If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know about the crucial role keywords play in search engine optimization (SEO).
Targeting specific keywords in your content makes it possible for Google users to find you when they search for a related query.
But succeeding at SEO isn’t just about ensuring your content includes the keywords you want to rank for. It’s also about making sure your content lives up to the search intent behind your target keywords.
But what is search intent, and why is it so important?
In this post, we’ll address both these questions and examine the different types of search intent and how to tell them apart. We’ll then look at how you can determine the search intent behind a specific keyword and optimize your content accordingly.
But first, let’s cover some basics.
What is Search Intent?
Search intent (sometimes called ‘keyword intent’ or ‘user intent’) refers to the type of result a user is hoping to find when searching for a specific query.
You can also think of it as the ‘why’ behind a user’s search. It’s the specific goal they’re trying to achieve.
For example, suppose you searched for ‘how to remove carpet stains cheaply.’ The first result you get is an ultimate guide for removing stains with nothing but household products. This is exactly the content you were looking for – a perfect match to your search intent.
Out of curiosity, you head back to the results page and click on a lower-ranking search result. Only this time, you’re led to a post that recommends using various expensive cleaning products or hiring a professional carpet cleaner. Not exactly the kind of information you had in mind when you entered your search query, is it?
Search intent is clearly an important concept in SEO, but how does optimizing for it actually improve rankings and traffic?
How Does It Help with SEO?
The importance of search intent for SEO comes into focus when we consider the whole point of Google Search.
Google’s self-declared mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” And to achieve that, Google works tirelessly to improve its search engine’s ability to decipher user intent and serve relevant content accordingly.
For example, Google’s algorithms are sophisticated enough to know that when someone searches for ‘date ideas,’ they’re probably looking for inspiration about where to take a prospective partner or significant other on a date. They aren’t interested in the various ways of preparing the dried fruit that happens to share the same name.
Since Google’s main goal is to serve users results that accurately match their search intent, it’s no surprise that if you want to rank well for a keyword, you need to create content that reflects the search intent behind it. And, of course, the better you rank for your target keyword, the more organic traffic you’ll receive.
But that’s not all. Optimizing for intent brings with it a host of other digital marketing benefits:
- More effective keyword research: The better you understand the search intent that underlies the keyword you plan on targeting, the better you’ll be able to judge whether that keyword is truly aligned with your business and audience needs.
- Better user satisfaction: When you consistently give users the high-value content they seek, they’ll start associating your brand with quality and trustworthiness.
- Increased conversions: People’s search queries often give clues about where they are in the buyer’s journey. So a better understanding of search intent can help you create more targeted content that pushes prospects further down the path to conversion.
The main lesson here is that satisfying search intent should be the primary objective of all SEO writing.
If your content doesn’t reflect the search intent of its target keyword, users will simply click away from your content the moment they realize it’s irrelevant. This will signal to Google that your content is a poor match for the corresponding query, and your listing will soon disappear from the rankings.
With that in mind, let’s look at the main search intent categories you should be aware of.
Types of Search Intent
Although every query has its own unique intent, most searches fall into one of four distinct search intent categories: informational, commercial, transactional, and navigational.
As we’ll see, these four categories roughly correspond to different phases of the buyer’s journey.
Users perform informational searches whenever they’re trying to solve a specific problem or learn more about a particular subject matter.
These queries make up the lion’s share of all internet searches, and Google will often attempt to answer these queries directly inside the search results page (SERP) using features like featured snippets.
Informational content can include anything from Wikipedia entries and recipe videos to in-depth how-to guides and dictionary definitions.
Here are some examples of informational intent queries:
- ‘How to reduce energy bills’
- ‘What is a platypus’
- ‘Who is CEO of Microsoft’
- ‘Directions to Grand Central Station’
- ‘John D Rockefeller’
Prospects often perform informational searches at the early stages of the buyer’s journey as they start to delve a little deeper into your particular market or niche.
For this reason, creating content that targets informational search intent can be a great way to build your organic reach and generate new leads.
Commercial investigation searches occur whenever users are carrying out some market research.
In other words, they are performed by people weighing up their purchase options and looking for information that could help tip the scale one way or the other.
Users searching for commercial queries will often be seeking content like product comparisons, product reviews, free trials, case studies, and information about technical specifications.
Here are some examples of commercial intent queries:
- ‘Playstation 5 vs. Xbox Series X’
- ‘iPhone 13 reviews’
- ‘Best smartwatch for running’
- “Top Italian restaurant in Buffalo’
- ‘Mailchimp case study’
Many people performing commercial searches are just a few pieces of information away from making a purchasing decision. Accordingly, targeting commercial search terms can be an effective way to transform interested prospects into new customers.
A transactional query is any search where the intention is to do something.
Often, this means the user wants to buy a product or service, but it can also refer to other actions like signing up for a free trial, booking an in-person consultation, or downloading a free resource.
Here are some examples of transactional searches:
- ‘Where to buy Xbox Series X’
- ‘Tesla Model 3 price’
- ‘Netflix subscribe’
- ‘Oxford shirt sale’
- ‘Walmart coupon code’
Since many people performing transactional searches are ready to buy and just want to find an appropriate site to make the purchase, competition for these money-making search terms is often fierce.
As we’ll discuss later, having a well-optimized product page is essential if you want to target these terms and secure the sale.
Lastly, navigational searches take place when users want to locate a specific website or webpage. They tend to contain branded search terms since users already know where they want to go.
For example, you might Google ‘BBC news’ because you want to find the BBC News site.
People will often use navigational searches because it’s easier than typing the URL into the address bar or because they don’t know the full URL of the site they want to reach.
