What is search intent?
Search intent is the end goal of a search user, the exact type of information a user is looking to receive in search results. It’s called intent because the search goal is not always obvious from the query.
Say, I search for something like gravel bikes. Do I want to learn what they are? Which are the best models? Where can I buy some? My intent is not very clear, so it’s up to Google to interpret my query and decide what kind of content to show me.
Other times, the intent is very clear. If I’m searching for best gravel bikes under $1000, then it is clear I want to see a selection of bikes, most likely a listicle of specific models. Preferably with purchase links, as it looks like I’m very close to pulling the trigger.
What are the four types of search intent?
We can broadly put search queries into four main intent categories:
Navigational search intent
Sometimes users just need to get somewhere. Both online and in real life. A user might simply not have a URL saved and googles something like: Twitter, SEO PowerSuite blog. Or they are looking for an address of a real-world place and google McDonald's Seattle.
Informational search intent
The user's intent might be to get information, find something out. It's queries like: get rid of cockroaches, Santiago capital, get rid of cockroach-killing spiders. This is where a user is looking to learn something without an intent to make a purchase afterwards.
Commercial search intent
Also sometimes called commercial investigation, is when a user is not ready to buy just yet but is specifically mining information about certain niche's services/products. Anything that has X vs Y, such and such compared, or best five-wheeled bikes.
Transactional search intent
That’s when a user is ready to pull the trigger and make that purchase. So searches that have the words buy, price, cheap, and often local searches like bike rental Seattle. People here are looking for a product page, with a straightforward layout, pricing, and a buy button.
Why is search intent important for SEO?
Google satisfies each type of search intent with a very specific type of content. So, if you are targeting a specific query, but your content does not match the intent, then you will not appear in SERP. Understanding the intent and creating appropriate content could be a real breakthrough in your SEO strategy.
This is especially true for queries with informational and commercial intent. These types of queries can be satisfied with a wide range of content types.
For example, when I search for information on how to fix a bike chain, I get a featured video result at the very top of SERP:
But, if I search for how to fix a bike seat, which is a conceptually identical query, I get an article at the very top of SERP:
A similar thing tends to happen with commercial queries. When I search for canon eos rp reviews, I get an article up top:
But, when I search for a review of a competitor product, I get a video broken into segments:
So, depending on the way Google interprets intent, certain types of content seem to have an advantage in search.
How does Google determine search intent?
Google has always been interested in satisfying search intent and providing us with a better user experience. There has been a series of algorithm updates aimed specifically at matching search intent.
There was RankBrain back in 2015, which focused on query context (user’s location, search history, etc.). Then there was BERT in 2019, which aimed to resolve lexical ambiguity, learn new words, find synonyms, and in general pay more attention to nuanced phrasing. And soon there will be MUM — an algorithm that will be able to change/adjust the content in order to satisfy search intent.
But, if we forget about the specific algorithms, there are generally three types of clues that Google uses to determine search intent:
Context is the circumstance surrounding your query. Specifically, your location, language, search history, and current events. For example, if you were to google nashville on a regular day, you’d get a bunch of regular pages from Wikipedia and the tourist center. But, if you were to google nashville on the day it is hit by an asteroid, the entire SERP will change to the news coverage.
The more words you add to your query the more clear the intent. When the query is formed as a question using modifiers like what, how, why, then the intent is most likely informational. The queries including words like best, top, review, compare, are most likely commercial.
This is speculative, but not entirely unreasonable that Google looks at the type of content we prefer for each query and promotes more of such content. For example, if many users search for how to fix a bike chain and immediately switch to video results, then Google might consider pulling those video results into the main SERP. This could be the reason we see different types of content ranking for seemingly identical types of queries.
How do you account for search intent in SEO?
Part of the trick is to figure out the best content to satisfy each type of query according to its intent. The other part of the trick is to approach this task systemically so that intent is accounted for throughout all of your content. Here is what you do.
Split your keywords by intent
When doing keyword research for your website, make sure that search intent is taken into account. There is no reason to create informational pages that target commercial queries — it’s a criminal waste of resources. Instead, split your keywords by intent and map them onto corresponding pages.
If you are doing keyword research in Rank Tracker, you can use filters to identify keywords with specific intent. Once you’ve collected all of your keyword ideas in Keyword Research > Keyword Sandbox, go to filters and enter keyword modifiers that are associated with a particular intent. For example, if I want to single out keywords with informational intent, I can filter the keyword list using modifiers like how, what, why, guide, tutorial, etc.
I’ve applied this filter to a list of 16,000 bike-related keywords and got about 800 keywords that definitely have informational intent and would be perfect for creating guides and how-to videos:
Here’s the same principle applied to find commercial keywords:
And I got over 3,000 keywords with commercial investigation intent, perfect for product listicles, reviews, and maybe even catalog pages:
There is little point going beyond informational and commercial keywords — these are the ones responsible for most of your content. Transactional keywords are mostly product pages, you don’t have to research them to know what they are. And navigational keywords are anything with your brand and/or your type of business in them, like *brand* address, *brand* working hours, bike shop cleveland, etc.
