Search intent is a deceptively simple SEO concept that can power up your search efforts when you put it to good use. If keyword research answers the question of “what” potential customers are searching for, search intent answers the question of “why” they’re searching for it.
The idea of search intent can be distilled to a one-word question: why?
Why is the most important question you can ask before you create content for your website — not just why you’re creating the content, but why your customer needs it, why it’s valuable, and why someone is searching for it.
Understanding the answers to those questions puts your content squarely in the path of the people who need it (and your product) the most. Being clear about why someone is searching for your solution differentiates wildly helpful, super-optimized, and hyper-converting content from words that simply sit on a page.
Psst… I’ll let you in on a little secret…search intent might be one of the most under-utilized tactics in the SEO tool kit. That means if you’re using search intent and your competitors aren’t, you’ve almost got an unfair advantage. (Except, it is fair. Search intent is a common-sense technique that just so happens to boost the power of your SEO efforts.)
What is search intent?
Search intent gives you insight into the why behind a search query. In other words, why did the person conduct this search? Are they researching products and want to read reviews? Are they ready to make a purchase? Do they want to learn how to do something? Or, are they trying to find a particular website?
Why does search intent matter to SEO?
Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
In short, Google’s entire reason for being is to provide users with the most relevant search results for their query.
If you want to rank in Google, you need to create content that’s highly relevant for a specific query. As a matter of fact, search intent matters so much to Google that they dedicated 17% of their search quality evaluator guidelines to understanding user intent. That’s 13 pages out of a 175-page document.
Google even goes so far as to assert that intent is redefining the marketing funnel by pointing out that people no longer follow a linear path from awareness to consideration to purchase. Instead, their focus expands and contracts in unique and unpredictable moments. Every time someone turns to their device for an immediate answer, they’re expressing intent and redefining the traditional marketing funnel along the way.
Have we convinced you of how invaluable keyword intent is? Great! Time to dive in and learn all about it.
Four types of search intent.
Chances are, you’ve already done keyword research to establish a solid foundation of core keywords that matter for your business. Understanding search intent is the next step to extending your core keywords into themes that align with specific categories of search purpose.
Your intent-specific piece of content will send a stronger signal to Google about that page’s concept and purpose. This, in turn, helps Google match what you’re offering with what specific searchers are looking for.
Let’s take a closer look at the four types of search intent.
1 – Informational
The searcher is looking for information. It could be they need the answer to a simple question, like, “How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?” Or, they could be looking for a more detailed explanation to a question like, “How do I ask for a raise?”
Although it helps to think of informational search queries as questions, they’re not always formulated as such.
Other examples include:
- “Grand Central Stations directions”
- “Claire Foy”
- “WFH ergonomics”
- “Lakers score”
2 – Navigational
Someone already knows where they want to go, but maybe they’re unsure of the exact URL, or they figure it’s quicker and easier to have Google return the link than to type the URL into the address bar themselves.
- “CoSchedule login”
- “whiteboard Friday”
3 – Transactional
The searcher wants to purchase something. They know what they want to buy, and they’re looking for the best place to buy it from.
Example transactional queries:
- “best price smart desk”
- “buy iphone”
- “rei promo code”
- “bluetooth headphones cheap”
4 – Commercial investigation
This searcher is in the research phase before making a final decision on a purchase. They’re still weighing their options and are looking for reviews, round-ups, and comparisons to steer them in the right direction.
A few examples of commercial investigation searches:
- “best desk chair”
- “hootsuit vs. sprout social”
- “pet plate review”
- “best burgers in brooklyn”
That last example is a local search. It’s common for local searches to have commercial investigation intent, like “coffee near me” or “upper east side realtor.”
Now that you have a broad understanding of search intent types, let’s dive into how to interpret intent.
How to interpret search intent.
Many times, the wording of a query points to the intention behind it, which can help us look at these in the aggregate. For example, the intent of someone who Googles “buy iphone” is clearly to purchase an iPhone (a transactional query).
Someone searching for “how to make sourdough starter” is obviously looking for instructions on how to do something (an informational query).
Here’s a step-by-step how-to for using a keyword research tool like Ahrefs to apply the modifiers in the table above and filter for keywords with specific intent.
Using the example of “sourdough starter”:
- Type your keyword into the search bar.
- Select the “Having the same terms” report option.
- Click the “include” dropdown, enter your modifiers and apply to your search filter. (We’re using “how, what, when,” in this example.)
- Sort the resulting list by search volume to see the most popular informational searches for “sourdough starter.”
The same process applies for finding search queries for transactional and commercial investigation queries.
Put Google autocomplete to work.
A quick and easy way to apply search intent principles to see what people are searching for is to take advantage of Google’s auto-complete function.
Type in a modifier from the table above, followed by your keyword, and watch Google tell you why people are searching for, in this case, “sourdough starter.”Follow the SERP features.
When you query Google, the search engine results page (SERP) will contain organic results, paid results, and SERP features.
Some SERP features include:
- shopping results
- knowledge panel
- people also ask
- related questions
- video results
A query for “Claire Foy” returns a SERP that looks like the example below:This SERP includes:
- organic results
- people also ask
- knowledge panel
This is interesting, not just because I’m a fan of The Crown, but because the SERP features often point to search intent.
