One key factor to rank on Google is matching search intent. Here are the 4 main search intents and how to optimize your content for each of them.
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In an ongoing attempt to serve their users with increasingly useful search results, Google has started to categorize searches based on what the searcher intends to do with the results.
Understanding search intent helps digital marketers populate their websites with content that can be useful for searchers. This content acts as a signal of quality for Google. It signals that users are likely to find what they’re looking for on the page.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the four main search intents as identified by SEO experts. We’ll also discuss the signals that Google looks for when trying to identify this intent. And we’ll talk about how sites can create these content signals.
The four search intents
It may seem like a bit of an oversimplification, but SEO experts tend to agree that Google differentiates between these four search intents:
- Navigational: We want Google to take us to a specific website.
- Informational: We have a question that we need answered.
- Commercial: We want to learn more about various products that can solve specific problems in our lives.
- Transactional: We want to find the best place to buy something that we’ve got our eyes on.
It’s no coincidence that there’s such an obvious overlap between search intent and the stages of the customer journey. Google understands the role their search engine plays in helping people find what they need. So, it continues to tweak its indexing and ranking logic accordingly.
Why optimizing for search intent is important
We already touched on one of the reasons earlier. Google likes knowing that their users are going to get value from the high-ranking search results they return. When web pages contain certain content signals aligned with the searcher’s likely intent, the search engine ranks that page higher.
The second reason optimizing for search intent is important involves the user’s behavior once they arrive at the web page. When you’ve created content that matches what the user wants to do, they’re far more likely to stay engaged and far less likely to bounce back to the search results in an effort to find a page that matches their needs.
A user’s behavior on a particular web page is a strong signal to Google that the page is suitable for the search term they entered. By taking search intent into consideration, you’re maximizing the chances of keeping your site visitors engaged and saying to Google: “Yes, this page is exactly what the person was looking for. Please go ahead and boost its placement in the search results.”
Now, let’s take a look at each of the four intents and discuss how marketers can create content optimized for them.
How often do people remember the exact URL of a SaaS application’s login page? And what are the chances that they’ve got it bookmarked?
What’s the fastest way of finding a company’s contact details? Does it involve entering their homepage URL and then navigating to the Contact Us page?
Let’s say a prospective customer remembers that a company sells a particular line of products and wants to check their prices. What’s the most likely way they’ll try to find this information?
In all three of these cases, doing a Google search for the page they’re looking for is the easiest way to get where they want to be. This is navigational search intent. A person wants to use Google to take them to a specific page for which they don’t know the URL.
Optimizing for navigational intent
Provided you own the domain that the user is searching for, creating content that matches navigational intent is relatively straightforward.
Think about the user-facing purpose that each of the pages on your site serves. Ask yourself what a person is likely to do once they arrive there. For example, is it to:
- find a list of locations in their city?
- find your contact details?
- get a quote on a particular product?
Once you understand why someone would want to navigate to this page, think about the search terms that users may enter when looking for it. You want to ensure the page contains these words.
In each of the three examples we’ve mentioned above, you’ll notice content that’s obviously aligned with what Google will interpret as intent signals. Words, maps, email addresses, telephone numbers, and field labels all combine to show the search engine that this page is going to allow the user to do what they need to do.
In addition to populating the content of each of these pages appropriately, there are two other areas where Google looks for signals of navigational intent:
- the page’s title tags
- the meta descriptions
Google uses these HTML elements to describe their search results adequately (see screenshot below) but this info can also be used to infer search intent.
Image source: Google.com
Ensure that both of these HTML tags describe exactly what users do on the page. Terms that describe intent will give Google sufficient insight into the page’s purpose. They’ll help Google map it to the appropriate search terms.
Informational search intent
People have informational intent when they’re looking for knowledge. They have a question or a pain point and they need expert guidance to help them understand it.
These searchers aren’t looking for information on specific solutions yet. They’re at the very start of their journey towards a product or service that will meet their needs. At this point, they’re often not even sure what their needs are yet or that there are, in fact, solutions that will help them.
Informational search queries can be extremely broad in scope and cover a broad range of topics. Here are some examples:
- “Why am I sad during winter”
- “How to improve newsletter open rate”
- “Help with cat destroying furniture”
- “Best way to stop running out of inventory”
Google identifies informational searches by looking for specific words in the search term. This isn’t an exact science, as search terms can be short, ambiguous, and unclear. But in cases where users actually use words like “why,” “how to,” “best way,” “can I,” or “help with,” it’s relatively easy for the search engine to understand that the user wants to be informed.
