Search Intent and SEO

What is Search Intent?

Search intent (also called keyword intent) is the ultimate goal of the person entering a query in a search engine.

It can also refer to the system of classifying types of intent. Search intent answers the question "why is someone searching at all?" and “what does this user expect out of a landing page?”

Matching landing pages with search intent is the basis of SEO success. People consume content and react to information and messages differently depending on what they want to do.

The idea of search intent has grown in prominence and importance with the rise of natural language processing and machine learning. These two concepts have been incorporated into Google’s search algorithms by way of the Hummingbird update and RankBrain algorithm.

How to group search intent

While every query has its own unique intent, there are four basic ways to group search intent:

  • Navigational: The intent to go somewhere (online). These users are looking for a particular website or webpage and use branded queries.

  • Informational: The intent to learn something. These users want to answer a specific question or solve a specific problem. Searches with this intent often include words like "how to" or “what is” or just a topic (head keywords).

  • Commercial investigation: The intent to learn in order to do. These users are technically looking for more information, but their end goal is to do (buy) something (a product). So while they are looking for specific information, they could be convinced to convert given the right landing page and content.

  • Transactional: The intent to do something. These users are looking to complete a specific action. In digital marketing that usually refers to a purchase, but could apply to list building, lead generations or file downloading. Transactional intent is also known as "commercial intent."

On top of these 4 main types of search intent, there are two other secondary types of intent:

  • Local intent: The intent find results near a specific location. These users are looking for information based on where they are. Local intent is quite often navigational (people looking to visit a store), but could also be informational (opening hours, payment forms accepted, etc.) or even transactional (contact by email or click to call, make a reservation, etc.).

  • Freebies: The intent to not pay for what they want. These users are looking for a free product or service. Targeting this intent might or might not make sense for you depending on your business model (revenue vs. monetization).

Search intent in keyword research

Search intent should play a large factor in your keyword research process. You should be researching keywords in a way that aligns your business goals with search intent.

Ideally, you will research keywords segmented by topic and by intent. For example, if you have a website selling TVs, your keyword research output should be grouped along these lines:

  • TV model, informational intent

  • TV model, commercial investigation

  • TV model, transactional intent

So if you’ve got three TV models that you sell, you’ll end up with 9 groups of keywords (3 models x 3 search intents).

Of course, you can further segment your keyword groupings for more granularity if you want.

How do You Determine Search Intent?

The search intent of a particular query can be obvious when it includes words like "buy… now". For other, less obvious queries, determine search intent by looking to Google. The search engine gives you the answer right in the SERP.

Transactional Intent

Let’s take a look at the SERP for "wind resistant umbrella":

Search results for wind resistant umbrellas demonstrating transactional intent

Let’s break down these results. This SERP has the following types of links:

  • Google Shopping results: 5

  • Product review video results: 6

  • Product or category pages: 5

  • Review or comparison pieces: 4

So that’s 10 links on which you can add products to a shopping cart and 10 dedicated to helping shoppers decide which product to buy.

But don’t stop at just counting the number of pages that match up with types of intent. Take a minute to look at where each type of landing page ranks.

For our umbrella SERP, the first 3 are product pages, followed by 4 product comparison and review results. This is a strong indication from Google that searchers are getting more use out of the transactional pages than the investigation pages.

That doesn’t mean you can’t rank on the first page if you’ve got a top 10 list or product review (because both of those pages are on this SERP). But since Google has seen that transactional content has best matched the intent of people searching for "wind resistant umbrellas", you probably won’t rank any higher than third.

Informational Intent

Now let’s take a look at the SERP for "keyword research":

Search results for keyword research demonstrating informational intent

Luckily, this SERP is a bit more straightforward than the last. The results break down thusly:

  • How-to guides on keyword research: 6

  • Definition of what is keyword research: 1

  • Keyword research tools: 3

That’s 7 pages that definitely have informational content and 3 home pages, which contain lots of information about features and benefits. They’re geared toward commercial investigation searchers.

The top three results, it’s worth noting, are all how-to guides. With just a cursory glance we can tell that the query "keyword research" is viewed by Google (and your audience!) as an informational query.

Again, that doesn’t mean you can’t rank a transactional landing page for that query — it’s just probably not going to rank in the top 3 or 4 results. On top of that, your visitors probably won’t engage with your page because they’re looking for content that explains the concept or process.

Finally, you probably noticed there are no ads on this SERP. This is another clue that there isn't much commercial intent behind this query. If people were using this query to find products to buy, PPC advertisers would be bidding on it.

How do You Optimize for Search Intent?

The place to start optimizing for search intent is your marketing personas. These personas should be driving much of your marketing efforts, but are particularly important when it comes to intent optimization. This is because your personas should cover:

  • Customer goals and tasks to complete

  • Pain points and challenges to overcome

  • How they use products/services like yours

Understanding the needs of your customer will help you predict their intent behind a particular search. You can then target those people by creating specific content for each persona and each intent.

