Search Intent and SEO: A Quick Guide

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    Posted by DawnMacri

    Understanding search intent can be the secret ingredient that brings your content strategy from okay to outstanding. As an SEO Strategist at a digital marketing agency (Brainlabs), we often find clients on the brink of ranking success. They’re sitting on stellar content that simply isn’t ranking for their target keywords. Why? Oftentimes, the keywords and the intent simply don’t match.

    Here we’ll discuss the different types of search intent, how to determine the best intent for given keywords, and how to optimize for search intent. First–let’s iron out the basics.

    What is search intent?

    Search intent (also known as user intent) is the primary goal a user has when searching a query in a search engine. Many times, users are searching for a specific type of answer or resource as they search.

    Take pizza for example. Searching for a pizza recipe has a different intent than searching for a takeout pizza, which is also different from searching for the history of pizza. Though they all revolve around the same overall topic (pizza), these users all have different intents.

    Why is search intent important for SEO?

    Google cares about search intent

    The short answer is: Satisfying search intent is a primary goal for Google, which in turn makes it a primary goal for SEOs. When a user searches for a specific term and finds irrelevant information, that sends a signal back to Google that the intent is likely mismatched.

    For example, if a user searches “How to build a website,” and they’re shown a slew of product pages for CMS platforms and hosting sites, they’ll try another search without clicking on anything. This is a signal to Google that the intent of those results do not reflect the intent of the searcher.

    Broaden your reach across funnel stages

    When it comes to running a business and building a successful content marketing strategy, I can’t stress enough the importance of remembering search intent, and letting that be the driving force behind the pieces of content you create and how you create them.

    And just why is this so important? The more specific your content is to various search intents, the more users you can reach, and at different stages of the funnel. From those who are still to discover your brand to those looking to convert, you can increase your chances of reaching them all by focusing your efforts on matching search intent.

    You can improve rankings

    Since Google’s primary ranking factors are relevance, authority, and user satisfaction, it’s easy to connect the dots and see how improving your keyword targeting to mirror search intent can improve your overall rankings.

    Relevance: This has to do with your user’s behavior. If they find the information they’re looking for on your site, they’re less likely to return to Google within seconds and explore a different result (pogo-sticking). You’ll notice a difference in such KPIs as click-through rate and bounce rate when your content is relevant to search intent.

    Authority: While much of a site’s authority is connected to backlinks, it’s also important to develop a strong internal linking strategy that signals to Google “I have a lot of content covering all angles and intents surrounding this topic” to rank well. Additionally, you can increase brand authority and visibility by creating valuable content around topics your brand is well versed in, that satisfies various intents.

    User satisfaction: Does the content you create provide value and is it relevant to your audience? End of story.

    Types of search intent

    While there are endless search terms, there are just four primary search intents:

    1. Informational
    2. Preferential/Commercial Investigation
    3. Transactional
    4. Navigational

    Now you may be thinking, that’s all well and good, but what do they mean for my content? Luckily, I’ve broken each one down with example terms that suggest intent. Keep in mind, however, that searches are not binary –– many will fall under more than one category.

    Informational

    As you may have guessed, searches with informational intent come from users looking for… information! This could be in the form of a how-to guide, a recipe, or a definition. It’s one of the most common search intents, as users can look for answers to an infinite number of questions. That said, not all informational terms are questions. Users searching for simply “Bill Gates” are most likely looking for information about Bill Gates.

    Examples:

    • How to boil an egg
    • What is a crater
    • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
    • Directions to JFK Airport

    Preferential/Commercial Investigation

    Before they’re ready to make a purchase, users start their commercial investigation. This is when they use search to investigate products, brands, or services further. They’re past the informational stage of their research and have narrowed their focus to a few different options. Users here are often comparing products and brands to find the best solution for them.

    Note: These searches often include non-branded localized terms such as “best body shop near me” or “top sushi restaurant NYC.”

    Examples:

    • Semrush vs Moz
    • Best website hosting service
    • Squarespace reviews
    • WordPress or wix for blog

    Transactional

    Transactional searchers are looking to make a purchase. This could be a product, service, or subscription. Either way, they have a good idea of what they’re looking for. Since the user is already in buying mode, these terms are usually branded. Users are no longer researching the product, they’re looking for a place to purchase it.

