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What Is Search Intent? How to Identify Intent for Better SEO

Everyone wants to know the true secret to attracting the right traffic. Targeting the correct keywords is a good start; so is creating original high-quality content that answers a question that people commonly look for online. But what about search intent?

No SEO list is complete without checking for search intent!

That goes for blog posts, product pages, video titles, content descriptions, and whatever written content you produce. All of those elements require the right words to attract more people to your website. Keywords ensure you’re making content that’s relevant to a general population searching for that keyword.

But search intent goes deeper. It digs into the actual reason people use that keyword in the first place and, therefore, produces superior results for search engine optimization.

What Is Search Intent

Keep reading to answer the question “what is search intent?” and to identify search intent so that your content doesn’t go unnoticed.

📚 Table of contents:

What is search intent?

Simply speaking:

Search intent is the reason behind an online search.

Keywords answer the question “what,” but search intent involves the “why.”

For example, someone may open up their search engine and type in “HVAC cleaner.”

The keyword is pretty straightforward; the user wants an HVAC cleaner.

But when you think about it, “HVAC cleaner” could mean several things. Are they interested in hiring someone to clean their HVAC system, or would they rather purchase supplies to complete some DIY cleaning?

That difference in why they’re searching that keyword makes quite the difference as to what the search engine delivers.

Over the years, search engines, like Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo, have smartened up their algorithms to factor in search intent, since relying on the what of a keyword is bound to cause frustration from searchers.

Since Google wants to make the user experience stronger, that means content creators must figure out if a keyword’s primary search intent aligns with the content being produced.

Here’s another example:

Using two simple words like “hotdog” and “eating,” and changing the syntax, order, or plurality of the words, renders drastically different search intents:

When searching “hotdog eating,” we can see that the intent revolves around:

  • Hotdog eating contests.
  • Hotdog eating contest champions.
  • Videos of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
  • News about things that have happened at hot dog eating contests (like someone dying).
hotdog eating search intent

But a minor modification in that keyword shows us an entirely separate intent.

Swapping the words to “eating hotdog” mainly produces results with:

  • Pictures of people eating hotdogs.
  • Health articles on what hotdogs can do to your body.
eating hotdog search intent

To further demonstrate this point, I’ll change the keyword to “eat hotdogs.”

This one is interesting since it presents three search intents:

  • Health articles about hotdogs.
  • How to eat different styles of hotdogs.
  • Where to eat different styles of hotdogs.
eat hotdogs search intent

Finally, switching the keyword to “hotdog eats” pushes all local hotdog restaurants to the top of Google’s search results.

This is a wonderful example since you might not initially think the “hotdog eats” keyword is for restaurants, but many people use “eats” as slang for discovering restaurants.

hot dog restaurants

So, what does all of this mean for content creators, online marketers, eCommerce stores, WordPress blogs, and everyone else generating content online?

It means that you may not see the desired results based solely on targeting a keyword, even if the keyword gets recommended for low competition and high volume by SEO software.

That’s because you must also figure out the intent, the reason, the why behind each search term.

Benefits of following search intent

Let’s say you follow these steps to write a blog post:

  1. You choose a relevant topic that relates to your business.
  2. You utilize an SEO keyword tool to find strong keywords that have decent search volume but low enough competition to make them worth targeting.
  3. You spend hours laboring over the article, optimizing with the keywords, adding beautiful images, and producing useful written content.
  4. You publish the article using tried-and-true SEO techniques.

One day passes; maybe a few visitors trickle in. One week passes; numbers remain stagnant. Several weeks later you realize it’s not getting any better.

What the heck went wrong?

It’s very possible you identified the wrong search intent.

Search intent holds an incredible amount of power for search engine results, especially when you drastically miss the search intent.

That’s why spending just a little extra time researching search intent could provide the following benefits:

  • More engagement from searchers: people are more likely to click on your link and spend more time on your site if the content satisfies what they wanted to see in the first place.
  • Higher search rankings: an increase in engagement signals to search engines that your content meets search intent requirements, so you should start seeing rankings improve.
  • A wider reach: Google has a process of boosting rankings for content with optimal search intent, even across other keywords that weren’t targeted. So, if the search intent matches another keyword as well, and you’ve properly targeted the right intent, your reach may grow to other keywords.
  • Potential for featured results: Google, and other search engines, offers featured boxes for social media content, answers to questions, shopping results, and local business information. Landing on the right search intent drives the potential for ending up in those featured boxes.

Overall, missing the search intent results in confusion for everyone, from the user to the search engine. That’s why Google tries to remove results that don’t follow search intent.

Types of search intent

Dozens of search intent types exist, but there are four particular ones that come up on a regular basis:

Shopping intent

Also called transactional intent, shopping intent comes along when people search for items online with the intent to buy.

They have a product, brand, or category in mind, and they’re simply looking for the best price, quick feature comparisons, and places where they can acquire a product with minimal hassle.

In short, this intent wants a product page, immediately.

That’s why Google delivers Google Shopping results and ads towards the top when users type in specific model numbers, product names, or specific features, like hanging bookshelves, non-stick pans, or Roku streaming boxes.

transactional search intent with roku players

Commercial research

Commercial research intent is similar to shopping intent except the user hasn’t decided on what they want to buy. They’re in the earlier stages of shopping where comparisons, reviews, and ratings help guide them in eventually making a purchase.

With this search intent, there are still reasons for Google to present actual product pages, but they’re also mixed in with articles that compare and review products.

