Search Intent: What It Is and Why It’s Important for SEO

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Imagine your partner goes downstairs and finds two inches of water covering your basement floor, panics, and yells, “Water!” Thinking they’ve suddenly been stricken with a terrible thirst, you rush downstairs with a full pitcher. Ankle deep in water, you realize you understood the subject of the request but misidentified your partner’s intent—delivering decidedly unhelpful results.

Online, users make requests using search engines. Search engines “decide” which web pages best fulfill those requests and rank those pages on their results pages. The sites that rank get traffic. To be among the sites that rank, you have to understand both the subject of a request and the reason behind it. Read on to learn how to do so.

What is search intent?

Search intent—or user intent—is the reason a user makes a search query on a search engine.

Consider the search “bahamas january how cold.” The search subject is January weather in the Bahamas, and the user’s search intent is to gain more information about this particular subject—perhaps to choose a vacation destination or pack for a planned trip.

Search intent isn’t always so straightforward, though. Consider the keyword “fiddle leaf fig.” If someone searches for that phrase on Google, they could have a variety of intentions. They might want to buy a fiddle leaf fig plant. Or they might want to learn how to care for one. Or they might want to find out its family, kingdom, and order, or where the plant originated. This type of search is known as a mixed-intent query.

Google tries to learn the user intent behind search queries by tracking over time what results people click on. If the vast majority of searchers click on articles about fiddle leaf fig care, Google can assume that the primary search intent is to learn how to care for the plant, and the majority of results on the search engine results page (SERP) will speak to that intent.

Why does search intent matter for SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a marketing strategy intended to increase traffic to a site by optimizing its pages for discovery via organic search. To be successful at SEO, you have to create relevant content. To create content that’s relevant for users, you have to understand why someone is typing a particular search query (also known as a keyword) into that search bar in the first place.

Say you’re an online plant shop trying to reach people who are in the market for a fiddle leaf fig plant. You decide to create content for your blog to rank for the keyword “fiddle leaf fig.” If you write an article about the origins and native climate of the fiddle leaf fig tree, but the search intent behind the query is to learn how to care for this houseplant, you won’t rank.

Types of search intent

There are four main types of search intent: informational, navigational, commercial, and transactional. Here’s how they differ:

Informational intent

A user with informational intent wants to learn more about something. Informational searches can include questions like “why don't conifers drop their needles” and “who wrote the far side comics.” But users don’t always indicate informational intent so clearly—searches like “cat peeing outside of litter box” and “west virginia vs epa supreme court” also represent informational queries.

Navigational intent

Users with navigational search intent already know the exact page they’re trying to visit—they’re just using a search bar to get there rather than typing the URL directly into the address bar. “Nytimes style section,” “the real real,” and “selco credit union login” are all navigational queries.

Transactional intent

Users with transactional intent want to take action, like sign up for a writer’s Substack or make a purchase. Phrases like “buy mason pearson hairbrush,” and “sonicare coupon code” indicate transactional search intent.

Commercial intent

Users with commercial intent (or commercial investigation intent) are in the research phase of the buying process. They haven’t yet committed to a purchase and are looking for information to help them decide. Commercial intent search queries might include “honda vs toyota safety comparison,” “best air filters 2023,” or “bosch electric circular saw review.”

How to determine search intent of a keyword

In some cases, determining search intent is easy. A user who searches for “how to teach a puppy to sit,” for example, is clearly looking for information. In other cases, it’s less clear.

SEO managers use the following two strategies to determine search intent:

Consider both keywords and modifiers

Search queries can include both specific keywords and keyword modifiers—words or groups of words that increase the specificity of a search. Both can help determine search intent. For example, consider the search “what is a data center?” “Data center” is a specific keyword, and “what” is a modifier that indicates informational intent.

Here’s a search intent keyword cheat sheet:

  • Informational keywords. Informational keywords include question words (like “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how”) and resource-oriented keywords (like “examples,” “tips,” “guide,” “resource,” and “ideas”).
  • Navigational keywords. Navigational keywords typically include specific brands, sites, or product names paired with navigational modifiers like “login,” “homepage,” or “site.”
  • Transactional keywords. Transactional keywords can include “buy,” “order,” “coupon,” “price,” and “discount.”
  • Commercial keywords. Commercial keywords include words that solicit an opinion, like “review,” “comparison,” “best,” or “top.” A general product name paired with a specific attribute, like “blue leather boots” or “biggest coffee maker,” indicates commercial intent.

Consult the SERPs

Search engines format search engine results pages (SERPs) according to search intent. For example, for an informational search, a search engine might pull a short excerpt from a relevant article (known as a featured snippet) and display it above page rankings.

Analyzing how a search engine displays information for a particular query can help you determine how the search engine categorizes that query’s search intent:

  • Transactional intent. If the search engine identifies transactional intent, it may lead with shopping links and ads. 
  • Navigational intent. When search engines identify navigational intent, SERPs typically lead with the relevant site links.
  • Informational search intent. If the search engine identifies informational intent, SERPs may lead with knowledge cards, featured snippets, or recommendations for other questions.
  • Commercial intent. If the search engine identifies commercial intent, SERPs may lead with featured snippets and ads.

5 best practices for incorporating search intent into your SEO strategy

Optimizing content based on search intent can help your site perform better in search engine results and provide more value to your target audiences. These five best practices can help you create content that satisfies search intent.

  1. Create relevant content
  2. Consider landing pages
  3. Optimize metadata
  4. Analyze competitors
  5. Use tools

1. Create relevant content

High-quality content satisfies a user’s purposes. If you’re targeting an informational search query, ensure your content answers the relevant question. If you’re targeting a commercial search query, help your customer decide whether to purchase and evaluate options in the marketplace.

2. Consider landing pages

A landing page is a page that users reach through a specific pathway, like clicking an email link or a search engine result. Landing pages typically aren’t linked from your main site, so you don’t need to worry about making the content and layout relevant to all users. Instead, you can create a landing page designed to answer a specific user’s intent, like a product page optimized for the query “conair hairdryer discount code.”

3. Optimize metadata

Make sure that metadata—like meta titles, headers, and meta descriptions—includes the right target keywords and is formatted to satisfy search intent. For example, if you create a product comparison guide to target users with commercial intent, your meta description should indicate how content can help them decide.

4. Analyze competitors

Analyze top-ranking pages for your target keywords; considering formatting, tone, keywords, and angle. You can mimic successful pages and try to one-up them: Identify gaps in competitor content and provide more relevant or comprehensive answers.

5. Use tools

Keyword research tools (like Google Keyword Planner) can help you identify a query’s search volume and determine common types of intent for searches that include your target keywords. You can also use ranking tools like Google Search Console to monitor your results and paid SEO analysis tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, and SEOptimer to audit your site and conduct competitor research.

Search intent FAQ

What is the difference between keyword intent and search intent?

Keyword intent and search intent are the same. Both refer to a user’s reason for making a particular search query.

Can search intent change over time?

Yes. Both search subjects and user intent are in constant flux. For example, consider the query “iphone 4.” In 2010, when the iPhone 4 was the current model, the intent behind that query would likely be to purchase the device. Today, the intent behind that query might be to learn if that model is still usable.

How does the search intent of mobile users differ from desktop users?

Mobile search intent is more likely than desktop search intent to reflect a user’s immediate needs—for example, searches like “Thai food near me” and “how to change a flat tire.” Mobile searches with commercial or transactional intent also typically come from users closer to the purchase point than desktop users who make the same searches. A user might conduct initial research at home, then confirm that research on mobile before purchasing.