Search Intent in SEO: What It Is, Examples, Types

As content marketers, we want to create content that hits the keywords that people are searching for and that is aligned with what they are likely looking for (search intent).

February 28, 2024
Written by
Kasper Siig
Reviewed by
Nate Matherson

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When you search for something on Google — or any other search engine, for that matter — you may have noticed that results tend to fall into the same category. Sometimes, you’ll get listicles; sometimes, you’ll get product pages; sometimes, it’ll be something else entirely. This happens because the search engine has tried to determine your search intent. In other words, it understands not just the query you’ve typed in but also the motivation behind the query.

Search intent = the reason that someone is doing a Google search

Now you have a basic understanding of what search intent is, and it’s time to start diving deeper into it, answering important questions like:

  • How do search engines determine user search intent?
  • What different types of search intent exist?
  • How do you optimize your own pages for different search intent?

What Is Search Intent?

As content marketers, we want to create content that hits the keywords that people are searching for and that is aligned with what they are likely looking for (search intent).

There are four different types of search intent: informational, navigational, commercial, and transactional (more on this later)

Although the core principle behind intent-driven marketing is fairly straightforward, there are many nuances to cover. When you want to incorporate search intent in your content strategy, it’s essential to focus on the user above anything else. At the end of the day, words are merely a way of articulating feelings and intentions, and it’s your job to understand the motivation behind a given string of words.

Although users enter keywords into a search engine, they’re always trying to address a deeper need or question—for example, finding out what language people speak in Brazil and then finding resources for learning that language.

In fact, it’s widely known that Google heavily uses natural language processing (NLP) to analyze search queries. For a query like “what language do they speak in Brazil?” Google may not actually be ranking pages according to keywords like “language” or “Brazil.” It's highly likely that Google will analyze this query, transform it into "top languages spoken in Brazil," and then serve up pages that it has ranked for that phrase.

This is all to say that understanding the intent behind a search query is the alpha and omega of optimizing for SEO.

Why Is Search Intent Important in SEO?

In SEO, you hardly ever want to go against the grain, at least when it comes to search intent. For example, for a keyword like “best project management software,” we see that nearly all of the top search results are blog pages or listicles:

For this keyword, Google clearly prefers results that showcase a number of different tools in a listicle blog post format. You wouldn’t, for example, want to try to rank a transactional landing page or a product page for this keyword, as the searcher's intent is clearly for a commercial page that compares multiple different options in a blog post setting. It would be incredibly difficult to rank a webpage with a search intent and structure that doesn’t align with the current search intent and structure.

Getting ranked on the first page of search results is one thing — you still need people to click on your page.

Properly aligning your content with search intent should be one of the first tactics you implement when aiming to increase your click-through rate (CTR). To use Google’s own example, imagine you’ve hiked Mt. Adams, your next challenge is to climb Mt. Fuji, and you need to understand how your preparation for Mt. Fuji should be different from what you’ve done previously. Which of the following answers would be the most helpful to you?

  • To climb Mt. Fuji, you need to choose the right time, select the right trail, prepare physically, and so on.
  • If you’ve climbed the South Climb on Mt. Adams — considered a challenging trail — you’ll likely want to choose the Gotemba Trail on Mt. Fuji, which is likewise considered a challenging trail.

If the second answer has a proper title tag and meta description, most people will probably click on it, even if it’s in the second or third position on the search engine results page (SERP).

In addition to optimizing your CTR, accurately matching search intent can also decrease your bounce rate. If you manage to align your content’s search intent perfectly, users won’t only feel helped by the search — they’ll also feel understood. Matching content to search intent increases the chances of that content being useful to searchers.

The Evolution of Search Engines

So far, this post has mainly been concerned with user behavior, with less focus on how search engines actually function. This is because every new update to search engines aims to better understand and align with the intention behind search queries. By extension, SEO has, over the years, become increasingly more about understanding human psychology rather than understanding search engines. That being said, there’s value in understanding how we got here, as explained from Google’s perspective.

It all started with the PageRank algorithm. This algorithm attempted to determine the importance—and thereby value—of a given site by looking at the number of third-party links to it. The idea was, “If many people are linking to this site, it must have value.” The intention was clear and reasonable, but it quickly led to people abusing the system via various link spam schemes.

The Introduction of Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird

In 2011, Google officially introduced its new Panda algorithm, an update specifically aimed at combating the type of link spam and content farms that had started to populate the web. However, the effect wasn’t big enough, so a year later, in 2012 Google released the Penguin update.

Again, the intention was clear: remove any search results that don’t provide value. A year later, in 2013, it became even clearer with the release of Hummingbird, described as the biggest change to Google’s algorithm since 2001.

