Digital Marketing

User Intent: Understanding How People Search & Why It Matters

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Search engine optimization — when it’s at its best — is about more than just putting a word on your website and hoping a potential customer types that word into a search bar. If you’re ready to start performing high-level, real-deal SEO, you have to master the advanced concepts driving the field. One of these essential factors: user intent.

If you know the user intent behind a search query, you’re not just asking what people are searching for. You’re also figuring out why they’re performing that search at that time. What do they expect to find? What are they hoping to accomplish? Can your company provide the answer that customers are seeking, making them stick around on your website?

Maybe a person Googling terms relevant to your company is hoping to make a purchase right away. Alternatively, they may want to get a quick answer to a question, or learn how to do something. In this post, you’ll learn how to get a better grasp of intent so you can tailor your content offerings to attract people fitting any or all of these user profiles.

What is User Intent?

At its heart, user intent is a form of audience segmentation. Rather than thinking about any potential visitor to your website in the same way, you’re breaking these individuals into groups based on what they’re most likely to want.

In the early days of SEO, customizing content around user intent had little or no value for website operators. Either you used a keyword, or you didn’t. Now, the algorithms used by Google and other search engines are tuned to take user intent into account to deliver more accurate search results.

A person typing a phrase into a search engine will often use telltale phrases that help the algorithms determine keyword intent in a query. If they’re using words like “buy” and “price,” they’re closing in on an online purchase. “Near me” or “address” indicate they’re looking for a brick-and-mortar business. Phrasing a search query as a question indicates that the person is fact finding. And so on.

The fact that the Google search engine is so focused on user intent means that you have to pay attention to it, too. Putting information in a relevant context is a major part of writing great content for your website.

When you’re creating an SEO-friendly landing page or online store listing for your product, you should make sure the content will rank high in search results for a customer who has the intent to buy. If you’re writing an explainer or how-to article, on the other hand, it’s best to aim for potential customers who are looking for answers to their questions.

By taking full advantage of what you know about users’ search intent, you can fine-tune your overall SEO strategy. Rather than putting forward a website that only serves a single purpose, you’ll be offering up a collection of pages with very specific SEO objectives. The more granular and strategic your search result targeting approach becomes, the better.

4 Types of User Intent

Considering user intent from a high-level perspective can be a little daunting. Every single search query is carried out for a reason. How can you map that intent and build SEO content around it?

Fortunately, it’s simple to break down user intent into 4 distinct categories. These are general motives, based on visitors’ major objectives. Rather than catering your strategy to a near-infinite range of motives, you choose which of these 4 categories a particular page or piece of content is targeting.

There are SEO best practices for each of the search intent types, helping you carefully tune your content marketing. Before you can implement those methods, however, it pays to define what each user intent category means.

1. Informational User Intent

It’s important to start out by talking about what informational search intent isn’t. Informational user intent is not about buying something — at least not right away. Instead, users launching this type of search are seeking information or hoping to answer their questions.

An informational search query will often have an opening such as “How to” or “What is.” This type of question is very common, because not all curiosity leads to a purchase. Sometimes, people just want to verify some information and move on.

The lack of a commercial motive might signal to some companies that it isn’t worthwhile to invest time and money in attracting informational searches. That view is short-sighted, however. People who receive answers to pressing questions from a specific brand can come to think of that business as an industry-leading source, and they may be back when it’s time to buy.

2. Navigational User Intent

Sometimes, a person knows what they’re looking for when they type in a search phrase. This means they’ve picked a product or a brand and they’re interested in either learning more about that specific thing or buying something in particular.

These searches are just a function of the way the Web works today. Search algorithms have become good at serving users the content they want to see at that moment, so it could be easier and quicker to type in “Brafton blog” than to enter our homepage URL and navigate to the blog.

The theory behind navigational user intent is refreshingly simple. People want to find your brand, and you want to make that search as easy as possible. SEO optimization for navigational search intent means mapping out your resources so consumers don’t become frustrated while looking for a particular page.

3. Transactional User Intent

A user making a transactional search wants to interact with a brand and complete some kind of transaction. This could mean spending money, but it’s more than that. Every kind of interaction between person and brand is transactional, unless the visitor is simply gathering information.

