to search for information on a specific topic, product, or destination. In the travel industry, when a particular destination gains popularity within a specific country or social group, users may search for information merely to stay up-to-date with the conversation, even if they do not intend to visit that place. Let’s say the Indonesian Tourism Board has planned a massive viral campaign in the UK to promote Bali as a destination. People have started to see advertising everywhere and become curious about the destination. They start searching for information on Bali—not necessarily because they are interested in traveling there, but because they want to be part of the conversation and not miss out on what everyone is talking about. In this case, the users’ search behavior is driven by the fear of missing out and a desire to be part of the context in which Bali has become popular. They may not even want to travel to Bali, but their search behavior is influenced by their need to stay connected and up-to-date with the conversation.

  • Fear: Fear can also drive search behavior, as users may search for solutions, answers, and positive reinforcement when something wrong or scary happens in their environment. Their search behavior may not be driven by fear, but rather by a desire for reassurance and coping mechanisms. For instance, when a recession is looming in a country, users in that specific country may search for information not only on how to recession-proof my finances (explicit intent) but also on topics like learning to cook at home (implicit intent). In this case, the implicit intent may be driven by a fear of not having enough money in the future and a need to learn new skills to better manage their finances. However, the user may not explicitly state their fear in their search query but express it indirectly by looking for related solutions.


Screenshot for volumes related to Tesco Clubcard in Ireland
The historic search popularity for "Tesco Clubcard" in Ireland.

In Ireland, the search volumes for Tesco Clubcard increased as the cost of fuel and essential items rose. This led people to look for ways to shop and save money while collecting points to redeem at Tesco.

  • Motivation: Motivation can drive search behavior as users seek resources to help them accomplish a goal. Motivation plays a very important role in the health and beauty industry, and understanding users’ real needs and interests is crucial for success. Imagine someone who wants to lose weight and get in shape (we all have this desire, don’t we?). They may search for information about achieving their goals, such as healthy diet plans, exercise routines, and weight loss tips. While practical advice is helpful, this user may also seek content that motivates and inspires them to stay committed or solutions that allow them to stick to their healthy habits without explicitly addressing this need. For example, a user may search for healthy meal delivery services or meal prep ideas. Even though their explicit intent is to find resources to help them manage what they eat, their implicit intent may be driven by a desire for convenience and simplicity, as meal delivery or prepping can make it easier for them to stick to a healthy diet. In this case, the user’s search behavior is driven by their implicit search intent to make healthy eating more accessible and manageable, which will ultimately help them achieve their goal of losing weight.

  • Environment: Environmental factors play a crucial role in shaping users’ implicit search intent, as their specific surroundings or situation can prompt them to search for information relevant to their needs. For instance, a Spanish user planning a trip to Thailand and searching for elephant sanctuaries in Thailand may have an underlying desire to understand more about the ethical and humane treatment of the animals in these places. In this example, the user’s implicit search intent is driven by their concern for animal welfare and a desire to have an ethical and responsible travel experience. They may not explicitly state their concern for animal welfare in their search query, but it is an essential factor driving their search behavior.

  • Biases: Biases are commonly viewed as negative, but they can be crucial in driving users’ implicit search intent by helping them identify and meet their specific needs/preferences. This is particularly evident in luxury products, where owning certain high-end items in specific markets is often associated with a high social status. For instance, a user may search for most expensive designer handbags or luxury watches for men not necessarily to purchase these items, but to reinforce their behavior of displaying social status through luxury products they already own. In this case, the user’s implicit search intent is driven by their desire to showcase their social status and reinforce their behavior of wearing high-end products and keeping up with trends.


Subcategories of implicit search intent

Description

FOMO

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) drives users to search for information to stay up-to-date or be part of a popular conversation, even if they don’t intend to engage directly.

Fear

​Fear-driven intent leads users to search for solutions, answers, and reassurance when they encounter something wrong or scary in their environment.

Motivation

Motivation-driven intent prompts users to search for resources and information that will help them accomplish a particular goal.