Keyword-Wise vs. Semantic Search

Whereas Panda and Penguin were extensions and improvements to the algorithm, Hummingbird was an entire rewrite of the algorithm. The big change? Semantic search.

Previous algorithms had focused on analyzing specific keywords on a page (which resulted in the rise of “keyword stuffing”). Still, this new algorithm focused more on understanding the actual semantics behind search queries. This is why a search for “air cleaners” will bring up results for air purifiers.

And this is where we are today. This hasn’t been an exhaustive exploration of Google’s algorithm history, but it should provide a clear overview of why search intent is important. Since 2013, Google has focused on understanding and respecting a searcher’s intent. With recent advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), the engineers at Google, Bing, or whatever other search engine you use will only become more capable of understanding the semantics behind queries rather than the exact keywords.

Different Types of Search Intent

Trying to define human behavior is a tricky thing; however, when you’re working with search engines, there are generally four different types of search intent you can aim for.

Informational Search Intent

This is by far the most common intent to optimize for — focusing on providing the reader with information. This is the “how to learn Javascript” sort of page, where you might include a CTA, but the focus is primarily on targeting the user’s desire to learn or understand something rather than trying to create a purchase.

Another example could be “what is climate change?” or “how do I revive my dead plant?” Although these posts rarely lead directly to a conversion, they often create the foundation necessary for converting from other posts. They help demonstrate expertise and proficiency in your field, which can tremendously help your SEO efforts (as explained in Google’s E-E-A-T guidelines).

There are many ways to create informational content, one of which is to focus on answering readers’ questions.

Navigational Search Intent

This intent is most common with branded search queries — for example, “Facebook login.” With these searches, a person already has a specific website or destination in mind and is essentially using the search engine to get there.

For brands and businesses, the importance of navigational search intent heavily depends on the type of website you’re running. If you’re running a news website with many different categories, or a social media site, you’ll likely want to focus on navigational intent.

If your website is only a simple landing page and a blog, you’ll still want some focus on navigational intent, albeit much less than in other cases.

Commercial Search Intent

Now we’re getting to the more clearly money-making keywords. Queries with commercial search intent are often those like “best SEO tools 2024” or “best dishwasher.” The user has a clear direction and a clearly commercial intent, but they’re still in the research phase. At this point, the most important things for the user will be comparisons, reviews, and recommendations.

You can view it as a middle ground between informational intent and transactional intent — which is covered in the next section. With these searches, people are seeking out information with the intent to purchase something in the future.

Optimizing for commercial intent heavily depends on your customers' needs. For instance, someone looking for a new blender may not need an exhaustive comparison, whereas a developer looking for a new testing tool may need comprehensive information—so much so that there will be some overlap with informational content. That being said, the overall goal of commercial intent is to influence future purchasing decisions.

Transactional Search Intent

Once someone has all the necessary information, reads all the reviews, and is ready to buy something, they need to know where they can buy it—enter transactional intent.

Transactional content generally involves making a purchase, signing up for a service, or downloading a resource. A good example of a search with transactional intent would be “sign-up for Positional.”

While some companies won’t need to focus on transactional content — for instance, developer tools where the target audience won’t be interested in transactional content — others, such as e-commerce businesses, will rely heavily on it.

The biggest lesson here is not about the transactional content itself; it’s about the importance of targeting all the different types of intent so that when users do get to the point of purchasing, you’ve established enough expertise and proficiency and gained enough trust to leverage that trust to create a purchase.

Optimizing Content for Search Intent

Like many things in the world of SEO, there’s no one true answer. However, there are some general best practices for optimizing for intent-driven marketing.

Keyword Research and Search Intent Analysis

Although the SEO community debates whether keyword research should be done before or after deciding on topics, it’s clear that it’s a helpful tool for understanding your users’ search queries and performing search intent analysis. You can use tools like Semrush, Ahrefs, Google’s Keyword Planner, or Positional’s Keyword Research to understand the type of intent you need to optimize for.

If you’re in doubt about what search intent is associated with a given keyword, you can always do a simple Google search. For instance, searching for “air purifier” will provide me with a mix of listicles and e-commerce sites — which brings up another important consideration: there won’t always be one singular intent. My SERP looks very different when searching for “air purifier” on my own account compared to an anonymous search using Nightwatch.

Please note that this is in reference to what search engines show on a SERP. Most often, you will want your page to focus on one search intent. The previous statement is mostly to say that you should be wary of optimizing for a given intent purely because of keyword research. Make sure to analyze and understand your readers as well.

