Search Intent In SEO: How to Get It Right [A Quick Guide]

The worst mistake you can make in SEO? Trying to rank with a page that's NOT in line with the search intent of the query.

Ever tried to push a service landing page in a SERP full of how-to articles? It's an impossible task even for the most experienced SEOs who know the ins and outs of search engine optimization.

And that's because Google, the most used search engine in the world, is getting smarter and smarter. And it has no interest in ranking pages that people do not want, so knowing the target keyword isn't enough anymore.

It's right there in their mission statement: “(...) to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

No wonder the SERPs are getting more advanced to meet all the needs of the users. You need to ensure that your specific website or article satisfies search intent and really addresses the user's search queries.

That's why Google keeps releasing algorithm updates that improve content relevance (like the BERT update or the May 2020 core update or New Google Helpful Content Update).

SERPs—followed by our SEO efforts—have become much more sophisticated.

Knowing what keywords people search for is not going to cut it. People go to Google to find exactly what they need and want, so if you want to increase your organic traffic here are a few different options: optimize for search intent or get left behind!

For advanced seo success the why matters, and what the user expects to see. To answer their questions, we need to know the search intent.

  • Are the users looking for information?
  • Do they want to make a purchase?
  • Or find an extensive guide?
  • Or maybe they just want to be inspired?

In this guide, I’ll tell you how to identify the search intent behind a query. If you get it right, you’ll be able to rank with your pages much more effectively.

Spoiler alert: it’s all right there in the SERP. To understand the search intent, you don’t need any sophisticated tools that cost a lot of $$$!

Let’s roll.

First things first: What is search intent? 

Search intent (or “user intent”) is the WHY behind the search query.

It answers the question of why people look for stuff, and what they expect to find.

If a piece of content matches the search intent 100%, the person reading it can stop exploring their query. They have everything they need on one page.

People navigate the SERPs differently, depending on what they’re looking for, which is why not every SERP is identical. Google shows us SERP features of different kinds, like picture carousels,

picture carousel in SERP for "short hairstyle ideas query"

or shop offers,

shop ads for macbook pro in SERP

or knowledge boxes,

knowledge box in SERP

or others.

The goal is to make the searchers’ lives easier and speed up their access to the right information.

What are the common types of search intent?

There are four most widely recognized types of search intent: informational, navigational, transactional, and commercial.

Informational intent

informational search intent

When people look for information and knowledge, we call it the informational intent. These might be simple questions that have short answers or more in-depth investigations that demand detailed guides.

Examples of queries with informational search intent: 

  • How to cook pasta
  • Link building
  • Japan
  • What is search intent
SERP for the what is search intent query

Navigational intent

navigational search intent

It comes into play when the user already knows where they want to go. They just need the SERP to direct them there. They could just as well go directly to the page by typing the URL. 

These kinds of queries are usually reserved for brands.

Examples of queries with navigational search intent:

  • surfer content editor
  • YouTube
  • Hubspot sign up
  • LinkedIn sales navigator
serp for the hubspot signup query

Transactional intent 

transactional search intent

It’s when the searcher wants to buy something. They’re sure they want to make a purchase but are still looking for the right shop. 

Very often, pages ranking for queries with such user intent are e-commerce stores as well as product and services pages.

Examples of queries with transactional intent:

  • Spotify subscribe
  • MacBook Pro sale
  • UberEats
  • wireless headphones Sony
SERP for wireless headphones sony query

Commercial intent

commercial search intent

Commercial intent, or commercial investigation, lies between the informational and transactional intent.

The searcher knows that they want to buy something, but they’re not set on anything specific. They might still ponder the product type, brands, or different offers. 

Examples of queries with commercial intent:

  • Surfer review
  • best keyword research tool
  • wireless headphones good price
  • mac vs. pc
SERP for mac vs pc query

For some keywords, SERPs are dominated by one kind of intent. For others, there’s a mix of various pages.

Trying to rank for a query filled with online stores (that satisfy the transactional intent) with an informational article is a big waste of resources and, most often, an impossible task.

You’ll find out how to assess the SERPs in the second part of this guide!

Why is search intent necessary in SEO?

There are three main reasons why you should always pay attention to search intent while creating content:

#1 Evaluate your chances to rank for a keyword

Evaluating the keywords only on their search volume is a grave mistake.

