By Lucy Lincoln and Charlie Nock

SERP features serve responses to search intent. Your SEO & PPC campaigns should as well.

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How Understanding Search Intent Allows us to Build Visual Search Experiences

Search engines populate the SERP by interpreting each search term’s intent and serving the most relevant result in this order. Over time, this has meant that rich and visual results like quick answers, news articles etc. have appeared, as these are deemed the most relevant results to show for that search term. Through analysing billions of searches every day, search engines are learning what users want. By mapping a user’s overall digital journey through the search funnel (see chart below), brands can effectively target individual search features and become Google’s chosen result for that intent. As 90% of customers report using search at every stage of the customer lifecycle, it is imperative that brands coordinate the targeting of relevant paid and organic features to serve users what they want, when they want it.

search intent across the user journey

Upper Funnel: Visual Searches

E.g. Image-based searches or SERP features

Image-based search features serve a similar role to a store’s window display, with colour, texture and variety driving strong engagement and a visit, whether in-store or online.

Old school SEO techniques - such as ensuring alt text is descriptive and filenames and captions are keyword rich - will support ranking efforts and may even qualify your organic listings for a thumbnail result. Make sure visual content is unique and crawlable in the page source, any text should be overlaid using CSS. Of course, all large files like images should be compressed to aid site performance and improve user-experience. 

Visual search features in Google SERP

Google is unsure of the intent of this search and so displays a range of visually engaging treats to satisfy multiple intents

As well as displaying visual search results which are likely to have higher click-through-rates, users can now search within images or by using an image. Reverse image searches are seriously impressive and will only become more advanced. Take this example from Bing’s AI, which semantically matches text with an image - or parts of an image - to return a relevant result.

Bing's image artificial intelligence ecommerce

Reverse image search me baby one more time

The benefits of image optimisation also extend to paid activity. Optimise your images for Google Shopping ads by using a high-resolution image (800x800 preferred) on a white background, with no hidden text.You can test the performance of different product angles by adding multiple images through the Additional Image Links attribute in your shopping feed. Generally, you should try to use static, non-dynamic redirecting links so that you don’t run into any approval issues, particularly on Microsoft Ads (previously Bing) shopping. Image Extensions can also be used on Microsoft Advertising to increase the share of voice on the SERP and increase engagement with your search ads.

Upper Funnel: Long-Tail Informational Searches

E.g. “How to boil an egg so that it is slightly runny in the middle”

Not all searches lead directly to conversions. Brands can capture users searching for information as part of brand awareness, lead generation, or a community management campaign. These searches are often prefixed with “how”, “what”, “why”, “where” and “which”.

Google rich result for egg boiling

Prime real estate for any egg cup vendor, restaurant, recipe, or cooking site

Providing the most useful answer to a user’s question can turn a stranger into a brand advocate, or even a potential customer. Aside from this, search engines will also reward websites in exchange for offering the most relevant answers.

Rich result formats such as Quick Answers and Featured Snippets command prime real estate at the top of the SERP. This “position 0” can drive significantly higher click-through-rates and share-of-voice than traditional blue link listings. 

Allowing SEO to target rich results which are especially relevant to your brand’s customer base can increase brand awareness, incrementally increasing traffic and conversions across SEO & PPC. Targeting these through SEO is the most efficient approach for brands who are new to the upper funnel searches or have strict KPI targets. However, there’s also merit to building out paid campaigns to target these keywords. If building out new paid search campaigns, ensure that you have a different strategy in place- including specific ad copy,  landing pages and naming conventions- so that you can report on these separately. Before launching these, ensure that you have an appropriate attribution model in place (e.g. one that considers all touchpoints like linear, data driven or time decay), as well as a long enough look-back window that could capture people who take a while to convert after any initial interactions. Finally, to accurately measure performance, you might want to consider using alternative KPIs like user engagement (pages viewed, session duration, time spent on site) in addition to your usual KPIs.

Mid-Funnel: Generic and Transactional Searches

These can be divided into shorter and longer tail searches, where search intent for these is very different:

Long Tail Generic:

E.g. “white sports trainers with bounce sole”, “black size 5 trainers for women”

These often see lower search volumes, but can return strong results due to the specificity of the search. These can be harder to target through paid search as they’re often marked as ‘low search volume’ and thus are ineligible to show. Increasing organic presence can be a good step where this is an issue.

Short Tail Generic:

E.g. “white trainers”, “trainers”, “men’s trainers”

Contrary to long tail searches, these see much higher search volume and are therefore more competitive, both for paid and organic search. Search intent is less evident here, and results often reflect this. The deeper pockets and stronger domain authorities of established brands mean that targeting these results can be much more difficult for new entrants to the SERP

chart of search volumes and competition

There are two types of paid shopping campaign types that you can use to match to both types of searches. Product Shopping Ads work best for the longer tail keywords (brand or generic), as Google uses its algorithm to match these longer searches with the product information used in your shopping feed. The more optimised your shopping feed, the more effective this will be.

Conversely, Showcase Shopping ads match to upper funnel or short-tail searches. These often show for broad product categories (e.g. ‘bags’, ‘dresses’) alongside your competitors, influencing consideration. When these are clicked, the ad will expand to show products most relevant to the search term, aiming to increase engagement despite the lack of brand affinity.

