The 4 Types of Search Intent (and how they affect SEO)

Even with countless search results, you can’t always find the answer you need instantly. To solve this issue, Google added a feature called search intent to its algorithm. Simply put, search intent matches queries with the intentions behind them. This way, users can easily see relevant information straight away. But when it comes to SEO, it also makes it harder to understand rankings and plan successful content.

Written by Javier

Published: 02/10/2023

In this article, we’ll look at what search intent exactly is, how it can affect rankings, and how you can take advantage of it. It’s a helpful guide for small business owners and entrepreneurs, as well as anyone interested in the nuances of SEO.

What is search intent?

When we search for information online, we tailor our queries to the results we’d like to see.

For example, you might add the word ‘buy’ before searching for a certain product you want to purchase online. If you want to find out more about it, you might replace ‘buy’ with ‘compare’ or ‘review’ to get the desired search result. These slight changes in phrasing shape and define what search engines understand as search intent.

Search intent is all about the nuances of a query and the actions people took based on similar searches.

When you search for a product without any context, the results you see will be ranked by two main factors. How well optimised they are for a keyword and how users interacted with the results of this query before. If in previous searches everyone picked the 5th result, it will rank higher in the future.  This means that no matter how well optimised a piece of content is, if it doesn’t match the search intent, it won’t rank at the top of Google.

Backlinko explains this very well with an example of searching for a quick recipe. If the first search result takes 1hr to cook, most people will navigate down the page to another recipe that takes 15mins. Eventually, Google will push that 15min recipe to the top due to its high engagement.

This can be a very slippery slope if your keyword strategy doesn’t take search intent into consideration. You may be creating great content, but unless it matches the intent of those looking for it, your efforts can easily go to waste.

Why is search intent important for SEO?

It’s simple – if users are looking for something and you put another thing in its place, they’ll ignore it.

Or even worse, they’ll get annoyed.

Google knows this and its algorithm looks out for signs that content is irrelevant. When it finds them, it pushes that content further down the results page. User experience and satisfaction are some of the search engine’s highest priorities. After all, Google needs to keep people engaged to retain its advertisers and attract new ones.

Choosing the right keywords by intent

Among the countless factors to consider when picking the right keywords, intent is one of the highest in priority. It has the power to contextualise your keywords and help you cater to a specific niche or audience. So, you need to choose wisely and research strategically.

Start by carrying out keyword research as you normally would. Once you’ve determined the search terms you would like to rank for, run searches for them yourself. I recommend running one search in your normal chrome browser and one in incognito mode. This sometimes allows you to see slightly different results due to the lack of cookies and search history in incognito.

As you browse results, notice what appears higher up. Is it products? Then people are searching with the intent to buy, which means product pages and reviews will feature higher. If you see tips and ‘how to’ blogs, users are looking for information – this is a great opportunity for articles and guides. Explore what’s happening further down the page as well to see if one keyword has multiple intents associated with it. This is quite common when it comes to e-commerce. If you decide to target different intents with the same keyword, check your website often for any issues with keyword cannibalisation.

With all this said, let’s take a look at the types of search intent and what content you can create to meet users’ needs.

What are the 4 types of searches?

Although Google defines 4 different types of search intent, it’s not always easy to distinguish them. You will often find that intents overlap or sometimes neither will match a specific keyword. Keeping this in mind, let’s look at what the 4 search intents are:

  • Informational – investigating something
  • Navigational – looking for something specific
  • Commercial – trying to find information about something you’re interested in
  • Transactional – intending to complete an action or convert

In this order, they can also correspond to steps in your customer journey depending on your offering.

If you’ve read my previous article about branding, you’re already familiar with the imaginary florist business I created to give examples. Let’s use it again to match search intents with searches and content types that satisfy them.

Now you can start to see how the search intent can inform your content and keyword strategy. To help you understand the intents better, I’ll quickly go through all 4 of them in a bit more detail.

Informational search intent

It’s common for informational queries to be phrased as questions. They’re characterised by the user’s desire to learn about a specific subject. This makes them very well-tailored to articles, blog posts, and guides that answer questions in depth.

