26 April 2022
10 min read

Understanding search intent in SEO

Once upon a time, it was enough to use target keywords to get your website ranking highly on search engines, but it's much more complicated now. 

There are millions, if not billions, of active websites on the internet. Search engines have the crucial job of sifting through them to show you the most relevant websites to your search and filtering out the spam.

In fact, Google sees a whopping 3.5 billion searches daily. Using complex algorithms, the Google bots decide what content is worth showing in the first search results pages and what content should be further down.

If you want your website to rank highly on search engines (of course you do!) for the right terms, you need to integrate search intent into your SEO and content creation strategies.

This article will explain precisely what SEO search intent means and why it's important. We'll talk about the most popular types of search intent and give you a step-by-step guide on using them to improve your page rankings.

There's a lot to learn, so let's get into it!

What Is search intent?

First, you might be asking: What is search intent? 

'Search intent' (also referred to as user intent or keyword intent) is the reason why someone has come to the internet to search for something. When people type a search phrase into a search engine, they're usually looking for an answer or a resource. 

When you're developing your killer SEO strategy, search intent is a factor you should consider. You want to think about the keywords people would use to find your content. 

When thinking about search intent, you should be asking yourself questions like: 

What's the reasoning behind their search? 

Are they looking for a specific website, or is their search more general? 

Are they looking to buy a product? 

Do they want to research a topic? 

Search intent doesn't just apply to your website blog either. You need to determine search intent in all aspects of your website. That includes landing pages, product or service pages, collections, and so on. 

Common types of search intent

There are different types of user intent. When users come to Google they often look for different things. Someone could be looking to buy something, while someone else could be looking to research a particular topic. 

Google uses a saying called 'do-know-go' when factoring search intent. This breaks down search intents into three different types: 

  • Do: This is when a person searches on Google to purchase a product or book an appointment. They are looking for something specific they want to do. Since the invention of the smartphone, we have used the internet more often to organise our lives, book appointments, or shop online. 
  • Know: This is where someone is searching online to research a topic. They're looking to get more information on something. It could be research for an essay or article or something as simple as wanting to prove a point to their friends. 
  • Go: This refers to when people search for a specific website. Sometimes people can't be bothered typing in the entire web domain, so since Google is their homepage, they just google the website's title and click the first search. Someone might search for 'Amazon' because they want to shop there and select the top result. 

Those aren't the only types of search intent, but it is a good tool for breaking them down. In reality, there are several common types of search intent. We'll go through them all. 

Informational intent

Every time you Google something looking to get more information about a specific topic, it falls under informational intent. It could be something as simple as looking for a recipe to cook for dinner or finding out what the weather is. 

It goes further than simply the words you've typed into the search engine. If you google 'chicken soup', Google will decide you want to look up a recipe. It won't just tell you what chicken soup is. Google assumes you already know that. Its algorithm has worked out that usually, when people search 'chicken soup', they want to cook it, so it immediately goes straight to the recipe. 

The search engine page results will display several websites with top chicken soup recipes, alongside some images that give you an idea of the finished product. 

Examples of informational queries: 

  • 'How important is SEO?' 
  • ‘When did Sigmund Freud die?’
  • How to change a lightbulb
  • Feminism

Transactional intent

Transactional search intent refers to those searches people make when they want to buy something. Usually, when someone searches for a product they want to buy, they'll type the product name into Google. The search engine has determined that they are generally looking to purchase the product when people do this. So again, instead of just offering a definition, the search results will be product pages. 

Let's say you google 'Apple wireless mouse'. Google is smart. It knows you most likely want to buy one, so the top results will be sellers selling wireless Apple mice. It'll even direct you to its 'Shopping' tab, where you can see stacked images and prices. 

You can decide the option with the best value on Google and click on the link. It'll take you directly to the product page, where you can make a purchase. By doing so, Google gets you where you need to be in as few clicks as possible. 

Examples of transactional queries: 

  • Bluetooth speaker
  • Orange cushions
  • Dog bed for small dogs
  • USB-C charging cable

Commercial investigation

Many people want to research the products in advance when making big purchases. If you're buying a new dishwasher, you'll want to see what the top brands selling dishwashers are. So you might search for that in Google. You might be looking at the 'best features of a dishwasher'. Then you might go onto a couple of retail websites and compare the prices and features of the dishwashers they're selling. Finally, you read all the reviews of the ones you're shortlisting. This is all commercial investigation or commercial intent. 

While commercial investigation intent seems similar to transactional intent, they differ only because you aren't looking to make an immediate purchase when you are doing a commercial investigation. You're just doing your research in advance, so you're well informed about your choice when it comes time to buy a dishwasher. 

Examples of commercial intent search queries:

  • Top dishwasher brands
  • Dishwashers cheaper than $500
  • Bosch dishwasher reviews

Finally, navigational search intent refers to the searches users make when they want to go to a specific website but feel too lazy to type the exact URL. Usually, the user will type the website name into Google and hope to get directed there with the search engine page results. 

You want to be the first website ranked when people search your website name as a website owner. If your website name is '', when people type in PawsForThought or Paws For Thought, you would want to be the top result. 

Examples of navigational queries: 

  • Facebook
  • Amazon
  • Wikipedia
  • Reddit

Why Is search intent important?

So now we know what search intent means and the different types of search intent. Let's look at the importance of using it.

Google's quality guidelines discuss the importance of user intent (although they call it 'user intent') when showing results. A search engine won't be popular if it can't display search results relevant to what the user is looking for. Just look at what happened to AskJeeves. 