Use SERP for content ideas
Now that you have your keywords sorted by intent, it’s time to figure out the exact type of content to satisfy the searchers. As we discussed before, the intent of the query and even the query itself are not reliable indicators of the type of content needed to satisfy them. It’s common for two nearly identical queries to be satisfied with very different SERPs.
The only reliable way to create the best type of content for a particular query is to look at what’s already ranking in SERP. A quick and systemic approach is to use an SEO tool like Rank Tracker. There, if you go to Target Keywords > Rank Tracking, you can sort your keywords by SERP features and see which queries are best satisfied with videos, reviews, image galleries, and so forth:
Once you do this, your content strategy becomes pretty straightforward. You know right away that here are the topics for which you have to create videos, and here are the topics that will turn into in-depth reviews. And you can prioritize the order in which to create content by keyword search volume, which you can also get from Rank Tracker.
When you get to creating content for a particular query, it’s worth it to visit the actual SERP and see for yourself what kind of content is prioritized by Google, what are the angles used in the titles, and what’s on the actual pages.
For example, it says in Rank Tracker that the query best gravel bikes features a video and an image gallery. But, if we go to the actual SERP, we’ll see that Google prioritizes traditional listicles over other types of content:
And if we scroll to the bottom of the SERP that’s where we get image and video results:
It’s still worth creating a video for this type of query, just to increase the number of ways in which you can appear in SERP. But, if you have limited resources, which all of us do, it’s best to start with a listicle and maybe later turn it into a video.
Utilize off page SEO
You’ll often find that certain types of queries are best met with web 2.0 content and other off page content. If that’s the case with your query, then consider making these platforms a part of your sales funnel.
So, for example, if a certain query is often met with results from Pinterest, then consider creating a corresponding Pinterest board and then have your Pinterest account connected to your website. This way you can get into SERP and still have some traffic funneled into your website.
Another platform you have to consider is YouTube. Most videos featured in SERP come from YouTube, which is no surprise since YouTube is owned by Google. On top of that, YouTube allows for CC and segment markup — which is what Google uses to analyze videos and find pieces that can satisfy specific search intent:
And we can’t ignore other Google platforms as well. Obviously, for local SEO and navigational queries you have to claim and optimize your Google My Business listing. This will get you into a GMB panel, local results, and Google maps:
Finally, at least for now, you have to join the Google Merchant Center and have your product pages validated with Google. This will help you get your products directly into SERP and have them featured for transactional and commercial types of queries:
Apply Schema markup
You might have noticed that search results are getting increasingly diverse and complex. There are knowledge panels, images, videos, featured snippets, rich snippets and over 200 other SERP features. All of these features exist to satisfy very specific search intents, like people looking for business information, products, recipes, short answers to complex questions, and so forth.
One way Google is able to pull this very specific information from our websites is by relying on Schema markup, aka structured data. It’s a collection of HTML tags used to highlight pieces of content on our pages. For example, if it’s a recipe, we can use structured data to highlight each ingredient, cooking time, calorie count, the number of portions, and so forth. And then Google can use this information to create a rich snippet, like so:
There are certain types of queries for which you have no chance of ranking if you don’t have structured data on your pages — there is just no room in SERP for non-rich snippets. For other queries, having structured data is not critical, but may give you an advantage over your competitors. Please consult our guide on structured data and see if there are any types of markup that might be applicable to your content.
Watch out for SERP shifts
SERPs are fluid. You might have cracked it with exactly the right type of content, but the entire thing might change a day from now. New SERP features are introduced constantly, users flock to other types of content, and your competitors are always out to grab your positions.
The fluidity of SERP is not necessarily a problem, I’d say it’s more of an opportunity. Watch your positions in Rank Tracker and, if you see a sudden drop in rankings, investigate the SERP.
Look for a change in the way Google satisfies search intent with SERP composition or in the way your competitors satisfy search intent within their content. It’s usually not a problem to regain your ranking if you realign your content quickly.
SERP has been changing rapidly these past few months and now you can see search results that have EVERYTHING in them: videos, images, blue links, featured snippets, stories, products, and so forth:
It seems like Google is experimenting with new ways to satisfy intent. A little while ago, Google would identify intent and try to satisfy it with ten versions of the same type of content. For example, if I wanted a guide on choosing a gravel bike, Google would give me ten guide articles to choose from, and maybe one video or one featured snippet. So it was easy to crack the intent of these SERPs and create matching content.
Today, it looks like Google is trying to fit the entire sales funnel within a single SERP. In the screenshot above, I’m looking for a camera review and I get more than one video, a couple of articles, an image gallery, a number of product listings, and a bunch of other SERP features.
If this trend continues, then the idea of having one intent per query might be a thing of the past. Instead, we might consider satisfying a whole range of intents per product or service and attack each SERP with every type of content.