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Keyword intent: What you need to know about how customers search

Author: Marcus Tober

A graphical representation of the google search bar, with a map icon, an information icon, a shopping bag icon, and a review icon above.

If someone on the street asked you “where is the nearest coffee shop?” you’d have a pretty good idea of what they were looking for out of that exchange. If they were more specific and asked for a branded coffee shop, their intent would be even clearer and you might give them a different answer to help them out.


The fact that most people now turn to search engines for these kinds of questions gives you an idea of how important that intent is online as well. To get in front of these potential customers, who may be planning a future purchase or looking to convert immediately, marketers must optimize their content to point them in the right direction.


There are numerous ways in which people search to discover, explore, and buy products and services online, so we’re taking a look at the key motivators behind those searches to help you refocus your content and SEO strategy—and, give prospective customers more of what they’re looking for, and less of what they’re not.


In this article, we'll discuss:


What is keyword intent?


Keyword intent (also sometimes referred to as “search intent” or “user intent”) is a notion of the type of result people expect to find when they use search engines.


Their chosen search terms can indicate the nature of the content they want to see in the search results and are traditionally grouped into four distinct categories: Informational, Navigational, Commercial, and Transactional.


Here’s how they’re defined.

Intent

Explanation

Example queries

Informational

keywords

Searchers are seeking information or answers to certain questions, so these keywords often contain phrases like what is or how to.

-What is the difference between data and information?

-How tall is the Empire State Building?

Navigational

keywords

Searchers are looking for specific sites, pages, or places (in the case of local search) that they already know about, so these terms often include the names of brands, places, or things.

-REI returns

-eBay login

Commercial

keywords

Searchers are edging closer to converting and want to research the service or good, compare products, read reviews, and look for offers to help them make a decision.

-iPhone 12 reviews

-Best roofers San Jose

Transactional

keywords

Searchers have made up their minds and intend to make a purchase or complete an action, so these terms often contain phrases like for delivery, for sale, and buy XYZ online.

-buy iPhone 12 refurbished

-emergency vet services

Why is keyword intent important?


These categorizations help site owners and SEOs structure their content strategies so they can better serve users up and down the buying funnel (shown below).

The three stages of the customer journey and the corresponding search intents.

If someone uses an informational term, for instance, they are more likely to be at the “awareness” end of the funnel, whereas a transactional term may indicate they are ready to convert. Navigational and commercial terms (also referred to as “purchase research” in the image above) might mean that they are somewhere in the middle.


A deeper understanding of user intentions can make for a more robust plan to appeal to those intentions. Building your content strategy around this allows you to plan the most appropriate formats accordingly, from how-to guides to product comparisons, and use them to drive people down the funnel and closer to conversion.


How to use keyword intent in your content strategy


Understanding intent is a great way to learn about your existing and prospective audiences, and it gives you invaluable insight into their needs, so you can appeal to them with content that addresses those needs.


Whether a keyword is informational or not, for example, is determined by the type of content shown in the search results, the presence of certain search result features, or certain words in the search term itself. Let’s look at how you can read the search engine results pages (SERPs) to determine the intent attributed to different types of search terms.


Informational intent

When people are looking for information, they often use question words, such as “how,” “what,” and “why,” in their search terms. You can spot SERP features like knowledge panels, featured snippets, and the “People also ask” box in the SERPs when Google thinks that the searcher is looking for information.


Google’s search results for the question “how to play guitar”
Google’s search results for “how to play guitar” contains SERP features such as a video preview and a People also ask section.

These kinds of keywords might not immediately generate conversions for you, but they can indicate the types of answers your prospective customers are looking for. Top-of-the-funnel content that caters to informational searches is valuable because it allows you to develop authority in your industry by providing answers early on in the customer’s journey (which could make your brand a familiar name to them by the end of their journey).


You can also use informational keywords to search for content your competitors have published. This may help you identify content gaps you can fill as an expert in your industry.


Navigational intent

Search terms that show a customer is looking for specific information in relation to a brand, product, or location are known as navigational keywords. They are common for well-known businesses, places, things, and people, and can provide a stream of organic traffic for well-known brands.


You can spot that Google has interpreted a search term as navigational when it shows main domain names or features like maps and local knowledge panels in the search results.


Google’s search results for the term “starbucks coffee beans”
Here, Google might think that the user's intent is to navigate to Starbucks' page of coffee beans for brewing at home.

Analyze the SERPs for your own brand name to evaluate how easily potential customers performing a navigational search will find you. Marking up your content with structured data is one way to help search engines learn more about and contextualize your business, which may lead to better search visibility for navigational keywords.


For local businesses in particular, ensuring that your citations are consistent can help customers physically navigate to your business.