Keywords with the highest search volumes are usually crazy competitive. And if you don’t appear on the first page of Google, you’ll get maybe a splinter of the busy traffic. As the old saying goes, the best place to bury a body is on the second page of Google.

Figuring out the search intent right is one of the most—if not THE most—part of judging keyword difficulty.

Remember what I said about Google getting more and more sophisticated? If you spam it with irrelevant content, it will punish you. 

If you want to learn more about this process, check out our guide on keyword difficulty evaluation!

#2 Choose your competitors wisely

When you prepare a new piece of content, you have to evaluate your competition for a given keyword. This can help you assess how long your blog post should be, what the perfect keyword density is, etc.

Don’t just compare yourself to the top ten and call it a day. This might sink your content efforts! 

You should always exclude competitors whose content serves different search intent than yours. Google has different sets of rules for different search intents.

You should always exclude competitors whose content serves different search intent than yours. Google has different sets of rules for different search intents.

For example, if you want to write a software outsourcing guide, why would you compare yourself to a Quora entry or service landing pages that appear in the SERP as well? Pick only other guides.

choosing competition in surfer content editor

It’s especially crucial if you use Surfer tools, like Audit and Content Editor. Make sure to carefully select competitors for your analyses every single time!

Read our guide on picking the right SEO competitors (based on extra factors like domain strength, content score, or sentiment) to get it just right.

#3 Satisfy your audience and build credibility

Getting the search intent right doesn’t only serve search engines.

It’s for your audience, too.

If you know which types of search intent they’re after, which questions they want an answer for, and what kind of content they expect to see… you will be able to meet all their expectations.

This will also build your credibility in the eyes of an audience. You’ll appear as someone who wants to help them, not just take over the SERP.

How to identify search intent and rank for your keyword of choice

Now that you know what search intent is and why you should care, we can move on to a practical guide on how to recognize search intent.

The good news is, all you need is right there in the SERP! 

Step #1: Scan the top 10 and identify the content type

This first step is the most crucial part of pinpointing the search intent.

You have to type your keyword in and check what Google has to offer. Then, analyze the top 10 page-by-page to figure out which topic and content type the SERP—and searchers—want to see. 

I’ll show you how to do it. Let’s take the keyword “hire content writer” as an example.

This keyword seems attractive to rank for if you’re a content agency or a freelancer. Let’s say you’ve got a brilliant idea for an educational article: the best practices of looking for content writers.

But what does the query look like for this keyword?

Let’s check out the top 10.

SERP for the hire content writers query 1
SERP for the hire content writers query 2
SERP for the hire content writers query 3

The first result is Upwork. Their page title is “27 Best Freelance Content Writers For Hire In May 2020.” Upwork is a well-known service page that people click with commercial or transactional intent. Pages three and ten are typical directories as well.

Pages two, four, five, and six are all service landing pages. They allow you to quickly hire a content writer and persuade you to use their services. As such, they serve the transactional intent as well.

Three pages are different: numbers six, eight, and nine. 

Numbers eight and nine are guides that satisfy the informational intent. They’re both blog articles, one written on a software engineer’s private blog, the other—on a blog dedicated to a WordPress page builder. Neither is directly trying to sell their service to the reader.

Number seven is a listicle characteristic for commercial intent. You can read about the top places to hire content writers, including the writer’s marketplace.

All in all, we have three types of content in this SERP:

  1. Transactional—all the directories where you can hire content writers,
  2. Commercial—the comparison of content writers,
  3. Informational—the guide on best practices of hiring content writers.

The first intent is dominating the search results. This means that if you try to write content for the second or third intent, you most likely won’t be able to crack the top three. That’s because Google figured out that most people looking for this term are after directories.

With your educational article, your chances of appearing in the top 10 for the ”hire content writer” keyword are very slim.

This process of analyzing search results can be applied to any query you’re working on, in any industry.

Protip: If the keyword you’re after has a mixed search intent, don’t give up. Recheck it after some time: Google might experiment with the intent and start promoting different content types. This might be your chance!

Step #2: Check out the related searches and “People also ask” in Google

Each SERP features a “People also ask” box and a list of related searches.

They tell you what other keywords people use to explore the topic connected with your keyword.

How does this help identify the search intent? I’ll show you.

This time, let’s take the “Italian pizza sauce” query as an example. Imagine that you sell Italian products and want to mark your presence in the sauce-related SERPs.