The table below will give you a rough idea of which SERP features correspond to specific search intent.Using these SERP features can help you focus on search intent for your content. For instance, if you’re selling desk chairs, you can use Ahrefs to run a keyword search for “best desk chair,” and filter by “SERP feature includes shopping results” to see common queries used by people hoping to purchase the best desk chair.I recommend this comprehensive article about SERP features by SEMrush to learn more.
Search intent isn’t always cut and dry.
Although the techniques we’ve outlined here are helpful ways to understand search intent, you’ll need to apply your own insights to sort through keywords with mixed search intents. Mixed search intent is most common in results for brand searches. For instance, if you Google “iPhone,” you’re likely going to see search results that contain transactional, informational, navigational, and commercial investigation intent because searchers who use that query might be looking for reviews, historical information, a place to buy, or the Apple website.
If searchers might be looking for your service or product for different reasons, create specific content for each search intention. Don’t try to create one piece of content that will appeal to people who want to learn about something and people who want to purchase that thing. Instead, create one type of content for informational purposes and one type of content for transactional purposes.
Three steps to optimize for search intent.
Understanding search intent will dictate the type of content you create. If the keyword has informational intent, you’ll write a blog post. If it has transactional intent, you’ll create a product page.
Easy right? Well, yes.
Trying to apply only four search intent categories to billions of web pages makes it painfully obvious that these categories are too broad to apply wholesale to any particular situation.
So, we need to dive a little deeper to look at SERPs more closely.
1 – Know your history.
When you’re doing keyword research, you’re looking at a discrete snapshot in time. You’ll need to look at your keyword’s history to understand if and how seasonal, social, or market factors might influence the number of searches on that keyword during any given time.
For instance, a search for “hand sanitizer” would have most likely had transactional intent before March 2020. Between March and July 2020, you would probably see people running that same search because they couldn’t find hand sanitizer in the store and wanted to know how to make it (informational).
For more on analyzing keyword ranking history, check out the Ahrefs tutorial, Analyze Google Ranking History for Any Keyword.
2 – Match your content to search intent.
After confirming that your keyword has clear search intent, you want to analyze SERPs for that keyword to determine these three things:
1 – The right type of content to create.
2 – The right format to present your content in.
3 – What angle you should take with your content.
Let’s take a closer look.
Look at the search results for a keyword and see what type of content is being returned.
What do you see?
- blog posts
- product pages
- category pages
- landing pages
The content types on page one of the SERPs are most relevant to the search intent you’re targeting (Google ranks them highest for their relevance to the query). Follow the lead of high-ranking results and choose your content type based on what you see here.
Likewise, ask yourself what format Google deems most relevant to the search intent of your keyword. When you look at the search results, what ranks high?
- “how-to” guides
- step-by-step tutorials
- list posts
- opinion pieces
This helps you narrow down the format to apply to your content. Are three of the top five results “how-to” guides? You’d be wise to follow the crowd.
An angle is the unique perspective you decide to take with your content.
Assessing the angle of top-ranking pages will give you insight into what matters to searchers.
For instance, if you Google “how to make waffles,” you’ll see that people are keen on finding out how to make Belgian waffles, perfect waffles, fluffy waffles, and easy waffles.Knowing what searchers value in their waffles will help you choose an angle for your post about how to make waffles. Follow the crowd by targeting highly sought-after angles and add your unique twist to it.
3 – Learn from the best.
Creating SEO content involves some trial and error. You create content and watch how it performs, adjust for the next time and then see how that performs.
Drawing inspiration from top-ranking content is one way to bypass time-intensive trial and error. The content you find in the top ten search results for the keyword you want to rank for is likely doing something right.
Click through to high-ranking pages and learn from them. Are there charts and graphs? Lots of links to related content? A clear structure with easy-to-find info? Embedded videos? Infographics?
Let’s be clear. You’re not ripping people off. Your job is to identify what’s working in high-ranking content and apply those principles to your own original content.
4 – Know what people ask
Looking at the SERP feature, “what people ask” will help you flesh out your content with related ideas that matter to people searching for your keyword.
For example, if we’re creating a blog post about how to make waffles, we might want to include details about making them without milk or how they stack up (pun intended) against pancakes for health-conscious breakfast fans.
Optimize underperforming content.
The concept of search intent doesn’t just apply to the creation of new content. Optimizing for intent is a great way to revive older content that hasn’t been ranking well. Dive into your older pages and see how you might improve them by evaluating how well they align with specific user intent.
While you’re thinking about improving existing content, check out Ashley’s SEO tips for creating content that gets results.
Phew! We’ve covered a lot of ground here.
Let’s sum it up from a 10,000-foot view.
- Applying search intent aligns you with Google’s mission and helping Google help searchers is a win, win, win.
- Intentionally design your content to resonate with search intent.
- Understanding what searchers are looking for and why will help you meet them exactly where they are with what they need and in the most helpful format.
Learn more about Understanding User Intent with Buyer Personas & Search Behavior.
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