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18 min read
Oct 31, 2022

Ever wonder how Google understands what you mean when you type a single keyword into the search bar? For example, when you search for “MacBook,” you’re most likely to get a list of websites selling this product instead of articles about the history of MacBooks or guides explaining how to repair them at home.

Google has come a long way. It used to use a keyword-based ranking approach. Now, it implements advanced algorithms that infer the real question behind certain keywords—which is where search intent comes into play. Today, ​​by creating and optimizing pages according to the “one search intent = one page = one keyword cluster” rule, you can cover different search intent queries while helping Google rank your content faster.

In this article, we’ll explain what search intent is, why it is important for SEO, how to determine search intent from keywords, and what the main benefits of intent targeting are.

But first, let’s cover the basics.

What is User Intent?

To make sure users find the most relevant and valuable results in SERPs, search engines use machine learning models to understand why people conduct a specific search. In other words, Google first tries to identify the search intent of the query that the person typed into the search engine.

As the name suggests, user intent (search/audience/keyword intent) is the term used to describe the goal people have when entering a search phrase. Their goal could be to get information on a certain topic or find a solution to a problem. Maybe the user wants to complete a purchase or take action on a website. Some users, however, prefer to review product information and comparisons before investing in something.

Google does its best to put the most relevant answer to a search query at the top of the SERP. This is why most marketers strive to align with search intent. It is an almost surefire way to improve rankings in search results.

Why is User Intent Important in SEO?

Here’s the short answer. User intent is high on Google’s priority list which is why marketers who want to succeed in SEO should prioritize it, too. 

SEO is no longer about picking a few traffic-driving keywords and sprinkling them into the content as much as possible. The focus of SEO today is on the information attached to those keywords. If the content you produce matches user search intent, Google’s ranking algorithm will recognize it and will bump up your position in SERPs. Keywords help to identify this intent.

By understanding the purpose of an online search query, you can:

  • Improve your keyword research strategy by focusing more on search queries that meet your audience’s needs while also bringing in more targeted website traffic.
  • Produce valuable human-oriented content.
  • Increase your SERP rankings, thereby getting more visibility, building credibility, and improving domain authority.

The 4 Types of Search Intent

Since we know what is user intent in SEO and why it matters, let’s dive deeper into its types. The 4 user intent types are classified as informational, navigational, transactional, and commercial. These categories were initially developed by Andrei Broder of Altavista. In 2002, he came up with a framework to identify the searcher’s intent in his seminal paper “A Taxonomy of Web Search.” Instead of focusing on SEO, Broder was just trying to determine the need behind every search. But today, this methodology is widely used by SEOs to achieve their marketing goals.

Informational Search Intent

As you may have guessed, the purpose of search queries for users with informational intent is to learn something. These search queries could be in the form of a specific question (e.g., how long does it take to get to the Moon?) or broad investigations that require research (e.g., the role of mass media in childhood socialization).

Google usually displays answers to specific questions with the help of featured snippets. These highlighted excerpts of text sit at the top of the SERP so users can save time browsing the Internet.

For example, if you type “who won the NBA Finals 2022” in the search box, your SERP will most likely look like this:

Informational search query

In addition to giving a clear answer to the question, Google also provides information about the Golden State Warriors team in the Knowledge Panel on the right side of search results. Meanwhile, the People Also Ask feature answers similar questions related to the user’s search query.

Informational SEO search intent can be recognized by question words like who, what, when, where, why, how, etc. For instance:

  • Who invented the radio?
  • When did the Titanic sink?
  • Where is Elon Musk from?
  • Why doesn’t it thunderstorm in the winter?

But that’s not always the case. Google also infers informational search intent from general noun keywords, such as:

  • Carbonara sauce
  • Chetham’s Library location
  • UX writing trends
  • Money-saving tips

The Importance of Informational Search Intent for Your Business

According to a Penn State research study conducted in 2007, more than 80% of all search queries are informational. Fifteen years later, this trend still remains the same—people look up information on the web more than anything else.

By providing your audience with high-quality informational and educational content, you can showcase your expertise in a certain field, generate brand awareness, and build authority. Many companies also perceive informational content as their chance to make a positive first impression on their target audience.