Find the right questions to answer

For informational queries or keywords, the key to intent optimization is to answer the user’s questions. Again, the best way to learn what questions to answer is to look to the SERP.

Going back to the "keyword research" example, it’s obvious the main question people want to be answered on this topic is how to do keyword research. But those aren’t the only questions people ask:

People also ask results for keyword research

When you create content targeting "keyword research" searchers, focus on answering these questions. Some good sections this content could include are (besides a how-to guide):

  • The definition of keyword research

  • A guide on how to decide if a keyword is right for your site

  • A curated list of good keyword research tools

A quick note about that last item. Even if your business offers a keyword research tool, don’t hesitate to list some alternative tools. Obviously, you’d want to include your tool at the top, but mentioning competitors is actually a good way to build topical authority and trust with your audience. Plus, Google often sees these two types of phrases as semantically related, so it can help your on-page SEO.

Find existing opportunities

Your existing pages and search performance will give you insight into current intent optimization and opportunities to improve performance. Head to the Performance report in Google Search Console to check which queries people are currently using to find your website.

Accessing performance data in Search Console

For informational intent, filter queries to include those using interrogatives relative to your content:

  • What is

  • How to

  • Where is

  • When is

  • Why is

For commercial investigation, filter queries using words that suggest this intent:

  • "Top 10..."

  • "...reviews"

Obviously, you’ll have to fill in some blanks and come up with some examples for queries that are more relevant to your business.

You would use the same process to discover queries for transactional, local and freebie intent when relevant to your website.

Add value for the user

The best way to optimize a page for search intent is, simply put, to make sure your content adds value for the user. Useful and valuable content is:

  • In-depth: This does not mean word count — although there is a correlation. In-depth means readers won’t have any more questions on the topic after consuming the content.)

  • Authoritative: You should be able to back up every definitive claim you make, either by linking to a source or through your own data or research.

  • Trustworthy: Trust can mean a lot of different things and be built in lots of different ways, depending on intent, topic or content type. The best way to build trust is through third-party citations such as product reviews, backlinks and external references. Using references in your content is also a great way to build authority.

Do some research to learn what content people find valuable. When investigating search intent for various keywords, take note of the content on the top pages in the SERPs.

You can also use a tool like Buzzsumo or Ahrefs to discover content that has been shared on your topic, industry or products. People share content that they find useful and valuable so this will give you some good insights into what your audience wants to see.

Simply rewriting content won’t be enough for you, however. Find opportunities to expand or provide a new perspective on the topic. This is known as the skyscraper technique.

Finally, have a sit-down with your customer support teams. Collect a list of the common questions and comments you receive from your customers. If they’re asking you for something, you can bet they’ve searched for it on Google first.

Help machines read your content

After you create your content, there are a couple of simple ways you optimize your pages to help Google and other search engines understand the questions you’re answering.

For informational and commercial investigation intent:

  • Take the question, or rephrase it as the solution ("How to fix a leaky faucet" vs. “Why is your faucet leaking?”), and use it in the title tag and <h1> tag.

  • Use <h2> tags to note each step in a process. Describe the steps in the body right after the subhead.

  • When answering a "what is" question, put the answer in the content directly after the <h1> tag.

For transactional intent, your page should be optimized completely around the conversion:

  • Don’t give users a lot of options when it comes to links on the page. Limit the links in your header and footer and don’t put any links above the call to action. Ideally, the conversion should be able to happen right on the page, so include sign up forms, download buttons and "add to shopping cart" buttons on this page.

  • Use a visible and unique CTA and put it front and center on the page. Visually speaking, make it stand out from everything else on the page. Images, text, video and other media should not draw attention from the CTA.

  • Your CTAs must be clear and descriptive. People should know right away what clicking the button will do.

  • Use commercial-centric words in the page’s <h1> tag. If it’s a product, use the product and model names here and in the title to avoid duplicate content issues.

Follow these 7 steps to write content that converts! Plan, research, create, test and promote your content to achieve your goals.

Measure performance

Finally, use analytics to track the performance of your intent optimizations. Use metrics that measure how much people are engaging with your pages:

  • Time on site: How long are people spending on the page? Are they leaving after a second or two, or are they staying for several minutes to read the whole article? Add a heatmap to track scroll rates to see if people are making it to the bottom of the page.

  • Bounce rate: Are people interacting with your page, clicking through to another page, or simply leaving? This is an important metric for a transactional page. Conversions generally include a click. Use events to track clicks that don’t send users to a new page.

  • Engagement rate: The flip side of bounce rate, the percentage of users who do interact with the page in one way or another. You can measure your commercial investigation optimization by measuring how many users you convince to click through to a conversion page. Don’t put too much stock in this metric, however, because many users won’t be ready to convert at this stage.

  • Conversion rate: A quick and easy way of measuring transactional intent optimization. If people aren’t converting, something’s likely mismatched between audience and page. Like engagement, this isn’t the definitive word on optimization success, as there could be other issues in your conversion funnel that cause people to drop out.

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