How to Amplify Organic Results Through Search Intent-Optimized Content
Search intent is the purpose behind a user’s search query. When the user searches for a particular keyword, what are they hoping to accomplish? The answer to this question is the keyword’s search intent.
Let’s say you’re hungry for tacos. You’d search differently depending on whether you’re interested in eating out (tacos near me) or making your own meal (taco recipes). So, the keywords tacos near me and taco recipes reflect two different search intents (commercial and informational, respectively).
People search online for many reasons, but the vast majority of keyword searches fall into one of four broad categories of intent:
- I want to learn something
- I want to research a product or company
- I want to find a specific web page
- I want to buy something
In the SEO community, these desires are often translated to:
- An informational search intent (I want to learn something)
- A commercial search intent (I want to research a product or company)
- A navigational search intent (I want to find a specific web page)
- A transactional search intent (I want to buy something)
The 4 types of search intent
1. Informational (Learn)
Informational queries mean the user wants to learn more about a given topic. The topic can be anything that doesn’t fit into the “commercial” bucket: why is the sky blue? How can I get started in a machine learning career? How do I improve my running stride? What’s different about the animation style in the movie “Spiderman: Across the Spider Verse?”
Predictably, the informational category is the broadest and most encompassing of the four – because there is just so. Much. Information. To learn!
What’s more, a user who’s thirsty for information won’t quit after just one query. Instead, the information gleaned from one query defines what the user searches for next as they deepen their knowledge.
When you’re planning content, you can ideate informational topics by selecting a topic as your starting point and asking, “After the user has this information, what will they be ready to learn next?”
Informational query clues:
“What is” and “how to” are major tip-offs that a query is likely informational. But you can flag a few other fan favorites, too – informational keywords are as diverse as they are ubiquitous.
If a query includes any of the following language, it might be informational:
- Examples of
- Tips/best practices
- ELI5 (explain like I’m 5)
- “Neil Degrasse Tyson”
- “Climate data 2023”
- “How to get a business license”
- “Orca whale behavior”
- “How do LLMs work”
2. Commercial (Research)
A user with a commercial-based intent wants to learn more about a product or company so they can make a purchasing decision and/or be a more informed consumer.
Technically, searches of this nature are informational too; but it’s worth making a distinction because commercial searches are best addressed by content from the middle or bottom of the funnel, not the top.
Let’s say a user searches for tips for advanced runners, an informational query. This user is looking for top-funnel content: an article that provides helpful, expert-backed, relevant advice without deviating every three sentences to sell running shoes or talk up a particular brand.
Now let’s say the user searches for best running shoes, a commercial query. This user doesn’t mind reading about various brands and the differences between their products. In fact, that’s precisely the kind of information they want to know.
Commercial query clues:
- Versus (VS)
- “BigCommerce vs Shopify”
- “Best air purifier [for] wildfire smoke”
- “Electric vehicle reviews 2023”
- “Credit unions near me”
3. Navigational (Find)
Of the four search intent categories, navigational is the most straightforward. The user making a navigational search already has a specific website destination in mind, but likely doesn’t know its precise URL.
Perhaps the user heard about a brand from a friend. Or perhaps they know the brand’s home page URL but want to navigate directly to an internal page, like Contact Us. Either way, this user has a focused and hyper-specific intent that can only be satisfied by the exact page in question.
Navigational query clues:
- Brand name
- Phone number
- “Fidelity login”
- “CVS pharmacy 78756”
- “CVS pharmacy 78756 phone”
- “Moz title tag preview tool”
- “BBC world news”
4. Transactional (Buy)
A transactional search occurs when the user is actively looking to make a purchase.
This user knows what they want to buy, and they may or may not know where to buy it from. They’re hoping to land on a product page or Sales page on a brand’s website; a product listing on Amazon; or a shopping engine where they can quickly compare prices across retailers and make their purchase.
Transactional query clues:
- Discounts/coupons/coupon codes
- “Instacart discount code”
- “Refurbished iPhone 14”
- “GoDaddy Studio free trial”
- “Birkenstocks on sale”
- “Kitchenaid mixer best price”
Why does search intent matter?
