It’s difficult to stress just how important the concept of search intent is to SEO. I’m not exaggerating when I say that if you want to rank these days, understanding and creating content with search intent in mind is critical.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:
That’s a 677% increase in organic traffic to one of our core landing pages in just six months!
How did we do this? We made a small change to the page to bring it in line with search intent.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- What search intent is
- Why search intent matters for SEO
- The four types of search intent
- How to infer keyword intent
- How to optimize for search intent
- How we increased traffic by 677% by optimizing for search intent
What is search intent?
Search intent is the why behind a search query. In other words, why did the person make this search? Do they want to learn something? Are they looking to make a purchase? Or, are they looking for a particular website?
To help demonstrate this concept in more detail, I sifted through my search history and plucked a few of my recent searches.
Your job is to tell me what my “intent” was when performing each search.
(Don’t worry, this is a clean exercise!)
That last one was a little harder, right? We’ll come back to that later.
Why search intent matters
Google’s aim is to provide users with the most relevant result for their query.
How do we know? For starters, the success of Google as a business relies on them successfully doing this. You only have to look at Bing to understand what happens when a search engine’s results are low-quality and irrelevant. Almost nobody uses it, which means less revenue from ads.
Google also states its mission is to “Organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” So yeah, that’s a bit of a giveaway.
But we’re SEOs. Why does any of this matter?
If you want to rank in Google in 2020, you need to be the most relevant result for the query. First and foremost, that means creating content that aligns with search intent.
So if you’re trying to rank for “best credit card,” don’t try to shoehorn your landing page into the SERPs. It’s not going to happen. Google knows what users want to see when they search for this query, and it isn’t that. It’s information; blog posts; comparison charts; etc.
Relevance is the foundation of SEO success.
The four types search intent
Here are the four primary ‘types’ of search intent:
The searcher is looking for information. This might be an answer to a simple question like “who is the president of the United States?”. Or something that requires a longer and more in-depth answer like “how does the blockchain work?” However, not all informational searches are formulated as questions.
Examples of informational searches:
- “who is Julian Assange?”
- “Manchester airport directions”
- “Donald Trump”
- “football scores”
- “HTML 5”
The searcher is looking for a specific website. They already know where they want to go. It’s probably just quicker and easier for them to Google it than to type the entire URL into the address bar. They may also be unsure of the exact URL.
Examples of navigational searches:
- “ahrefs content explorer”
- “beginners guide to SEO moz”
- “Twitter login”
The searcher is looking to make a purchase. They’re in buying mode. Most likely, they already know what they want to buy. They’re looking for a place to buy it from.
Examples of transactional searches:
- “buy macbook pro”
- “nordvpn coupon”
- “samsung galaxy s10 cheap”
- “lastpass premium price”
The searcher is in the market for a specific product or service but has yet to make a final decision on which solution is right for them. They’re most likely looking for reviews and comparisons. They’re still weighing up their options.
Examples of commercial investigation searches:
- “best protein powder”
- “mailchimp vs convertkit”
- “ahrefs review”
- “top restaurant in London”
That last example is of particular note. It demonstrates the fact that many local searches have commercial investigation intent. Other examples include: “plumber near me,” “cheapest hotel in Singapore,” etc.
How to infer search intent
Search intent is often obvious from the wording of the query itself.
For example, take the keyword “buy bitcoin.” It’s clear that the searcher is in the market to buy some cryptocurrency (transactional). On the other hand, someone searching for “how to tie a tie” is looking for an answer (informational).
Here are some keyword “modifiers” that typically indicate a certain type of search intent:
So, say that you’re looking for some relevant informational keywords for blog posts. First, enter a few seed keywords into Ahrefs Keywords Explorer, hit search, then choose one of the reports from the left-hand menu to see some keyword ideas. I recommend the “Having same terms” report as a starting point.
Next, copy-paste the modifier words into the “Include” box and switch the toggle to “Any word.”
You will now see only keywords containing one or more of those modifiers.
You can do the same thing when looking for transactional, commercial investigation, or navigational keywords. Just copy-paste the list of modifiers into the “include” box.
Looking for a quick way to find informational keywords? Try the Questions report in Keywords Explorer. This filters for question-type keywords, which almost always have informational intent.
From there, you can add more filters to focus in on the keywords that matter to you. For example, if you’re looking for low-competition, high-volume topics, you can add a Keyword Difficulty (KD) and volume filter.