The searcher doesn’t have a solution in mind in any of the above examples. All they have is a good sense of their problem and a desire to learn more. They’re not interested in a solution yet. Their main priority at this point is to gain knowledge about what they’re facing.
Optimizing for informational intent
A blog post that serves informational intent needs to do two things:
- Firstly, it has to let Google know that its content is appropriate for users with informational intent. Doing this successfully will boost its ranking above posts that fail to take intent into consideration.
- Secondly, it needs to respect the fact that many searchers aren’t in the market for a product or service yet. These searchers simply want to understand their issue better and explore solutions. If the content they’re reading prioritizes selling over guiding, the article runs the risk of losing credibility. Naturally, it will easily alienate a potential lead.
1. Use “informational” search terms in the article’s title, sub-headings, and body
Certain words show Google that a searcher is looking for informational content. In the same way, content marketers can use words to indicate that their post addresses that same intent.
For example, this post on inventory forecasting is titled: “How to Do Smarter Inventory Forecasting: A Guide for Small Businesses.” It could have been, for example, “The Many Ways Your Business Can Benefit from Smart Inventory Forecasting.”
This post title contains two terms that show Google the article is about providing information: “how to” and “guide.” Other terms that serve this purpose include:
- why does
- best way to
- anatomy of
- what is
Also remember to use these terms in the page’s HTML title and meta description tags.
2. Use a post format that’s typically associated with informational content
“Post format” refers to how the information in the article is presented to the user. In their research into search intent, Ahrefs found a correlation between the top informational articles and the way content is structured in the post.
Post titles containing terms like “Best way to” or “How to” often present their information in list format. Their subheadings often communicate a step-by-step process (see the example below), and they might include a table of contents.
Image source: Canva.com
3. Answer the question
Content relevance is incredibly important to avoid users bouncing back to Google and damaging your post’s SEO credibility.
If you’re attempting to rank your article “When Is the Best Time to Visit Cancun” and your purpose is to pitch a hard sell for your travel agency rather than giving as thorough and helpful an answer as possible, your visitors will try to find a better article elsewhere.
In this case, you know that your visitors’ intent is to gain information. You know they’re not ready for a sales pitch yet. Understand their intent, give them the knowledge they’re after, and your page’s usage metrics will send a great signal back to Google.
4. Get to the point quickly
People who want to know how to get a red wine stain out of their $8,000 sofa aren’t interested in a lengthy story about the time your niece spilled grape juice on a Persian rug you inherited from your eccentric uncle.
Lengthy, redundant intros have become a much-mocked staple in informational articles. Sure, they were once necessary to meet your keyword targets, but user satisfaction is now a crucial factor when Google ranks search results. People don’t read websites for the sake of reading. They’ve got Margaret Atwood novels for this purpose. People want answers, or they’re going somewhere else.
So, don’t bore your readers. Give them what they want instantly or run the risk of sending very troubling signals to Google about serving your visitors’ intent.
5. Don’t overplay the sales angle
People who visit your website with informational needs don’t want to be sold to. If your content aims to position a product rather than offer useful knowledge, you run two risks: compromising the quality of your information and damaging your objectivity.
Both of these scenarios could result in the same outcome—visitors bouncing from your site in search of more meaningful, credible information.
Commercial search intent
Google users have commercial intent once they realize that their problem can be solved by some kind of product or service. They’re intrigued by the prospect of solving it with something they can buy or sign up for, but they’re not sure which option would be right for them. They’re in no rush. They need to do some research before pulling the trigger.
This mindset is understandable. When it comes to online shopping, be it for digital solutions, services, or physical products, people are used to having a host of options. And that’s regardless of how niche their problem or how specific their constraints are.
Content that addresses commercial intent exists further down the sales funnel but still doesn’t serve the singular purpose of pitching a specific product. These articles allow readers to weigh up their options, consider their needs, and make an informed decision.
Here are some examples of posts that address commercial intent:
- a curated list of products in a specific category
- a review roundup of alternatives to an industry leader
- a list of services or stores in a geographic location
- a side-by-side comparison of two similar products
- a review of tools that enhance the usefulness of another tool
- a detailed, objective review of a specific product
Optimizing for Commercial Intent
1. Don’t hold back on detail
As you can see from the content and format of the above examples, posts addressing commercial intent don’t hold back on detail. Readers who are doing research are comfortable enough to dive into the deep end.