However, as you can see with the SERP features, Google often provides users with enough information right on the SERP. As a result, people are less inclined to click through to a sites content, and you might lose direct traffic to your webpages. 

How to Optimize for Informational User Intent

Blog posts, in-depth guides, a list of tips, how-to videos, and checklists are the most popular forms of informational content on the Internet. Pay attention to these content types when optimizing for informational user intent.

To get started, examine the way people look up information online. Discover informational search queries around your topics with the help of these features:

  • Google’s People Also Ask (PAA) section—type your keyword into the search box and find lots of related questions that people are searching on Google.
  • Google’s Related Searches section—just like the PAA section, the Related Searches block provides related suggestions in the form of keywords.
  • SE Ranking’s Keyword Research Tool offers a list of similar, related, and low-search volume keywords for you to optimize your content for.

Just click Keyword Research in the top navigation bar, paste a seed keyword, and scroll down to the Keyword Ideas section. 

keyword idea seranking

Alternatively, you can directly access this tool from the widget below:

Enter a search term and find untapped keyword opportunities to make your site more visible in search.

You can also use this tool to get search volume and competition insights on the keywords you plan to use in your user intent SEO strategy. What’s more, by filtering these keywords with the help of question keywords, you can find a variety of content ideas for your blog. To do this, go to the list of keywords, hit Filter, and add question words like how, where, why, when, etc. You’ll find plenty of topics that are interesting to your audience.

Navigational Search Intent

Users with navigational intent are looking for a specific web page or domain. These queries are typically used as an alternative for typing the entire URL into Google’s search bar. For example, when a person types in “Instagram,” they are looking for a direct link to this website.

Navigational Search Query

Here are some more examples of queries with navigational user intent:

  • SE Ranking website audit
  • Twitter sign up
  • Google Analytics
  • WordPress blog

Make sure your website can be easily found. When someone searches for your company’s name online,  the audience should be able to access your platform with minimal effort.

The Importance of Navigational Search Intent for Your Business

Targeting navigational search intent is a great way to identify the least and most popular brand elements among your audience. For instance, if a product category you offer is targeted by most queries, it must be of high demand among your audience. At the same time, if there’s a considerable decrease in searches related to another product/service, try to figure out why. 

How to Optimize for Navigational User Intent

There’s not much you can do with the navigational search intent outside of your own domain. Users with navigational search intent are typically looking for a specific link pointing out to the website. Your task is to do everything in your power to nab and hook the first position on the SERPs for all variations of your brand’s name.

But how do you do it? Create content around navigational keywords, such as:

  • Company name
  • Company contacts
  • Price
  • Reviews
  • Location
  • Login 
  • Testimonials

Transactional Search Intent

Whether it be a product, service, or subscription, people with transactional search intent are looking for the right place to buy something. This is why transactional searches often include words like buy, subscribe, price, cheap, discount, sale, near me, order, and so on. Here are examples of transactional search queries:

  • Cheap tickets online
  • Grocery store near me
  • Buy body cream
  • Denim jackets sale

Still, transactional queries are not always this obvious. Sometimes people type the name of a product or service into Google’s search bar without any additional modifiers. A “denim jacket” query, for instance, most likely has transactional intent even though it’s not accompanied by other words, such as buy, sale, and so on.

Before optimizing your webpage for transactional search intent, check SERPs for a given query. When people type the name of a specific product/service first, it usually means they want to gain more information about it (this refers to commercial search intent). 

For instance, if you type “SEO courses” into the search box, the #1 organic result is an article comparing the 10 best free SEO courses available online (which is not a specific course offered by a particular platform). This demonstrates that finding the difference between transactional and commercial user intents isn’t always easy.

Commercial Search Query

From a business perspective, transactional keywords have the most value because they attract people who are ready to make a purchase right away. This is why many e-commerce websites optimize for transactional queries from the start.

Take a look at the screenshot below:

Transactional Search Intent

When you type “order bags online” into Google’s search bar, you’ve made a clear intention of buying a bag in one of the offered stores. To attract you as a potential customer, e-commerce websites that offer this product should optimize their content for your query intent. The higher they rank for your keyphrase, the higher their chances of getting you as a new customer.