Here are some examples of navigational queries:
- ‘Microsoft website’
- ‘H&M customer service’
- ‘Grammarly pricing’
- ‘Facebook sign in’
- ‘Premier construction service page’
How to Determine Keyword Search Intent
Now that you understand the main types of search intent, what’s the best way to figure out the intent behind a specific keyword you want to target?
The following steps will help you infer the intent behind any keyword:
Is the search intent obvious?
The search intent will be pretty obvious for many keywords, and you won’t need to do much investigating.
For example, suppose you have the keyword ‘buy Toy Story blu ray.’ In this case, it’s clear that whoever searches for this is in a transactional frame of mind and wants to find an online store where they can buy the relevant blu ray disc.
Indeed, you can often gauge which of the four search intent categories a keyword belongs to just by keeping an eye out for some tell-tale words.
For example, informational queries will tend to contain terms like ‘who is’ or ‘how to.’ Commercial queries often include terms like ‘best [product type]’ or ‘[product] vs. [product].’ Transactional and navigational searches will contain branded words like ‘buy [branded product]’ or ‘contact [brand name].’
But with a keyword like ‘Breville espresso machine,’ the search intent is a little more ambiguous. Does the user want to buy that specific espresso machine? Do they want to read a head-to-head comparison with another machine? Or are they looking for instructions on how to use it?
Whenever it seems like a particular keyword could fall into multiple search intent categories, the next step is to head to Google…
Check the top-ranking results
We’ve already mentioned how Google’s entire business is built around serving users the most useful and relevant content given their search intent.
For this reason, there’s simply no better guide for determining keyword intent than to look at what Google already deems to be the most relevant content for that term.
If you find that all the top results for your keyword are either explainer videos or how-to guides, you can safely assume that the main intent behind that term is informational. But if most results link to product pages and e-commerce websites, the search intent is almost certainly transactional.
You get the idea.
Examine any SERP features
Another helpful way to determine search intent is to look for clues within the search engine results page (SERP) itself.
For an informational query, Google will often generate a knowledge panel or a featured snippet that provides a succinct answer to the user’s question. Just bear in mind that not all informational searches will give rise to these unique SERP features.
While featured snippets can also appear for commercial intent searches, you’ll also notice star ratings attached to review-based results and a greater frequency of paid results at the top of the SERPs.
Keywords with transactional search intent are pretty easy to identify because they’ll tend to generate shopping carousels and a host of paid results.
Since navigational searches tend only to be used when the user knows where they want to go, the results page will almost always be characterized by links to the most relevant brand page – be it the homepage, contact page, about us page, etc.
Accept that some keywords cater to multiple search intents
In most cases, observing the top-ranking results and any prominent SERP features will give a good idea of the search intent behind your target keyword.
But even still, the SERPs for some keywords (like ‘Breville espresso machine’) will inevitably yield a mixed bag of results that cater to different types of search intent.
What’s more, SERPs aren’t static entities, and the results that Google deems to be most relevant will often fluctuate. So while a transaction-based result may rank highest for a given keyword today, an information-based result might take the top spot a month from now.
In the next section, we’ll see that the best approach in these situations is to pick one type of intent and optimize for that intent alone.
How to Optimize Your Writing for Search Intent
Okay, so you’re clear on how to work out the intent behind your target keyword – but how do you create content that’s optimized for it?
Cater to one type of search intent
Once you’ve determined the search intent that you’ll be targeting, go all-in on it.
And if your keyword appears to cater to more than one type of search intent, pick the one you think is most prominent or whichever one you think you can create the best piece of content for.
For informational and commercial content, prioritize coherent formatting by using subheaders, make sure your writing is clear and error-free, and, most importantly, speak to the user’s specific needs and interests.
Once again, use the existing search results as your benchmark. If every result for your keyword is a how-to guide, make sure your post follows the same article format.
When targeting transactional keywords, you’ll usually need to direct users to a product page or category page. Make sure these pages have a clear and intuitive design and a prominent call-to-action (CTA) button.
Finally, as for targeting navigational terms, you should ensure that your site has a clear information hierarchy with all pages appropriately labeled with relevant title tags and headings.
Optimize your page title and meta description
You should optimize your on-page elements for search intent just as you would for keywords.
This is especially important when it comes to your page title and meta description since these are the elements that Google uses to generate your search listing.
So make sure that both your title and description reflect the search intent behind your keyword to make your result as appealing as possible to users.
Go one better than the competition
To give yourself the best possible chance of claiming the number one spot for your target keyword, you’ll want to ensure that the value of your content surpasses that of all your competitors.
One of the best ways to achieve this is to read carefully through the top five results for your keyword and take note of anything valuable that you could include in your own content.
Of course, this doesn’t mean plagiarizing the work of other content creators. The goal here is just to create the most comprehensive and value-packed piece of content anywhere on the web for your particular keyword.
Optimize your content for SERP features
Finally, you’ll want to optimize your content to take advantage of any SERP features that appear for your target keyword.
For example, earning a featured snippet is one of the most coveted prizes in SEO. These answer boxes let you show up at the top of the SERP even when you don’t technically rank first. They are also excellent for reinforcing your brand’s authority in the minds of users.
So if the results page for your keyword contains a featured snippet, make sure your content also includes a similarly structured answer.
For more guidance on optimizing for featured snippets, check out this blog post from HubSpot.
All else being equal, content that lives up to search intent will rank better and attract more traffic.
We’ve seen that search intent can be split into four main categories and that the best way to figure out the intent behind a specific keyword is to analyze the existing search results for that term carefully. When it comes to optimizing your content for search intent, highly focused and value-packed content that’s optimized for SERP features is always the best way to go.
It’s now time to apply what you’ve learned to your own SEO strategy and approach all your content with search intent optimization in mind.
Do you think we’ve missed any important tips for identifying and optimizing search intent? If so, please let us know in the comments!