Environment

​Environment-driven intent arises from specific surroundings or situations that prompt users to search for relevant information.

Biases

​Bias-driven intent involves users searching for information that aligns with their specific needs, preferences, or desire to reinforce certain behaviors.

How to use implicit search intent for better SEO


Unraveling the implicit intent behind a user’s search query can be a complex process, demanding more effort than recognizing explicit search intent. To truly comprehend your target market, it is essential to have an understanding of the socio-cultural environment they live in.


This might include grasping the socio-political climate, the dominant cultural attitudes (e.g., individualistic vs. collectivistic), and the balance between their online and offline experiences, among other things. Conducting market research is imperative and accounting for these elements can help unveil the rationale behind a query, offering a wealth of opportunities to enhance your SEO efforts.


In fact, while implicit intent may not be as apparent as explicit intent, it provides valuable insights into a user’s requirements and aspirations. Harnessing this effectively can substantially improve your SEO strategy. Here are a few ways to leverage this:


  • Content innovation: Recognizing the implicit intent of your audience enables you to develop personalized content that meets their distinct needs. This knowledge could make you a pioneer, generating content for niche areas that users may not anticipate finding in search engines. Take again, for example, the query comfortable shoes for nurses. Not only can we create content around the shoes, but we could also consider addressing the emotional aspects of nursing, providing a more comprehensive approach to engaging this specific audience.

  • User experience (UX) enhancement: Implicit search intent can provide valuable insights for improving your site’s UX. If users exit your site quickly (indicating a high bounce rate), this could signal that they struggle to find what they need. For instance, if users from the UK search for Bali due to the Indonesian Tourism Board campaign (see example above), they likely expect to find specific pages discussing the campaign’s highlights. If users struggle to find this information and leave your site, it’s a possible indicator that you need to make improvements.

  • Better use of long-tail keywords: Although identifying implicit intent might be challenging, it can guide you towards better performing long tail keywords. These more specific keyword phrases cater to the precise needs of users, attracting more targeted, high-quality traffic. For example, given the scenario of learning to cook at home and the spike in Tesco Clubcard searches, targeting long tail keywords related to affordable, healthy Tesco products or ingredients for easy-to-prepare, cost-effective dishes could be an effective tactic. It’s worth noting that implicit search intent often leads to low or zero-volume keywords with high ranking potential and strong conversion power.


Incorporating these three components can be a transformative shift for your SEO approach. By prioritizing highly targeted content, you stand a chance to not only emerge as an industry leader but, more importantly, make headway with your audience. This strategy can greatly diminish the distance between your brand and your users, fostering engagement and a stronger connection.


Deciphering implicit search intent is your key to brand success


Traditional SEO methods—focusing on elements such as keywords and backlinks—have served us well, but today’s digital landscape demands a more nuanced approach. The rise of personalized user experiences has changed the game, and to stay ahead, we need to evolve our tactics.


Integrating explicit and implicit search intent is the foundation of this evolution. Embracing this dual approach of catering to both explicit and implicit intent can set your brand apart from the rest. It provides an opportunity to lead your industry by delivering highly targeted content that truly resonates with your audience. But, the benefits don’t stop at industry recognition. The real advantage lies in building meaningful connections with your users. By truly understanding their search intent, you’re able to reduce the gap between your brand and its patrons, fostering stronger relationships and driving higher engagement.


Moreover, this strategy is not merely about improving your search ranking (though that is a definite perk). It’s about enriching the user’s journey from the moment they initiate a search to the moment they find what they’re looking for on your site. It’s about transforming their experience from a transactional interaction to a meaningful connection.


By capitalizing on this shift, you can redefine the way users interact with your brand to propel growth. This approach is not just about keeping pace with the constant change of the digital landscape, but most of all about enriching user experiences and forging meaningful connections—setting the stage for continued success and evolution.


 

veruska anconitano

Veruska is an SEO consultant that works at the intersection of SEO and localization to help companies enter non-English-speaking markets. She follows a culturalized approach to SEO and localization, leveraging cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and data. Twitter | Linkedin

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