Keyword Research

What is Search Intent? How to Use it in your SEO Strategy

Written by

Haley Carrol

Last updated

June 22, 2020

Want to start ranking on Google? You need to know a thing or two about search intent.

If your keyword strategy consists of pulling keywords together into a Google doc or CSV and calling it a day, you are sorely missing out.

The web is crowded, it's impossible to say for sure (because Google is secretive) though it's been estimated that Google analyzes and indexes billions of web pages per day. If you want to rank in the top 10 for your keywords you need to do more than hope for the best.

To rank in the top 10, you need to be strategic and use a bit of psychology.

You may have heard about taking search intent into account when you are deciding which keywords you want your website to rank for. What is search intent though? And how can knowing search intent help you find the right keywords to go after and get more out of your content?

We'll answer that and more.

What is search intent?

Search intent, also called user intent, explains the motive behind a user’s search query.

In short, it is the user’s reason for making a search.

Your customers/prospects are doing the same thing.

They have specific questions they want answered, and content they are looking for. Understanding search intent behind a keyword can be a game changer in creating content and tailoring it towards your audience (and converting those visitors into leads).

Think about it. Every time you open up your laptop, type something on your phone, or ask 'Hey Google' you have a purpose in mind. There is something you are looking for - whether it's a quick answer, a dinner suggestion, or an in-depth read. If you don't find what you're looking for you move on to the next result, or try a different search.

Google is on a mission - it's simple but bold:

The key insight for SEOs and marketers is the word useful. Google's success hinges on the results it returns for any given search. Understanding the intent of that search helps your content become more useful, and that is what will drive your rank through the roof.

Let's dig a bit deeper though. Search intent can be divided into four different categories. 

What types of search intent are there?

There are four different types of search intent to keep in mind when creating content.

Navigational search intent

Searches have navigational intent when a user is trying to go to a particular website. These queries usually contain brand names, so users can call up a certain company’s website. 

For example, someone might type “Pinterest” into Google, instead of typing in into the URL bar. The search engine is simply being used as a vehicle to go to a certain spot online. They're not necessarily looking for anything else, just the brand in particular.

When a user does not have a particular website in mind when they are searching, that is when the other categories of search intent come into play.

Informational search intent

In this category, the user is looking for information about a certain subject, or the answer to a particular question. The user wants to learn, and often the query contains “what is,” “how to,” “why does,” or simply just names the topic of interest. These searches are what we traditionally think of in keyword research.

An example of an informational search would be a user input of “what is the weather in boston?” This person obviously wants to find out the current weather forecast for Boston, MA. However, many people would probably just type in “boston weather.” It is highly likely that this query has the same informational search intent. 

The less words a user types in, the more possibilities the search intent could be. If someone types in “carrot cake,” they may be looking for a recipe for carrot cake or its historical origins as a dessert, and in those cases the search intent would be informational. However, if the searcher wants to find a bakery that sells carrot cake, this intent would be included in our next category.

Transactional search intent

Search intent is transactional when the user is looking to take action, and this action is usually making an online purchase. Booking a service or downloading files are other actions a user could take when searching for something transactionally. 

Most of the time though, the user knows what they want to purchase and is looking for somewhere to buy it. Examples of this search intent could include looking for an online retailer or the location of a physical business that has the item they wish to purchase in close proximity to their search location. The latter of these possibilities is sometimes included in a category known as local intent.

In transactional searches, users will often include words like “buy,” “cheap,” and “best price,” in their queries, along with the name of whatever product they are looking to purchase. They also often add “discount,” and “coupon,” to their search query for a product in order to get the best deal when making the purchase. 

In addition to spending time looking for the product’s lowest price online, many users also put effort in researching many different products before they decide which one they want to buy. This research is the step before users have transactional intent, and it is a critical part of the consumer buying process. It is our final category of search intent: commercial investigation. 

Commercial investigation search intent

Users have this search intent when they are looking for information that will lead them to make a decision on product purchasing. Web content that a user with commercial investigation intent looks for includes detailed product descriptions, specification overviews, demonstrations, reviews, and comparisons of similar products. 

Examples of searches for commercial investigation are queries like “best video editing software 2020,” “peloton bike review,” and “best hair salons in Boston.” This last search is another demonstration of a search with local intent, along with commercial investigation. 