For instance, Soundguys.com performs deep-dive assessments of audio equipment, rating products like headphones on no fewer than 11 different metrics (see screenshot below).
Image source: Soundguys.com
Don’t be afraid to look at articles competing for the same keywords. Take a look at what the top-ranking posts are covering. Your aim is to go into at least as much detail as they went.
2. Be (and look) trustworthy
A site that overwhelms readers with offers and calls to action isn’t going to have much credibility when it comes to serving commercial intent. Sure, readers are closer to a purchasing decision than when they’re simply looking for information. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be comfortable with a BUY NOW button every 300 words.
Commercial content that wins readers’ trust also tends not to hide a product’s shortcomings. Ad fatigue is real, and if your in-depth review reads like a lengthy sales pitch, readers are likely to bounce. Remember, Google doesn’t like this signal at all.
3. Use the right keywords
Typically, commercial intent searches involve the following terms: “best,” “top,” “vs,” “comparison,” “alternatives to,” “review,” and “is X worth it.” Basic research using a tool like Ahrefs should allow you to find the correct keywords to target for your industry and the type of commercial post you’re creating.
Transactional search intent
Users who search with transactional intent are close to the bottom end of the sales funnel. These searchers are aware of their problems, and they’ve made a decision on a product (or type of product) that’s going to solve them. They’re willing to enter their credit card details somewhere.
It’s important to distinguish between two different kinds of transactional intent.
- The first is when a searcher is simply looking for a page where they can buy the item or service they have in mind. They’ve been sold on it, and all they’re looking for is a reputable, secure online vendor to buy it from.
- The second kind of searcher is one that’s prepared to go through with a purchase, but they’re looking for the best price or the opportunity to save.
Bear in mind that your approach to optimizing for transactional intent should be determined by the kind of shopper you’re hoping to attract and your unique selling points.
If you’re not clear on who you’re trying to bring to your transactional page, ask yourself:
- Are you the only vendor selling a particular product?
- Are you the cheapest?
- Will your customers save on shipping?
Whatever USP sets you apart from your competitors, there will be shoppers looking for it. The key is to ensure that you determine what drives that particular shopper’s transactional intent and to optimize for it.
Optimizing for transactional intent
1. Describe your product properly
This goes without saying, but it’s worth mentioning upfront. If you’re selling a niche product, don’t hide its most important descriptors somewhere in the body text. Lead with what makes it unique. People searching for fully organic, vanilla flavored, vegan protein powder usually won’t accept anything less than this exact product.
Image source: Futurekind.com
If you’ve niched down this hard with your inventory, make sure that your page’s HTML title, H1 heading, and body content are adequately littered with these words and their synonyms. Find space wherever you can to reference the product’s description: gallery captions, user reviews and testimonials, subheadings.
Your goal with this description is to signal intent to Google and communicate to prospective customers that they’re on the right page.
2. Optimize for the right keywords
In addition to the keywords that describe your product, people with transactional intent typically use the following words in their search terms:
- near me
- best price
- buy online
- where to buy
For some expert help in finding the ideal transactional keywords you can target, use SEO Review Tools’ handy transactional keyword generator.
3. Give shoppers what they came for
If you’ve targeted keywords like “cheapest,” “sale,” “coupons,” “lowest price,” or “discount,” you better follow through. Make it obvious to your page visitors that the reason they clicked on your search result is valid.
If you’ve optimized for the keyword “cheapest,” provide proof that your prices can’t be beaten. The same goes for “winter sale.” Splash graphics or text all over your product page to reinforce this message.
Remember that transactional intent isn’t just about finding the first available vendor that stocks a particular product. It’s also about finding the vendor that matches their supplemental needs, like budget and location.
Doing your own research
There’s a lot to search intent, and like most things SEO-related, it’s not an exact science. Most of what’s been written on this topic has come from reverse engineering, research, and the odd official document published by Google itself.
That’s why it’s important that any content marketer who wants to stay ahead of the curve commits their time to doing their own research. In this case, the best way to find out more about how Google rewards pages that have been optimized for search intent is to simply look at what top-ranking pages have in common.
Taking ownership of this process represents a massive leap towards SEO success. While articles on this topic are incredibly useful in building a foundation of knowledge, staying abreast of the most recent SEO developments often comes down to simply seeing what SERP winners are doing.