If you care about your users, you should care about search intent.
Let’s say you’re a project management platform like Trello, and you’ve identified that your prospects are broadly interested in tips and tricks to improve productivity. So, you target the keyword “productivity hacks” with a blog post titled, “Free Your Work Day from Friction With 11 Clever Productivity Hacks.” You then turn each tip into a plug for a different Trello feature – from “Turn your to-do list into moveable cards” to “Invite colleagues to your shared workspace.”
Now, let’s say a user searches for productivity hacks and lands on your blog post. Is this user:
- Looking for a Trello sales pitch? No. The user is looking for information – not product reviews (commercial intent) or a great deal (transactional intent).
- Going to be satisfied by tips that all connect to Trello features? No, because there’s a world of productivity tips – from “Establish no-meeting days” to “Block distracting websites using a browser extension” – that are likely more useful than the narrowly-focused Trello tips.
So what, then, will the user do when they land on the Trello post and give the H2s a quick skim? They’ll bounce within 10 seconds.
(FYI: Since my fictional example unfairly picks on Trello, it’s worth mentioning that in reality, Trello’s blog posts are actually more user-centric than most. The folks at Trello are so confident in their brand, the majority of their informational posts – like this one – don’t even mention Trello once.)
Search intent matters to users
Users (yes, that includes you) get a lot of grief for their goldfish-like attention spans, but the truth is more nuanced. It’s not that attention spans are shorter than ever; it’s that users are savvier and more discerning than ever.
Let’s return to our hypothetical productivity hack Googler. If this person is on a desktop, they likely won’t just click on the first listing they see and cross their fingers.
Instead, they’ll Ctlr+click their way to 11 new browser tabs, each featuring a different productivity article. If they skim the first article’s H2s or read a few sentences and don’t find value, they’ll likely move on to the next browser tab without even consciously registering why.
That’s how intuitive and discerning users have become.
When it comes to content, the user’s options are virtually unlimited. Your blog post, on the other hand, just gets that one chance to impress. Are you going to waste it on a page that doesn’t meet the user’s most basic expectations?
Search intent matters to Google, too
“Google cares about the user” is a bit of an understatement. It’s 2023, and Google has made it perfectly clear by now that when it comes to search, nothing matters more than the relentless pursuit of user satisfaction.
Are users as satisfied as possible with the content they land on? To answer this question, Google leans on user signals like click-through rate, dwell time, and new vs repeat traffic: measurable factors that stand in for the subjective experience of enjoying a website.
If a page doesn’t meet the search intent for a keyword, the user signals will reflect that. And Google would rather devalue a poorly-performing page than risk devaluing the entire Google search experience by serving useless content.
How to find a keyword’s search intent
Say you’re performing keyword research and you have a solid list of keyword contenders. How can you identify the search intent driving each keyword and tailor your content accordingly?
It would be tempting to use an automated system that scans for the “search intent clue” keywords we shared earlier (“how to” indicates informational searches, “buy” indicates transactional searches, etc.).
Once detected, each “clue keyword” could be automatically tagged with its respective intent. That makes for a handy start, but language is complex and fickle; automated systems can’t catch or correctly identify everything.
Consider the query “how to shop for an electric vehicle.” According to its “clue keywords,” this query’s search intent is either informational (“how to”) or transactional (“shop”). But it’s actually commercial: the searcher wants to know which features and factors they should consider across brands, and they’ll likely welcome comparison charts and reviews.
An automated system would have failed us here.
So, we turn to the obvious solution: manually look at the SERPs.
Open the top results for each keyword and really look at them. What broad search intent are these pages designed for? Is there a consensus among the top results, or do different pages meet different intents? (You’ll usually find a consensus if the keyword has decent search volume; the latter is more common for longtail/low-volume keywords and rapidly evolving industries like crypto).
Now, study how each page is meeting the intent. Ask questions like:
- How much content is on the page?
- What is the design and user flow like on the page?
- What action(s) does the page ask the user to take next?
- What resources does the page provide?
- Does the SERP include an answer box/featured content or other rich results?
- How does the page benefit the user? Be specific.
