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When you launch a search on Google, why do you do it?

This seems like a question with an obvious answer. You’re looking for something, whether it’s a location, an answer to a question, or a digital store. But each of those potential reasons for using the search engine have different motivations. And while the distinction might seem arbitrary, it speaks to a concept that plays a major role in effective SEO.

User search intent.

What is user intent?

Search intent (also known as user intent) is the primary goal a user has when launching a search on Google or any other search engine. This goes beyond the text that forms the query and gets down to the actual reason behind the effort. Although the various uses for search engines often appear to overlap, the subtle differences can determine whether your content is successful or not.

Let’s consider an example. Imagine that you’re looking to travel from Munich to Barcelona, but you have a strict budget. If the first three search results take you to airlines with expensive tickets, you’ll naturally return to Google. Once you find a budget airline or tickets that have gone on sale, you’ll stay on the page.

Now imagine if 75% of users follow the same behavioral pattern. That indicates a general searcher intent that Google picks up on, and the budget airline’s page will rank better.

Understanding the impact of user search intent on SEO

So, understanding the differences in user intent can impact the performance of your content. But why exactly is this the case and what are the benefits of taking SEO user intent into consideration?

Search intent matters to Google

At the end of the day, Google’s entire purpose is to identify relevant content in response to user queries. That means that the platform has to understand as best it can what users want so that its results generate high user satisfaction.

So, Google pays attention to user behavior on results pages in order to gauge which content actually fits a certain query. If it notices that people almost always return from a specific page, the search engine will identify it as a mismatch for the keyword. Meanwhile, Google also notices if a link attracts the majority of attention from different users searching for the same thing. All of this helps the search engine fulfill its primary purpose.

Reach more people at different stages of the buying journey

Businesses often fixate on attracting new customers without considering the various reasons people might search for their targeted keywords. Instead, businesses should practice a search intent SEO strategy that takes into account why users might click on their website.

By allowing user search intent to inform content, you become more effective at reaching people in different stages of the buying journey. Focusing your content on the distinct motivations behind your audience’s searches improves the relevance of your website for a wider variety of potential customers.

By addressing user search intent you can improve rankings

As we discussed above, user search intent is a major part of how Google determines the relevance of content. If most users that enter similar queries navigate to your website and stay there, you’ll rank better.

But to do this, you need to understand Google a little more deeply. The platform draws from a number of different factors when determining rankings. However, it has three primary elements that it prioritizes:

  • relevance, 
  • authority 
  • user satisfaction.

Tailoring your content to fit established keyword intent will lead to more traffic as well as a lower bounce rate. For Google, this indicates relevance and will forge a stronger connection between your page and the subject matter. As a result, future queries will most likely have your website higher in the results.

And once you have people on your website, it’s important to understand what they’re looking for. Proper SEO intent on your part should take the form of internal linking, which keeps users on your website. Topic clusters show Google that you have a lot of content relevant to a given subject. Meanwhile, proper linking gives people a reason to stick around rather than returning to the results page. All of this boosts your perceived authority in relation to the query.

And last, if your content corresponds to what people actually want when they search, they’re going to be more satisfied. Higher user satisfaction leads to more return traffic and will drive Google to push more people to your site.

What studies tell us about user query intent

This might feel like a lot to take on faith or simply our assurance. Fortunately, you don’t have to take our word for it. In fact, there have been academic efforts focused on understanding user intent. So, let’s turn to the actual authorities on Google search intent.

In 2006, the University of Hong Kong published a study on the subject. This revealed that keyword search intent can broadly be broken down into two primary goals. On average, users are either looking for information related to a specific keyword or phrase or searching for more general information on a particular subject. This roughly correlates to how specific or exhaustive a user is.

A specific user query typically has a more focused intent and demonstrates less willingness to deviate from that goal. Meanwhile, exhaustive users tend to have a wider scope and more interest in exploring unexpected subtopics. Knowing the difference can help you understand true user intent meaning.

How does Google see search intent?

Now, let’s dig a bit deeper into how Google discerns query intent.

The search engine has found broad patterns that it can typically apply to most searches. For example, someone searching for a pizza restaurant chain is most likely looking for the location nearest to them. This applies to queries related to nearly all industries and represents the summation of user behavior reviewed by Google.

But the search intent analysis doesn’t stop there. Google’s Search Quality Rating Guidelines define “Needs Met Guidelines” that determine exactly how well content responds to queries. This scale runs from “Fully Meets” to “Fails to Meet” and even includes flags for potential content issues, including porn, foreign languages, a lack of responsiveness, and upsetting or offensive messaging. The raters who determine the scale ratings don’t just review the content that appears on the result pages. Instead, they also critique special content blocks, also known as rich snippets.

One final thing to keep in mind is how Google responds to vague queries. If a search phrase lacks a certain level of clarity, it cannot generate the “Fully Meets” classification for any content. An example of this includes acronyms that could apply to multiple entities.