Through paid search campaigns, you have the freedom to target all types of keywords, with the only limitation being Google’s account limits.

It’s best to structure your campaigns, ad groups and keywords by common theme and also by specificity. If you’re not sure what the longer tail searches might be, you could try using Dynamic Search Ads to target searches based on content included in your website pages (without building out keyword lists). Dynamic Keyword Insertion in your ads can also increase your keyword relevancy to the user’s search.

With four above-the-fold blue link ads, and the meteoric rise of Google Shopping, organic listings are increasingly being pushed below-the-fold. Organic’s saving grace here is the implicit trust people place in Google’s algorithm. For larger purchases, people often wish to consider their options in greater depth, which can be costly on a platform which charges by the click. Organic search can learn from the rapid A/B testing of PPC, tweaking meta titles and descriptions based on their results. Mobile thumbnails also help here, with organic listings now able to pull images into the SERP as thumbnails, increasing organic share of voice and CTR. Finally, the growing success of Google Shopping should not be treated as a threat - a strong, unified approach should make use of all relevant SEM features to gain insights about the wider customer journey.

Google shopping and image carousel

Coordinated SEM efforts can dominate the SERP

Locational Searches

E.g. “restaurants near me”, “plumber in SE1”, “local supermarkets”

Location-based searches have become more and more important in recent years, with Google reporting a strong increase in the number of these searches. Users are beginning to substitute location qualifiers such as postcodes, instead relying on the SERP’s relevance to provide the results they want.

Locational searches offer the perfect opportunity to catch people at the right moment, in the right place, with higher intent. Driving footfall to physical locations allows for an enhanced brand experience, and often a higher basket value & Lifetime Value.

mobile local result for restaurant Google

Bad egg; fantastic local search presence

In general, you can improve your chances of showing on the SERP by maintaining your Google My Business Profile. Google My Business is becoming a brand’s first digital touchpoint and it is vital that information is accurate and appealing. Ensure each listing guides users to a relevant Local Landing Page (LLP), and parameterise the URL to ensure accurate attribution within Analytics. Merkle’s experience has shown that local campaigns add to organic performance, rather than cannibalising existing efforts. It’s also another fantastic way to steal position “0” at the top of the SERP, as the map pack dominates the above-the-fold real estate on mobile.

For PPC, you can improve your presence and user engagement by using features like Location Extensions/Affiliate Location Extensions, and ensuring that your Google My Business locations are linked to your Google Ads account. Adding more specific locations with bid adjustments allows brands to show the extensions alongside normal search ads. They also qualify a brand for local search ads. To take this a couple of steps further, consider setting up Store Visits in your Google Ads account to see both the online and offline impact of these searches, as well as Local Catalog ads for shopping. These ads display stock estimates per product in given stores, which can be tracked via store visits or combined with offline conversion data.

Brand Searches: Google Knowledge Graph

E.g. “Merkle Periscopix”, “Google”, “Bing”

Often considered the holy grail of searches, brand searches usually rank well both organically and through PPC. Ranking in the top positions on the SERP will help your brand maintain a strong share of voice and compete with competitors and resellers also interested in capitalising on your brand.

Google’s E-A-T algorithm updates in 2018 boosted brands over resellers, significantly changing campaign strategies across search. Brands could now maximise this advantage, whilst resellers had to get creative.

Branded mobile search result Google

We Googled “Bing”, then we Binged "Google"

For paid search, more is more. Try to use lots of ads and extensions to maximize your share of voice on the SERP. Make sure that you’re using the newest ETA & RSA ads that allow you to use up to 3 headlines and 2 descriptions. Sitelink extensions are great for signposting and directing people to various parts of your site, and work best when promoting relevant content for that campaign.

Check that you’re also using structured snippets, callout extensions and seller ratings so that you can highlight your USPs and communicate as much useful information as possible e.g. delivery options, contact info. Ultimately, these will also help to improve your CTR and thus Quality Score.

SEO also has a few options when it comes to dominating share of voice for branded searches. Most prominent is the knowledge graph, which appears on the right of the listings at the top of the SERP. It’s important that brands showcase their best and most useful content, while proactively monitoring for any negative or brand sensitive content which could cause PR/digital damage. 

Finally, a branded search will usually return 6 organic deep links on Google and 8 on Bing. On both search engines these reflect site structure, showing the most important pages. Bing Webmaster Tools allows site owners to block low-value links being pulled into the SERP, but neither search engine allows SEOs to suggest preferences here, in contrast to the freedom paid sitelink extensions offer. Optimal site architecture ensures that sites are designed for clean user-experiences, and offer the secondary benefit of generating high-value deeplinks.

Concluding Our Search Intent Journey

When reviewing your existing search strategy or planning out a completely new campaign, it’s best to start by identifying how users might search for your brand. You can then target these intents across paid and organic search, ensuring that you’re coordinating your search intent strategy across SEO and PPC. 

If you’d like to discuss running more integrated SEM activity with our PPC and SEO teams, you can find our contact details here.

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