The Importance of Transactional Search Intent for Your Business

Transactional keywords help your business make money. By optimizing your content for relevant queries of this intent type, websites can increase lead generation rates and raise their total revenue.

In fact, people performing this kind of search are in the “conversion” stage of the marketing funnel, so they can be turned into customers with the best chance of success.

How to Optimize for Transactional User Intent

To get the most out of transactional intent optimization, begin by auditing the following page types:

  • Landing pages
  • Product pages
  • Pricing pages
  • Sales pages
  • Event pages

These are the most likely pages to appear in SERPs for transactional intent queries. They are also “responsible” for generating sales on your website.

To audit and improve keyword intent SEO on each page, you can use SE Ranking’s On-Page SEO Checker. In addition to putting each webpage to the test and pitting them against over 90 parameters that impact Google rankings, this tool also offers a to-do list of SEO tasks based on the competition in your niche. In just a few clicks, you can identify and fix the issues preventing you from reaching top SERP positions.

Enter a URL and get your free report

To learn more about on-page SEO—whether it’s one page per time or all pages in bulk—check out our complete guide on this topic.

Commercial Search Intent

Commercial search intent is usually perceived as something lying in the middle of informational and transactional intent queries. Simply put, the user has already decided to buy something but still needs to conduct a commercial investigation to make the final decision. 

What hair straightener would be best for me? Which news website should I subscribe to? Similar questions encourage people to compare products and brands that fit their needs best. Take a look at different examples of commercial intent queries:

  • Android and IOS comparison
  • Best graphic design courses
  • Top hotels in Las Vegas
  • MacBook Air vs Pro

The Importance of Commercial Search Intent for Your Business

Commercial keywords play a key role in any buying cycle because they help people find relevant information for making a potential purchase. Your audience will use a navigational keyword to find your website if, for instance, you provide them with a detailed explanation for why your product/service is better than those of your competitors. By successfully outlining the benefits your product provides that your rivals don’t, you’ll get more customers, which means more sales.

Arnout Hellemans
Senior Online Strategist at OnlineMarkethink
User intent might lead to a purchase. We have been going through this process for ages, we get inspired or have a problem > we do research > ask for experiences > compare possible solutions > we make a purchase. This process has moved online in both social networks, search and comparison/shopping platforms. Our behavior hasn’t fundamentally changed, just we went from offline to online / blended both in our journey.
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How to Optimize for Commercial User Intent

To optimize your content for commercial user intent, make sure to target commercial keywords, be honest about a product’s shortcomings, and structure your content so that it clearly answers your audience’s questions. 

For example, let’s take a look at the comparison table presented by Tesla:

Commercial Intent

Even though there’s not much textual content, this webpage still demonstrates the main differences between three car models in a structurally appealing way. People trying to make their final purchasing decision can easily navigate and compare information without leaving the page. The additional CTA button placed under each car doesn’t look like a lengthy sales pitch. Still, it gently encourages readers to move to the ordering process and contributes to the website’s conversion rates.

How to Determine Search Intent from Keywords

Determining keyword search intent is an integral part of any content marketing strategy. There are two main practices for identifying search intent—and they don’t take much effort on your part.

Arnout Hellemans
Senior Online Strategist at OnlineMarkethink
User intent can be found in multiple ways, one big way is using an incognito browser and then do the search and check what kind of results / search features are in the serp (loads of video’s (howto / comparison), image carousel (inspiration), shopping results (transactional intent). Another big way is looking at the how, what is, and other intent modifiers that are added to keywords. I like looking at the People Also Ask boxes (PAA) for inspiration on these.
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Analyze Keyword Modifiers

By considering keyword modifiers, you can identify SEO user intent without using additional techniques. 

  • Informational keyword modifiers are who, what, when, where, why, how, etc.
  • Navigational keyword modifiers are [brand name], [product name], [service name], etc.
  • Transactional keyword modifiers are buy, subscribe, price, cheap, discount, sale, near me, order, etc.
  • Commercial keyword modifiers are review, vs, best, top, alternative, comparison, and so on.

But identifying user intent is more complex than finding modifiers (especially for the Transactional and Commercial intent), so the best way is to check the SERP for your keywords of interest.

