How does Google always seem to know exactly what you’re looking for? Why does it show you those top 10 results instead of 10 others? The answer is the combination of search intent and SEO.
Google ranks web pages based on machine learning, and the search engine itself has done a lot of learning over the years in the interest of self-improvement and better serving users.
Think about it like this:
Remember in the opening minutes of The Matrix Reloaded when Neo is fighting the three agents who break through the door? Agent Johnson stops one of Neo’s punches, causing a surprised Neo to take a moment and say, “Hm, upgrades.”
His point was, these agents are better than the ones he is used to fighting. Neo’s punch would have been fast enough to hit an agent from the first movie, but these agents have adapted to a problem and are now performing better because of that.
Google has done the same thing in regards to search intent and SEO: upgrades.
Where, 15 years ago, the search engine might have shown users a scattershot collection of related results for a query, today, Google knows almost exactly what you want when you search “best SEO agencies” rather than “SEO agency.”
Search intent – and consequently the keyword research part of technical SEO – is more important than ever in the SEO of 2023. Search intent will inform your keyword and content strategies. It will become the basis of each and every page on your website.
Even John Mueller, Google’s senior webmaster trends analyst, recently had something vital to say about search intent.
So, let’s get into this. Here’s everything you need to know about search intent and SEO.
What Is Search Intent?
Search intent is the thought or reason behind why someone searched what they did in Google or another search engine. They expect to see a certain type of result based on what they searched, and not all results are equal.
Let’s think back to the “upgrades” example.
If Google was a more simplistic learning machine, it would interpret the words and only the words from user searches.
- “best volleyball brands”
- “how to change a wiper blade”
- “why did Napoleon fall from power?”
There are plenty of search results that would rank for those queries. But what about the intent behind them? What specifically do users who have those queries want to see?
To me, looking at those searches quickly:
- “Best volleyball brands” should turn up professionally written roundup posts that list 10 or more volleyball brands with reviews.
- The second query should turn up videos first and then detailed step-by-step blog posts that explain exactly how to change a wiper blade.
- The last search should produce not general biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte but rather articles that focus on his last days as emperor of the French.
Google thinks this way, too. Its insight into search intent allows it to show those specific results to satisfy users.
See, SEOs can do all the keyword research they want, but if they don’t factor in optimizing their content for search intent, it doesn’t really matter.
Maciej Fita, marketing manager at Brandignity, told us, “Search intent is basically using the right keywords so your content, products, assets, and more can rank for a person conducting a search. It’s important to factor in search intent because that is what’s going to cause someone to click on your result.”
If someone searches for a product such as an outdoor cooler, they expect to get results showing where they can buy or shop from. If their user intent was different, and they were looking for cooler reviews or comparisons, they would most likely search for “outdoor cooler reviews” or “best outdoor coolers.”
What this means is that if you had a site that didn’t sell outdoor coolers but rather provided reviews to users for outdoor gear, the chances of you ranking for the term “outdoor coolers” are pretty slim.
Those results and clicks are going to go to big-box retailers who sell outdoor coolers. Your review site has a better chance of ranking for longer-tail keywords that ask for comparisons or reviews.
Google may test with your result at some point and show it on the first or second page of the search results, but chances are it’s not going to get the clicks like the other listings will. It will also probably result in a high bounce rate.
By matching up not just keywords and pages but keyword intents and content, Google determines the overall intent behind certain queries and ranks the results that best satisfy those user needs.
The Types of Search Intent
There are three main types of search intent. Understanding these will further help you optimize your content for search intent.
Informational intent occurs when someone is searching for information only. All they want is to learn something. They’re not necessarily shopping or buying anything right now.
Informational keywords are often question-based or long-tail queries. You may see shopping results mixed in, but for the most part, if the intent is informational, you will see the SERP dominated by informational results, like the example below for “green clay mask.”
Navigational search intent is searchers’ desire to be shown specific websites or brands. They know where they want to go.
Take this simple example:
People who search the word “Amazon” probably want the ecommerce site. For whatever reason, they just didn’t want to put in “Amazon.com” in the search bar.
