Uncovering Search Intent for SEO-friendly Content Optimization

Justin Park, Senior Analyst, SEO

August 4, 2021

Executive Summary

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) goes beyond the keywords users type into a Google search when seeking information online. The intent or purpose behind a user’s search is an important ranking factor that is often overlooked. This is especially true in healthcare as patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals can have drastically different objectives in their search journeys. Search intent is the ‘why’ a user is searching and what they are trying to accomplish: to learn something, buy something, contact someone, etc. Here we explore how search engines are prioritizing search intent, the different kinds of search intent, and the steps that pharmaceutical brands can take to properly optimize for search intent.

Keywords Provide Clues, Search Engines Reveal Intent

Search intent, also known as user intent or audience intent, describes the goal or purpose of a user’s search. Search intent is the reason why a user is searching and helps define what information they are seeking. Everyone who enters an online search has an intent and is looking to find something, whether it be details regarding an indication, a specific website, products, prices, reviews, schedules, or any other piece of information they expect to find on the internet.

While keywords used in searches provide clues to a users’ intent, they do not always tell the whole story. For example, consider a search conducted for “lung doctors.” There are several possible intents or reasons why someone could enter this query into a search engine. Perhaps a searcher is simply trying to remember the type of physicians that specialize in lung care or wants to learn about this type of care. Maybe the searcher is a patient recently diagnosed with a respiratory condition that is trying to find a pulmonologist office near them or reviews of pulmonologists in the area.

Search queries, like the example above, that use fewer, broader terms may be searched more frequently but can have multiple masked intents. Uncovering the purpose or objective behind the keywords and why the user utilized specific terminology is the key to understanding their intent and what they are hoping to find.

Algorithms Evolving to Deliver Better Search Results

Helping “everyone find the information they’re looking for” is at the top of Google’s mission statement for Search. To accomplish this, Google has begun prioritizing intent in their algorithm updates to deliver results tailored to meet the searcher’s goal. Google and other search engines are no longer providing search results based solely on the keywords in the query, but rather developing machine learning mechanisms that use those keywords as an indicator to determine the intent behind the search. One of Google’s largest updates in recent years, the BERT algorithm update, was specifically focused on better identifying the intent behind a user’s search query to deliver more relevant results. They accomplished this by determining the context of words in each search query. By the end of 2020, Google was using BERT to deliver nearly 100% of all search results and although BERT was effective, Google is still continually enhancing the search result algorithm’s ability to understand the language used in queries to deliver improved search experiences for users. Understanding the intent, and in some cases even type of intent behind the search, is the key to delivering helpful and relevant search results.

Types of Search Intent

As a user’s intent behind a search becomes more important to search engine results, it is important to know how search engines categorize search queries. There are four different search intent types that are traditionally recognized: informational, navigational, transactional, and investigation.

1. Informational Searches. Often considered “know” searches, informational searches describe when a searcher is trying to gather information or seeking knowledge about a topic. Within pharma-related searches, these queries are usually non-branded and the intent is associated with users who are still in the early stages of “disease discovery.” They’re trying to learn about an indication or their diagnosis and are likely unfamiliar with specific treatment options.

Opportunity: Informational searches present a significant opportunity to rank for non-branded queries to reach new audiences at the start of their search journeys, as well as increase traffic to brand websites. Although these search are typically “wider funnel,” they provide brands the opportunity to make an initial impression, drive awareness, and maintain relevancy during a searchers’ journey. For those reasons, informational searches can lead to incremental organic traffic increases and reaching new audiences previously unfamiliar with the brand.

2. Navigational Searches. These are also known as “go” searches. Searchers with this intent usually have their destination in mind and want to visit a specific website. Within this intent, patient and HCP audiences are previously familiar with a brand as a potential treatment option. They are likely to use branded keywords to find more information from a reputable source before deciding on a treatment plan.

Opportunity: In the highly competitive pharma-search landscape, even ranking highly for branded terms can be a challenge, especially if there are multiple reputable websites (WebMD, Drugs.com, RXList.com) creating content about a brand. However, ranking well for these keywords is crucial for capturing audiences familiar with the brand and directing them to accurate information on the brand website.