We often see this search intent when users begin search phrases with “best” or include “vs” or “comparison” or “reviews” in the search.

commercial research

Informational intent

This is a generic type of intent, but it encompasses most of the search queries completed online. It’s for people looking for information, or an answer to a question, like:

  • What’s the Yankee’s score?
  • How’s the weather in San Diego?
  • How do you build a bookshelf?
  • Does Yosemite National Park allow dogs?
  • How do you make a bolognese sauce?

What’s great about search engines is that their understanding of intent runs significantly deeper than the basic information given in the search phrase. For example, Google knows that most people looking for “bolognese sauce” are likely seeking out a recipe, not the history of bolognese sauce.

informational search intent with bolognese sauce

Navigational intent has perhaps the most specific aim of all (besides some forms of shopping intent). The user just wants to visit a particular website like CodeinWP.com or Instagram.com.

This type of intent is the result of people using the search engine like an address bar in a browser.

Regardless, search engines tend to provide the most exact result. So, make sure you don’t target any keywords that could overlap with this navigational intent. It’s fine to write about Google Docs, but know that the vast majority of keywords will send people to the actual Google Docs website.

search for google docs search intent

How to identify search intent so people want to click on your content

You now know how search intent works and why it’s important. But all of that is pointless unless you put this knowledge into action.

If you target a keyword that’s primarily showing product pages, you don’t want to try to rank for an informational blog post. If you optimize for a keyword with more of a search intent for research, but you send them directly to a sales landing page, you may scare away people simply trying to complete product analysis, not make a purchase.

That’s why you must examine the audience’s general search intent after selecting a keyword, whether it’s for a product page, comparison blog post, or tutorial on urban gardening.

Luckily, search engines are free, and they’re the basic tools you need for researching audience search intent.

Here’s the process:

  1. Find a relevant keyword for your content that has low competition but decent volume potential. You can use the Google Keyword Planner for this.
  2. Take the keyword(s) and type them into Google. Consider testing on other search engines as well. Engines like DuckDuckGo, Bing, and Brave Search offer their own unique results.
  3. Take note of the types of content that appear. Are they different than what you’re offering? If so, you won’t be able to satisfy the general user’s search intent. If the content is similar, you should be good to go!

Note: Keep in mind that not everyone sees the same results when they type in identical keywords in Google. You may have to adjust your thinking for certain biases, locations, and preferences.

Let’s run a test with the keyword “how to make a built-in bookshelf.” We plan on creating a written blog post with step-by-step information and pictures.

The results are promising.

You’ll notice that shopping ads are at the top of the page; that’s common for many searches on Google. They’re not a dealbreaker, but you should still keep in mind that you’re competing with those. You’re fine as long as the real search results don’t also show shopping results.

how to build a bookshelf

Next up, Google prioritizes several videos. It’s very possible that users are more likely to want videos when learning how to make built-in bookshelves. Therefore, you could consider switching your blog content to a video instead.

However, you should still have quality results if you stick with a tutorial blog post, seeing as how most of the other results are blog posts guiding how to make built-in bookshelves or the occasional list of bookshelf inspiration.

SEO tools to help identify search intent

What tools can you use to identify search intent prior to publication?

We recommend the following:

  • Google Keyword Planner: this is the first step during any search intent analysis. Use the tool to locate longtail keywords that many get more effective results. Furthermore, narrow it down to the best keywords so that you’re not wasting time on high competition keywords, or those without much search volume.
  • Your search engine: we outlined this above, but it’s important to always run planned keywords through a search engine prior to using them in content. You can also check the Related Searches section to see if the intent is actually close to the content you’re creating.
  • Keyword research tools: web apps like Ahrefs and SEMrush allow you to quickly locate high purchase intent keywords that actually relate to your business. For example, Ahrefs has a section in its Keyword Explorer called “Having Same Terms,” which lists articles and keywords that answer the same questions or problems as your keyword. Also, ChatGPT can be used to do keyword research and generate content ideas, but you have to be aware of the limitation of this AI tool.
  • Customer survey tools: an alternative (though less accurate) way of figuring out the buyer’s intent is to simply ask customers. Create surveys with tools like SurveyMonkey, Google Forms or some of the best WordPress survey plugins to gain feedback and learn customer pain points. Then, you can craft content based on that.

Combine these steps to build the best possible chance of landing on the correct search intent for your content. The great news is that it only takes a few extra minutes after looking up viable keywords in the first place!

Our conclusion on search intent

To wrap things up, we’d like to leave you with an example of poor search intent from several high-profile organizations. What’s unique about this one is that there may not have been any way to avoid it in the first place. Regardless, Google tries to accommodate all parties by mashing several search intent results into one page.

The keyword “Chicago fire” technically has four meanings, four reasons for people to look for that keyword, and four search intents:

  • It’s a popular TV show about Chicago firefighters on NBC.
  • It’s the name of Chicago’s professional soccer club.
  • It’s the name of an actual fire that burned the entire city down in the 1800s.
  • And to make things more complicated, a California-based pizza restaurant decided to name its establishment Chicago Fire.
chicago fire search intent

As mentioned, Google does what it can to make sense of the madness. It essentially just dumps all of the results on the first page, with more mentions about the TV Show and the soccer club since they’re most popular. But it’s funny that the historical fire, The Great Chicago Fire, the thing that everything is named after, gets pushed towards the bottom of the page.

Luckily, Google seems to give some exposure to each of them, but that’s usually not the case if the search intent is off.

So, save yourself the trouble and spend time researching search intent properly!

If you have any questions on how to work out how to use search intent to your blog’s benefit, let us know in the comments below.

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Joe Warnimont

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