Here’s what the “Italian pizza sauce” result page looks like, starting with the carousel at the top:

italian sauce recipe - carousel in SERP

through the "People also ask" box

people also ask section in Google for the italian pizza sauce recipe query

all the way to the related searches.

related searches to italian pizza sauce in Google

Bad news, sauce manufacturer: whoever looks for this keyword wants to prepare the sauce from scratch and not buy a jar. Or, as the “People also ask” box suggests, they might be interested in sauce facts (“Does authentic Italian pizza have sauce?”) Who would have thought!

This means that most people who continue their search beyond the “Italian pizza sauce” query and ask more specific questions aren’t looking for a purchase. They want more recipes and trivia!

You have to look for another, more specific long-tail keyword for your sauce store.

Of course, this method also works for other queries and search intents.

Step #3: Check keywords with a high similarity score

This step can round out—or even replace—step three. Checking out the keyword similarity score is the data-driven way of making sure what users mean when searching for a query.

You can access the similarity score from our free Chrome extension Keyword Surfer, or the Keyword Research tool available in the Surfer app.

But what is the similarity score? 

Similarity score is a numerical presentation of how many pages from your query are displayed in related queries. 

This time, let’s use the keyword “on-page SEO” as an example.

If you have the Keyword Surfer installed, each time you Google something, a box will appear on the right side of the SERP. 

Inside, you can see “keyword ideas,” which you can sort by similarity.

keyword ideas for on-page SEO in Keyword Surfer

You can access the same feature easily from Keyword Research—with more data:

similiar keywords to on-page seo in surfer keyword research

Now, you can notice that for the queries “what is on-page SEO” or “about on-page,” 90% of displayed results are identical to the “on-page SEO” query.

What does it tell us about search intent?

It means that if Google shows the almost identical type of content in queries that serve the informational intent (as the words “what” and “about” suggest), the general “on-page SEO” SERP has an informational profile, too.

If you want to rank for this query with your service page, you will have a hard time. Think about writing a guide instead!

The similarity score will also come in handy when you’re doing your keyword research and want to rank for as many queries as possible with your content.

Step #4: Look for different forms of content (image/video packs)

There is one more thing you can get straight from the SERP: find out which content forms the users prefer.

Let’s move straight to the example and see what Google shows us for the query “interior design for small bedroom.”

At the top of the search results, I get the image pack.

image pack in the interior design for small bedroom SERP

The first search result is Pinterest, and the following pages look very similar.

top results in google for interior design for small bedroom query

And then, we also have a video pack.

video pack for internal design for small bedroom query

People looking for this keyword are clearly after visuals. They want inspiration for their small bedrooms presented in the form of clean-looking photos.

Ranking here with a descriptional renovation guide, or your interior design service? Unlikely.

But you can prepare an image-heavy blog post accompanied by a video, or maybe focus on ranking on Pinterest or Youtube first instead of Google? Now that you know the search intent, the sky’s the limit.

Now, let’s see what happens when we google “how to fix the zipper.”

how to fix a zipper video in google serp
how to fix a zipper video in google search 2

Wow, that's a real video fest!

Below, you can see a lot of step-by-step guides:

top results for how to fix a zipper query in google

The searchers are more interested in watching the solution to their problem instead of reading about it.

If you focus on creating a high-quality video that shows at the top of the SERP, you might get more visits and clicks than just an article would get.

Videos appear a lot in search results, especially for tutorials and reviews. Visual content is everything for those phrases.

To increase your chances of meeting the search intent for these queries, your best shot is to create rich media content. 

Remember: step #1—the thorough investigation of the result pages—is the most important. It should become the constant element of your keyword research! You can then mix and match the other three, depending on your time, needs, and resources.


Now you know how to identify the search intent behind a query correctly. 

Search intent is the process of identifying the “why” behind every search query.

It should become an integral part of your keyword research. 

It will help you:

  • identify competition based on search intent (only compare yourself to content that serves the same intent as yours);
  • assess your chances of ranking for a keyword;
  • meet your audience right in the middle.

By analyzing SERP results, related searches, and “People also ask,” keyword similarity, and video/image packs, you can uncover people’s motivations behind the queries.

Good luck with your content journey!

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Screenshot of Surfer SEO Content Editor interface, displaying the 'Essential Content Marketing Metrics' article with a content score of 82/100. The editor highlights sections like 'Key Takeaways' and offers SEO suggestions for terms such as 'content marketing metrics