What is search intent anyway and why is it so gosh-darn important for SEO?

Search intent is the answer, the product, or the information you want to find when you search Google or one of the other search engines.

You could say it’s the direction of your search.

Search intent is also called user intent and keyword intent. They all mean the same thing.

For a search engine to earn the love and affection of its users, it needs to be able to figure out search intent just by looking at search queries. What a task, huh?

I’m a parent. If anybody knows the frustration of not having their search intent satisfied, it’s parents.

A couple of months ago, I had this conversation with my three-year-old.

It was during the period when my daughter’s kindergarten had to follow strict corona guidelines. One of them was no lunch boxes (had to be plastic bags) and throwing away leftovers. Not very climate-friendly, I know.

Me: “Did you eat your lunch?”

Emma: “Not all of it.”

Me: “What didn’t you eat?”

Emma: “Mom, I did eat my lunch.”

Me: “But you just said you didn’t eat it all?”

Emma: “That’s because I can’t eat so much food.”

Me: “That’s okay, hon. But which parts didn’t you eat?

Emma: “I don’t know … mom, look, a butterfly …”

I tried in every possible way to find out what she had eaten that day. I got nowhere.

Fulfilling keyword intent relieves frustrationThat rarely happens when you ask Google for help. Yes, Google was once a three-year-old child, but not anymore. The search engine has come close to speaking fluently human, and it has learned to answer questions straight up.

That’s pure awesomesauce for all of us who use Google search to make our lives a little easier on a regular basis.

But what about all of us who are trying to get Google to display our content up top?

We have to be just as clever. It’s our job to know what our target audience is looking for when they type in various search terms.

We have to be awesome listeners.

Or, at least, awesome search intent investigators.

I want to help you become one.

Therefore, in this article you’ll learn:

  • what search intent is
  • why it is important for SEO
  • how to find the user intent behind a keyword

Let’s get right to it.

What is search intent?

Search intent means the end goal of the person performing the search.

When you search on Google, you want to find something. Something more or less specific. You feel a need, and you want to satisfy it. Quickly.

No wonder that Google has developed a fierce obsession with search intent. Search intent is the holy cup of SEO. It’s the alfa and the omelet of search because getting relevant results fast it’s the most important thing for the user.

Thus, bulging blogs and all the backlinks in the world can’t help you rank if your website misses the search intent. Don’t optimize for keywords. Optimize for keyword intent.

In the search engine people’s own words, Google’s mission is to:

Organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

With an emphasis on useful.

Don't miss search intentWhat Google wants most in the world is to show results that are perfect matches for every user’s intent.

And it has become quite the maestro.

How did Google become such an expert on human nature?

Well, to answer that we have to fly back in time. In 2013, Google released the Hummingbird update, and in 2015 came RankBrain.

Hummingbird was (and is) a core algorithm update that allowed the search engine to understand the semantics behind the words we use to communicate.

In other words, Hummingbird knows that ‘car’ is a motorized vehicle with synonyms like automobile and fuel guzzler, and not just a three-letter word.

RankBrain is a machine learning algorithm working closely with Hummingbird. A key job for RankBrain is to store user signals. In very simple terms, RankBrain notices what type of results people tend to click in relation to a given search query.

RankBrain, and hence Google, has a lot of data. Staggering amounts. Something like the biggest cheat sheet in the universe. In fact, Google is the search engine with the largest amount of data by far compared to other search engines.

That’s exactly why Google is the best possible place to explore when you go treasure hunting for the magic search intent. But more on that in a couple of minutes.

First, let’s take a look at how search intent is typically classified.

Types of search intent

I don’t know who came up with this way of dividing search intent into groups. But since it seems to be the market standard, I’ll present the groups to you in case you’ve never heard about them before.

The four types of search intent look like this:

Informational search intent
Informational keyword intentAs in ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘who’, ‘guide to…’, ‘example of…’, ‘how to…’, etc. A search for information, either broad or in detail. Sometimes, but not always, phrased as questions.

Navigational search intent
Navigational search intentAs is the name of a product, service, brand, website, login site, etc. It’s easier to ask Google to find the place or site than to type in a specific URL.

Commercial search intent
Commercial user intentAs in thinking about buying something and looking for reviews, comparisons, shops, stores, lists, pricing levels, etc.

Transactional search intent
Transactional search intentAs in ready to buy something and looking for places or websites to buy from. Often with search terms like product names, brands, or types in combination with modifiers like ‘purchase’, ‘buy’, or ‘cheap’.

It’s important to know these four types of intent because then you can tailor your content to the different stages of directions.

