What Is Search Intent? (The SEO’s Guide to What Users Want)

Jonas Sickler SEO Manager
Key Points
  • 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.

I believe search intent is one of the most important signals in search engine optimization (SEO) right now.

Google has spent years refining its Search product to understand keyword intent and improve user satisfaction. When you consider the most recent algorithm updates around passage comprehension and helpful content, you’ll find that trend is accelerating.

To win in 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.

Companies that prioritize search intent over other signals establish deep competitive moats and forge richer customer relationships.

Let’s start digging that moat.

What is search intent in SEO?

MARKETING
TERM
DEFINITION

Search Intent

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 understand our audience personas to unravel the feelings that drive their searches. 
  • Next, we analyze search data to reveal how they think and ask questions. 
  • Finally, we research which types of content users prefer for specific queries so we can deliver the best answer.

When we assemble these pieces, we can optimize the content experience to match the needs, moods, and expectations of our audience.

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 Google generates revenue through advertising. However, when the relationship falls out of balance, the digital value chain is broken.

If brands only target keywords without considering customer needs and emotions, then their content strategies will be stilted. Even worse, they’ll prioritize search volume and organic traffic instead of positive user experiences. As a result, search intent will be misaligned, which impacts website traffic, bounce rates, and conversions in the short term, and diminishes brand affinity in the long term.


“To win in Search, we must put users at the center of our SEO strategies rather than keywords. And that begins with understanding search intent.”


TERAKEET

On the other hand, if Google fails to give searchers what they want, they’ll stop using the platform. As a result, Google’s advertising revenue will dry up and brands will lose one of the most profitable customer acquisition channels available to them.

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

The SEO community agrees on the following types of search intent:

  • Informational
  • Commercial
  • Transactional
  • Navigational

However, I believe we should think about intent as verbs instead of adjectives because when someone uses Google Search, they’re taking an action. So I prefer to classify user intent this way:

  • Learn
  • Do
  • Buy
  • Go

I also believe search intent is too squishy to fully capture with just four words. Although the act of searching is fastened to a moment in time, it’s really part of the broader customer journey. So I think of it in terms of stages of realization:

types of search intent

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.

I like to segment keywords in this group into two buckets: 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
  • Why
  • Important
  • Benefits
  • Advantages
  • 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.

Many folks consider this to be part of the informational stage, but I see it as distinct because it shows a commitment to action. Your audience is actively framing the scope of the problem and deciding how to proceed.

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:

  • Strategy
  • Plan
  • Methods
  • Ways
  • Steps
  • How to
  • Techniques
  • Tactics
  • Best practices
  • Process

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.

I segment the “Buy” category into commercial intent and transactional intent. Commercial investigation includes keywords that help users identify specific solutions and narrow down their choices, such as:

  • Versus (VS)
  • Compare
  • Best
  • Top

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:

  • Reviews
  • Trials
  • Samples
  • Discounts
  • Coupon Codes

Go (navigational search intent)

The fourth type of search intent is navigational. When people use navigational search terms, 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 searches 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 turn off loyal customers.

Here are some common navigational keywords:

  • Brand name
  • Near me
  • Directions
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Contact
  • Email
  • Login

Hybrid

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 can 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.

SEOs love to automate things with formulas. And there are plenty of keyword research tools that attempt to determine search intent at scale. Some tools perform better than others, and 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.

More importantly, human language is messy, so formulas aren’t the most accurate way to classify what users want. I prefer to manually analyze the SERP as well as competitor content.

Here’s how I do it.

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?

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. So I encourage you to explore the differences between words like benefits and advantages, or steps vs methods. 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, I recommend choosing one type of intent to optimize for. There are always exceptions in the world of SEO, 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.

Some would argue that Google isn’t smart enough to understand the difference. But I believe the algorithm is capable of determining this. It certainly aligns with their goals to deliver the most relevant content for a search query.

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.

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.

Final Thoughts

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this article, it’s that search intent targeting isn’t only relevant to SEO and paid search. It needs to be a part of your overall digital marketing strategy.

Understanding what your audience wants and how they think can inform your social media activities, email strategy, and even large creative advertising campaigns.

Unlike surveys and focus groups that are limited, biased, and time-bound, search intent data is based on actual consumer behavior. 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.

That sounds like a pretty deep competitive moat to me.

Search intent FAQs

What is search intent?

Search 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? The main types of search intent are informational, commercial, transactional, and navigational.

Why is search intent important?

Search intent is important because it helps marketers optimize the content experience to match the needs, moods, and expectations of our audience.

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