But, there’s a problem:
Modifiers aren’t foolproof because not all keywords contain modifiers.
For that reason, you shouldn’t rely solely on modifier words to infer search intent. If you do, you’ll end up missing out on a lot of good keyword ideas.
The answer lies in the SERPs
Have you ever searched in Google and seen something like this in the results?
This is known as a featured snippet. It’s one of the many SERP features Google sometimes shows. Others include:
- Shopping results
- Knowledge card
- AdWords ads
- Related questions
- Video results
Here’s why this matters:
Google tends to show certain SERP features more or less frequently, depending on the intent of the search. That means we can use the presence (or not) of SERP features to help infer the search intent of a query.
For example, featured snippets tend to show up mostly for informational queries, whereas shopping results and carousels usually only show up for queries with transactional intent.
Here’s a (very) rough guide:
To find keywords with particular SERP features, just include or exclude keywords with certain SERP features from your chosen report in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.
For example, if I were looking for keywords with transactional or commercial navigation intent, I may choose to include only keywords with shopping SERP features:
If I were looking for keywords with informational intent, I could focus on SERPs with featured snippets, knowledge panels, “people also ask” boxes, and so on:
Makes sense, right?
However, be aware that looking at the presence of SERP features isn’t 100% foolproof. There are plenty of informational keywords without featured snippets, or knowledge panels, etc. And there are plenty of transactional queries without shopping carousels or AdWords ads.
For example, take note of the SERP features present for “bose headphones”:
This is clearly a transactional query, yet there are no shopping ads or any other SERP features to indicate this.
Here’s another important point:
Search intent is not always binary. Many SERPs have mixed search intent.
To illustrate, take a look at the top-ranking results for “grainfather”:
The Grainfather is a piece of beer-brewing equipment. So the majority of people searching for this query are in buying mode. That’s why most of the search results are product pages.
But the result in position #4 is a product review, which indicates that this query has mixed intent.
In other words, while most searchers are in buying mode, some are just looking to learn more about the product before they part with their cash.
How to optimize for search intent (3 steps)
Search intent should dictate the type of content you create.
If the keyword has informational intent, write a blog post. If it has transactional intent, create a product page. You get the gist.
But are things really this simple? Well, yes and no.
While it evidently makes sense to align your content with search intent, here’s the issue:
The four search intent groups are way too broad to be actionable.
For example, we know that “HTML 5” is an informational query. But knowing that doesn’t tell us what type of content the searcher really want to see. Or what they want to know. Or what format we should use to present that information.
In order to truly optimize for search intent, we need delve deeper and analyze the SERPs in more detail.
Here’s how to do that, step by step:
Step 1. Check ‘SERP reliability’
Google rankings aren’t static. They fluctuate and change over time.
Given that you’re relying on the nature of the current top-ranking pages to infer search intent, that can be a problem. Reason being, what you’re actually doing is judging search intent based on a single snapshot in time.
If you were to analyze the top-ranking pages next month, or the month after, your understanding of search intent may be different.
For that reason, it pays also to check the ranking history of your target keyword.
To do that, paste your keyword into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, then scroll down to the SERP position history graph.
Let’s look at how to read this graph.
Little or no fluctuation in rankings over time
This indicates that the current top-ranking pages are a good proxy for search intent.
For example, take a look at the graph for “how to write a resume”:
There’s been almost no change in rankings for the current top-ranking pages over the past six months.
Verdict: These are good keywords to target because search intent is clear.
Fluctuation of some pages but not others
This indicates that some of the top-ranking pages are a good proxy for search intent.
Let’s take a look at the query, “notre dame.”
If we focus on the top three results, we see that the rankings for two (green and purple lines) of them have remained consistent over time. Both of these pages are official sites. One is for the university, and the other is for Notre Dame Athletics.
This tells us that there’s consistent interest in these two things and that most searchers are looking for one of these two sites… or at least information related to these things.
But in position #3, we have a page from Wikipedia (blue line), which is fluctuating like crazy.
This is a rather basic article about the Notre Dame cathedral.
Google seems unsure whether this is a good match for search intent, and that’s hardly surprising. None of the other top-ranking pages are about Notre Dame cathedral, but rather the university. So it’s clear that most searchers aren’t looking for a page like this.
Verdict: These can be good keywords to target. Just make sure your content aligns with the dominant intent behind the query.
