SEO Guide to Search Intent (a.k.a. Keyword Intent)

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SEO Guide to search intent (a.k.a. keyword intent)
By: Oleg Triers

Alexander Hamilton died of a gunshot wound. You'll learn that, among a dozen other things, immediately after typing "Alexander Hamilton" into Google. There's a page, Wikipedia article, and a Knowledge panel with a slew of facts.

Now, you add the word "buy" in there. Instead of learning about the purchase of the remains of the first American Treasury Secretary, you'll find out that Ron Chernow's book "Alexander Hamilton" is $14,99 at Barnes & Noble.

Whereas the first page is purely informative, the second has links to product pages from Amazon. Even the Knowledge Panel is about the book. That's because the search engine today tries to understand not just the "what" of your search, but also the "why" of it.

Google's primary business is figuring out the best page that would match what we're searching for. SEO's business, in turn, is clearly communicating to Google that we are in fact the best result for that particular query.

And today, doing that has much more to do with matching user's search intent, than with simply using the right amount of keywords.

I. Search intent definition and how it influences search

Simply put, search intent (a.k.a. user intent, keyword intent) is the reason a user is searching. Matching user intent was always a big goal for search engines. Before AI came to the forefront, though, matching intent had much more to do with simply having the right keywords in your content.

This works fine when the intent is blindingly obvious. But often there is a gap between the words users put in the search bar and what they want out of their results. This is where AI algorithms came in, all the way back in 2013.

Example: the query is "blurry TV". Today's SERP will not show all the pages where the words "blurry" and "TV" are mentioned. Instead, the SERP will reflect the intent to fix a Television set. There will be results like "How to fix poor picture quality", "My TV has a fuzzy picture".

So you'll see plenty of ranking pages which don't emphasize target keywords, but clearly would be matching the search intent of somebody looking to solve their TV problem.

How did we get here? It is all about Google using an AI algorithm called RankBrain. Rank Brain calculates historical data on the CTR of the SERPs in real time. By analyzing past user behavior, it can make an educated guess as to what we mean when we type in certain keywords.

In this situation, if you are not addressing the intent, and only matching the keywords, there's a pretty big chance you aren't going to show up on the SERP. So there's no use trying to improve the rankings of a TV product page by stuffing it full of "blurry TV" keywords, it's simply not happening.

This is why matching user intent should be the cornerstone of any SEO expert's work, even more so than simply putting in the keywords you intend to rank for.

II. Types of search intent

We can broadly put search queries into four main categories by user 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 login"; "SEO PowerSuite blog". Or they are looking for an address of a real-world place and google: "MacDonald's Seattle".
  • 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". The intent here is not to buy anything, but to get an answer, maybe read/watch informative content for a while.
  • Or they might be ready for a transaction — the user intends to spend some money. 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 with a pricing, a "buy" button.
  • Or really, the mix between the previous two, they might be doing commercial research. The 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", "best five-wheeled bikes".

These categories are not set in stone, naturally. Informational user intent might transform very easily into an intent to buy. Conversely, a potential buyer might go back to researching their options at any time.

The exception here is probably the "get somewhere" search intent. With a navigational query like that, the user is looking to reach a particular website or product/service that they already know about. In this case, there is probably only one likely website that they're looking to reach.

But the rest of the categories certainly overlap, thanks to the nature of buying things online.

Determining search intent

In a situation where the intent is not so easy to parse, turn to Google search. Simply put in the query you're interested in, and look at the SERP you get. That will tell you what search intent the search engine itself attached to your target keywords.

Take a look at SERP features for hints at what's the intent of a majority of searchers. Always take into account what's positioned higher on the SERP, as that will often mean that it reflects the majority of users' intent.

Going back to our "blurry TV" example.

You'll get a featured snippet with some information, a People also ask block, and then a bunch of informational pages. Thus we figure that "blurry TV" is understood by Google as a request for information first and foremost.

III. Integrating Search Intent into your keyword research

All content creation should start with some keyword research. And the best keyword research always accounts for keyword intent.

Going into Rank Tracker, you'll get a few modules that are there to give you a bunch of keyword ideas.

  1. Go to Keyword Planner and put in the target keywords, and let the tool do its thing. You'll get a long list of found keywords for you to choose from.
  2. There, in the upper right corner, you'll get a chance to apply filters to the keywords you've found.

