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How Search Intent Changed During COVID-19 and What You Should Do Now

How Search Intent Has Changed and How To Respond

By Karen TaylorFeb 2 /2021

Have you adjusted your SEO since the advent of COVID-19? If not, now is the time. While some businesses have not been impacted from a search standpoint, others have seen a shift in terms of search intent. As a reminder, search intent (also called user intent or audience intent) describes the purpose of a person’s online search — in other words, what they are hoping to find by conducting the search.

In the past, search engines used direct word matching of keywords. But Google found that just because a user types “battery car dead,” for example, doesn’t mean they want everything that matches that search term, such as what it is, where to buy batteries, which batteries are rated higher or how to replace a battery.

Why is Search Intent Important?

Every search begins with someone hoping to find something specific. For example, they may have a question for which they want an answer. They may be looking for a specific website. They may be searching for something they want to purchase.

For Google, knowing the intent of a search is vital for delivering accurate search results. In fact, Google has made it its mission to better understand the intent behind search terms and match them to results appropriately so that its search engines rank pages (SERPs) fit the search terms. To this end, the company has refocused its search results around search intent, working hard to improve its algorithm in ways that can determine people’s search intent.

As a result, search engines have changed. They used to be word match engines, but they've evolved to operate a lot like artificially intelligent (AI) machines with the job of trying to understand users’ meaning behind the search terms they use.

Search intent matters to SEO not only because relevance is a key ranking factor, but also because fulfilling user intent impacts click-through-rates (CTR), bounce rates and conversion rates.  

This means that marketers need to shift their focus toward search intent if they want a shot at gaining a high page ranking. For example, marketers should make sure that their posts and pages fit the search intent of their audience.

How to Identify Buyer’s Search Intent

A study by Ignite Visibility provides an example of the differences in search intent. For example, when asking users what their intent would be for a search on “pasta,” the results included:

  • To find pasta recipes (52.9%)
  • To read articles about pasta (14.8%)
  • To learn what pasta is (14%)
  • To find a pasta restaurant (7.6%)
  • To look at pictures of pasta (5.8%)
  • To watch a video about pasta (5%)

Overall, search intent can be viewed as falling into five key categories, each with different modifiers to basic search terms:

  1. Informational search intent: When a person is looking for specific information their search query may include words like who, where, tips, best practices, or guides.
  2. Commercial search intent: When looking for specific products or services, queries may include terms like reviews, comparisons, or top 10. 
  3. Transactional search intent: When someone knows what they want to buy and is looking for the best price, queries may include terms like lowest price, discount, or free shipping.
  4. Navigational search intent: When someone wants to visit a specific page on a company website but don’t know the exact URL, they may search for the company’s name and some modifier, like about or blog. 
  5. Local search intent: When someone wants to visit a specific page on a local company website they will likely include the businesses name and the specific term they want, such as store hours, phone number, or mobile ordering.

COVID-19’s Impact on Search Intent

Many businesses found that their keywords were impacted during the pandemic. Among the new search terms that began dominating the search engines at the start of the crisis included vaccine, diagnosis, virus, COVID-19 test, and online shopping. A few months into the crisis, terms shifted to terms like stimulus check, payment waived, medical leave, and Zoom activation.

Real-Life Example:

A large grocery store chain in Hong Kong shared an overview of how changes in consumers’ search intent around grocery shopping impacted its SEO. At the start of the virus outbreak, the Wellcome supermarket chain found that search intent shifted from brand-related keywords to a dramatic increase in the volume of search terms such as “Wellcome supermarket online store” and “Wellcome supermarket online shopping.”

A few months into the pandemic, as Hong Kong got the virus under control, Wellcome found that people returned to a somewhat normal search pattern with one caveat. The hours of some stores had changed during the crisis, including closing earlier. There was a corresponding decline in online shop-related keywords and an increase in terms such as “Wellcome supermarket operation hours.”

How to Optimize Your Search Intent

Here are four main takeaways about addressing changes to search intent:

1. Shift your SEO strategy

Track changes to search terms in real time and respond to them. In the short term, if your business has changed or been affected by the pandemic, the first place you should start is Google Search Console because that is the front line of SEO. Check to see if the impression rate has increased or decreased over a given time period. Find out what keywords have changed, dropped off or surged.

In particular, pay attention to what’s showing on SERPs related to specific search terms, because what Google puts on the SERP is a clue to the searcher intent. For example, the content of a featured snippet at the top of the SERP can indicate the search intent because they reflect the best possible response to the search terms and searcher intent. A study by SEMrush found that featured snippets appear more often for keywords that indicate specific intent at a certain point in the buyer’s journey, such as long-tail keywords.

2. Look to user intent to create fresh content

Realize that many keywords can have multiple intents. Create different content assets that meet relevant intents related to your business by using search terms as a basis for developing topical content strategies. If your website is ranking for new keywords and they are converting, double down on related content.

3. Be aware of misleading intent

Volume for many keywords increased during COVID-19, which could cause confusion with some campaigns. For example, an increase for “airline flights,” may not necessarily be for purchasing tickets. Instead, they could be for people looking for cancellation policies. If a company invests in optimizing the wrong terms, it could waste significant funds on campaigns. 

4. Leverage the growth of local search

Local search intent is crucial at this point in time — probably more than ever before. People are searching for places or information located in their hometowns since they cannot travel elsewhere. In fact, people are far more receptive to supporting small, local businesses at this time. These businesses can use this to their advantage.  

Your SEO Strategy

SEO has never been so advanced, complex and powerful in helping organizations achieve their goals. Paying attention to search intent is a key factor that should be part of a robust SEO strategy. By targeting the correct search intent of your target audience — particularly during major events, like COVID-19 — you can create, optimize, and invest more intelligently.

The New Demand Generation

Karen Taylor
The Author

Karen Taylor

Karen Taylor is a professional content marketing writer with experience writing for over 100 companies and publications. Her experience includes the full range of content marketing projects — from blogs, to white papers, to ebooks. She has a particular knack for creating content that clarifies and strengthens a company’s marketing message, and delivers optimum impact and maximum results. Learn more at KarenTaylorWrites.com.
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