Search Intent: What It Is and Why You Should Be Optimizing for It

Scott Merilatt / 29th April 2021 / Comment / Local SEO

If you’re at all familiar with the SEO landscape today, then at some point you’ve probably encountered the term “search intent.”

As a concept, search intent may seem daunting at first, but the thinking behind it is simple: In order to deliver the most value to searchers and win clicks, first we have to understand exactly what it is they’re looking for. 

That all begins with search intent. As we’ll see, search intent can take many different forms — transactional intent, research intent, visual intent, etc. — but they all exist to make the searcher’s life easier, and there are ways to optimize for each.

Wondering how you can use search intent to your advantage? In this blog post, we’ll break the concept down piece by piece, show you exactly how it works, and give you some tips on how you can factor it into your on-page SEO.


What is search intent?

“Search intent” refers to the underlying desire or goal that a searcher holds when they type a specific keyword or term into Google.

In a sense, all of the powerful technology represented by Google’s search algorithm exists to pursue a clearer sense of search intent: Google wants to be able to determine as accurately as possible what the searcher “really wants” to see in search results. To do this, they look at the small differences in search queries, as well as the user behaviors that follow each one. In this way, they’re able to get a pretty good idea of what those users were looking to accomplish when they made their query.

When SEO experts discuss search intent, we usually use general categories, some provided by Google’s content guidelines and others coined over years of studying the algorithm. The phrase “Do, Know, Go” is a basic example of the latter: it is a memorable phrase that distinguishes between “Do” search intent (the searcher wants to take some sort of action, like completing a purchase or communicating with an individual or brand), “Know” search intent (the searcher wants to learn about or research something) and “Go” search intent (the searcher has a specific website or brand in mind and wants to explore it further). 

To get a bit more granular, we often group search intents using these four terms when looking to categorize SERPs, keyword sets, content opportunities, and more:


Informational intent:

The searcher is seeking more data, context or informational resources on a topic, brand, product, etc.

Example(s): “facts about Earth,” “How old do you need to be to be president?” “Nike shoes materials,” “case studies on search intent,” etc.


Navigational intent:

The searcher wants to visit a known website and/or find the website for a known brand.

Example(s): “,” “NASA site,” “NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts,” etc.


Transactional intent:

The searcher wants to purchase something.

Example(s): “Running shoes size 9,” “Outdoor grill with delivery option,” “Back to school supplies,” etc. 


Preferential/commercial research intent:

The searcher is in “consideration” mode and wants to understand what the best, the cheapest, the most relevant, etc. product or service is for their needs.

Example(s): “Best value kayak”, “Brooks shoes vs. Adidas shoes”, “Bluetooth headphones under $200”, etc.


How does search intent relate to user task accomplishment?

Search intent and user task accomplishment go hand-in-hand. The former is a framework for categorizing the tasks searchers are trying to accomplish, and the latter is for assessing whether (and how well) your page helps them accomplish that underlying task.

In other words, they are two sides of the same coin. Search intent = user tasks and user task accomplishment happens on your website (hopefully!).


How to interpret search intent

On the surface, search intent is not hard to interpret. “Buy running shoes online” is pretty straight forward, because the searcher has declared intent through the words “buy” and “online.” The very nature of this language excludes alternative intents (“online” excludes the intent of buying in a nearby store, for example).

But… most people don’t search this way. “Buy running shoes online” is searched 390 times a month in the United States.

How about “running shoes”?

201,000 times per month.

And these less-specific-but-more-popular keywords are exactly where interpreting search intent becomes more complex.

By my count, the key term “running shoes” features no less than 5 distinct search intents. How do I know? By working backward from Google’s own results — every result in a search engine results page is evidence of implied intent. Let’s take a look at what I mean:

    1. Google Shopping and PPC ads – Here’s an example of pretty obvious, straightforward transactional intent. These results are sponsored, but still strongly correspond with the core user task of buying a pair of running shoes.
    2. Local map pack – A bit more surprising, the first organic, non-ad result in Google is a map pack showing nearby shoe stores. This implies that a large subset of users who search this query are considering (or directly looking) to purchase locally. We’ve seen more and more of these map packs displaying prominently for keywords where no local intent is declared (for example, here I didn’t type in “running shoe stores seattle”).
    3. Nike organic result – Again, a transactional result. But it’s worth noting that this is the only organic transactional result in the top half of the SERP.
    4. Product research, FAQ and Top Stories – Whoa, whoa okay… now things are getting interesting. Transactional and local intent are yesterday’s news. Now we’re seeing a few others – namely, “research” and “news.” We see a “Best Running Shoes” result from a magazine, which falls squarely in the realm of product research intent; a series of “People Also Ask” questions that also fall under product research; and finally, a trio of news stories related to running shoes – two of which, again, are focused on curation and research (“best sneakers”).
    5. More transactional results We follow this up with a series of results that pretty clearly show transactional intent — though even these technically show a fracturing of intent (men’s running shoes, women’s running shoes, discounted running shoes, etc.).
    6. Images – And finally we end with… yes, images (A.K.A. visual intent). It’s clear that a subset of users who search “running shoes” are simply in the “scrolling away my evening” stage of the running shoes purchase funnel.


So to recap, we count 5+ search intents for a single keyword:

  • Transactional intent
    • Women’s
    • Men’s
    • Discounted
    • Nike
    • Local intent
    • Research intent
    • News intent
    • Visual intent

This is a far cry from “Do, Know, Go,” but it’s at this level of granularity that sophisticated SEO work can happen.

How to optimize for search intent

Once we’ve established the underlying intents and tasks of searchers, optimizing for search intent is theoretically simple – but difficult in practice. To really get the results we’re looking for, we need to make sure we’re meeting all our searchers’ intents, and we’re doing it better than our competitors.

Here’s another example:

Let’s say you search for “primary care doctor near me.” On average, about 74,000 users search this exact query every month.

Your search intent, broadly: you’re looking for a local primary care doctor.

But again, there’s a spectrum of intent here. Some searchers using this query are looking to get an appointment as soon as possible due to some urgent health issue; others are just looking to do some initial research before establishing care with a provider.

So even within this one keyword, Google must meet two different intents:

  • I want to schedule an appointment with a local doctor today
  • I want to research primary care doctors near me

As Google looks to serve the most relevant results for this query, they’re going to be looking for one of two things: 1) pages that specialize in meeting one of the search intents above, or 2) pages that meet both those search intents.

That’s why, in search, you’ll see a mix of results. Some are more geared toward one intent over the other — but most, in this particular example, will meet both intents by providing the content (patient reviews, provider bios, videos, clinical specialties, etc.) as well as the functionality (ability to schedule an appointment online) to allow users to accomplish their underlying search intents, or “user tasks.”

So what’s ranking in position 1? For me, here in Seattle, I’m seeing ZocDoc in position one for this term. And it’s very clear why. The landing page features local primary care doctors, and provides two CTAs that map perfectly to the two user tasks I mentioned above: 1) book online, and 2) view profile and reviews.


When we think about optimizing for search intent, it’s important to read the tea leaves of the SERP and then analyze our site – is it helping users accomplish the core tasks that are implied in the search results? Or are we missing some key content or functionality? Are we specializing in meeting one of these intents exceptionally well? Or are we attempting to meet multiple search intents?

The answers to these questions will heavily impact page design, on-page content, and user experience. In the end, these are the areas where search intent optimization actually takes place — and if it’s done well, it can be the key that pushes your content performance into overdrive.


Wheelhouse is here to help!

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By Scott Merilatt