Tailor Content Structure

Once you’ve understood the type of search intent you’ll want to optimize for, it’s important to tailor your content to that given intent. For instance, a “Top 8 Blenders” post will likely need an H2 along the lines of “What to Consider When Buying a Blender,” followed by an H2 like “Top Blenders in 2024,” with sub-sections for each blender on the list.

Conversely, a “How to Learn JavaScript” post will need to lay out step-by-step instructions, as that is what the searcher is looking for. But not all search results are going to be blog posts. Transactional content will often include lists of products as well. In summary, make sure your pages match the type of intent you’re optimizing for.

Use Relevant CTAs

Some organizations choose to use a global CTA across their entire site, but there are benefits to customizing your CTAs according to search intent. For instance, let’s assume that the user journey of buying a new blender goes as follows:

  1. Search for different types of blenders (informational search intent).
  2. Search for the best countertop blender (commercial search intent).
  3. Search for places to buy the best countertop blender (transactional search intent).

In the first piece of content (the informational piece), you may include a CTA like “Looking for a good countertop blender? Check out this list of the best ones.” That piece of content may then include a CTA like “Ready to buy a countertop blender? Check out prices here.”

Challenges in Search Intent Optimization

Search intent optimization is crucial, but it presents challenges. Let's delve into some potential pitfalls and how to navigate them.

Misinterpreting User Intent

Failing to understand user intent properly is a surefire way to not achieve your goals. If your content doesn’t align with the intent that search engines determine for a given query, it’s not even a matter of whether you’ll get clicks—you won’t rank at all.

For instance, there’s a major difference between “what is an apple?” and “who is Apple?”

Dynamic Nature of Intent

It’s important to be aware that search intent is not set in stone. It can shift due to cultural, industry, or global changes. Because of this, it’s important that your content strategy stays up-to-date and is updated according to external factors.

For instance, in the wake of COVID-19, travel-related searches suddenly increased in results about safety guidelines rather than “best tourist destinations.” While that may be an extreme example that occurs only once a century, it’s a principle that holds true in many other ways. When refreshing old content, you should ensure the search intent hasn’t changed for the keywords you target.

Over-Optimization for a Perceived Intent

Given that search intent can change due to external factors, it’s important not to create too narrowly focused content. Excessively tailoring content based on a narrow interpretation of the intent may create some successful content, but you’re also establishing an immense maintenance burden for yourself.

Consider once again the example of COVID-19 and safety guidelines. If you’d noticed this trend and started creating a bunch of content specifically about safety guidelines related to international travel, you would likely have seen a big increase in traffic. But now, in 2024, how much traffic would you get to this content?

There’s a Goldilocks balance to hit when it comes to intent: broad enough to be evergreen but narrow enough to be valuable.

Neglecting the Broader User Journey

One of the biggest inefficiencies I see SEO teams make is focusing only on individual pieces of content. I hesitate to call this a mistake, as it is possible to be successful without considering the broader user journey.

But think of it like this: Would you rather buy from a random person on the street or from someone you’ve established a relationship with? Would readers rather buy from you when their first interaction with you is on your product page or when you’ve helped them all the way from the informational to the transactional stage?

Relying Solely on Tools

As mentioned earlier, SEO is increasingly becoming about human psychology, so it’s becoming increasingly important to incorporate human judgment.

SEO tools are amazing, and some of the newest ones can provide invaluable insights that a human can never discern. This section is not in any way meant to dismiss the importance of using the right tools. Rather, it’s to highlight the problem of relying solely on tools.

While tools provide a foundation, human analysis ensures a well-rounded strategy.

Final Thoughts

Although the introduction of this post presented search intent and intent-driven marketing as simple concepts, you should now see how complex a topic they can really be once you start exploring them.

As you start your own journey toward aligning your content with search intent, remember to:

  • Consider the evolving nature of search engines and how every algorithm update aims to further align with user behavior.
  • Research and understand your users and what they want; then tailor your content to those intents.
  • Balance how narrowly you target a given intent, making sure to create evergreen content.

Thanks for including me, Nate (tag). One of our newsletter's most popular items is the weekly Optimize podcast episode! Come see why hundreds of solopreneurs, in-house teams, agency owners, and founders listen to the Optimize podcast each week! 💙

Kasper Siig
Content Marketer

As a former software and DevOps engineer turned content marketer, Kasper brings a unique perspective. Kasper is the Founder of Siig Marketing, a content marketing agency that creates content primarily for technical audiences. In his full-time role, Kasper is a DevOps Engineer at MorningScore, and before that, Kasper was a member of the editorial team at

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