The Importance of Search Intent in Multilingual SEO
Understanding search intent is a vital part of search engine optimisation (SEO), and even more so when it comes to multilingual SEO. When we find equivalents for keywords in other languages, we must consider how people in the target market are likely to use that keyword, and that’s where search intent comes in.
In this post:
What is multilingual SEO?
Multilingual SEO is the practice of optimising websites for multiple languages to rank higher in search engine result pages for foreign markets. It’s a branch of SEO concerned with making websites more visible and accessible to users who speak different languages.
There are several methods to achieve this, from translating and localising content to building international link profiles and developing country-specific domains. The aim is always the same: to improve the visibility of a website in search engine results pages (SERPs) for users in foreign countries.
What is search intent?
Search intent is the underlying motivation behind someone’s search query. It’s the goal a person is trying to accomplish when they type in something into a search engine. Knowing what someone’s intent is can help you tailor your SEO translation strategy and content accordingly so that it meets their needs.
You can also think of search intent as the search engine’s idea of what a search user wants to find. The search engine uses search intent to serve search results that satisfy users’ search needs.
Search intent is what motivates a person to submit a search query, and this makes it an extremely important ranking factor. Why did the person do this search? Do they want to learn something? Are they trying to make a purchase? Are they looking for a particular website?
Types of search intent
There are four main types of search intent, but some marketers also include a fifth. See them below:
- Informational intent: This is when people are simply looking for information about a specific topic, e.g., the latest government advice on Covid-19, weather forecast, etc.
- Navigational intent: Have you ever tried to find a website but couldn’t remember the URL? You most likely typed the brand’s name in a keyword just to find the website. That’s navigational intent.
- Transactional intent: When the user intends to buy something, their search will be transactional. These searches usually include words such as ‘buy’, ‘deal’, ‘discount’, etc.
- Commercial investigation: This type of search intent is a blend between informational and transactional intents because the person submitting the query has the intention to buy in the (near) future and is researching potential brands or products, e.g. what brand of vacuum cleaner is the best in their country.
- (Depending on the author) Local intent: How many times were you looking for a nearby pharmacy and just went on Google and typed ‘pharmacy near me’? That’s local intent: you were trying to find something in your surroundings. Sometimes, these types of queries will include a specific location, but other times the users simply rely on geo-tracking to get the results they are expecting.
Google’s classification of queries
Google words the above categories a bit differently. Google’s own Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (find the link in the References section of this ebook) mention search intent in the below terms:
“It can be helpful to think of queries as having one or more of the following intents.
The intent of a Know query is to find information on a topic. Users want to know more about something.
- Some Know queries are Know Simple queries: Know Simple queries are a special type of Know query that seeks a very specific answer, like a fact, diagram, etc. This answer has to be correct and complete and can be displayed in a relatively small amount of space: the size of a mobile phone screen. As a rule of thumb, if most people would agree on a correct answer, and it would fit in 1-2 sentences or a shortlist of items, the query can be called a Know Simple query.
Frequently, Know Simple queries do not have question words. For example, [barack obama height] has the same user intent as [how tall is barack obama], but isn’t in a question format.
The intent of a Do query is to accomplish a goal or engage in an activity on a phone. The goal or activity may be to download, to buy, to obtain, to be entertained by, or to interact with a website or app.
- Some Do queries are Device Action queries: Users are asking their phone to do something for them. Users giving Device Action queries may be using phones in hands-free mode, for example, while in a car. A Device Action query usually has a clear action word and intent. The verb or action word is often at the beginning of the query, but a query might start with “OK Google” or “Google” or “Siri” or “I want to.” Use your judgment.
When the user is looking for a specific website or webpage: The intent of a Website query is to locate a specific website or webpage that users have requested. This single webpage is called the target of the query.
● Visit-in-person queries, some of which are looking for a specific business or organisation, some of which are looking for a category of businesses.
Why is search intent important?
Search intent is important because it helps determine which content will be the most useful to a search user. SEO professionals usually overlook search intent as a ranking factor, which can become problematic when the reason behind a query is obscure or ambiguous.
For example, while the search intent for the query “restaurants near me” is very transparent (the user is trying to find restaurants in their vicinity), search engines struggle with queries that are more subjective or generic, like the query “noodles.”
It can be difficult to pinpoint the search intent for a query like “noodles” – does the user want information on noodles in general, are they looking up a specific restaurant with this item on the menu, or are they trying to find recipes that use noodles?
A search intent mismatch can cause problems for search engine optimisation. If the user is looking for information about noodles in general, and search results point them to a particular restaurant’s menu instead, frustration will increase because the search user wasn’t able to get what they wanted: relevant search results.
Google doesn’t want frustrated users
So what does Google do? It will aim to provide search users with the most relevant search results when search intent is clear.
When search intent is unclear, Google will make assumptions based on metrics, historical data, experiments, rigorous testing, and search quality review. In Google’s own words:
“Our engineers have many ideas for ways to make your results more useful. But we don’t go on a hunch or an expert opinion. We rely on extensive testing and have a rigorous evaluation process to analyse metrics (…).
We work with external Search Quality Raters to measure the quality of search results on an ongoing basis. Raters assess how well a website gives people who click on it what they are looking for and evaluate the quality of results based on the expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness of the content. These ratings do not directly impact ranking, but they do help us benchmark the quality of our results and make sure that these meet a high bar all around the world.”Google Search Help
What role does search intent play in multilingual SEO?