By searching for a company name, or for a specific type of company, the searcher is showing transactional intent and an interest in interacting. They may not be searching for “buy” just yet, but it’s getting close to that point.

A transactional search may end up with someone reaching out directly to your company or signing up to stay in touch via email. In any case, that individual is hoping to accomplish an objective, so it’s up to you to make that process easy.

Transactional search intent can come from someone very close to the bottom of the purchase funnel. They’re relatively sure about the item or service they would like to buy. The types of keywords that person uses can tell you whether they’re browsing for a type of product or a specific brand.

4. Commercial User Intent

Some authorities on SEO don’t differentiate between transactional and commercial user intent. To follow this line of thinking, commercial search intent is just a subcategory of transactional search intent.

Despite the clear connection with transactional intent, it can be helpful to think about commercial intent as its own segment when creating your content marketing and SEO strategy. After all, you’ll want to make absolutely sure people can find your e-commerce pages or store listings when they’re ready to buy.

This commercial kind of SEO is supported by meeting the other types of user intent. After all, if users have found the answers to all their fact-finding questions on your website, they may think of your brand first when it’s time to close in on a purchase. Then, when they type in your company or product name and “buy,” commercial intent SEO kicks in.

How to Determine a User Intent Strategy

Factoring user intent into your content marketing strategy is fairly straightforward — it’s a combination of common sense and sound SEO practices.

You can map the 4 types of user intent onto the different content pages on your site. For instance, your informative blog articles should be targeting people with informational intent. Your main website should naturally attract people with navigational intent, while product/service pages and e-commerce sites are perfect for transactional and commercial intent.

Optimizing for each of these intent types means maximizing everything from headings and formatting to metadata. Your pages should clearly tell Google search crawlers and human users alike that they have found the right kind of content.

By performing SEO research on sites that have been built with various types of intent in mind, you can tell whether you’re reaching those goals. If dwell time on the pages is long, you’re doing something right. In that case, people are getting what they’re looking for, whether that’s the answers to their questions or an opportunity to purchase an item.

Creating Content for Each User Intent Stage

SEO content generation for each type of searcher intent is a form of customer journey mapping. By ensuring you have content for each type of search intent, you’re creating a plan to guide consumers from their first flickers of curiosity to the moment they settle on your brand.

Treat the 4 types of user intent as stages in a sales funnel and they work out as follows:

Informational

People making informational searches are doing general research, and you should be establishing your expertise by answering their questions.

You should make sure you have informational resource pages and blog posts, each optimized for an informational search term associated with your industry. There’s no need to scare customers away by focusing on promotional or salesy content here. Your subheadings and titles can take the form of common questions, or answers to those queries.

Navigational

Navigational searches are more focused on individual brands. By creating content that will rank in this kind of search, you’ll help people conclude that they want to see more from you.

There likely won’t be many competitors for navigational keywords regarding your brand. As long as you’ve taken the time to make a well-built error-free website with plenty of helpful content and tags mentioning your brand, you’ll build brand awareness around the audience most likely to be interested.

Transactional

Transactional search intent indicates more commitment and readiness to engage. Whichever form of interaction people are seeking, give it to them.

It’s useful to optimize these pages for highly specific keywords, the kind that people will type into their browsers when they’re relatively sure what they want to buy. Once they arrive on those pages, you need to give them an easy way to take action — a highly visible CTA that leads them to a form submission or an “add to cart” button.

Commercial

When it’s time for commercial searches, your e-commerce site and product landing pages enter the picture — people have reached the bottom of the funnel, and it’s up to you to take away remaining friction before a purchase or a request to speak with a sales rep.

Branded keywords, specific product names and any search term with “buy,” “services” or “company” are the defining features of these pages. Rather than looking like blog posts or lists, this content should be formatted as conversion landing pages or e-commerce product listings. Google’s search crawlers will point people with high commercial intent to these pages, where they’ll hopefully convert.

The Right Content for the Situation

Optimizing your content based on user intent means building a strategy around all the ways a potential customer might find your brand online. The more you show up for them when they search, the more likely it is they’ll come to you when they’re ready to buy.

Each section of your site is there for a reason, and your multifaceted content strategy should reflect that fact.