Moreover, Google uses 3 main factors to judge the quality of a web page, known as E-A-T – Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. A recent Similarweb article explains that informational articles are great for positioning websites as E-A-T. Even if you run a shop, informational content will establish you as knowledgeable and trustworthy. And not only will it help your rankings, but it will also help you impress customers.

Navigational search intent

A user’s navigational search intent is usually very targeted. Their goal is either to reach a page they have in mind or find specific information, usually with a brand in mind.

As a small business owner, you might think that navigational intent is not very useful to your SEO strategy, but that’s not exactly true. If users do search for your brand, you need to make sure you appear at the top of the page. Moreover, if you already rank well for your company name, you might be eligible for advanced SERP features such as FAQs and images.

Most importantly, if your business is at all local, optimise certain pages for the areas you cover. And don’t forget to set up your Google Business Profile so you appear in localised searches.

Commercial search intent

We see commercial intent in users searching for a particular product or service. Instead of looking to buy, they want to investigate it further. Common searches for this type of intent are reviews, comparisons, or lists. Some queries are very specific and include brand names (‘Philips vs. Dyson air purifiers’), while others can be broader (‘air purifier reviews’).

We can also see a crossover of intents as navigational searchers may want to explore different options in a specific location. For example, someone might search for ‘best vegan restaurants in Bristol’. Their intents are to find something specific (navigational) and evaluate it in comparison to others like it (commercial).

Transactional search intent

This type of search intent is very clear-cut – users want to buy something. In turn, Google does its best to offer them ways to buy it by showing products higher up. Further down the page, you may also find reviews and lists even though the search is not commercial. It’s an area where intents are too similar to separate, but one intent (transactional) takes priority over the other.

How do you determine search intent?

In most cases, search intent is evident in the phrasing of the query.

For example, anything surrounded by purchase-related words (buy, deal, coupon, etc.) is transactional. Searches phrased as questions, on the other hand, are usually informational. When someone is looking for a specific page, such as ‘LinkedIn login’, the search is navigational. Commercial searches tend to be surrounded by words like ‘best of’, ‘top’ or ‘review’.

If you are using SEO software like SEM Rush or Ahrefs, the search intent can be readily available.  For example, in SEM rush, the keyword research tool shows it alongside other information about a search term:

If you’re wondering which SEO software to pick, we’ve put together a handy list of the 11 best SEO tools for small businesses in 2022. These tools can be on the expensive side if you use them monthly, but they all offer free trials that last around a week. If you plan well, you can do your keyword research and use all the features you need within the trial period for free. Just don’t forget to cancel after!

How do I optimise search intent?

It’s not always simple to understand where keywords fall. Sometimes they belong in multiple categories, and sometimes it seems like none of the search intents really fit. Don’t panic if this happens. Search intent is 10% common sense and 90% seeing what Google already ranks as top content for your query.

As Search Engine Journal very well put it, “we are not deciding what the search intent is – Google is”.

Ideally, you should optimise search intent in the keyword research phase of your content and SEO strategy. But don’t panic if you’re just hearing about this now and have published lots of content already.

Instead, tackle it strategically by looking at the keywords that aren’t performing well. If you spot that their poor performance is related to search intent, edit the copy on those pages to match the search intent. For some inspiration, take a look at how Backlinko took their article from page 2 to the top of page 1 by optimising it for search intent (it’s in the ‘Why Is Search Intent Important?’ section).

Search intent at a glance

To recap everything we’ve covered so far – search intent is a feature Google introduced to improve user experience. It aggregates page information and user interaction patterns to rank content based on its relevance to the search query.

Although search intent is just one of many SEO components you need to keep in mind, it has a significant influence on how your content ranks.

If you create content irrelevant to the search intent, no amount of work can make it rank at the top. So, research the keywords you’re targeting and consider the phrasing you’re using during the planning and strategy stages. It’s never too late to optimise old articles, but it’s always better to plan ahead!

Lastly, when it comes to determining search intent, check what Google is currently ranking high and think about the intent that fits best. Remember that not every business will need to target all 4 types of searches. The important thing is to understand which one is right for your content and SEO goals.

About the Author

Stephy is a copywriter and digital marketing consultant, as well as the co-founder of The Atom Lab. She writes about all things web and content-related and shares tips from the trade to help business owners and entrepreneurs grow their online presence.