For instance, it’s a bad idea to optimize a product page for informational search intent. You’ll scare the user away. She’s not interested in buying. Instead, create a page with useful information about what she’s looking for.

On the other hand, a user who already knows all there is to know about a product and is ready to buy will become annoyed if you present her with loads of information. Now’s the time for a product page and a big neon add-to-cart button.

Since you’re (probably) not a psychic or otherwise spiritually gifted in ways that allow you to guess user intent, you need a little help.

Fortunately, help is close.

How to find search intent

Look at modifiers

Often, the shorter the search query the more difficult it is to guess search intent.

Luckily, a sizable chunk of web searches (almost three quarters) is long-tail searches. What is the difference between a generic search and a long-tail search? The answer is modifiers.

To modify means to change something, and that’s exactly what modifiers do when they appear in search queries.

Let’s have an example:

A search for ‘dog leash’ could mean a lot of things. Could mean an intent to compare leashes or find a specific type of leash.

But if the user includes a couple of modifiers, they work as clues to her intent.

Say she types ‘best retractable dog leash’ or maybe ‘buy retriever leash’. The first query lets us know that she wants a comparison of different types of retractable dog leashes. So this is a search for information (and possibly later for products). The other search shows an intent to buy a specific type of dog leash.

If you’re still not sure about the intent, despite modifiers, look up your keyword or phrase in Google search.

Pick Google’s (rank)brain

When you look up your keyword, Google presents you with a list of results. Study these results closely.

As we talked about earlier, Google has tons of experience and continually stores information about user behavior in its colossal database.

When a search result is shown up top, you can be pretty sure that the majority of users have found this type of result to be the best match for their needs.

If you see a lot of descriptive articles, you have a search query with informational intent on your hands. The content shown for informational searches could also be pictures, videos, or infographics.

And this is an important point.

Say you love writing, and in your mind, wonderful and engaging content equals written articles. Your target audience might agree. And then again, they might not. The SERPs will reveal that, too.

So if you have trouble getting your page to rank, even though you have the intent right, the reason could be that your content has the wrong format. Matching intent is not only about choosing the right one of the four types we talked about before. It’s also about creating the right type of content.

If what appears in the SERPs are pictures, and you don’t have any, then post some. If it’s videos, make one. Find an angle on your topic that would make for an alluring video, and take out your smartphone.

On the other hand, if the results are primarily in-depth articles, you’re fine.

Keep up the good work.

What to do with multiple search intents?

Of course, many terms have multiple possible search intents.

Take a look at the following words. They each have more than one possible user intent:

  • Fall (could mean a season, a figurative fall, or a physical fall)
  • Feet (could mean body parts or a measuring unit)
  • Wave (could mean an ocean wave, a figurative wave, of a friendly hand gesture)

But only rarely are the search intents equally divided between the different meanings. Most of the time, one search intent is the most prevalent, and thus Google will arrange the results accordingly.

Steal from competitors

Is stealing okay?

Of course it is.

Remember Picasso and his famous saying?

Good artists borrow while great artists steal.

If you don’t occupy the top position in Google (yet), chances are your competitors are keeping the seat warm. That’s because, as far as Google is concerned, they match keyword intent more accurately than you. Notice how they do it.

First, take a look at their metadata. Could that explain why they get all the clicks?

Magnetic metadataYour metadata is the doorway to your sites. It is not a direct ranking factor, but it can attract or dispel visitors and hence determine click-through rate, and, to some extent, bounce rate. And those are UX signals that Google RankBrain pays attention to when deciding how to rank results.

If you find that competitor metadata is yummy and magnetic, give your own a makeover to make it dazzle.

Remember that you can monitor competitors in the SEO Score app. Here, you’ll get a SERP preview of the metadata of the top 10 results, so you can easily see what’s working so well for them.

Second, find out what type of content your competitors serve up. Is it primarily written articles? Are they long or short? How are they structured? What to they link to? Do they include tutorial videos?

If you land on product pages, you might find inspiration in the product descriptions, pictures, or the text and placement of the call-to-action button.

Steal whatever you can get your hands on. Of course, stealing doesn’t mean copying or displaying copyrighted material on your webpage without asking permission or giving credit. Stealing means to take something already in existence and placing it in a new context to make it your own.

I hope you agree with me on that.

I also hope that you feel brave enough to go hunting for the search intent behind your keywords now. Because SEO is all about keyword intent.

By the way, don’t forget to sign up in the SEO Score app to start tracking keywords.

How else are you going to know just how much your hard work and investigative skills are paying off?

Happy hunting 🙂

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