Why Do Users Search? Search Intent SEO Explained

When it comes to your SEO efforts, one of the most important questions you need to keep in mind is: “Why are people searching?” Understanding the search intent of people visiting your site via search engine provides you with insight on where to focus your SEO efforts.

In this article, we’ll explain why search intent is critical for SEO, discuss the four types of search intent, and share some basic best practices for optimizing for search intent.

Why is search intent important?

Google is, first and foremost, trying to provide the most relevant and quality search engine results to its users. They achieve this with not only their algorithm, but with artificial intelligence known as Google RankBrain.

What is Google RankBrain? In a nutshell, Google RankBrain’s job is to help Google’s keyword-based algorithm yield the most relevant results possible by identifying the search user’s intent. Whenever someone types a query into Google, that query goes through Google RankBrain first, which attempts to interpret the search intent based on the user’s location, past searches, and other modes of personalization. Google’s algorithm takes Google RankBrain’s search intent analysis into account when determining the relevancy and quality of search engine results it yields.

Since these two pieces of technology determine what users see, you need to make sure you’re not only optimizing for keywords, but also anticipating the intent of users.

The Four Search Intent Types

Search intent falls within one of these four categories — informational, navigational, transactional, and commercial investigation. Let’s break down each one:

1. Informational intent

African elephant with baby elephant.
“Google, how long does an elephant gestate?”

Search queries with an informational intent are pretty much all of those what, how, why, when, and who questions that you turn to Google for answers.

Examples of search queries with an informational intent might be “NYC weather” to find out the forecast for New York City, or “avocado calories” to find out nutritional information.

Queries with an informational intent may also be completely formed questions:

  • “What is the gestation period for an elephant?”
  • “When is the next lunar eclipse in North America?”
  • “How many cups are in a gallon?”

2. Navigational intent

Man at computer.
“Google, take me to Amazon.com.”

This intent refers to searchers who have a very clear idea of what website they’re trying to visit and they’re just using a search engine as a vehicle to get there.

For example, someone trying to get to the Amazon.com website might simply type “amazon” rather than typing out the actual URL into the address bar — knowing that their browser’s search will reliably provide the website as the first result. This is especially common for mobile users.

Here’s another example of a query with navigational intent: Imagine that you read an article the other day and you’re trying to find it again. If you can recall the article’s title, you can put that in the search bar word-for-word and there’s a good chance it’ll pop up immediately. Or if your memory is a little fuzzy, you can try putting in some very specific keywords or phrases pertaining to the article (or even the author’s name if you remember it), and there’s still a pretty good chance you’ll find it. These are both examples of search queries with intents to navigate to a specific page on the internet.

3. Transactional intent

Movie popcorn
“Google, I want to buy tickets to the upcoming Star Wars movie.”

Transactional search intent is exactly what you would think it would be. Anyone who uses a search engine with the express purpose of purchasing a particular product or service has a transactional search intent.

One example of transactional search intent is buying movie tickets for a movie you want to see on Friday night. You might compare ticket prices and showtimes, but you have a pretty clear idea of what you want to purchase and how.

4. Commercial investigation intent

Vacuum cleaner
“Google, what’s the best vacuum cleaner?”

Commercial investigation refers to a search intent that is very much related to informational and transactional intents, but it’s a bit more specialized and distinct enough that it gets its own category as an intent.

Let’s revisit our movie theatre example. Sometimes you might not have a movie in mind yet. Before buying tickets, you might first investigate what movies are currently playing in theatres, which movies are playing at a convenient time for you at your local theatre, and read reviews for a movie to make sure it’s your cup of tea. There’s no transaction involved, but you’re doing your research should you choose to go through with a transaction in the future. That’s commercial investigation.

Understandably, this type of intent is often targeted by websites that specialize in reviews or consumer research content, such as Wirecutter for in-depth evaluations of products like sunscreen and vacuums (or as previously mentioned, film review sites).

How Do I Optimize for Search Intent?

Now that you have a good grasp of the different types of search intent, it’s time to put that knowledge to work.

How do you make sure you’re optimizing for search intent? Well, as with all things SEO-related, there’s no special trick, but there are two overarching goals to keep in mind:

  1. Create high-quality, useful content.
  2. Make sure your site is easy to use and navigate.

While these two goals should really apply to all of your SEO efforts, the specific actions you take to achieve these goals will depend on the type of search intent you’re trying to appeal to.

While you probably don’t need to worry about optimizing for navigational search intent, there are a few things you want to keep in mind for anticipating informational, transactional, and commercial investigation search intent.

For example, if you’re a website trying to establish an authoritative voice in your field, you might want to focus on creating comprehensive thought leadership content that fulfills an informational or commercial investigation search intents. Especially when paired with a content cluster topic model, high-quality SEO content that is useful to search engine users can grow your audience and build up your reputation in Google’s eyes.

Meanwhile, an ecommerce business might instead want to focus on optimizing their site and content for users with transactional intents.

Fancy hat store
“Hmm… why aren’t people buying my fancy hats online?”

Let’s say you have a website that sells hats. Obviously, you want to make sure you have well-written product copy, gorgeous product images, and strong, keyword-rich SEO titles and meta descriptions. That’s just basic SEO 101.

If you really want to make sure those hats are flying off your shelves, it can really help to have a conversion rate optimization strategy in addition to an SEO strategy. The goal of conversion rate optimization is to increase the percentage of conversions — such as purchasing a product or filling out a contact form — by making incremental, data-driven changes to your site and content.

Applying a CRO strategy to an ecommerce site will help you track how users move through and interact with your site. Which buttons are they most likely to click? Do users actually flip through your product image carousel? How many people abandon their shopping carts before purchasing those cowboy boots? Are there clear friction points in the purchase process that stop users from converting?

Knowing the answers to these questions helps you know where to focus your SEO and site improvement efforts. Most importantly, when you’re making site changes based on quantitative and qualitative data, you’re making changes to benefit your users.

And really, that’s the key to optimizing for search intent, whether it’s transactional or informational. Google wants websites to put users first by anticipating search intents and providing relevant, useful information.

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