  1. So, if you want to create a page that targets a transactional query in a particular niche, you'll add filters with words like "price", "pricing", "purchase", "buy", "order", and so on.
    You'll get a redacted list of keyword ideas specifically containing those keywords, giving you a further idea on what to work on during your content creation.

  1. You could also turn to Keyword Combinations module to get a slew of ideas on how your keywords could be arranged and rearranged. But tread carefully here, since it's a machine doing the task, after all. Be careful not to add completely nonsensical keywords as your targets, but use this module for inspiration.
  2. Those keywords will be automatically added to the Keyword Sandbox module. There, they will automatically be broken up according to categories, but you can also group them yourself. Create a keyword group named something like "Search intent — buy".

Create groups for every keyword intent your website will be aiming to address, and track rankings accordingly.

User intent as the foundation of keyword mapping

For your content to always match the search intent of your potential customer, you want user intent to dictate every single step of your SEO process. And it goes double for keyword mapping, since this process is all about managing how your pages and keywords correspond to each other.

On a larger, structural level, you should use a keyword map to keep in mind the intent behind every page. Here's a simple step by step guide on how you do that.

Step 1. Having collected your keywords, head over to WebSite Auditor.

Step 2. Go to Content Analysis > Keyword Map. Import your keywords, that you already grouped according to the intent they address. You can also group them immediately by topic+intent.

Step 3. Map the keywords covering the intent you need to the pages they belong to.

That way, you'll always know which pages are supposed to be targeting specifically transactional or specifically informational intents. This can be used further on to guide your content optimization efforts, too.

Search intent today is the crux of SEO content creation, and has to be considered both when optimizing the pages already on your website, as well as planning new pages further on.

IV. Optimizing your website for search intent

It's obvious that there will be many more informational queries than transactional or investigational ones. But I believe that neither should be the absolute focus of any website. A website should holistically cater to every intent a user might have. Aiming your website at a single user search intent right now is not the tactic you want to pursue.

A person interested in a particular niche reading a very informative piece about a certain product might very quickly get interested in it and decide to purchase. And you want to give them an opportunity to buy your product!

So pages covering different intents but connected thematically also should be linked together. A great way to assure that your thematically connected pages are also linked together is to use WebSite Auditor.

Go to Site Structure > Visualization. There, you'll see your entire website reimagined as a web of page connections.

You'll get a list of all the links pointing to and from the page you've clicked on. Ideally you want a situation where a ranking page covering an informational search intent reels your potential client in.

Then, that user is given ample opportunity to move to a page catering to their intent to investigate other products, and, ultimately, make a purchase.

Rules for optimizing content for search intent

Rule #1. Make sure to use keywords appropriate for intent you're targeting

Appropriately and intelligently used keywords should be a natural part of any content. On top of that, you need to present Google with the keywords its bots are expecting to see on a page covering your particular niche.

For example, as a rule of thumb, informational queries contain words like:

  • Guide
  • Tutorial
  • Explained
  • How can I
  • A to Z
  • Ultimate
  • What is
  • How to
  • What are the benefits of
  • How do/does
  • Ways to

So the perfect page to optimize for informational search intent are pages like this article that you're reading right now! It's a guide aiming to give a comprehensive overview of a topic to our user, with some advice on how to implement the article's insights using our product.

So, throughout such a page, we have to use the keywords themselves, as well as a wide array of synonyms. Take care to surround the keywords you're currently targeting with modifiers like "what is", "how to", "guide", etc.

To get a huge list of potential keywords to use for better search intent targeting, use a keyword research tool. Employ the same principles I wrote about above and add appropriate keywords throughout.

Rule #2. Determine search intent by looking at SERP features

Have you heard about zero-click searches? They are all the rage at the moment. And the reason for that are the omnipresent SERP features. Far as I'm concerned, every SEO expert out there should put getting one of them for themselves on their agenda.

Why are SERP features important for search intent? Well, Google's effectively trying to keep you on their property as long as possible. Once the search engine figures out your intent, it tries to not simply give you the 10 blue links that match it, but also appropriate SERP features.

This is why you need to know exactly for which keywords there are SERP features available.

In Rank Tracker, all of the keywords you're tracking will have a column with the available SERP features for them.

You'll see every keyword that has a SERP feature available, and if you might already have one.

Distinguish also between different categories within the types of intent. If we're talking about informational intent that only requires a quick answer, then, of course, you shouldn't create and optimize your page to suit this intent only. So a query like "Victor Hugo death" — perfectly valid search, but it won't result in a click, since the user will just get an answer on the SERP.