Commercial intent

When a searcher includes a product name (or type of product) in their search term, it’s likely that they’re considering a purchase, so a search like home coffee roaster would be a good example of a keyword with commercial intent.


The SERP features displayed for that term include reviews, product carousels, and comparison articles, which shows that Google is serving content that aligns with the commercial and transactional ends of the customer journey.


Google’s search results for the term “home coffee roaster”

Evaluate the landscape of the SERP for products or services you sell (or those that you’re competing against):

  • Are there customer reviews on the product pages?

  • Is the information about the product or service clear and comprehensive?

  • Are there how-to videos showing you how to use them?

Answers to these types of questions can help potential customers move from the commercial phase to the transactional phase.


Transactional intent

People who are ready to take an action, such as making a purchase, use transactional keywords.


These can include words or phrases like buy or for sale and signal the strongest intent to convert. Google’s search results tend to contain ads, product listings, and customer reviews for such terms.


Google’s search results for the transactional term “buy vinyl records online”

Usually, these searchers have already carried out their informational queries at the top of the funnel and, to an extent, know what they want.


At this stage, search engines want to serve timely results that help users complete their intended action. So, ensure that your pages that are ranking for transactional terms are well-written and conversion-focused (customers can easily complete their desired action)—after all, this is the point of the funnel that all your efforts have been leading up to.


Keywords with multiple possible intents

Where there are multiple possible intents behind a search term, there are multiple opportunities to create different kinds of content to appeal to them.


Take the search term Italian dark roast coffee, for instance—it can have both informational and transactional intent behind it. One searcher might want to read about its history, while another might want to go straight to an online shop to buy some. So, a long-form article about the history of Italian roast coffee might be just as fitting for your content plan as a product page that contains reviews and brewing instructions.


Sites like eBay are good examples of how non-transactional content can attract people at the top of the buying funnel: As a marketplace, eBay doesn’t solely focus on its product pages. It also provides buying guides and lifestyle ideas in the form of articles and social ads.


Factoring segmented keyword intent into your content strategy can help you create targeted content in the right areas and in the right formats to reach customers at multiple stages of their journey. You can save some time with this part of the content creation process by automating it—tools like Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool can help identify the intent behind search terms, which can be especially helpful if you’re looking to segment keywords at scale.


Using Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool to filter by intent for specific search terms

Use keyword intent to identify optimization opportunities

a chart showing the distribution of keyword intent
The distribution of keywords by intent. Source: Semrush State of Search 2022.

Filtering your keywords by intent can help you track your progress against your KPIs and competitors.


Start by running a basic audit of your target keywords and those of your chosen competitors—all major SEO tools like Semrush, for instance, allow you to run a keyword gap analysis to pull the most important search terms into a list.


Analyze this list and apply your own tags according to keyword intent. Next, use the list to manually review your competitors’ performance in the search results for each keyword. From this, you can determine what the landscape looks like according to keyword intent and how your top pages stack up in terms of ranking positions.


Be sure to dig deeper into your own traffic for those pages, too, using Google Analytics and Google Search Console to determine the levels of engagement your content is receiving. If, for example, you’re getting good traffic and engagement via navigational keywords, but visitors who find you via informational keywords are bouncing straight away or spending no time at all on your site, you might need to look at the breadth and depth of your content. Do bear in mind, though, that levels of engagement typically vary according to keyword intent—informational keywords tend to have lower engagement metrics than transactional ones, but their search volumes are higher and SERPs are less crowded with ads by comparison.


As you improve your site, maintain and update this list with regular audits of competitor keywords and assess evolving keyword intents to monitor your progress against them. Remember, there’s nuance required within your keyword list, too—your transactional pages might be competing against Amazon, eBay or Walmart, for instance, while your informational pages might be competing against other authoritative blogs and news sites, so segmenting your top pages is crucial to effectively track each area.


Applying keyword intent to your own strategy


It’s all too easy to get distracted by straightforward search volume when you’re crafting your content strategy, but high numbers rarely translate to immediate success.


Ask yourself if you’re attracting the right kind of traffic with the content you’re creating. Delve into the detail on individual keywords and their respective intent to determine whether or not you’ve got a diverse spread of content that can cater to all types of searchers. Think about what the user is searching for at every phase of the customer journey and create holistic content so that you can capture the user at each stage. Avoid tunnel vision.


Outdo the competition with your various user-centric content pieces by conducting regular audits. Search behaviors change all the time, so the way you adapt to them should, too.


 

luke carthy

Marcus Tober is a leading global SEO specialist and speaker, named a top-8 Online Influencer in Digital Marketing and EU Search Personality of the Year 2016. He previously founded and led Searchmetrics, a global search experience platform, and joined Semrush as Head of Enterprise in 2022.

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