User Intent – Everything You Need To Know For Better SEO

User intent is a factor behind every keyword.

No keyword research tool will help you understand it. Yet, it's more important than search volume, keyword difficulty, or any other metric you can think of.  

user intent

1. What Is User Intent?

User intent, also known as search intent, searcher intent, query intent, and keyword intent, is a person’s purpose when they type a search query into a search engine.

In other words, what is it they want? What are they looking for?

Understanding searcher intent is a major concern for Google. Indeed, that’s a  major function of RankBrain, a Google algorithm released in October 2015.

Using machine learning, RankBrain is able to learn from user behavior what sort of answers people are looking for when they type in search queries.

Moz gives as an example the search query: ‘Olympics location’. What is the intent behind that query?

“Does the searcher want to know about the Summer or Winter Olympic Games? Are they referring to an Olympics that just concluded, or one that will take place four years from now? Is the searcher attending the Olympics right now, sitting in a hotel and looking for directions to the venue for the opening ceremonies? Could they even be looking for historic information about the location of the very first Olympics in ancient Greece?”

Let’s say the results on Page #1 of Google include the location of the next Olympics. By observing searcher behavior, RankBrain can determine that most people looking up “Olympics location” want to know where the very next Games (be they Summer or Winter) will be held.

In other words, Google looks for patterns in the way that people interact with the search results. Those patterns tell the algorithm which of the results on Page #1 best matches the user intent behind the search query. And that result gets promoted to the top of the SERPs.

search intent

2. Why Is User Intent So Important?

For someone wanting to rank their content on Google, there are two main reasons why searcher intent is important.

Rank for Your Chosen Keywords

To rank high for any keyword, you need to understand what the user intent is behind that keyword. If you don’t understand the user intent, it will be hard to rank for that keyword.

Here’s an example.

A few months back I did some keyword research in SEMrush. This tool gave me a huge list of words that have good monthly search volume and low competition.

One of these keywords was ‘best free serp checker’.

I decided I would write a blog post about best free serp checkers.

But then I typed that keyword into Google and what I found made me change my mind.

Every single result on Page #1 of Google for that search query was an application or a piece of software for checking SERP results.

searcher intent

In other words, when people type in ‘best free serp checkers’, they aren't looking for an article on that topic, they're looking for the software itself.

Needless to say, I ditched the idea of writing an article on best free serp checkers.

It would have been a waste of time because it had no chance of ranking on Page #1 of Google.

Find Opportunities Others Have Missed

When you’re researching a keyword for an article, look carefully at the results on Page #1 of Google. If you see a couple of pages that are slightly off-topic, then you have a very good chance of ranking for that keyword.

Why?

Because those pages don’t match the search intent behind the keyword.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say you want to write an article on 'how to train German Shepherds'. And in the top position, you find an article titled 'how to train dogs'. That page doesn’t properly address the user intent behind the keyword.

And yet it's ranking number one on Google. You can easily outrank that article by writing a piece of content that matches the user intent behind the keyword.

Alternatively, let's say you find a page that is on-topic but only contains one or two paragraphs.

Again, that tells you that you have a very good chance of ranking for that keyword. It’s unlikely that a page containing one or two paragraphs has adequately addressed the user intent behind that keyword. All you need to do is go into the topic a bit deeper, and you’ll rank higher for that keyword.

3. Four Types of User Intent

In understanding user intent, it helps to divide search queries into four broad categories:

  • Navigational
  • Informational
  • Commercial
  • Transactional

Navigational

Navigational queries are ones where the searcher knows the website they want to find. When a searcher types in ‘Netflix’, or ‘Facebook’ or iTunes’, that’s a navigational search. The user already knows where they want to go. Navigational queries are fairly straight forward and there’s little leeway for confusion.

It’s the other three categories of query where you need to do some ‘mind-reading’.

Informational

These are queries where the searcher is looking for information. An example would be ‘How many grams in an ounce’ or ‘what is a dslr camera’.

Commercial

These are queries where the searcher is looking to buy a product or a service. Examples of transactional searches would be ‘best dslr cameras’, or ‘electric lawnmowers’, or ‘flights to rome’

Transactional

Transactional queries are ones where the searcher has gathered all the information they need and is ready to buy. Examples of transactional queries would be ‘dslr cameras under $1000’ or ‘cheapest flights to rome’.

commercial intent

4. User Intent and the Buyer Journey

Another important aspect of searcher intent is how it relates to the sales funnel, also known as the ‘buyer journey’.

