The importance of intent in building successful websites

Jan 23, 2013

Table of contents:

  1. What is intent?
  2. Facebook vs Google
  3. A website without intent is just a catalogue
  4. How to facilitate intent
  5. Conclusion

One of the most important, yet under recognised emotions in designing and developing successful websites and web application is intent. Facilitating intent can mean the difference between a wildly successful, profitable website, and a website that can barely make a single conversion.

Creating a website to target intent is about understanding your audience and what they are trying to achieve. Websites and applications should also be a driving force behind intent in order to convert casual browsers into new sales.

It’s very easy to completely neglect intent, or hope to figure it out after you have launched. However it is much harder to optimise a website for intent if it was not one of the goals of the website from the outset.

In this post I will talk about the importance of intent, how to understand the intent of your audience, and how you can design and develop your website to facilitate intent from the beginning of the project.

What is intent?

A user’s intent is their goal for visiting your website. Every website has a purpose, whether it is to make a sale, or just to waste time. However, many websites fall into the trap of being a way to waste time, rather than making a sale.

It’s important to fully understand your user’s intentions and their purpose for visiting your website. A lot of business websites end up in a state of limbo when their traffic wants to make a purchase, but the website is unable to facilitate the sale. This lack of understanding of the user’s intent ultimately costs the business revenue.

Every type of website has a different kind of audience with different intentions. The traffic of a social web app will be very different for someone looking for car insurance. It’s important to understand the nuances of your audience so you can build a website that is able to generate and satisfy the intentions of your ideal traffic source. For more on this, take a look at How to develop User Personas for your website.

Facebook vs Google

Understanding and facilitating intent is important for even the biggest companies on the Internet.

Google’s AdWord business model is such a money making operation that it allows the Search Engine giant to invent driverless cars and computerised glasses. One of the most critical aspects of what makes AdWords so powerful is that is facilitates the intent of the audience. When you make a search on Google, you are usually searching because you are looking for something quite specific. When you search for a product for example, you probably already want to buy it, or you have at least the intention to see a product page. When a user clicks through a Google advertisement to a product page and they make a purchase, Google can show the business owner what a good use of their marketing budget that was because it resulted in a sale. The customer has probably already been informed about the product by someone else, read about it earlier or heard about it on TV. However, Google gets paid because it was Google that sent the customer right before the transaction.

Google’s AdWords work because the customer has the intention of making the transaction.

Facebook on the other hand started off with a very different product. When you go on Facebook you aren’t intending to buy something. Most of the time you are just there to waste time. Facebook has traditionally been supported by advertisements down the right hand side of the page. However, these adverts aren’t nearly as powerful as Google Adwords because they lack the intention of the customer to make a transaction. Facebook ads are useful for awareness and for driving traffic, but they don’t show the same level of ROI that Google Adwords do and so they are less effective to business owners and they are less likely to used in a marketing budget.

Recent developments shows that Facebook is looking to transform it’s model to facilitate intent. Facebook has recently launched Graph Search as a way for users to search their friends likes, experiences and Facebook posts. So for example, you might search for “Nearby Mexican restaurants that my friends like”. This would then show you the Facebook pages of local Mexican restaurants that then could either allow you to book a table or get a money off voucher. This would be a way to signal user’s intention and direct business transactions, thereby leveraging the intent of the user to close the transaction loop. This would turn Facebook’s abundance of attention, into a direction of intention.

That is how powerful facilitating your users intentions can be.

A website without intent is just a catalogue

One of the biggest misuses of intent is in company websites. Company websites are perfect for making sales, getting leads or initiating some kind of business transaction. Yet I see website after website that is completely missing this opportunity. The tell-tale signs are either a lack of a Call to Action or a complicated or poorly communicated process.

If your company website is not generating sales or new leads, you are completely failing. Your website should be an engine of growth, not a way to bullshit about how great your company is.

When a company website has been designed and developed without intent, it’s as useless as a catalogue. Sure, you will get the odd visitor to jump through hoops in order to get in contact with you, or initiate doing business, but the vast majority will just move on to one of your competitors.

How to facilitate intent

Facilitating the intent of your audience is easy because you just have to give them what they want.

If your target customer is looking to sign up for your software, make that your number one goal.

If your target customer wants to talk to a sales person, book an appointment or get further information about your product, make this process as easy and intuitive as possible.

If you are target customer wants to buy something from you, make purchasing from your website a clear and predictable process.

With each of these intentions, the first initial step should be thoroughly thought through. You should make the first action immediately obvious for cold traffic landing on your homepage. If the first step is not obvious, your traffic will just bounce away. Also think about how this first step will be taken from your various landing pages. Not all of your traffic will come through your home page (The death of the homepage) and so you need to create a landing page that is capable of converting traffic to sales (Characteristics of landing pages that convert).


Intent is a critical component in turning traffic in to sales. Understanding the intent of your target audience will allow you to create the tools that they need in order to satisfy the desire that drove them to your website in the first place.

It’s very easy to neglect intent, or miss an opportunity to engage and facilitate it if you do not understand your audience. Whilst you might think that a certain design or feature of your website is what your audience wants, it might turn out that by completely reimagining your traditional process, you can have a much greater conversion rate by appealing to the intentions of your audience.

If your business website is struggling, take a step back and try to understand the intentions of your audience and what you can do to facilitate them.

Philip Brown


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