For informational pages, ask additional questions like:
- What is the content format? Blog post, guide, listicle, FAQ, etc?
- How in-depth is the content?
- How are the H2s structured?
- What key message or “thesis” drives the content?
- What is the page’s implicit audience?
- Does the content have a byline? If so, what are the author’s credentials?
- How many images, screenshots, and graphics does the content include?
- Does the content include downloadable tools, templates, or checklists?
- If the content comes from a brand, how often is the brand mentioned and in what context?
- What (implicit or explicit) steps should the reader take next? How do you know?
Unless the SERP features a mix of search intents, assume that Google has deemed the top-ranked pages the “best” results to satisfy the search intent.
That means users have signaled these pages are helpful.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel! Aim to be different by sharing the information that you find important and helpful, based on your personal experience and subject expertise. But mind the basic format of the existing content; there’s a reason why it works.
That said, I recommend checking the SERPs for your keyword at different time intervals (say, once now and once in 30 days) whenever feasible. SERPs can fluctuate as Google susses out what people prefer.
How to optimize your content for any search intent
Once you’ve identified the search intent behind a particular query, delight your users by serving them exactly what they were looking for. Here’s how:
Be different in the right ways
When I said “Don’t reinvent the wheel” up above, what I don’t mean is, “Copy/rephrase the existing articles and mash ‘em all together into an ‘ultimate guide.’”
Rand Fishkin himself has expressed regret for coining the phrase “10x content,” a well-intentioned strategy that led to SERPs overflowing with repetitive content and rehashed “ultimate guides.”
The thing is, users don’t want to see ten nearly-identical articles in their search results.
They don’t want to hear from content marketers with a superficial understanding of the topic at hand. And they certainly don’t want to hear from content marketers who primarily base their knowledge off the other rehashed blog posts!
That’s why users have been appending “Reddit” to their Google searches in increasing numbers: they want to hear from the people who actually know and care about the topic. And Google, catching on to this most basic of user needs, has started to favor expertise, experience, and variety more than ever before.
So, be different – please be different! But be different in the right ways.
What’s the most surefire way to stand out in the right way without even trying?
Write from experience.
Be candid about what really matters. Provide examples mined from your research and analysis. Offer insider tips you wish somebody had told you earlier in your career.
When you know a subject through and through, you’re able to naturally offer insights that can’t be found anywhere else.
Get inspired by the People Also Ask box
When you Google your target keyword, pay attention to the “People Also Asked” box in the SERPs.
These are the additional questions people have as they search for your target keyword. Google is giving you a major hint here, offering a glimpse of what else is on your audience’s mind so you can make your content even more helpful.
In the screenshot above, the “People Also Asked” questions relate closely enough to the original topic (how to keep a kitten entertained) to let us answer the additional questions in the same content.
We might consider turning each question into an H2 so users can find the answers they need quickly. But we’ll need to stay mindful of redundancy – the questions “What can I do with my kitten all day?” and “How do I stop my kitten from being bored?” simply repeat the original query, so turning them into H2s would almost certainly lead to repetitive content.
If the “People Also Asked” questions don’t tightly fit your original topic, don’t shoehorn them in. Instead, whip up additional resources and link to them clearly from your original post.
Make it as easy as possible for your reader to continue their learning journey – and continue it with you.
Optimize for answer boxes
Google often tackles “quick facts” and other straightforward searches with an answer box that eliminates the need for users to click a link for answers.
Zero-click searches rose by 65% in 2020 alone, and there’s no sign that momentum has slowed in 2023. Factor in Google’s latest plans to unleash AI-generated content in the search results, and traffic-powered websites might be feeling the pinch.
But there’s no need to panic yet.
Those answers have to come from somewhere, and Google cites its sources in both answer boxes and AI-generated content. The people who aren’t satisfied by the zero-click “soundbite” still eagerly click into the cited source(s) to learn more.
So, your first line of defense against the zero-click SERP is to be one of the cited sources.
To do that, answer the question posed by the search query succinctly, helpfully, and immediately.
Have an expert provide the answer, and make it clear why your site is an authority on the topic. Try to offer useful information that isn’t available anywhere else, but don’t get lost in the minutia.