    Examples:

    • Buy Yeti tumbler
    • Seamless coupon
    • Shop Louis Vuitton bags
    • Van’s high tops sale

    Navigational

    These searchers are looking to navigate to a specific website, and it’s often easier to run a quick search in Google than to type out the URL. The user could also be unsure of the exact URL or looking for a specific page, e.g. a login page. As such, these searches tend to be brand or website names and can include additional specifications to help users find an exact page.

    Examples:

    • Spotify login
    • Yelp
    • MOZ beginner SEO
    • distilledU

    How to determine search intent

    Consider keyword modifiers

    As we briefly noted above, keyword modifiers can be helpful indicators for search intent. But it’s not enough just to know the terms, you may also be wondering, when it comes to keyword research, how do you find these terms?

    Thankfully, there are a range of trusted keyword research tools out there to use. Their filter features will be most useful here, as you can filter terms that include certain modifiers or phrases.

    Additionally, you can filter keywords by SERP feature. Taking informational intent for example, you can filter for keywords that rank for knowledge panels, related questions, and featured snippets.

    Read the SERPs

    Another way to determine search intent is to research the SERPs. Type in the keyword you’re targeting into the search bar and see what Google comes up with. You’ll likely be able to tell by the types of results what Google deems the most relevant search intent for each term.

    Let’s take a closer look at search results for each intent type.

    SERP results for informational intent

    As mentioned above, informational keywords tend to own SERP results that provide condensed information. These include knowledge grabs, featured snippets, and related questions. The top results are most likely organic results, and consist of Wikipedia, dictionary, or informative blog posts.

    SERP results for preferential/commercial research intent

    Preferential intent is similar in that results may include a featured snippet, but they’ll also include paid results at the top of the SERP. The results will also likely provide information about the brands searched, rather than topical information.

    In the example below, the organic results compare product features between competing site hosts, rather than explaining what site hosts are and how they function.

    SERP results for transactional intent

    Transactional SERPs are some of the most straightforward to spot. They usually lead with paid results and/or shopping results, shopping carousels, and reviews. The organic results are largely product pages from online and brick and mortar retailers, and depending on the search, can include maps to their locations.

    SERP results for navigational intent

    Since users with navigational intent already know which website they’re looking for, these results usually feature the most relevant page at the top: e.g. if the user searches “Spotify”, Spotify’s homepage will be the first result, whereas the login page will take first position for “Spotify login.”

    Additional features such as site links, knowledge cards, and top stories may also be present, depending on the specific search.

    Look at the full picture

    Keep in mind that terms often have more than one search intent, so looking only at keywords or the SERP is rarely enough to truly define it. That said, taking this holistic approach will bring you closer to the most prominent intent.

    It’s also important to note that SERPs are volatile, so while a keyword may rank for one intent this month, that could change next month.

    How to optimize for search intent

    Match metadata and content type to the intent

    You’ve done your research and know which keywords you’re targeting with which pages. Now it’s time to optimize. A solid place to start is with your pages’ metadata –– update your title tag, H1, and H2s to reflect your specific keyword targeting. To increase click-through rate, try to leverage your title tag with some snappy copy (without creating clickbait).

    Examine the competition

    As with most competitions, it’s a good idea to suss out the current winners prior to the event. So, before jumping in to creating new pages or reformatting existing content, take a look at the top-ranking pages and ask yourself the following questions:

    • How are they formatted?
    • What’s their tone?
    • Which points do they cover?
    • What are they missing?

    You can now use your answers to create the best, most relevant piece of content on the topic.

    Format content for relevant SERP features

    Just as you used the SERP features as clues to search intent, they can also be used to inform your pages’ formatting and content. If the featured snippet contains a numbered list, for example, it’s safe to say that Google appreciates and rewards that format for that term.

    In a similar vein, if the SERP returns related questions, be sure to answer those questions clearly and concisely in your content.

    Key takeaways:

    When creating SEO content around search intent, be sure to keep the following in mind:

    • Understand the search intent before optimizing content
    • When discovering new terms, use specific modifiers in your keyword research
    • Use the SERPs to determine optimal formatting and content options
    • Provide valuable, quality content every time

    Creating SEO optimized content for specific search intents is simple, but not easy. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to giving users the content they need in a format that they want.

    For a deeper dive on fulfilling search intent, be sure to check out this informative Whiteboard Friday from Britney Muller.

    Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

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