Let’s ramp it up a bit now”
This searcher still wants Amazon, but a specific page on the site: the information page for Amazon sellers.
Now, you might rank reasonably well on page 1 or 2 for a blog post explaining all you need to know about being an Amazon seller, since your post could conceivably rank for “Amazon sellers info” (search the term yourself; some non-Amazon results do appear on page 1).
But because the term has a navigational intent, and most searchers want to go to the Amazon website, you shouldn’t expect this post to perform extremely well. It might! But we can’t expect it.
Then there’s commercial intent, which is the intent someone has between wanting to learn about something and wanting to buy something.
In business and sales, we can call commercial-intent keywords as being part of the middle funnel. These users might want to read reviews of products or see roundups or comparisons of products. They know they’re going to be buying something soon, but they need to make the right decision.
So, with commercial-intent queries, you might see words included such as “vs,” “best,” or “reviews.”
Transactional intent is when someone is looking to complete a specific action on the web. The most common is when a user is looking to buy something, but it doesn’t always have to pertain to ecommerce. A user can also be looking to complete a conversion by booking an appointment or seeking more information on a service offering.
You can often tell that a keyword is transactional because it gets specific. It might name a brand a type of product, such as “adidas kermit the frog shoes.”
If you’re ever confused about a keyword’s intent, you can also just check out the existing top 10 on Google. Reviewing the SERPs this way tells you what Google has already determined is relevant for the term.
Why Is Search Intent Important?
Google’s main reason for existing is to provide the best search results to users. Its platform is built on searcher intent. So search intent matters because it’s the key to gaining and keeping keyword equity on the first page of Google.
Back in 2019, Google came out with the BERT update, which, among other things, enhanced the search engine’s ability to understand natural language. That means Google could now better interpret not just words, but the unspoken meanings behind words.
Or, to put it another way, the intent of the words.
And, as you might be aware of, when Google optimizes itself for something, marketers had better stay in line.
If you aren’t honing in on keywords based on the intent of the users searching for them, you won’t keep the result. Google tracks clicks, and if you’re not getting any, you’re not going to hold your position. Search volume doesn’t matter if your site or page isn’t intended to give the end-user what they are looking for.
When you go to do keyword research for your site or a client’s site, do more than just suggest keywords with search volume. Give them recommendations on how to change their page or what type of page to build to produce a result that meets the user’s expectations. Taking this extra step in your keyword discovery is key.
In fact, Google’s own John Mueller recently said that the search engine prioritizes content that is most relevant for certain queries, rather than pages that simply get the most engagement.
The translation to us is that, while engagement still matters, Google is going to consider if your page matches the keyword’s intent before it will rank it well.
That’s why understanding the relationship between search intent and SEO matters so much in the keyword research phase of optimizing a site, and subsequently in your content marketing.
Jane Kovalkova, chief marketing officer at Chanty, gave us the perfect example of why intent matters for brands. Chanty is a simple AI-powered team-messaging system built for easy cross-company communication, much like Slack.
She said, “We achieved great success with the keyword ‘Slack alternative,’ where the intent is to find a product that is similar to Slack but better in some aspects. The search intent here is informational. The visitor wants to learn more about the competitors before purchasing. We also target other keywords like ‘Slack pricing,’ where the aim of the visitor is to buy something. The intent is completely different. Search intent is something that you have to figure out on your own.”
Examples like this show why search intent is important. Optimizing for intent and getting it right was super important for Chanty. It’s helped them gain customers that were both at the beginning of the funnel and also farther down. That breadth of keywords exists for all companies; you just need to know how to find them.
How to Determine Search Intent
Analyze the SERPs
One thing we’ve done to ramp up our keyword research here at LSEO is to Google terms ourselves.
Google is your best friend in this situation. Doing this allows us to analyze the SERPs (search engine result pages) to see what is populating on the page.
Is there an answer box or featured snippet? Are the top results product pages, content pages, or FAQ pages? Taking this step will help you determine what type of page to produce or how to structure the page you already have on your site to compete at the top of the SERP for said keyword.
