Understanding Intent in Search Engine Marketing


Many marketers and companies that enter into search engine marketing come with high hopes and the right intentions, however in my experience working with these teams, their approach is flipped on its head.

And when diagnosing the causes of failed or frustrating SEM campaigns, it really can be traced to this. 

My goal for today is to clarify the proper approach that helps blaze the path towards a successful SEO strategy. 

Intent Based Search Engines 

Search engines revolve around search queries. To put this in plain english, this means that search engines are powered by what users type in. 

Yep, what a truth bomb. 

But if we dig deeper into this understanding, then it will help illuminate the essence of search engine marketing. 

The fact that search engines are entirely dependant on what people are searching for means that the essence of data in SEM is search queries. This means that all we have to analyze and formulate our marketing is what people are searching for. 

In other words, when doing search engine marketing, we cannot know what the person behind the keyboard looks like. We do however know what they are exactly typing in. 

What does this mean? That search engines are intent based. 

We know that people searching for certain queries are expressly looking for that product/service or concept. 

Let’s use an example. In a past life, I heavily worked with dentists. And if someone searched for “dentist”, we can be pretty sure that they are looking for a dentist or at least in the market to understand or learn more about dentists.

Marketing 101: Target Markets

The favorite terminology for anyone who has at least taken a marketing 101 class is “target markets”. This is one of the fundamental elements of marketing and is what most companies use to start any marketing campaign. 

I won’t go into detail about target markets because you probably know about it. If you don’t, there are many resources out there that you can easily find.

Now in the scope of search engine marketing and search engine optimization, the concept of target market does align, just not as closely and cleanly. 

Let’s read into why. 

Remember, search engines revolve around the search queries and that means we don’t know who is behind the keyboard. We only know what they are typing. 

So this means that you will not be able to enter search marketing by starting with your target market. You will start with the words they are typing in. 

Now I should take a step aside and say that yes, there is a way to still know the target market. Studies can be done to analyze your target market and what they type in when searching for some business like yourself. 

However, this is something that I have not seen executed without major generalities. And to be honest, most companies don’t have the budget to do this study. Though I would like to be shown examples of where people have done this, so please, if you have seen this, hit me up!

Anyways, back to the discussion at hand. This is where businesses get tripped up. They focus on the target market heavily and when they jump into SEO there is a huge disconnect. There is no demographic data to align. 

Don’t Use your Intuition

After taking so much time on understanding your target market, once teams figure out that search engines don’t have the demographic data, 9 times out of 10, they use their intuition.

I cannot tell you how many times this is wrong. 

In my experience, if you are in the business your idea of what people are using to search for a business like yours is wrong. 

Let’s go back to the dentist example. 

When going through discovery and keyword research with these dentists, they would always list terms like “dentist, cavities, crowns, etc.”

Now these seem like they make sense, however, they do not pass through the following two filters:

  • Searcher Intent
  • Google Intent 

Searcher intent is what users are using to search for you. Now as a dentist you are thinking of all the services and capabilities you have. 

However, most people actually have no idea what they need. And if they did, they are usually wrong themselves. Any venture into WebMD that you may have done will help explain why. 

Anyways, the typical user does not know that they need a crown or that they have a cavity. They are looking for a dentist. 

So many keywords that actually became the center point of search campaigns were admittedly around basic keywords like:

Dentist Near Me
Dentist PPO
Best Dentist in [City]

This is pretty unimaginative, but it illustrates the reason intuition isn’t the best case. 

In a different post, I’ve written more about Google intent that will take it another layer deeper explaining why the keywords you think would be great fits will be automatically be unplayable because of the way Google treats that keyword. 

Search Engines vs Social Media

As you are reading this, your mind has probably thought of social media. Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn offer this exact target marketing style of advertising. Therefore, they are much more conducive to follow the typical style of targeting by demographics. 

So the best way to understand it all is to really compare the two and clarify how both industries of marketing fit into a bigger picture. 

For today’s conversation, we will use Facebook since many are very familiar with marketing. In Facebook advertising you can target by demographics. 

Facebook Ad Targeting

As you can see you can target along the following metrics:

  • Location
  • Demographics
  • Interests
  • Behavior
  • Connections

Google Ads Search Keywords Targeting

Google Ads Location Targeting

In Google you can target with the following metrics: 

  • Location
  • Search Query
  • Behavior

So when looking at Google, specifically the paid side of Google, you can see that you can target based on location, behavior on your site and what they are searching for. 

Search Marketing vs Social Media Marketing Factors 

Let’s drill down a bit. That means when you are targeting on Facebook you are finding everyone who fits your target market. Essentially you are at the top of the sales funnel. 

You know what they look like, know where they are located and what pages they have liked. You have really no idea if they have thought about your product or even know about your product. 

What you do know is that compared to your current customers, they are essentially a look-a-like.

This is the style of typical marketing. 

Now here’s where search engine marketing is different. As we’ve said many times, all we know is what the person is searching for. We don’t know what they look like, though we do know where they are located.

Therefore, they have showed intent that they know your product/service and/or business. But we don’t know if they fit your target market, do they look like your current market? You won’t know until they have interacted with you. 

When looking at the funnel again, you could say that we start at the mid to bottom of the funnel. We know that the person is aware, interested and even showing desire through their google search. The rest of the job is to grab their attention. 

If you didn’t catch that, that is AIDA, another popular marketing concept. 

So you can see that social media and search engine marketing offer two differing styles of marketing. 

Social is the more traditional advertising approach. You target by demographics and what the audiences looks like. You then build awareness and drive the person to want your product or service. 

SEM/SEO is the opposite where it goes intent first. You know the person is interested in the product, but you need to verify that they fit your ideal customer and then convince them that you are one to go with. 

In Conclusions

Search Engine Marketing and Social Media Marketing are two great marketing channels. Let no one tell you that one is absolutely better than the other. If someone is heavily trying to convince you otherwise, they probably have a private, selfish interest in getting you to commit to one. 

Both are great marketing channels and should not be seen as either/or but rather two great options. 

What I will say is that for different business, one may be more conducive to the business or industry. This could be because of many different reasons:

The competition
The nature of the marketing (visual or text focused)
The resources the company has

We’re not here to talk about which is better and I typically hate to have that conversation because it doesn’t really matter which is the best. It’s whatever works for your business at the time. 

Now when you go working with your team about trying to understanding your search engine marketing strategy, get away from thinking about what your ideal target market is. 

Start thinking in the frame of mind that SEM will provide many instances of intent and your job is to find them and rank for those. 

Over time your targeting will be more sophisticated as you find that certain keywords lead to more sales as opposed to others. But to get to that point, you have to start on the right foot. 

I hope this conversation helps you think about search.

I’d love to hear your thoughts or the obstacles you have encountered. Drop a comment or question! 

About the Author

Jason is founder and CEO of Zupo, which is an Orange County based SEO consulting agency helping construct powerful long term SEO strategies for our clients. Jason also enjoys multiple cups of tea a day, hiding away on weekends catching up on reading and rewatching The Simpsons for the 20th time.

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