It’s important to note that users with this search intent are looking for information about products, and not just vendors to buy the product. 

Now that we understand the different kinds of search intent, what does this have to do with your website’s SEO? Well, it starts with search engines. 

How does search intent affect search engines?

When you type a keyword into the search bar, Google's job is to show a user relevant results based on the keywords a user gives them. 

However, as we now know, there can be many different reasons why a user inputs certain keywords, and that’s why being able to identify the user’s search intent is so important. If a search engine cannot interpret a user’s search intent, the SERP (search engine results page) will not have useful results and users will be driven away. This is one of the reasons Google has been so successful, they just return the best results. Bing, on the other hand, is a classic example of a search engine that struggles to compete at that level.

For example, if someone searches “best snowboards,” Google will not just show different snowboards for sale, instead the SERP will have compiled lists of snowboards and snowboard reviews. “Best snowboards” does not have transactional intent, so Google will not bring up a webpage for transactions. Instead, it will rank informational content higher. 

Therefore, it simply isn’t enough to have your products listed for sale on your website. Your website needs to have content to match every form of search intent associated with your business.

How to optimize your content for search intent

Let's talk about keywords research.

If you're new to keyword research check out our complete guide on keyword research then come back here.  To summarize, the goal of keyword research is to identify different words and phrases that your customers/prospects are searching for that are related to the subject of one’s website. Once you know what keywords people are using, you can sort through them and choose which ones you want your website to rank high for on the SERP.

You should sort your chosen keywords by their search intent, and that will help you figure out what content on your website should rank for each keyword. Your content should align in style, type, format, and angle to the search intent of the keywords.

What exactly does this mean?

Once you've picked a focus keyword for your post it's time to create a piece of content that can rank. To do that, you'll need to analyze the content that is already ranking and look to the "4 c's of search intent".

  1. Content style
  2. Content type
  3. Content format
  4. Content angle

Let's unpack this a bit

Content Style

Take note of the content that is currently ranking for your target keyword. For starters, what type of content is it? Is it a long form article, a shorter blog post, a video, a PDF download?

The style of the content refers to whether it is text, video, audio, or some other form of media (it’s usually either text or video). If most results on the search engine results page (SERP) that rank high for a keyword are videos, you should try to have video content for that keyword as well.

Content type

The type of content means what sort of page the results link to.

This could be a basic landing page, a certain category page, a product page, or a blog post. Pay attention to the types of pages that rank high for the keyword you’re targeting.

Suppose we had a keyword, 'how to make sourdough starter', as you can see the top results are recipes. The people searching for 'how to make sourdough starter' are likely not looking to buy anything, yet at least.

Meanwhile a search for "where to buy sourdough starter" naturally returns very different results:

Your task is to take a look at the content already dominating search results and make sure your content aligns with it.

Content format

The format of your content specifies whether the post is a typical blog post, a compiled list, a tutorial, a how-to guide, or any array of other possible formats.

Like the other attributes we’ve talked about, the format of your content should match whatever formats are prioritized on the SERP. If most of the top ranking links are how-to guides you create a guide, if they're list posts you're writing a list post... you get it.

Content angle

Lastly, what is the selling point of the top ranking links?

The angle of your content is the unique draw that your page has over the other results on the SERP. Is your post offering a download, the ability to subscribe, or make a purchase?

It's important to understand where the searcher sits in the buyers journey, so you can make sure your content stands out and provides them with exactly what they are looking for. The better you can meet the searcher's need the higher the chance they will stick around and continue to convert.

Pay attention as you'll want to ensure your content matches the goal of the searcher. If all the results are informational (best chocolate cookie recipe for example) you'll want to match the intent. If the keywords are more transactional in nature (like, dog food for large breed dogs) then you'll want to provide your site visitor what they are looking for.


So what is search intent? Search intent adds an additional layer to any robust and effective keyword research strategy. It's the difference between simply going after keywords, and understanding the types of keywords you are going after and what content you should be creating with them in mind.

Note that the top results on the SERP change all the time for keywords, so you will need to be doing keyword research continuously to keep your website high in search ranks. However, with the power to discern search intent, you will be able to match people with what they want to see and improve your SEO.