3. Commercial Investigation. Searches conducted with a commercial investigation intent indicate a user is on the verge of making a final decision but is in need of more convincing. In pharma-related searches, this audience is already informed about a brand and strongly considering it as a treatment option. They are utilizing specific branded terms to find reviews, weigh competitor and generic drug options, and discover resources that are geographically close to their location. These investigative searches ultimately influence searchers’ final decision regarding treatment plans.

Opportunity: Hosting patient profiles or testimonials and comparative efficacy data on a branded website may help target these queries for patients and HCPs, though both audiences may seek this information from outside a brand’s website to remove bias.

4.TransactionalSearches.Also referred to as “do” searches, users with this intent know what they want and are ready to make a decision. While this often involves a monetary transaction, these searches indicate that a user is ready to take action. In pharma-related transactional queries, patient and HCP audiences already familiar with a brand are seeking a way to contact patient support or a representative, find a prescribing doctor, or download a brochure.

Opportunity: Although patients and HCPs are not making purchasing treatment online, prioritizing keywords that promote resources, savings, and support information will help direct traffic to non-transactional pharma brand websites. Ranking highly for these types of branded searches will help lead patients and HCPs to actionable steps, such as PDF downloads and prescribing doctor searches, that show that they are ready to move forward with the brand as a treatment option.

Micro-Intentions Fill Gaps in Search Journeys

As Google enhances machine-learning tools’ ability to decipher deeper and granular search intentions, it is important to consider “micro-intentions.” These intentions represent the numerous specific searches that users make during their journey that influence their final decision regarding treatment. These can be branded or non-branded searches that include terms and keywords specific to the indication or brand.

For example, consider the search query “how long for [brand] to start working.” While it is possible a user is searching this to learn about the brand before starting the treatment, it is likely that this is a question a patient had after they have started with the brand as a treatment option. This represents an opportunity for providing information tailored to current patients prescribed to the brand and the information they may seek.

Often in pharma-related searches where broad, high-volume keywords are highly competitive, optimizing for micro-intentions and long-tail searches can expand the range of queries for which the content can rank and target granular search intents. Ranking well for these lesser searched but more specific, long-tail keywords can help uncover content opportunities that add up to significant organic traffic and brand awareness.

Uncovering Intent Through SERP Results

Understanding an audiences’ search intent is the key to developing content that serves your target audience. Analyzing how search engines prioritize results can provide valuable insights into the perceived intent of the searcher. For example, featured snippets, such as Quick Answer and People Also Ask results, could indicate that Google associates the query with informational search intent. Similarly, search results containing a map and reviews would indicate Google is expecting commercial investigation intent for the query. Creating content to align with these formats can give brands more opportunity to deliver relevant answers to qualified users outside of the traditional search results.

Writing for users and search engines will help ensure the content will provide information that users are seeking and be ranked accordingly by Google and other search engines. Content on each page on a website should focus on a specific keyword theme and intended to fulfill one search intent goal. Consider content creation as an ongoing process that requires SEO insight.

Content should be created based on what a searcher is seeking, rooted in keywords and themes aligned with that intent, and structured in ways that is similar to how content is displayed in search results. Presenting content in a way that is scannable, especially across different devices, and features succinct summaries will also help audiences quickly find the information they are seeking and enable the web page to be utilized by search engines for featured snippets. By avoiding pages with multiple themes and unclear goals, brands will ensure their content can be easily understood by patients and healthcare providers, as well as search engines.

Reach Your Organic Search Goals with Content Optimized for Search Intent

As search intent continues to be the focus of search engine ranking algorithms, now is the time to prepare your website. The specific search intents of different audiences must always be considered when creating content for the web. Be sure to include your CMI Media Group SEO team members early in the content development process so they can help optimize for search intent.

Without analyzing search data to better understand what your audience is seeking and evaluating how search engines rank results, brands are more likely to miss their organic search goals. Your SEO team can conduct the necessary research to help you build an effective content strategy.