On the other hand, things like "how to run a link building campaign" (I wrote one of those) will inevitably lead a user to your website, since it's a big topic that requires real research. And here's where you need to fight for that SERP feature!

And don't think that SERP features are only a priority if you're aiming for informational search intent. Searches containing "buy" or "purchase" might also end up with a SERP sporting a People also ask box. And the best thing about a People also ask box is that if you get there, your website will appear on the SERP twice, doubling your SERP real estate.

Even more important are the queries often covered by features such as a Knowledge Panel (which is pretty tough to get into), and Featured Snippet (which is much easier to get into).

What gets put in the Featured Snippet is what Google algorithms consider to be the best condensed answer to a user's informational query. What we see in Featured Snippets are: clean, to the point explanations, and, I think most importantly, bullet points.

Example: a standard Google search for an SEO: "How to win featured snippets".

What we get is this page with a Featured Snippet from Moz's website. A little down the line, we also see the same website in People also ask box.

This is why structured data is paramount to creating pretty much any piece of content.

But SERP features are important even if you don't end up in a People also ask box or a Featured Snippet. Because when looking up the People also ask questions and given answers, you get a glimpse of what it is that people actually want out of your page.

Even without actually aiming for a SERP feature, answering these same questions in a clean and concise manner is the best way to signal to a search engine that you are a great fit to answer a user's query.

Rule #3. Analyze top-ranking pages for hints on form and content

In general, if you want to rank, it's a good rule to look up what's already ranking on the SERP. And I don't just mean the content, but the form, as well.

  • For a piece of content covering informational search intent, the most popular content forms are lists, step by step guides, infographics, and, of course, explanation videos.
  • For transactional search intent, the best page to create is a product page, pricing pages, sign up pages, free consultations, sales pages.
  • When a person intends to learn what to buy, they look for comparison pages, tables, and reviews.

Here you can use Rank Tracker's Topic Competitors module. Enter the keywords you're targeting at the moment. The tool will then give you up to 100 of your highest ranking competitors ranking for the same keywords.

After you figured out the highest ranking pages for the keywords you choose to target, you'll be able to easily identify the intent they address, and the format considered the best to do so.

It's not enough that your content be informative and useful, since Google algorithms also look at what's already there and ranking, and user's behavior, as well. So you can't ever just create content in a vacuum, and hope for a random ranking.

Let's say you're trying to address informational search intent. Say the higher ranking pages for the SERP you're on are all short, clean and broken up into bullet points. It might be a good idea to revamp your huge piece of text without much formatting.

Another example: you're optimizing for commercial search intent. You check a dozen SERPs and see that most of them have pages announcing special offers in their titles. The SERP is full of -15% this and -30% that!

On top of that, all of the top ranking pages feature a lot of images with "Buy" buttons near them. So you optimize your page according to that. Users want an image-rich page from which you can buy directly, and the price is, obviously, an important issue for them. You implement that to best match the supposed user intent.

And it's not a one-and-done type of deal! SERPs keep changing.

Let's go back to our first "Alexander Hamilton" example. Did you notice anything specific about those searches? In the first search People also ask box contains a question about a certain musical.

That same musical's home page appears in the second search right beneath a product page for the book.

This is a recent development. The SERP changed because there is a recent (compared to other results) musical by the same name. That musical is widely-searched so Google's algorithms changed the rankings. This reflects that now users' search intent likely has something to do with the musical.

This is why it's so crucial to research SERPs regularly enough. Monitor what Google considers the best pages matching a user's intent today as opposed to three weeks ago.

You can track a bunch of SERPs at the same time in Rank Tracker. In Project Preferences > Rank Checking Mode you can set Rank Tracker to record SERP history. This will let you see how the SERPs changed since you started tracking your target keywords.

We want to communicate that we're the perfect page addressing a particular search intent. For that, we need to investigate the pages that are ranking right now, and see what it is that makes them the best.

Final thoughts

SEO today is a hugely complex undertaking. Sure, a technical audit might seem more important since it is instrumental to make your site behave better for every user that gets there. But what you want to do really is form your entire website around a certain type of audience.

That is only possible if you orient your content creation around answering the questions this audience might have using not just the words they likely search for, but also the words they expect to see on your pages.

Expect is the operating word here. Presenting yourself as the kind of page, website, business and product that a searcher would "expect" to find for their search is how you win.

That is only possible if you account not just for the words your users type in, but for all the possible synonyms, as well as the SERP history.

By: Oleg Triers