For example, let’s take a look at the keywords Taco Bell ranks for in the US:

Organic keywords

Keywords like restaurants near me and fast food near me have transactional intent behind them, whereas taco bell and taco bell menu are clearly navigational.

To figure out which keywords the target domain/URL ranks for, you can use SE Ranking’s Competitive Research tool.

Who are your closest rivals and how do they position themselves in search? It's time to find out.

Examine the SERPs

Identify user intent by typing the target keyword into the search bar and analyzing Google’s search results. This is the best way to figure out user intent because you’re essentially getting hints from Google’s algorithms as to what it believes is the best match for your searched keyword. 

To get in-depth information on top SERP players and all their major metrics—and on a single screen, you can use SE Ranking’s SERP Analyzer tool. Choose the depth of analysis (we recommend choosing the top 5 and top 10 results when analyzing search intent), select any country/region, and enter a keyword from which to find top-performing webpages.

SERP Analyzer tool

By using this tool, you can:

  • Identify the main SERP players.
  • Analyze their associated SEO metrics.
  • Determine the main ranking factors for a certain SERP.
  • Learn more about the type of content offered by top-performing pages and how optimized they are.

Since you will always see different types of SERPs depending on the intent of keywords, let’s go over the different types of intent in more detail.

SERP Results for Informational Intent

Most often, Google reacts to keywords with informational intent with Knowledge Panel, featured snippets, and People Also Ask sections. Wikipedia or informative articles oftentimes occupy the primary positions for these keywords. Also, the majority of URLs in the top 10 would include something like “blog,” “guide,” etc in their URLs. Take a look at this example:

SERP results for informational intent

SERP Results for Navigational Intent

Considering that people with navigational intent already have the exact domain they’re looking for in mind, these results typically feature the most relevant page within that domain at the top of SERPs. You can also find additional site links and Knowledge panels in search results depending on the search you run.

The first organic result will most likely include the product or brand name in the URL, page title, and meta descriptions.

SERP results for navigational intent

SERP Results for Transactional Intent

Transactional SERPs include paid results, shopping carousels, maps, shopping places, and reviews. Top-performing pages optimized for the transactional user intent include information about the product, its features, price, benefits, and alternatives.

SERP results for transactional intent

SERP Results for Commercial Intent

With commercial intent keywords, SERPs include paid results or local pack at the top. For these keywords, you’ll see information related to the associated brands and their products or services.

Meta titles and descriptions of top SERP players optimized for commercial user intent often include a list of different products/services accompanied by modifiers like best, top, perfect, leading, and so on.

SERP results for commercial intent

Search Intent SEO Benefits 

To get the most out of search intent SEO, you’ll need to use a comprehensive approach that includes a combination of different practices, both on-page and off-page. Eventually, your business will benefit in a number of ways that are not limited to:

  • Getting more organic traffic as your page will be highly relevant for the search query.
  • Getting a more relevant target audience to your website.
  • Building brand trust by using your content to show that you understand what users are looking for. 
  • More Qualified Leads: By matching the user intent with your products/services, you can get targeted traffic that’s ready to make a conversion.

Final Words

Understanding search intent is one of the most crucial marketing tasks for ranking higher in SERPs and attracting the most motivated users. If you want your content strategy to pay off, write content that targets specific search intents and corresponds to the expectations of your audience. Spend more time on research so you’ll know exactly how to match your content with each keyword’s search intent. 
What are some best practices you use to identify user intent? Are there any problems you face when determining the motive behind an Internet search? Share your experience in the comments below so we can discuss it together!

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  1. Thanks for this guide. Very informative and insightful piece of content

    1. Thank you, Jayne! Glad you appreciated it!

  2. What if I optimize for the wrong user intent? Will I be penalized by Google?

    1. Hi, Howard. Thanks for your question.
      No, you will not be penalized for optimizing for the wrong user intent. Still, the mismatch between your content and search intent can lead to many complications for your business. The main problems you’re likely to deal with are as follows:

      1. Traffic might increase initially, but visitors would not stay for very long. In other words, content that isn’t relevant to the user’s intent will not convert.
      2. Google’s algorithms put more and more emphasis on user intent. By optimizing for the wrong search intent, you might lose your reputation in the eyes of this search engine and, subsequently, face ranking drops.

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