When learning about SEO, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit holes of its more technical elements, from crawlability to structured data to sitemap organization. If you focus exclusively on topics like those, you risk losing sight of search engines’ ultimate goal: providing users with satisfying results to their queries.
To help them achieve that goal (and boost your own rankings in the process), you need to understand and leverage search intent. Here, we’ll explain everything you need to know about search intent and how to use it to your advantage.
- What Is Search Intent?
- Does Search Intent Matter for SEO?
- The Four Types of Search Intent
- How to Identify Search Intent
- How to Optimize for Search Intent
What Is Search Intent?
Luckily, the concept of search intent is easy to understand. In short, search intent is simply the purpose behind a user’s search query.
For example, with the query low carb brownie recipes, the user’s search intent is to find brownie recipes which are compatible with a low carb diet.
Every search engine’s algorithm is carefully tuned to interpret search intent as accurately as possible. That ability is precisely what Google emphasized when unveiling its new MUM framework in 2021, using the example query of I’ve hiked Mt. Adams and now want to hike Mt. Fuji next fall, what should I do differently to prepare?
The MUM algorithm is able to understand that the user doesn’t want to access general information about either mountain. Instead, they want to compare the two, specifically in the context of preparing for an upcoming hike:
So, with this example we can see just how intently Google and its peers are focused on identifying search intent and delivering hyper-relevant results.
Does Search Intent Matter for SEO?
If you saw Google’s emphasis on its algorithm’s ability to understand search intent and concluded that, yes, search intent is important for SEO, then you’re absolutely right.
After all, sites only gain higher rankings if search engines deem them as being relevant to users’ queries. And since search intent is a major part of how search engines determine relevance to begin with, SEO practitioners certainly need to keep search intent at the forefront of their minds.
If you do prioritize search intent, you can improve a site’s SEO in several less-than-expected ways:
- Better keyword research: A better understanding of search intent means you can more easily hone in on the keywords that will deliver the best results.
- More authority: When you accurately match a user’s intent to give them the information they’re looking for, they’ll be more likely to view your site as an authoritative and reputable source.
- Lower bounce rate: When users find exactly what they’re after, they’ll be less likely to leave and go to another site instead.
- Increased brand awareness: The more time visitors spend on your site (something they’re liable to do when the site gives them the information they want), the more they’ll become familiar with your brand.
Ultimately, optimizing for search intent is good for the user experience, which in turn will be good for your rankings and reputation alike.
The Four Types of Search Intent
Search intent has a rather broad definition, so it’s helpful to break it down into four distinct categories. Those categories include:
Queries in which users are trying to get (you guessed it) information. They usually take the form of a question beginning with who, what, when, where, why, or how, but don’t necessarily have to. For example, the following searches all qualify as informational queries:
- how tall is Mt. Everest
- names of Founding Fathers
- why do cats purr
- when is the Super Bowl
- where are the next Olympics
And this is what Google’s first page looks like for the informational query how tall is Mount Everest:
Queries in which users are trying to learn more about products or brands. Users making these types of queries aren’t ready to click purchase just yet, but they’re gathering all the information they need to get to that point. For example:
- smartphones under $800
- jeans for men
- best summer dresses
- Mac vs. PC
- top home printers
These are the types of results Google returns for the commercial query smartphones under $800:
Queries in which users are setting out to take action or make a transaction. Users making transactional queries know what they want, and they’re ready to start the checkout process. For example:
- Target discount code
- buy ink cartridges online
- where to buy hiking shoes
- home insurance quotes
- subscribe to HBO Max
Here’s an example of the results Google might provide for the transactional query Target discount code:
Queries in which users are trying to get to a specific site or page. Users who make navigational queries aren’t interested in browsing through other websites; they know exactly where they want to go. For example:
- Gmail login
- Facebook Marketplace
- Twitter trending
- Yelp Cincinnati
- top rated movies Wikipedia
These are Google’s top results for the navigational query Gmail login:
Once you have a thorough understanding of all four types of search intent, it will be that much easier to discern the intent behind the queries users are making to find your site.
How to Identify Search Intent
With the help of some telltale clues, you can do a little detective work to quickly uncover the intent behind your visitors’ queries.
Specifically, you can hone in on certain modifiers to identify which of the four search intent types a query falls under. We’ve gathered many of the most common in a handy cheat sheet that you can refer to anytime, anywhere:
The SERP (Search Engine Results Page) for each type of search intent tends to have certain features, too:
With that knowledge under your belt, you’ll be able to quickly discern the intent behind the queries users tend to make before visiting your site.
How to Optimize for Search Intent
While the process of optimizing for search intent can be as in-depth and complex as you want it to be, the fundamentals are simpler than you’d think.
- Choose a compatible content format: If you’re optimizing for the search intent of a given keyword, then you’ll want to present your content in a format that Google is most likely to rank higher. For instance, educational blog posts are more likely to rank for informational queries, while product category pages are more likely to do so for transactional queries.
- Give readers what they want: When optimizing for a keyword with informational search intent, for instance, don’t use informational queries to lure visitors in, only to hit them with irrelevant content. Instead, strive to give readers precisely what they’re looking for.
- Take a cue from top-ranking pages: When in doubt, remember that you can take inspiration from the pages that are already ranking highly for a particular keyword and intent type. Simply perform the query yourself, see which pages perform best and observe what they have in common with each other.
- Revamp old content: If there’s a query that’s relevant to your site’s niche, but none of its content quite hits the nail on the head, you can perform some lightning-speed optimization by reworking old content to suit the appropriate type of search intent.
- Answer people’s questions: One of the most straightforward ways to optimize for search intent is to simply answer the questions that search engine users are asking. To find out what those are, you can use Google’s built-in People Also Ask (PAA) box or a dedicated tool like AnswerThePublic. Also be sure to learn how to optimize for featured snippets since they’re often displayed for multiple types of search intent.
Finally, keep in mind that the same query may have more than one potential type of intent behind it. In that case, you’d be wise to heed the recommendation of Google’s John Mueller and optimize for both:
As I see it, these inferred intents change over time, and it's a bit out of a site-owners control (sometimes user expectations vary, sometimes algorithms, or other things). By covering both possible intents, you're hedging against those changes.
— 🦝 John (personal) 🦝 (@JohnMu) August 12, 2021
By implementing those tactics whenever possible, you can create a simple but effective search intent optimization strategy.
For Modern SEO, Search Intent Is a Must
In the early days of search engine optimization, it might have been enough to sprinkle high-volume keywords across your site and hope for the best. But now that search engine algorithms have reached astonishing levels of sophistication, it takes more nuance to succeed.
One way to achieve that nuance is to optimize for search intent, rather than just keywords alone. If you do, you’ll be able to drive more relevant traffic to your site and generate more qualified leads, all by simply giving users the information they’re looking for.
Google / May 2021
Screenshots by author / March 2022
Graphics by author / April 2022