Keyword Research

Search Intent in SEO: What It Is & How to Optimize for It

Mateusz Makosiewicz
Marketing researcher and educator at Ahrefs. Mateusz has over 10 years of experience in marketing gained in agencies, SaaS and hardware businesses. When not writing, he's composing music or enjoying long walks.
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    Search intent is the reason behind a search query. In other words, it’s what the searcher is looking for when using a search engine like Google.

    In this guide, you’ll learn all you need to know about search intent and how to optimize your content to align with it. 

    Google prioritizes relevance in search results. So if you want to rank in Google, your content must be the most relevant result for the query. First and foremost, that means creating content that aligns with search intent of the target audience.

    For example, if you search for “best suv,” you’ll find all the results are SUV rankings and reviews, not any particular car’s product page. 

    Example of dominating search intent

    This is because Google knows the user intent is to learn first, and then potentially buy.

    Optimizing for search intent can bring great results. We got 516% more traffic in less than six months by making a change to one of our landing pages. 

    Results of optimizing for search intent

    The landing page wasn’t ranking well because it lacked a free tool functionality. To align it with searchers’ expectations for the “backlink checker” query, we needed to add that tool. 

    Changes made to a page to align with search intent

    SEOs usually group keywords into one of three keyword search intent buckets:

    • Informational intent – Searchers want to learn something. 
    • Transactional intent Searchers want to buy something.
    • Navigational intent Searchers are looking for a specific website. 

    These search intents are generally far too ambiguous to be useful. 

    For example, the query “best air fryer” is informational, as searchers clearly want to learn, not buy. But this tells you nothing about what they actually want.

    • Do they want a blog post or video?
    • Do they want a list of the best options, or a single recommendation and review?
    • Do they value anything in particular when looking for recommendations?

    It’s impossible to cater to the audience’s search intent unless you know the answers to these questions. And if you don’t cater to intent, your chances of ranking are slim to none.

    This is why we came up with a new (and hopefully better) way to classify intent.

    Here are the steps:

    Step 1. Align your content with the “three Cs of search intent”

    For starters, you need to identify the three Cs of search intent for your target keyword and make sure your content is aligned with that. The three Cs are:

    1. Content type
    2. Content format
    3. Content angle

    The idea here is that when creating content for search intent, it makes the most sense to follow the crowd. For instance, if most of the top pages are how-to guides, create a how-to guide. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to copy them entirely. 

    Let’s run through this process in more detail.

    1. Content type 

    This refers to the dominant “type” of content in the search results and is usually one of the following:

    • Blog post
    • Video
    • Product page
    • Category page
    • Landing page

    For example, take a look at the top search results for “best air fryer” in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. Just by looking at the titles, we can see that the dominating content type is a blog post.

    Dominating content type for "best air fryer" query

    This means searchers don’t expect to see pages where air fryer manufacturers explain why their product is the best. They want the opinion of someone who has tested different options available on the market before they make the purchase. 

    2. Content format 

    This refers to the dominant “format” of the top-ranking pages. Typically, content format applies to blog posts

    Some common formats include these:

    • “How-to” guides
    • Step-by-step tutorials
    • List posts
    • Opinion pieces
    • Reviews
    • Comparisons

    In our example of “best air fryer,” the dominating content format is list post—look at the titles:

    Dominating content format for "best air fryer" query

    This means searchers want a list of recommendations, not just a single recommendation or a single product review.

    3. Content angle 

    The content angle refers to the unique selling point of the top-ranking posts and pages. It provides insight into what searchers value when doing this particular search.

    In our example, “2023” is the dominating content angle (i.e., the best products in the current year). Again, it’s evident just by looking at the titles. 

    Dominating content angle for "best air fryer" query

    This means searchers want up-to-date recommendations. And that makes sense, as new air fryers are being released all the time.

    Step 2. Find subtopics to cover in your content 

    To satisfy user search intent, you need to cover your topic in full. Including subtopics that searchers may expect is a great way to do that.

    Below are two ways to find key subtopics. 

    1. Visit the top-ranking pages

    Commonalities among top-ranking pages can give you clues on what searchers expect to see for any given topic.

    For example, by visiting some top-ranking blog posts for “best air fryer,” we see they recommend the best products in their respective categories. 

    One of the common categories is a small air fryer ideal for one person. 

    Common subtopic in product reviews
    Common subtopic in product reviews

    The presence of different product categories is a hint that people may have different needs when it comes to this type of product. Therefore, it’s probably a good idea to include similar product categories in the content.

    2. Run a content gap analysis at the page level

    A content gap analysis is an easier, automated way of finding common subtopics and key points. It works by listing common keyword rankings for the analyzed pages. 

    For example, let’s do a content gap analysis for the keyword “best air fryer” in Ahrefs. To do this, we need to plug in the keyword in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer and open a few top-ranking pages with the same intent in the Content Gap report.

    "Open in Content gap" feature, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

    We’ll see a list of common search queries. Some of them will likely make great subheadings or points for our page. Here’s an excerpt from the content gap analysis: 

    List of keywords from content gap analysis, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

    So in a list post of best air fryers, some of the things you may want to include are these:

    • Best budget option
    • Best option based on capacity (small/large, quart capacity)
    • Best smart air fryer 
    Pro Tip

    Some SEOs use search volatility as a proxy for determining the clarity of search intent. 

    To assess search volatility, paste your keyword into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, then scroll down to the SERP position history graph and set the filters to “Top 50” and “last 6 months.”

    SERP position history graph in Ahrefs

    Keywords with little or no fluctuation in rankings over time are a good choice since they have clear search intent… 

    Low SERP volatility for the keyword “how to write a resume”
    Low SERP volatility for the keyword phrase “how to write a resume.”

    … whereas keywords with lots of fluctuation in rankings seem to be less “reliable” because the search intent changes frequently. 

    High SERP volatility for the keyword "mercury"
    High SERP volatility for the keyword “mercury.”

    Final thoughts 

    Search intent is one of the most important ranking factors

    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.

    If you want to rank for the long term, understanding search intent is a must. 

    Make it your mission to give searchers what they want and Google (and likely other search engines) will almost certainly reward you for doing so.

    Got questions or comments? Ping me on Twitter or Mastodon

    Article Performance
    Data from Ahrefs
    • Organic traffic
    • Linking websites

    The number of websites linking to this post.

    This post's estimated monthly organic search traffic.