For years I've been nattering on and on about user intent. What the user really wants (and may be expecting) when they hit your website. User intent is never out of my head when I'm planning websites (or marketing) for my own sites or my clients, and I'm always looking for signals so I can better discover what my users really want from me.
Lately it's become even more important for me, because it appears that that the user intent of my desktop users can differ greatly from that of my mobile users.
User intent greatly affects your organics, your paid search, even your AdSense performance.
When I first started one of my first websites, I assumed that the people who were spending the most time on it were geeks like me; over the years I realized that my top evangelists were moms looking for cheap or free family friendly events to take the kids. D'oh; took years before I figured that out. Opportunity lost.
Now that the Hummingbird has landed on us, it looks like Google is placing still more emphasis on figuring out user intent themselves.
So what are some of the ways we can discover user intent? Here are some of the things that inform me:
I look at return visits, pages visited more than once, time on site, bounce rate (even though it's noisy); I also use heat map software and event tagging to show where people are actually clicking, and from which devices.
Social can tell you a lot about what your users are thinking, and how they use your site. Of course I look at the analytics on my sharing buttons, but I also maintain Facebook, Twitter and G+ accounts (none of the civilians are on G+ yet, of course) and I engage with users there - because that's where they are. You can watch them retweet or share your posts, they'll ask or answer questions, and sometimes have conversations amongst themselves that you can just "listen" in on.
Email / Contact
I always have contact forms on everything, I encourage contact and feedback at every opportunity, and I try to answer every inquiry (even the trolls). I get a lot of email asking questions, thanking me for something, even the hate mail (and oh do I get hate mail) tells me something.
Surveys / Polls
I've tried them and they don't seem to work for me - which is kind of an answer in itself. I see them all over though, so I'm assuming they must work for some people.
User intent is *important*. From it I derive my marketing and design plans for the future. From it, Google decides (more or less) whose sites are ranked where and for what. And now that we don't have keywords, it's even more important to figure out how to get the signals we need. What are some other ways we might have of finding out what the users really want?