Keywords are how people look for anything and everything in the digital world. You type a word or two into Google’s search bar, and up pops a list — it’s so easy that we take this availability of information for granted. But the search world has a lot going on behind the scenes. It is continually upgrading, improving and learning to ensure that we get exactly what we are looking for. 

Google is particularly good at this, which is why it remains the No. 1 search engine. Google’s algorithm filters out keywords in titles and descriptions, and it also crawls each site to ensure the content is exactly what the searcher sought. 

For the past several years, Google has also been evaluating the intent behind user searches. Instead of offering up results based on the terms searched, the algorithm can consider why the user searched those terms and generate the most specific, relevant results.

This is called keyword search intent. Here’s how Google described it recently: 

“Acting on consumer intent is one of the keys to unlocking growth. It seems pretty simple. In constant contact with one device or another, people expect immediate answers. The things they search, sites they visit, and videos they watch are not only expressing intent, they’re reshaping the traditional marketing funnel. And with the help of marketing technology, marketers can sift through all the signals left behind and gain insight that can help them predict intent.”

Google’s obsessive focus on intent means digital marketers better get on board if they want to rank. How do you start? In this post, we’ll break down keyword search intent: 

  • What it means
  • How to use it
  • How it can help you search better and rank higher

What Is Keyword Search Intent? 

Like the name suggests, keyword search intent (sometimes referred to as audience or user intent) is the reason someone is searching for certain terms online. Are they there to find an address? An informational article? A product or service? 

Imagine if you popped on to Google to learn how to replace the battery in your car. You might type in: How to replace a car battery. Because the Google algorithm is operating on point, you’ll be met with a page that looks like this: 

The largest video on the top directly answers your question, while the listings underneath — including the “People Also Ask” column — include topics related to what you wanted to know.   

But, what if you typed in that same phrase and instead all you saw were ads for shops that sell batteries? That would be a misinterpretation of what you were looking for. It would also be mega frustrating. 

For SEO specialists and content marketers, understanding keyword search intent can give you insight into what your target market wants to know, and help you choose the right keywords to meet their search intent — therefore bumping you up in all the right SERPs (search engine results pages). Fail to understand keyword search intent, and you could completely miss your target market or risk frustrating potential customers. 

The Four Keyword Search Intents (And Why They Matter)

Let’s start with the basics. There are four main categories of keyword search intents that 99% of all search terms fall under: navigational, informational, transactional and commercial. Each can give you clues as to what a searcher wants when typing certain keyword phrases.

  1. Navigational Intent

These folks know what they need, they just need to know how to get there. Searchers here aren’t looking to be sold something new, they’re looking for a specific page, company or physical address. 

Examples of navigational searches: 

  • madison/miles media SEO e-book 
  • Twitter login
  • Omaha Zoo 

Here’s an example of that last one: 

The snippet at the top provides the exact answer to your question. 

The knowledge panel gives more information, including a map. 

SEMRush offers the following tips for optimizing your business for navigational intent: 

  • Make sure your site is organized and easy to navigate. 
  • Clearly label each section of your site with page titles, tags, headers and descriptions. 
  • Give each product or service a dedicated landing page containing all the most relevant information. 
  • Use appropriate brand and product names on each page. 

  1. Informational Intent

This is where the vast majority of Google searches live. Most of us come to Google for information, and some are quick answers to find: What’s the top-rated movie in the country right now? Other queries are more in-depth: How do I optimize my website for SEO? 

Examples of informational searches: 

  • Oscar for best picture, 2022
  • Animals at the Omaha Zoo
  • How long do elephants live? 

Check out how Google handles that last query: 

The answer’s right up there at the top. 

The knowledge panel includes more in depth information about elephants. 

“People Also Ask” section lists relevant queries. 

How marketers can use informational intent. Offering valuable information to your readers positions you as an expert in the field and raises your profile among potential customers searching for information on a related topic. Make your content awesome, and searchers will become leads who then shimmy down that funnel into full-fledged customers. 

  1. Transactional Intent

These are your BOFU (bottom of the sales funnel) customers. They’re looking to buy and have come to Google to find the best place to throw down their hard-earned money. 

Examples of transactional searches: 

  • Buy Levi’s jeans online
  • Omaha Zoo admission tickets
  • Movie tickets in Omaha

SEMRush calls these keywords your money makers — or buyer keywords — and it’s clear Google sees it the same way. 

A search for “buy Levi’s jeans online” pulls up the product site as well as ads for Levi’s jeans online. 

How marketers can use transactional intent. These are the leads who are ready to convert. Don’t miss the opportunity to capture their attention. Use optimized landing pages with a clear call to action like “buy now.”

  1. Commercial Intent

Commercial searchers are somewhere in between informational and transactional. They may be warming up to the idea of a purchase but are looking for more information. 

Examples of commercial searches: 

  • Omaha Zoo vs. San Diego Zoo 
  • Mac vs. PC
  • Top zoos in the U.S.

These queries help you compare and make the best decision. 

How marketers can use commercial intent. Commercial intent is all about showing potential customers what you can do for them. These searchers are looking for comparisons, and you want to stand out. Here are a few tips from SEMRush on how to do just that: 

  • First, ask yourself: What is my audience trying to find on this page? Then build a well-structured page with that need in mind. 
  • Optimize it with descriptive page titles, headers, meta descriptions and URLs.
  • Make it as easy as possible for them to purchase, with links to more information, lead generation forms or purchase pages.

How To Search For Keyword Intent

The backbone of your site is SEO. Things like backlinks and traditional search practices still matter, but to rank in 2022, keyword intent has to be part of your SEO strategy. There are several ways to determine the search intent of specific keywords: 

  • Use your best guess. Often, you’ll be able to intuit what the search intent of a particular keyword is by looking at it. 
    • Words like “buy,” “deals” or “coupon” will fall under transactional intent. 
    • Queries that begin with “how to,” “why” or “what is” most often fall into the informational category. 
    • “Reviews,” “best of” or “this vs. that” are commercial. 
    • “Address for…” or “contact” is a good clue you’ve got a navigational search. 

It’s not an exact science by any means, and often keywords will have more than one intent behind them. 

  • Look at the SERP. Type the keyword or phrase into Google. The search engine results page (SERP) will offer clues to keyword intent. If your SERP is filled with shop pages, then you can assume the keyword is transactional. This is an easy and free option, but it’s also time consuming. 

  • Consult keyword search intent tools. There are free keyword search intent tools out there, like Moz Keyword Explorer, that can provide some insight into keyword intent. But many SEO specialists and digital marketing agencies use paid tools to get the most out of each keyword. Our favorite is SEMRush, which gives many options for each query, along with the keyword volume, difficulty of ranking for that keyword and — you guessed it — search intent. 

Check out this search for digital marketing. The keyword intent is right there. 

If the intent doesn’t align with your goals, SEMRush also offers a long list of replacement keywords to provide the intent you’re looking for. 

Still Just Meeting Needs

This intense focus on keyword search intent might seem like a new way of looking at SEO, but really it’s just an extension of what content marketers have always done: meet the needs of their customers. It’s like Google says: 

“At its core, marketing is figuring out how to solve people’s needs. The more needs you solve and the more often you solve them, the more growth you’ll see.”

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