What Is Search Intent? (SEO’s Guide to What Users Want)
Oct 18, 2022|Read time: 11 min.
- Search intent (or user intent) describes the purpose of a specific search query.
- To win in Google Search, we must put users, not keywords, at the center of our SEO strategies.
- Search intent data can improve broader marketing performance across the organization.
Google has spent years refining its algorithm to understand search intent and improve user satisfaction. In fact, Google focuses more on identifying helpful content than any other issue.
So to win in organic search, we must put users at the center of our SEO strategies rather than keywords. And that begins with understanding search intent.
For too long, SEOs have leaned on backlinks and on-page SEO to push undeserving web pages higher in search engines. Although those ranking factors are still important, they have less impact than they did a few years ago. Instead, we must unpack why people search and deliver unique content experiences that delight customers and fulfill their journey.
Sounds a bit like traditional marketing, doesn’t it?
That’s because the value of understanding customer intent extends beyond organic search. When marketing leaders know what users want, they can authentically create more purposeful content across all marketing channels. Prioritizing search intent allows deeper consumer connection and relationships, builds audience trust, and creates competitive moats.
Let’s start digging that moat.
What is search intent in SEO?
Search intent (also called keyword intent, or user intent) describes the purpose of a specific search query. Do users want to learn something, do something, buy something, or go somewhere?
Search intent is a fascinating puzzle to solve because it combines science and psychology. It’s how Google translates customers’ words into desires and then maps those desires to your content.
Determining intent is a much more soulful process than simply matching keywords.
First, we must take our existing audience knowledge (target, personas, market research, etc.) and dig deeper into their needs, problems, and motivations. Search intent data reveals this and also points to important optimization opportunities in the buyer’s journey.
Next, we analyze search data to reveal how the audience thinks, specifically what they’re seeking and asking, and how they engage.
Finally, we map out a new customer journey that reflects exactly what people want and delivers the best solutions across a brand’s owned assets and customer touchpoints.
Over time, we can further optimize the content experience to match audience expectations. This amplifies trust, builds brand equity, and creates deep audience alignment.
Why search intent is important
Search intent is a continuous 3-way value exchange between brands, Google, and users. People search for what they want, brands create content to satisfy their needs, and Google is the marketplace that connects questions with answers.
When the cycle is in balance, users have a great experience, brands earn exposure, and advertisers generate revenue. However, if brands only target keywords without considering customer needs and emotions, their content strategies will be misaligned. This results in negative user experiences, serving relevant content the audience isn’t ready for, and a decline in customer engagement with the brand. Not to mention less trust and fewer transactions.
On the other hand, if Google fails to give searchers what they want, they’ll stop using the platform.
So, it takes a team effort to keep customers flowing through Search. Google must constantly improve its algorithm, and brands must continue to set the bar higher by creating exceptional content that satisfies search intent.
Types of search intent
Traditional SEO suggests the following types of search intent:
However, I prefer to classify user intent in a more simplistic way:
It’s also clear that search intent is too nuanced to fully capture with this simple model. Search is part of the broader customer journey, with the majority of the audience in the research phase. A clearer way to think of search intent is in terms of realization stages.
A great piece of content must do more than give users what they want. It must also account for where they are in their journey, how they got there, and where they’ll go next. Let’s take a more granular look at each type of intent behind a user’s search query.
Learn (informational search intent)
People use keywords with informational search intent when they want to learn more about a topic. They may want to know the definition of cloud computing, or how many tablespoons are in a cup. Or they might ask more complex questions, such as “what is SEO?” or “why is brand reputation important?”
Think about the last time you researched a new subject. You probably didn’t immediately know which questions to ask or where to begin. So you took a learning journey and discovered new topics to explore as you dug deeper.
Searchers use informational queries to help them define concepts, find the edges of a subject, and decide whether to act.
We can classify searches in this group in two ways: What is it? and Why does it matter? The best types of content for informational intent include glossary terms, long-form blog posts, and research such as white papers.
Here are some search intent examples for Informational keywords:
- What is
- Definition of
- Examples of
- Pros and cons
Do (pre-commercial search intent)
After people understand the fundamentals and benefits of a topic, they may decide to take action.
Google search terms that fall into the “Do” category are more process oriented. Early on, they help users understand high-level strategy and planning. Then, search intent shifts to more concrete concepts like specific steps to execute a plan.
In-depth tutorials with visuals are an excellent content format for this stage because they take your audience on a journey from why to how and prime them to make a purchase.
Keywords that indicate “Do” intent include:
- How to
- Best practices
Buy (transactional search intent)
The third type of Google search intent is “Buy,” which marketers obsess over the most. In this category, users have decided they want to make a purchase, and they’re beginning to narrow down their options, seek validation, and finalize the purchase.
We can break down the “Buy” category into commercial intent or transactional intent. Commercial investigation includes keywords that help users identify specific solutions and narrow down their choices, such as:
- Versus (VS)
As people approach the bottom of the funnel, they perform transactional searches. In this phase, they’ve narrowed down their choice to one or two options, and they want confirmation and value. The types of content that work best here are broad ecommerce landing pages, specific product pages, service pages, pricing pages, coupons, and testimonials.
Here are some search intent examples for transactional queries:
- Coupon Codes
Go (navigational search intent)
The fourth type of search intent is navigational. When people use search terms with navigational intent, they want to go somewhere such as a specific website, a web page, or a physical location.
Because users often have a brand in mind when they make these searches, it’s critical that your homepage or brand is the first result in Google for your company name.
Furthermore, navigational queries related to a brand have high purchase intent. That means you must be acutely aware of the other content that ranks on the first page of Google when people search your brand name. Unfavorable news articles, bad customer reviews, competitor content, or off-brand websites can hijack your brand’s messaging and drive away loyal customers.