There are three stages in the sales funnel:

  • Awareness
  • Consideration
  • Decision

These different stages in the buyer journey (or sales funnel) produce different kinds of user intent and different kinds of keywords.

Awareness Stage

In the ‘awareness’ stage, searchers combine their main keyword with keyword modifiers such as:

  • examples
  • guide
  • how
  • how do I use [product name]
  • how does [product name] work
  • ideas
  • improve
  • issue
  • learn
  • optimize
  • resolve
  • resource
  • risks
  • tips
  • troubleshoot
  • tutorial
  • upgrade
  • what
  • what is [product name]
  • where
  • who
  • why

Consideration Stage

In the 'consideration' stage, searchers use keyword modifiers such as:

  • [product name] + [size, color, style]
  • best
  • provider
  • service
  • software
  • solution
  • supplier
  • top
  • what is the top

Decision Stage

Searchers in the ‘decision’ stage use modifiers such as:

  • [product name] in [location]
  • [product name] near me
  • affordable [brand name] [product name]
  • benchmarks
  • buy
  • cheap
  • compare
  • compare
  • coupon
  • how much does [product name] cost
  • order
  • order [product name] online
  • price
  • pricing
  • pros and cons
  • purchase
  • review
  • test
  • versus
  • vs.
identify intent in search

5. How To Understand User Intent For a Given Keyword

I mentioned earlier that the Google algorithm is able to work out what the keyword intent is behind any given search query. It does this by studying the way searchers click around within the search results.

If a searcher settles on a page for an extended period, it means the content on that page matches the searcher intent. But if the searcher immediately clicks back to the search results, it means the content didn’t match the user intent.

So it’s no surprise that the best way to determine the user intent of a keyword is to type it into Google. The results at the top of Page #1 are the ones that reflect the user intent of the keyword.

But sometimes, the results on Page #1 of Google will reflect different user intents. Here’s an example.

The search query ‘website speed’ produces mainly website speed tests:

user intent

But it also produces an article about website speed:

user intent

If the search results reflect more than one searcher intent, always go with the keyword intent indicated by the top-ranking pages. That’s the user intent that RankBrain has concluded most closely matches the search query.

You can get more clues as to the user intent behind a keyword by looking at the ‘People Also Ask’ section in the search results. These will be closely related search queries that give you more insight into what the searcher is looking for when they type in your main keyword.

6. Key Takeaways

  • When researching a keyword, look at the search results for that keyword and make sure you understand the user intent behind that keyword.

  • If you’re in doubt about the keyword intent, have a look at the ‘People Also Ask’ section in the search results. Those items will give you more insight into the intent behind the keyword.

  • If you see a lot of web pages that are off-topic or have ‘thin’ content, that’s a golden opportunity. You can easily rank for that keyword by producing content that better matches the user intent of the keyword and is more comprehensive.

  • When designing your content strategy, make sure you target keywords that represent searcher intent at all three levels of the buyer journey (awareness, consideration, decision)

  • If the search results reflect more than one interpretation of user intent, always go with the user intent indicated by the top-ranking results.

Conclusion

User intent is now a major focus of the Google algorithm. So if you want to rank well for a keyword you have to understand what the searcher is looking for.

When doing keyword research, it’s easy to focus only on search volume and keyword difficulty. But always make sure you understand searcher intent for the keyword. Because understanding user intent is the key to ranking well for any keyword.

This post was most recently updated on May 4th, 2020

  • This is a very useful Post on search intent Rob. I gained some valuable insights from it.
    Thank you.

  • Brilliant article as always Rob, when researching the search results is it important or not to be signed out of Google to avoid personalised results?

    • Hi Ronan, thanks for the feedback, glad it was useful. Good question about signing out. Definitely that’s a good idea. Google is increasingly customizing the results according to personal preferences (based on search history). For example, I’ve been noticing in the last few days that on mobile, Google is showing an item in the search results labeled “only you can see this result”. So, yes – much better to open an incognito window (in Chrome) or sign out of Google before checking the results. – Rob.

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