Just make sure you clear your cache or browse in incognito so your past search history doesn’t influence the search results.
One company that has had success with this is Sip Coffee. Their founder, Ahmed Mir, told us, “You can immediately understand the search intent of a query by reviewing the results on page 1 of Google. Based on all the results, you can tell what users are expecting to find. As a result, that is how you should write and try to rank for the searched query.”
Levi Olmstead, director of marketing at 2ndKitchen, also told us from her experience, “For many search terms, you’ll need to do proper research on what is ranking at the top of SERPs before starting to piece together a new article. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself not presenting the right content and ultimately will not rank well for the keyword you’re targeting.”
Use Paid Search Data
Here, you will use some paid search data to help you analyze the intent of keywords. Keyword Planner is a tool that is part of your Google Ads account. Searching for keywords in Google Keyword Planner or even a tool such as Semrush, you will also generate a CPC associated with that keyword.
Analyzing the CPC will help you determine if a keyword is earlier or later in the funnel. Keywords earlier in the funnel tend to be more informational-based and generally have a lower CPC. Keywords later in the funnel tend to be more transactional-based and have a higher CPC. This can help determine the intent of a keyword you want to target.
Analyze Your Analytics and Search Console Data
Are you getting clicks based on the number of impressions you are getting? Is your bounce rate high? If you answer no, then this can mean that some of your pages don’t have the right intent behind them based on what users want to see.
You should monitor your data closely to see how your pages are performing in the SERPs. This will allow you to find where you need to hone in and transition the information on your page to meet the needs and expectations of users.
How to Optimize for Search Intent & SEO
The trick is simply to make sure that your pages look like what Google wants to rank for a keyword that is important to your business.
That’s what we talked about in the keyword research portion. The way to determine this is to analyze the SERPs. Once you’ve done so, and you think you have the intent locked down, build or optimize a landing page.
Google’s algorithm never really stops evolving, so you can’t just do this once. If you see stagnation or even a drop in ranking of a search query, evaluate the SERP again to see if anything may have changed. You may need to make further optimization or even change the questions or topics you discuss on your page as Google may be rewarding a different style of article.
Adam Jackson, digital marketing manager at Big Leap, told us, “Search engines are continually trying to serve the content that best satisfies the searcher’s need. If your content is optimized to respond directly to the user’s intent, then your chances of ranking will go up. Second, since the search engine algorithms are constantly getting better at understanding a user’s search intent, the ranking landscape can change for a keyword at any given moment.
“For example, I worked with a swim school company that used to rank first for pool lessons, but then Google modified its understanding of the user’s search intent for that keyword and now the first page results for that keyword almost exclusively have to deal with the game pool (billiards).”
Search Intent Is Here to Stay
Google is always trying to better its understanding of things like humans do. It wants to provide the best results based on what users intend to find after they type in a keyword or keyphrase and hit enter.
Quick story. We had a client that sold a certain type of product online. Each product was a specific line in their catalog. For each product, they also had a thorough content page accompanying it, explaining the different aspects and benefits of the product. We had to determine whether it was beneficial to link to the content page or the product page first in the navigation based on click and user flow.
To help us determine what users wanted to see, we turned to Google to analyze the intent of the industry’s keywords. It turned out that users searching within that specific industry wanted to shop first, so that helped finalize how we wanted to lay the site out. The content pages were better served as secondary pages or to target longer-tail keywords.
That’s not always the case, though. We also work with an international beauty retailer. I will come back to the “green clay mask” example. One would assume when you search that term, you are shopping for a green clay mask. However, that was not the case. The first result ranking for that term was a blog post highlighting the five benefits of green clay masks.
Both of these examples prove that searcher intent needs to be factored into your strategy. You can’t assume, nor can you just pick keywords and target them without knowing what types of results are already produced. When you select keywords for your site, go the extra mile. It will all be worth it in the end when you start watching your target keyword rankings move positively!
If you need some help with your keyword strategy to bring everything into line with search intent and SEO, call us up at LSEO. We can analyze your rankings and opportunities and define a plan for keyword and content success.