When it comes to multilingual SEO, having an understanding of search intent is essential. When you’re localising keywords into other languages, you must consider how people in the target market use that keyword – and this requires knowledge of how culture affects search intent and search behaviour.
And culture is something that not many SEOs take into account.
One of the most popular definitions of culture was given by Hofstede: “Culture is the collective programming of the mind, the interactive aggregate of common characteristics that influence a human’s group response to the environment.” (Hofstede 1980).
In simpler words, culture is an accepted way of interacting with others within a geographic area. This interaction includes not just people but technology, too.
If we think of search intent as the thought process behind a search, culture becomes a crucial factor in understanding what people are trying to get when they query a search engine.
For example, three people from different countries may enter the same query on Google – e.g., “animal kingdom” – with different goals in mind. Someone in a remote part of the UK may be searching for information about the taxonomic classification of species (informational intent) However, if the user is a Florida resident, Google will show them results about Disney World, assuming their intent is local – looking for tourist attractions.
Culture also affects the characteristics of a product or service that we’re looking for. This, in turn, affects the way we look for it online, i.e., our search behaviour. I’ll give you some examples shortly. First, however, because we couldn’t possibly know the ins and outs of every culture in the world, let’s go over how to systematically approach the potential cultural aspects of search intent and search behaviour.
Hofstede’s cultural dimensions
According to Hofstede’s cultural dimension theory, culture is a broad, collective pattern of cognitions that varies across countries with respect to five dimensions. These dimensions represent preferences for one state of affairs over another – you can think about them on a continuum, and they are:
- Power distance
- Individualism vs collectivism
- Masculinity vs femininity
- Uncertainty avoidance index
- Long- vs short-term orientation
To illustrate this point, and focusing on the second dimension, we can mention how people from individualistic cultures (like Australia, Canada, the US, the UK, Holland) tend to look after themselves and their immediate family only, and “prefer to act as individuals rather than as members of a group.” (Steenkamp, Hofstede and Wedel, 1999: 59)
A logical consequence is that conformity levels are lower in individualistic societies (Hofstede, 2001: 236), and individual initiatives are encouraged.
Search behaviour in individualistic societies
Translated to consumer behaviour, this means that, when marketing to an individualistic society – which prioritises self-sufficiency and self-reliance – a brand should consider that consumers strive to:
- Stand out from the crowd,
- Be unique, and
- Stay on top of the latest trends.
Consequently, individualistic societies usually:
- Take more risks,
- Welcome innovativeness,
- Show less brand loyalty, and
- Indulge more in pleasure products/services (Milner, Fodness and Speece, 1993).
Customers from individualist societies tend to spend more time searching for the best value products based on price rather than quality – a culturally aware SEO strategy, therefore, will optimise content to rank higher for keywords associated with price, best value, trendiness, pleasure, innovativeness, and uniqueness.
What keywords would a person from an individualistic culture employ in a transactional search when looking to buy a holiday on the beach? Some examples could be:
- “offers for all-inclusive holidays” (commercial investigation intent),
- “book hotel with bar” (transactional intent),
- “trendy men shoes” (commercial investigation intent), etc.
Search behaviour in collectivist societies
What about search behaviour in collectivist cultures? How does it differ from individualistic societies?
People from collectivist societies regard the needs and goals of the individual as less important than those of the group. They tend to place more emphasis on their relationships with family, friends, and community members.
In search behaviour terms, this means that marketers (and SEO translators) must be aware of the fact that collectivists search for information that will involve others in their search – i.e., they search for information that:
- Is relevant to the community
- Has a lot of third-party validation
- Encourages consensus-building and collaboration
Content aimed at collectivists should focus less on persuasive communication and more on sharing ideas, advice, recommendations, and opinions from others.
When marketing to collectivist societies – which emphasise cooperation and conformity – therefore, a brand should consider that consumers are more likely to research brands and products before making their purchase decision. In search intent terms, this also means that commercial investigation keywords are likely to be more popular – as customers try to get an understanding of what other people think/recommend.
A culturally aware SEO strategy will optimise content for collectivist societies around building trust by providing testimonials from satisfied customers and targeting long-tail keywords in question form of the type that’s likely to appear on forums, where users can join in discussions with other people about their interests or needs.
Some examples of queries that would be typical of a collectivist culture include:
- “best-reviewed hotels in the world” (commercial investigation intent),
- “what do I look for in a car?” (informational intent),
- “opinions on financial advisors” (informational intent),
- “buy most reliable laptop” (transactional intent).
Seeing search intent as a function of culture
By adjusting keyword research, content optimisation, and user experience to the cultural context of target audiences, brands can have a major competitive advantage in international markets. This is especially relevant when targeting different countries with distinct traditions that shape search behaviour and search intent.
This approach allows them to better engage with customers – regardless of language barriers or geographical location – and produce more effective content that resonates with users.
Author: Maria Scheibengraf
Maria Scheibengraf is an English-to-Spanish marketing and SEO translator specialised in software (SaaS, martech, fintech), and Operations Manager at Crisol Translation Services, which she co-founded in 2016. With a solid background in programming and marketing, Maria has an in-depth understanding of the technical intricacies involved in software programs, websites, and digital platforms. Maria is also the author of The SEO Translation Bible.