I wrote this post before the unfortunate events of April 2019, when a fire ravaged the Notre Dame cathedral. If you take a look at the SERP history graph for this keyword now, you’ll see that a few new results have entered the SERP, all of which are related to recent events.
Google’s algorithm favors these results now because they know this is the information searchers are looking for.
Lots of fluctuation in rankings
This indicates one of two things:
- Search intent is constantly changing.
- Google is struggling to understand the true intent behind the search.
It may even be both.
For example, take a look at the query, “mercury.”
Google appears to have no idea whether people are looking for information about the planet Mercury, or the element mercury.
Verdict: These aren’t great keywords to target because search intent is unclear.
As I mentioned in our post about Keyword Difficulty, some SEOs see chaotic SERPs as an opportunity to rank:
This SERP has opportunity written all over it pic.twitter.com/dZ5nj5rQ06
— nick eubanks (@nick_eubanks) 20 April 2019
Reason being, Google clearly isn’t happy with the current results as it chooses not to rank any one of them at the top for more than a few days at a time. So, if you can crack search intent, the ranking is yours for the taking.
But, while this is the case, it can also indicate a difficult to crack SERP.
That’s because if Google has no clue what searchers are after, then chances are you don’t either. It may also be the case that search intent is continually changing, in which case ranking long-term will be next to impossible.
Step 2. Make sure your content aligns with the “4 C’s of search intent”
Now that you know your chosen keyword is sound (i.e., has clear search intent), your next task is to analyze the search results for what we like to call, “the 4 C’s of search intent.”
- Content style
- Content type
- Content format
- Content angle
Let’s run through this process in more detail.
1. Content style
This refers to the “style” of content in the search results. It’s usually either text or video.
For example, if we search for “nintendo switch unboxing,” all of the first page results are videos.
You would need to follow suit to rank.
2. Content type
This refers to the overall “type” of content in the search results, and is usually one of the following:
- Blog post
- Product page
- Category page
- Landing page
For example, take a look at the top search results for “how to make pancakes”:
You can tell from the titles alone that they’re all blog posts.
Now take a look at the search results for “buy pink dress”:
You can tell from the titles and URLs that all of the results are ecommerce category pages, like this one:
If we look at the search results for “buy roomba 980,” what we see are product pages:
That’s because we’re looking to buy a specific product and not just a type of product.
Your task is to look for the most dominant content type in the search results, then make sure your content aligns with that.
3. Content format
This refers to the “format” of the top-ranking pages. Some common formats include:
- “How-to” guides
- Step-by-step tutorials
- List posts
- Opinion pieces
There are a lot of different formats, but these should give you an idea of what to look out for.
For example, if we look at the results for “how to make pancakes,” we see that most of them are how-to guides:
On the other hand, most of the results for “best places to travel in italy” are list posts:
For queries like “how to write a resume,” we see mostly step-by-step guides, like this one:
When creating your content, it makes most sense to follow the crowd.
If most of the top pages are how-to guides, create a how-to guide. If they’re list posts, create a list post. You get the idea.
The “format” of content mostly applies to informational and commercial investigation queries. That’s because these are the types of queries for which blog posts tend to rank.
When it comes to transactional queries, there’s not much to say about content format. Nine times out of ten, it’s either going to be a product or category page. So the content format generally aligns with the content “type.”
4. Content angle
This refers to the unique selling point of the top-ranking posts and pages and provides insight into what searchers value when making this particular search.
For example, if we look at the search results for “how to make pancakes,” we can see a few different but similar angles in the results.
To highlight just a few:
- “Perfect pancakes”
- “Good old-fashioned pancakes”
- “Fluffy pancakes”
If we search for a transactional query like “buy glasses online,” we see that a lot of retailers are pitching their low prices and discounts right in the search results.
This is a sign that price is a big sticking point for those looking to buy glasses online.
Many retailers also mention the word “prescription,” which indicates that searchers are looking for prescription glasses as opposed to sunglasses, or solar eclipse glasses, or any other types of glasses.
The trick to optimizing for content angle is, once again, to follow the crowd.
That doesn’t mean you have to copy them, but if they’re all pitching price in their content, title tags, and meta descriptions, and you’re pitching quality, then that may not work to your advantage.
Step 3. Take cues from the search results and top-ranking pages
Everything discussed so far works great for getting a rough sense of search intent and deciding what type of content you need to create. But if you’re really serious about targeting a keyword, you need to analyze both the SERPs and top-ranking pages in more detail.