Be sure to revisit your content often to update statistics, freshen up examples and references, and ensure that you’re still providing the most cutting-edge information available.
Use Schema markup
Answer boxes are just part of the zero-click search experience. The other part involves rich snippets: little bits of information Google pulls from your website and shares directly in the SERPs, helping your website meet user needs quickly and stand out in the search results.
Schema markup (also known as structured data) is how your website enables rich results. It’s not hard to add markup to each page, but with 803 data types, you won’t want to add them all. Doing so would be a waste of time at best; at worst, it’ll send confusing signals to Google.
To decide which markup types are right for your site, study the rich content that appears when you Google high-value keywords and stay on top of what your competitors are using.
Stay on the lookout for shifts in user behavior
User behavior is constantly adapting to new technology and cultural forces, changing how people engage with businesses, websites, and the internet in general.
Search intent is hardly immune from this ongoing evolution, because the consensus meaning of words and phrases can change over time (consider the consensus meaning of the word “mask” before and after COVID).
Periodically repeat your SERP research to stay on top of shifts in user intent for your top-performing keywords.
Reassess your under-performing keywords, too: does your content still meet the search intent and exceed user expectations? Does your page measure up to the top results, or are your SERP competitors outshining you on factors like depth, images, and usability?
Content refreshes are already a high-leverage activity; you’ve put so much work into the content to begin with, and sometimes a little fine-tuning is all it takes to jumpstart the results.
They’re especially important when you factor in shifts in search intent and the ever-updating set of resources the user needs.
Audit your existing content
While your audience’s specific needs are unique, it’s likely that all four broad search intents (informational, commercial, navigational, transactional) crop up in your audience’s search behavior. Your job, then, is two-fold:
- Brainstorm a list of relevant queries that drive each audience subgroup, focusing on transactional, navigational, and commercial queries. (Don’t worry about informational queries – you could list them for days, and it’s likely your top-funnel strategy already considers them).If you need help getting started, pull a list of queries from Search Console and categorize them by intent. You can now audit your content to ensure these queries are addressed.
- Audit your existing content. Hop into Google Analytics and pull a CSV file of your landing pages from the past year. Delete duplicates and extraneous information, but keep the traffic data. Once you’ve cleaned up the spreadsheet, add a column called Search Intent and move down the list of pages, noting the search intent for each page.
Although this isn’t the most automation-friendly process, you can usually identify intent by the URL alone (a URL for a product page is clearly transactional, while a URL like /blog/content-auditing-tips is clearly informational).
The auditing process reveals the balance of content on your site so you can know whether you’re under-addressing a particular subgroup.
- Transactional pages: There’s no need to create additional transactional pages (unless you’re running a campaign or adding products), but you can audit your current pages to make sure they’re well-optimized and in the right place.
- Navigational pages: Return to your list of brainstormed navigational queries and make sure you have pages that address them in a helpful, intuitive way.
- Informational pages: If your content is heavily weighted toward informational queries (particularly on your blog), that’s okay. You don’t need to represent the other search intents evenly; you just need to make sure they’re represented enough.
- Commercial pages: If you’re coming up short on commercial content, start brainstorming: what industry whitepapers and guides can you write? What value propositions are worth lingering on? What key factors should you consider and compare across different products or brands? What additional formats can supplement the content – charts, infographics, or video?
Start with search intent, and the rest will follow
In SEO, there’s a small handful of “ticket to ride” optimizations that won’t rank a website by themselves, but you won’t get very far without them. HTTPS encryption is one such factor. Search intent is another. If you don’t nail a page’s search intent, your other on-page optimizations are unlikely to matter.
Fortunately, you’ll find it quite natural to build search intent into your strategy if you’ve already been paying attention to your SERP competitors. In fact, if your content production process kicks off with a look at the SERPs for the target keyword, then you’re already considering search intent – you just might not be calling it that. Make it a formal part of your strategy by defining the keyword’s search intent before you start planning the content.
A keyword’s search intent connects you to a tool kit of possible strategies for the corresponding content, helping you move beyond boilerplate SERP remixes and think creatively about what’s in your tool kit. Delighted users and better rankings won’t be far behind.