The four types of search intent

So, we have two broad categories into which most search engine queries fall. But there are further classifications that clarify how similar keywords can be connected to different intent. In general, there are four different kinds of intent based search of which businesses should be aware. These categories also broadly relate to various stages of the buying journey, so understanding them can help you to define a user intent SEO strategy that drives sales.

Informational search intent 

This represents the broadest kind of search, wherein the user is gathering information. An informational search or informational query indicates that a potential customer has not yet committed to making a purchase. Any content targeting informational keywords should look to establish a foundation of knowledge and build authority. 

Informational search intent example
Source: Google

Navigational search intent

A navigational search occurs when a user knows exactly where they want to end up and uses a search engine to get there. This likely means that a potential customer already has a preferred source of information that has gained their trust. When responding to navigational search intent, you want to give your audience reasons to come back. Topic clusters and internal linking are key tools for achieving this.

Navigational search intent example
Source: Google

Commercial search intent

Consumers who enter commercial intent keywords as the basis for their queries are getting ready to make a purchase. The purpose of this search is to gain more information about what the buying experience will entail. In addition, these users likely want more information on specific products, models, or services. Make sure you provide clear purchasing information and contact options to engage with customers expressing commercial search intent.

Commercial search intent example
Source: Google

Transactional search intent

Finally, we arrive at the actual sale with transactional searches. At this point, potential customers are looking to become actual customers. They’ll use transactional keywords to navigate to the point of sale in order to make a purchase. Provide these users with a clear and simple interface that makes digital purchases as simple as possible.

Transactional search intent example
Source: Google

Tips for determining search intent from keywords

Of course, it’s one thing to describe differing search query intent and how to adapt your content accordingly. It’s an entirely different matter to figure out which type of search most applies to your publications and develop a keyword intent SEO strategy.

Don’t worry! There are established tools and best practices for figuring out which search intent type is most relevant to you.

Consider keyword modifiers

Keyword intent SEO is incredibly important when it comes to determining your audience’s goals. However, it’s equally essential to pay attention to the additional text added to the expected words and phrases. These often hint at – if not outright explain – a user’s objective when launching a search. For example, “pizza restaurant delivery” reveals a great deal more than “pizza restaurant.”

Keyword research tools make it much easier to determine the specific phrases that often alter your target keywords. When using such a service, filter keywords by SERP based on the stage of the buying journey that you intend to target.

Check on SERPs

Speaking of SERPs, reviewing them provides another avenue for identifying user intent. When trying to figure out the intent behind your keyword, a simple Google search will show you what Google thinks users want to find.

This can work for various types of Google searches and stages of the buying journey. When users have informational intent, the SERPs will likely consist of knowledge grabs, snippets, and related questions. Commercial searches tend to focus on brands, models, or products that customers could potentially buy. Finally, if you find detailed pricing, your keyword is likely connected to transactional intent.

Scan the top ten search results

When you’re looking at SERPs, pay extra attention to the top ten results. These pages represent what Google believes is the most relevant content for your keyword. While the occupants of the top ten might represent different search intents, they offer a reasonable starting point. And if one particular objective appears more frequently than the others, such a majority can offer significant insight into the goals of your audience.

Maintain a holistic approach

While SERPs are incredibly helpful when you’re investigating search intent types, they don’t tell the whole story. Predominant user objectives can change over time. Make sure to look at how your target keywords have performed over an extended period of time to get the full picture.

Review related information offered by Google

Google offers some additional tools that make it even easier to get more information on its users’ potential intent. The “People also ask” box and related searches can shed some light on your audience’s objectives. This helps identify the ideal target for the most common intention related to a broader query. By looking at this information, you get a better idea of what related content to create and publish.

Check similarity scores between keywords

More detail and information can even be found in other queries that share a thematic connection to your target keywords. Related searches demonstrate how many pages from your search results are also featured on similar SERPs. With this information, you can then understand the connection between your keywords and others that might more clearly demonstrate intent.

Look for different forms of content

Finally, it’s important to understand exactly what kind of content your audience wants to engage with? Are they looking for high-quality visuals or informational articles? Looking at what pops up when you search a keyword enables your business to further refine the content it develops to fit the interests of potential customers.

With a proper focus on search intent, you can develop content that is more relevant to your audience, performs better in search engines, and engages on the actual topics in which potential customers have an interest. This is the extra layer of SEO engagement that can take any business to the next level!

Tom Winter

Seasoned SaaS and agency growth expert with deep expertise in AI, content marketing, and SEO. With SEOwind, he crafts AI-powered content that tops Google searches and magnetizes clicks. With a track record of rocketing startups to global reach and coaching teams to smash growth, Tom's all about sharing his rich arsenal of strategies through engaging podcasts and webinars. He's your go-to guy for transforming organic traffic, supercharging content creation, and driving sales through the roof.