That’s the only way to truly understand what people want to see, and what your content should talk about.
Below are three ways to do that:
1) Look at the “People also ask” box in the SERPs
Google’s “People also ask” box tells you what questions searchers also tend to ask.
For example, take a look at the results for “best protein powder”:
These are questions that you may want to provide answers to in your content.
To see more questions from the “People also ask” box, click on the caret for one of the related questions. As you do, Google will reveal more.
2. Run a content gap analysis at the page-level
A content gap analysis is usually used to find content gaps at the domain level.
But you can also run a content gap analysis at the page-level. And this can give you some insight into what subtopics searchers expect to see covered on your page.
To illustrate, let’s paste a few of the top-ranking pages for “best protein powder” into Ahrefs’ Content Gap tool. We’ll leave the bottom box blank, and hit search.
Now, there are some obvious things in there like “best whey protein” and “best protein shakes.” But these are pretty much just synonyms or other ways to search for the same thing.
However, we also see queries like:
- best protein for building muscle
- best post workout protein
- best lean protein powder
- types of protein powders
From these, we can tell that searchers are generally looking to build muscle, and want a lean post-workout protein shake. They also have some interest in the different types of protein powders, which I assume means whey, casein, hemp, etc.
3. Visit the top-ranking pages
Nothing gives you more insight into search intent than actually visiting the top-ranking pages.
In fact, there’s no other way to truly understand what searchers want to see.
Case in point: If we do this for the top results for “best protein powder,” we notice that some of the pages talk about the best types of protein powders (whey, casein, egg protein, hemp, etc.)…
… and others talk about the best protein powder products to buy:
So it looks like there are two different interpretations of “best protein powder.”
(Nothing in the SERPs tells us that.)
If you were to create a piece of content about this topic, you would have to make a decision as to which angle is best for your content. There’s also the possibility of covering both angles to an extent.
Here are some other things I notice about search intent after looking at the top-ranking pages:
- Images and visuals are important: Searchers want to actually see which protein powders are best.
- Links to buy are helpful: Most of the current top-ranking pages have quick links to buy protein powders from Amazon or elsewhere. That makes sense, and is actually important, as this is a commercial investigation keyword.
- Segmentation by diet is important: People don’t want a generic list of the best protein powders. They want to know which is the best for their particular diet. So including some vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free information is a must.
Bottom line: Always review the top-ranking pages before creating content.
Case study #1: +677% more traffic by optimizing for search intent
In 2017, we created a landing page to rank for the keyword “backlink checker” (14,000 monthly searches).
Here’s how it looked:
You can view the full page via the Wayback Machine here.
For a couple of years, this page performed reasonably well and sent a few thousand monthly organic visitors our way, but it never made it to the top 5 for our target keyword.
It seemed to be stuck ranking in positions 6–10.
But then, on September 13th, 2018, we made a small change to that page… and traffic went through the roof!
The page now gets more than 53,000 monthly visits from organic search!
That’s a 677% increase… in less than six months!
It also jumped to the number one spot for its target keyword…
… and it’s been there ever since.
So, what changed?
Basically, we looked at the current top-ranking pages and noticed something important about search intent:
Searchers are looking for a free backlink checking tool, not a boring landing page.
So, we gave them what they wanted:
Our landing page now boasts what we believe to be the best free backlink checker on the web.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen this happen either.
Case study #2: +3,100% more traffic by optimizing for search intent
In 2016, we studied on-page SEO ranking factors across 2 million keywords.
Here’s what that post looked like, courtesy of the Wayback Machine:
The post itself was good, but it never really ranked for anything or got much traffic.
So, we looked at the top-ranking pages to try to figure out why this was and soon realized that search intent was the issue.
Basically, searchers didn’t want to see a study; they wanted an actionable guide.
Now the post ranks in the top 5…
… and traffic has increased by 3,100%!
Search intent is perhaps the most important “ranking factor” in 2019.
Fail to give searchers what they want, and your chances of ranking are slim to none. We’ve seen this time and time again with the content we publish here on the Ahrefs blog.
Even if you do manage to “trick” Google for a short while and rank with a low-quality or ill-fitting page, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll figure things out eventually. It might be tomorrow, or next month, or next year, but when they do, your rankings will drop like a stone.
If you want to rank long-term, make it your mission to give searchers what they want. Google will almost certainly reward you for doing so.