Keyword Research

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

Written by

Haley Carroll

Want to know a little secret to giving your next piece of content a head start in ranking on Google?

Here it is: 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 seriously missing out (and likely wasting a ton of time). Pulling keywords and creating surface level content may have worked in the 2000s, but Google is getting better at understanding content and how well it meets the searcher's needs.

That's where search intent comes in. 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.

What is search intent in SEO?

Search intent, also called user intent or keyword intent, is the reason behind a searcher's query on a search engine.

Let's take our SEO hat off for a minute. When was the last time you ran a Google search? Why did you run it? Every time your customers take to Google they have something specific in mind. If I am searching for 'temperature to cook chicken breast' or 'easy chicken breast recipe' I'm likely looking for different things (and under different circumstances).

That is search intent.

Every time your customers take to Google/Bing/Duck Duck Go they have specific questions they want answered, and specific 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).

Here's a fun little exercise, try and guess what I was looking for and why in these recent search queries (G-rated, I promise):

  • How tall is Mt. St. Helens
  • Portland Oregon
  • Pork chop sandwich
  • Nasa programs

Not so easy, right?

For example, for 'Pork chop sandwich' was I looking for recipes, or restaurants that serve them? Or for 'nasa programs' was I looking for a list, or one in particular? I obviously (or maybe not so obviously) had a reason for these queries, and I judge the content Google returns based on that reason.

Why is search intent important?

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. It's the reason they dominate search, they are just that good at understanding intent and matching content to a query. Still not convinced? When was the last time you went out of your way to use a search engine other than Google (privacy reasons do not count).

I rest my case.

It's no surprise then that Google is obsessed with search intent, at least they are according to 2020's Search Quality Rater Guidelines. I know I sound like a broken record at this point but I cannot stress it enough: search intent matters if you want your content to perform well and therefore rank.

Understanding the intent of that search helps your content become more useful, and that is what will drive your rank through the roof. Seriously, it's the difference between page 1/2 and page 10+ on Google. If you want to rank in 2020 you absolutely must make an effort to match your content to the intent behind the search.

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 many types of search intent, but most SEOs focus on four core ones as they do a pretty good job at summing things up. These four search intents are important to keep in mind when researching keywords and creating content.

Informational search intent

By far most searches on Google are informational. In fact, Penn State ran a study in 2007 that showed 80% of searches qualified as 'informational'. This makes sense as most people tend to use Google to do research or answer questions, and that is key when it comes to your own keyword research and content creation.

Your customer may be looking for information about a certain subject, or the answer to a particular question. Informational searches often contain words like “what is,” “how to,” “why does,” or simply just names the topic of interest.

An example informational search might be "Who wrote Hamilton?" or "What is the capital of Oregon?"

Common modifiers for informational searches include:

  • how
  • what
  • who
  • where
  • why
  • guide
  • tutorial
  • resource
  • ideas
  • tips
  • learn
  • examples

How about a search like "carrot cake"? Is the intent informational? Or maybe the searcher wants to purchase a carrot cake in their area. This is where search intent can get murky, and it also introduces our next categories.

Navigational search intent

Searches have navigational intent when a user is trying to find a specific brand, website, or business. 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 www.pinterest.com into the URL bar. Navigational searches are done out of convenience as 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.

Common modifiers for navigational searches include:

  • brand names
  • product names
  • service names

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.

Transactional search intent

Search intent is transactional when the user is looking to take action, usually to make a purchase. Transactional keywords are commonly thought of as 'credit card in hand' keywords, these are the searches your customers perform when they want to buy.

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.

Common modifiers for navigational searches include:

  • buy
  • coupon
  • order
  • purchase
  • cheap
  • price
  • pricing

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. They aren't quite ready to hit 'buy' just yet, they are evaluating solutions and looking to narrow down where they will make a purchase.

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.

Common modifiers for commercial searches include:

  • best
  • top
  • review
  • comparison
  • alternatives

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 determine the search intent for a keyword

After reviewing the different types of search intent I hope it's pretty clear that not every keyword in your lists presents the same value and opportunity for your content strategy. Some keywords may be informational (and therefore better for blog content) and others may be more commercial (and therefore better for a landing page).

How do you tell what the intent of a keyword is though? It's simpler than you'd think. All you need to do is pay attention to the SERP features that Google shows for each given keyword.

How to tell if a keyword is informational

Remember, informational queries are done to answer questions. Google is going to do everything they can to provide a speedy answer to the question and attempt to answer follow up questions. In order to do that Google utilizes things like featured snippets and the People also Ask answer boxes to provide answers right in the search results:

For a search like 'what is search intent' we can see Google is already anticipating the follow up questions someone might ask (hint, these make great section headings in a blog post).

How to tell if a keyword is commercial or transactional

Informational is pretty easy, how about commercial or transactional?

Google's search results are extremely adaptive, for keywords with commercial intent Google will show more ads and shopping results to match what the searcher has in mind, for example a search like 'seo tools' returns 4 ads at the top of the search page:

To help you a bit more, here's a handy table of keyword modifiers and the likely intent that they infer.

How to optimize your content for search intent

We've covered the four types of search intent, why search intent matters, now it's time to put it all to practice.

When doing keyword research your goal is to identify the different words that your customers/prospects are searching for that are also related to your website/product offering. Once you've narrowed your list down it's time to optimize your content for these target keywords, and create new content to help you rank.

In order to do that your content should align in style, type, format, and angle to the search intent of the keywords.

Ok... how do you do that?

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 content?

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.

Conclusion

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 rank.

Search intent just may be the most important ranking factor, so take it seriously when creating new pieces of content and watch your rankings improve.

Updated on:

February 14, 2021

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