Improves page rankings

Keywords, backlinks, structure and images still matter in search engine optimisation, but as Google's algorithms have become more advanced, search intent has been a key factor in its page rankings. When choosing what pages rank in the first few pages of search results, Google automatically checks that your content satisfies search intent requirements. To put it bluntly, if you're not going to determine search intent when creating your content, your page isn't going to rank highly on Google. 

If Google sees that when a user clicks on your website and doesn't immediately click back to Google, it will understand that the user found what they were looking for on your website. So you've nailed the search intent. Once it analyses that, it'll improve your page rankings on the search engine page results. 

Satisfies search engine requirements

SEO, search engine optimisation, is crucial to the success of your website. The higher you rank on search engines, the more organic traffic is directed towards your page. It doesn't matter what type of content you produce. You will have to consider SEO across all your landing pages, your blog, and every piece of content you create. 

How to guide to determine search intent

Now you're probably wondering how you're supposed to use search intent to get your page ranking highly on Google's search engine page results. There are several important factors to consider when applying user intent to your website. 

Look at SERPs

Search engines exist to make your journey on the web as simple as possible. It wants you to get from Point A to Point B with minimal effort. When you type something into Google, it tailors the results based on your keywords and search intent. So the Search Engine Page Results (SERPs) are tailored to the type of content it thinks you want to see, based on what you've searched.

Researching the SERPs is a crucial aspect of determining user intent. One of the best ways to explore search intent is to type in the target keyword you want to use and look through the first five SERPs to investigate what websites currently come up. This allows you to learn what your customers will see before they visit your website. The search engine might choose particular SERPs to show you depending on the keyword and user intent. 

For example, if you're looking to buy a product with transactional intent, you'll get the shopping search results. If you have informational intent, you're more likely to be directed to websites discussing your search topic. 

Let's look at the common types of SERPs you'll encounter depending on the type of user intent. 

SERPs for navigational intent

These SERPs will be pretty streamlined. When users have navigational intent, they are usually looking for a specific website. For example, they might have typed 'Facebook' into the search bar. So that will be the first result. Google will make a fairly educated guess that the user intent is navigational, and they want to go to Facebook. 

The same applies to other websites. So you want to make sure when someone types your web domain name into Google, they get your website as the first result. 

Other results might be background information on the website. Google will calculate that the user intent could also have been informational. Or they could include additional pages of the website Google thinks you want to access. 

If you type in 'Amazon', the first page of SERPs is the front page of Amazon in your country. Additional results include links to Amazon Prime, different sections of the Amazon store, and Prime Video. 

SERP results for commercial or transactional intent

Since the SERPs are similar for commercial or transactional intent, I've put them together. 

When someone searches a term that Google deems as commercial intent, it provides you with a range of results to supplement your research. Let's take the last example. You're buying a new dishwasher, so search for 'Bosch dishwashers'. The first three links are promoted ads with links to companies who have paid Google to promote them, and beneath that are other companies who sell Bosch dishwashers. 

Along the side of the page are images of Bosch dishwashers and their prices at different companies - these are promoted ads too. They show a thumbnail of the dishwasher, the price, the company selling it, and a current five-star rating. It allows you to see all the basics you'll need on one accessible page. 

If you're looking to buy an item now, Google will show the same product pages and link you to various websites to make a purchase. 

SERP results for informational intent

Google will grab the most relevant websites and images associated with the search term when you search for something with informational intent. For example, search 'Kim Kardashian'. The top results will be an image bar of pictures of Kim Kardashian, a link to her Wikipedia page displaying details such as height, names of her children, and a background on who Kim Kardashian is. 

They also show a 'top stories' tab since she's often in the tabloids. Google assumes you might be looking for the most up-to-date news stories about her. So it offers a variety of different types of content. 

Google tailors all of its SERPs to your search queries. If you search 'What is search intent', the top articles are all written blogs about search intent and how you can apply it to your website. There are no images or top stories.

Research keywords

Using the correct keywords on your pages is vital to the success of your website. Keywords are still the primary way people are going to find you. However, you should consider the search intent behind using those keywords. This will help you understand the keywords people type into search engines that will lead them to your website. 

There are many keyword research tools you can use to help determine the target keywords. This will allow you to investigate what common keywords are around a specific topic and filter out the less relevant ones to your website. 

Check out your competition

If you're setting up a website, you'll already know who your top competitors are. If not, you can go to Google and type in the keywords you're planning on using across your website. The top few pages are the companies already using search engine optimisation correctly and ranking highly. 

You should examine their websites. You're looking for things like: 

  • Tone of voice used - Is it conversational or formal? How do they speak to their audience?
  • Formatting - How are their websites structured? 
  • Content - What sort of content do they offer? Is there a variety? Are they missing anything? 

Improve existing web content

If you've already got content on your website that hasn't considered search intent, you'll want to repurpose it. Do some keyword research to get some ideas, and sprinkle them throughout your content. Remember to consider your target audience's search intent and why they might be searching for those terms, which will help you with your keyword ideas. 

The more pages you have on your website relevant to your target keywords, the higher you'll rank.

To conclude

Ultimately, as a website owner on the internet, you are at the mercy of the search engine gods to get traffic to your website. More traffic turns into more converted customers. Therefore, you need to satisfy the search engine requirements. Applying search intent will get your website to rank higher on those all-important search engines. 

There are several ways you can use search intent to your advantage. Your best option is to monitor your competition and see how they are doing it. Especially if those websites appear on the first page of search results. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. You can draw inspiration from people who are already doing it successfully. 

You'll also want to conduct keyword research. You can use a keyword research tool to help you. Browse the SERPs and make notes of similarities in the high-ranking websites, then go back and edit the content you already have (if any) so that it can rank higher. Remember to consider different types of search intent and what form of user intent will lead someone to specific pages on your website. 

There's nothing else to do other than to get started. Good luck!

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