Here are some common navigational keywords:
- Brand name
- Near me
- Phone number
Sometimes keyword intent is mixed or unclear, so Google returns content with several types of intent in the SERP. This could be a mix of “What is X” and “How to do X” articles in the top ten search results. Or it could be single articles that cover multiple types of intent, such as “Ultimate guide to X” posts.
Ultimate guides have historically dominated the SERPs for high-level keywords because they covered everything. However, these types of articles don’t have clear intent, so only use them when the SERP demands it.
Otherwise, create pillar pages and strategically structure them within a topic cluster so you don’t cannibalize your rankings. For the most part, it’s ideal to create content that addresses a single search intent.
How to determine search intent
Google Search intent data is useful far beyond keyword research tools. It can also guide marketing decisions and help brands connect with their audience more deeply. It also impacts website performance and digital customer experience, so it’s critical to get this right before you publish a single piece of content.
But analyzing intent data is more of an art than a science. It’s about extracting the soul of a keyword to reverse engineer what your audience wants. Then, using those insights to build a full-funnel marketing strategy that intuitively maps those desires to the customer journey.
Some types of intent are easier to spot than others. For example, navigational and informational intent are easier to identify. But commercial and transactional often get conflated. Human language is messy, so manually analyzing the SERP as well as competitor content can help.
Analyze the search engine results page (SERP)
Search a range of overlapping keywords in Google to see if they deserve their own pages, or if you should group them into a single URL. Check the SERPs for consensus to see if there’s one clear type of intent, or several.
Are there any special SERP features such as a Knowledge Panel or featured snippets to reveal how Google views the keyword? Do you see definitional URLs such as Investopedia, Wikipedia, or dictionary websites? What about important questions in the people also ask (PAA) feature?
Next, look at the titles of the content that ranks to see if there’s a common format. Do product pages, listicles, step-by-step tutorials, or high-level overviews dominate the SERP? Is most of the content geared toward a particular audience, such as beginners or more advanced readers? Is it broad or specific to a particular industry or demographic?
If you analyze the top 10–20 search results, then you’ll have a solid foundation for creating your own content.
Analyze competitor content
Next, click through to the actual URLs to see how your competitors structure their content. Although the page title may indicate a single intent, do they actually cover multiple types on the page?
Do your competitors list several different strategies to approach a larger problem? Or do they use ordered lists to drill down into how to tackle a specific task? Does their content compare or review different products or solutions, or does it help readers understand the nature of a complex topic?
Analyze as much data as you can to determine the essence of a keyword, and how it fits into the customer journey:
- What is it?
- Why should I care?
- How can I solve the problem?
- What’s the best solution, product, or tool?
- How much does it cost?
- Can I trust the brand or product to solve the problem?
How to optimize for search intent
Search intent SEO isn’t the same thing as on-page SEO. It’s about tapping into the desire of your readers at the moment they perform a search, then creating content experiences that solve the problem completely, succinctly, and uniquely.
It’s hard to create intentional content if you don’t understand the nuanced and fuzzy edges of language. Explore the differences between words like benefits and advantages, or steps vs methods, for instance. The better you are at unpacking emotion and meaning from language, the better you’ll be at optimizing for user intent.
Here are some tips to put you on the right path.
1. Choose a specific search intent direction
In most cases, it’s ideal to choose one type of intent to optimize for. There are always exceptions, so keep a close eye on what Google prefers. But it’s usually better to focus your content in one clear direction than to jam everything into one blog post.
2. Stick to the format Google prefers
Google truly is one of the best content marketing tools you can use. No company has more data about what users want than Google. And its algorithm reveals which types of content searchers prefer when they use certain keywords.
3. Consider the angle, but differentiate
When optimizing for search intent, it’s easy to get hung up on the content format and ignore the more subtle considerations like the angle of the article. For example, if you publish an article about “The Advanced SEO Guide for Experts,” you may struggle to rank for the term “SEO” because the search intent requires an intro or beginner-level guide.
The algorithm is definitely capable of determining the difference here.
4. Be comprehensive, yet concise
Since keyword intent is nuanced, it’s important to address the topic thoroughly. Don’t be wordy or redundant, but try to completely satisfy your readers’ needs. If the keyword has informational intent, help users understand what it means, and why it matters. Also, consider offering examples of what it looks like in action.
5. Write compelling meta descriptions
An excellent way to optimize for searcher intent is to write meta descriptions that tell your audience you understand what they want. Furthermore, well-written descriptions are like calls to action that can significantly increase click-through rates.
6. Consider other keywords and topic clusters
Finally, remember that user intent is a snapshot of a moment along the customer journey. To truly optimize your content marketing funnel, consider the moments that lead up to the search, and the questions that follow.
Rather than prioritizing content based on search volume, create high quality content that targets potential customers at all points in the buying journey.
Create deep topic clusters to address the full spectrum of your customers’ questions. Then, use internal links and CTAs to push them to the right content at the right moment regardless of how they phrase their query in the search bar.
Search intent is the fundamental principle that is relevant across your entire digital marketing strategy, including paid search, SEO, OAO, and more. Understanding what your audience wants and how they think can inform your brand story and positioning, social media activities, email strategy, large creative advertising campaigns, and even new product development. It also helps improve marketing ROI by serving content perfectly aligned to meet your audience wherever they are on their journey.
Unlike surveys and traditional focus groups that are limited, biased, and time-bound, user search intent data is based on actual consumer behavior — it’s an always-on focus group. More importantly, the data shows you how to get your brand’s message in front of customers in real time when they raise their hand for help.