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What Is User Intent for E-commerce?

Oct 13, 2021

The holy grail of e-commerce is understanding what the consumer is looking for when shopping online. In the industry, we call this “user intent,” and it’s a topic that offers priceless insights into the minds and desires of your shoppers and, in turn, how to ultimately deliver those things.

The key to studying user intent is understanding the context and intention behind an online search rather than just the words used.

What is the customer’s goal or aim?

What are they hoping to get from the search?

Why this search at this particular moment?

It’s this understanding of intent that makes a huge difference to how relevant a search result is – the more relevant to the intent, the greater the chance the customer will make a purchase.

As such, user intent is really one of the foundations of e-commerce. It’s just that, before now, we didn’t have the tools to properly utilize it.


Why Is User Intent Important in E-commerce?

E-commerce is the fastest and most efficient retail channel when consumers know what it is that they want to buy.

Rather than having to search store shelves or go from shop to shop, they can simply type what they want into a search box and be taken to the exact product.

This is only possible because of the retailer’s understanding of user intent.

Most websites and search engines today use natural language processing to interpret the customer’s intent. In the same way that we, as humans, can infer much about one another from the things we say, natural language processing allows digital systems to understand more of our language beyond just grammar.

From the keywords used in search queries and the context of those search terms, the system can try to interpret what the intention of the customer is.

What Are the Three Main Types of User Intent?

  • Informational – where the consumer is looking for information about something.
  • Navigational – where the consumer is trying to find a particular website.
  • Transactional – where the consumer wants to buy a product or service.

Some consumers will have more than one intention driving their search, which is fine. The sophistication of today’s search engines can use other data, like clicks and navigation patterns, to interpret those multiple intentions. The system will then match its understanding of the user intent with the best possible content or product.

User intent is particularly crucial for retailers and brands because many e-commerce purchases don’t start on a retailer’s own website. They start in search engines and marketplaces such as Google, Amazon, eBay and Alibaba.

E-commerce is, in many ways, a journey that the shopper embarks on with the intent to purchase something. That journey can have many twists and turns, and more often than not it will begin with Google.

On its own, Google accounted for an 87.76% share of the global search engine market in June 2021 according to Statista.

In 2018, Jumpshot reported that 46% of product searches begin on Google.

Google accounted for an 87.76% share of the global search engine market in June 2021 according to Statista.

And there are literally millions of web pages that could be served up as a result.

As such, Google has invested heavily over the years in improving the quality of its results focusing on relevance to the customer query. This includes thinking about the customer intent rather than just matching exactly what is typed.

For example, a customer searching for a t-shirt could feasibly type this as “t-shirt,” “t shirt,” or “tshirt,” but their user intent would be the same. As such, the results should reflect this rather than the way the search was phrased.

The fact is that if a retailer or brand wants their products to be found by consumers then they need to optimize them for user intent. They need to understand what search terms may lead a customer to their product page and make sure that the associated data reflects this. Otherwise, search engines and other channels won’t know which of their products to recommend.


How Do I Optimize for User Intent?

Make sure that the brand and product model or number are clearly displayed. Also include Information about colour, size, material, price, weight and any other relevant information. Images and descriptive text are other important elements.

The more data there is about your products, the better Google will be able to identify them as relevant to searches matching the intent to find those products. Also, it’s always a good idea to give potential customers all the information they need to make an informed purchase in any situation.

Having this detailed and direct product data will also help you to make better product recommendations in response to customer searches on your own website.

However, this information often isn’t enough on its own to demonstrate exactly how that product relates to the customer intent.

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If I Understand User Intent, Is That Everything I Need?

Now let’s imagine going into a physical retail store to buy a t-shirt.

You tell the store associate what you want to buy. They understand the words that you’re saying, but they don’t have any knowledge about the product or where it is in the store. Or worse, they send you to a completely different product department in the store.

This is what understanding user intent alone is like in e-commerce. It’s the digitized version of that employee who needs to be able to take the customer to their product.

The first part of the challenge is recognizing what the customer is looking for. The second part is being able to match this to appropriate products.

In our physical store example, this would be your store associate pointing you in the direction of the t-shirt department so you can browse the options.

If you gave them more information, for example that you want a black long sleeve cotton t-shirt, then they might take you to a particular product that they think matches the information you’ve provided.

Likewise, if you said men’s t-shirts or children’s t-shirts, the department that they sent you to or the products they recommended would change.

As human beings we are constantly making these calculations around intent and context and tailoring our responses accordingly. This is where it can get tricky for e-commerce.

User intent technology not only helps your customers find the products they are looking for, but it also helps your e-commerce business increase conversion rates, organic traffic, and high quality content on your site. For e-commerce especially, understanding transactional intent is an important aspect of growing your online business.

Why Does Conceptual Product Understanding Matter to Retailers?

Language can be very different when written vs. when it is spoken.

Like we talked about above, a customer searching for a t-shirt online could type out their search query in a few different ways and get a different result each time. In a physical store, there is only one way for the store associate to interpret hearing the word t-shirt so the suggested products will be more consistent.

In order to provide the best possible match, retailers need to think about more than just the particular product attributes. They should consider conceptual product understanding as well.

This is information that may be obvious to us at first, but it can make or break the e-commerce recommendations system.

For example, this may be information about product groups such as sweaters being upper-body garments and pants being lower-body garments. As such, the system shouldn’t recommend sweaters if the search term is for pants.

Equally, a bow tie can be a substitute for a tie. It is not, however, a complement to a tie. Shoes may complement a dress, but they can’t be a substitution for it.

Another element to bear in mind is that terminology and user intent can change from country to country. This means that a customer in the US searching for a certain keyword may expect different results to someone in Europe searching for the same keyword.


Putting User Intent and Product Understanding into Action

There’s a reason we said that the holy grail of e-commerce is understanding what the consumer is looking for and being able to make the best possible recommendation.

While some retailers are thinking about user intent, they often overlook product understanding. Yet, these two concepts are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other if you want to bring customers to the things they’re looking to buy.

However, if you need some help putting user intent and product understanding into action, there are solutions out there. Working with an expert partner like Avensia can make the process quicker, cheaper and – crucially – the end result more effective.

Getting user intent right is only going to be more important in the future. Customer expectations around online activity get higher and higher every year. As such, customers won’t accept poor quality or irrelevant search recommendations any longer. By utilizing the power of user intent, retailers can increase conversion rates, organic traffic, and high quality website content to ensure they are ahead of the competition.

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