What is Search Intent & How to Optimize for It [+ Modifiers List]

Georgios Chasiotis

Georgios Chasiotis

Search intent is the why behind each search query. As a searcher, you’re using different queries when you’re searching for different things and follow different search patterns based on the intent you have. For example, searching for “best SEO software” indicates your need to know what is the best software for Search Engine Optimization out there. 

Without knowing it, using a search modifier such as “best” indicates that there may be some commercial intent behind the search you’re conducting, even though, at first, the intent may sound informational. 

In this guide, you’ll learn what the search intent, AKA user intent, is, why it’s important for content and SEO, what the five types of search intent are, as well as how to classify search intent when creating or updating content. 

If you also think that search intent matters and want to learn how to start using it to optimize your performance and possibly increase your organic traffic, keep reading.

What is Search Intent?

As we noted in the beginning, search intent is the why behind a specific search query. Nowadays, people are seeking answers to their questions online and they’re doing it for pretty much everything they’re looking an answer for, 

  • When they’re searching for specific products,
  • When they’re searching for specific websites,
  • When they’re searching for specific brand names, 
  • When they’re searching for information on specific topics,
  •  When they’re searching for places to go out or to visit.

For all these — and many more — needs, people are using web search engines like Google to get the most relevant answers based on what they have in mind. What does “the most relevant” mean though?

Say that you’re searching for the term “rock” on Google. Here’s what you’ll see, 

Image Source: Google

As is evident, when conducting a Google search for “rock”, you may looking for, 

  • Rocks in terms of geology
  • Rock, the musical genre
  • The famous actor Dwayne Johnson AKA “The Rock”

The intent behind the query in this example isn’t clear. This is something that happens very often for such search terms, known as head terms.  

The same thing happens when you’re searching for something like “drift” on Google. 

Image Source: Google

As you can see, here too the results are a bit mixed. It’s not clear whether someone looking for “drift” is looking for the chatbot software Drift, looking to learn what drifting with cars means, searching for a particular website like Drift Mag, or even searching for the movie Drift

Even though the intent isn’t clear in this example as well, it’s evident that the person conducting the search knows what they’re looking for. Search intent is that what, that why even for searches with mixed search intent that we just saw. In our examples, Google had to satisfy different intents, but that’s not always the case.

Let’s assume that you’re searching for the term “online course platforms”. Here’s what you’re going to see, 

As you can see, right below the ads that exist at the top of the search engine results page (SERP), we have a featured snippet which is a piece of content listing the best online course platforms by Adam Enfroy. 

We also have a “People also ask” box with questions that are tightly related to online course platforms. If you scroll down that SERP a bit, you’ll notice that most of the other top ranking results are also list posts with the best course platforms out there.

This shows us that people searching for “online course platforms” have a clear intent of evaluating and finding the right online course platform for their business. Here, we can say that we have clear search intent. 

Clear or not, these three examples show us that different types of search queries indicate the different intent behind those queries and, as an extension, different search results that aim to satisfy the intent behind the queries. 

Let’s dive a bit deeper and try to understand why search intent is important for SEO and content marketing using some examples and case studies. 

Why is Search Intent Important for Content & SEO?

Now that you know what search intent is, it’s important to answer a second question: why is it important for content and SEO? To answer this question, we’re going to use one of the resources that we published a few months ago as an example. The following blog post is a guide on how to use Clearscope.

A few months after publishing, this piece of content now ranks, according to Ahrefs, in position six for our target term, “Clearscope”. 

Author’s Note: Results in Google Search Console, where you can take the most accurate search data are similar. 

Even though this piece ranks only for a handful of organic keywords, it ranks for our target term which has sufficient search volume, even though it may not have high commercial value for us. 

In the graph below, you can see the position history of our piece of content on the purple line for a six-month period, according to Ahrefs. 

As you can see, from being buried on page two, and even below that at first, this piece of content has jumped onto the first page and is now competing with the other pages and even Clearscope’s homepage that exist there. Why might this be happening? 

Clearscope is a branded term; people using the term to conduct a search are obviously a) aware of Clearscope as a brand and a product and b) want to learn more about it and even give it a try for their own business. 

Our guide satisfies what users have in mind when searching for Clearscope: it explains what Clearscope is and what it does in a simple way. It also walks them through the product and breaks down it’s different capabilities. In our opinion, it does it better than any other piece of content out there.

In other words, without putting too much thought into it, we’ve created something that matches exactly what searchers have in mind when they’re searching for the target keyword in this case, which is “Clearscope”. 

Let’s take a look at a second example, this time by one of the most popular SEO software, Moz. The following guide on Moz’s blog is a pillar page that covers every aspect of SEO. It’s the type of content that you’d like first-time users of your product or people who aren’t familiar with SEO in general to read first when they’re visiting your website.

Image Source: Moz

If you visit the page, you’ll see that the main page which works as a hub – this one: https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo – includes links to other pages that work as sub-sections for the main page, such as this one: https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo/why-search-engine-marketing-is-necessary

The pages that work as sub-sections of the main page are called “clusters”. 

Image Source: Moz

You may be wondering why Moz had to create such a piece of content and whether or not this works for the company. According to Ahrefs, this single piece of content ranks for over 30K organic keywords, brings in more than 149K organic traffic and has a traffic value of more than $695K.  

In addition, and not surprisingly, the piece ranks in position 1 for the term “SEO”.

This is a highly competitive term with an estimated global search volume of 1.3M. 

As you can imagine, ranking for such a competitive term in such a high position isn’t easy. Part of the reason why this is happening is exactly because this piece of content by Moz matches search intent. 

Image Source: Google

When you search for that term on Google, you’ll see a Wikipedia definition presented in the form of a knowledge panel on the right of the SERP. Whenever you see a Wikipedia article on a page, you can be pretty sure that some of the people searching that term are basically looking for an answer to the question “what is {concept or topic}?” 

Author’s Note: A knowledge panel is a SERP feature that’s displayed in the form of an information box, containing information about people, concepts, organizations or topics that exist in Google’s knowledge graph. 

Scrolling down a bit, you’ll notice that the first questions in the “People also ask” box with some fundamental questions when it comes to SEO.

Image Source: Google

And, scrolling down a bit further, you’ll notice that most of the results in the top are beginner’s guides that can teach someone new to SEO what SEO is and how to apply it in their own business. 

Image Source: Google

Apart from having published one of the most comprehensive guides on the topic, Moz’s resource also does a great job at satisfying search intent. It helps people who aren’t familiar with, or at least are a little familiar with, learn what SEO is and what the steps they need to take are to start optimizing their site and webpages around it. 

With these two very different examples, it’s evident that identifying and satisfying search intent is essential if you want to have chances of being competitive on the SERPs for your target terms. This applies to all search queries across different industries and verticals. 

Identifying and satisfying search intent should be one of your primary concerns when publishing new content pages, landing pages, product pages, or any other kind of content online. 

Search and keyword intent can make a difference in how your content performs because it’s tightly connected to the experience the user has while on your website. If the user can’t find what they are looking for and has in mind when landing on your website, they’ll bounce back and look for another result. This can — and in most cases will — affect your rankings and overall visibility. 

Let’s get a bit deeper and present the five types of search intent so that you can identify search intent more easily. 

The Five Types of Search Intent

In this section, we’re going to present the most prominent types of search intent: 

  • Informational intent
  • Commercial intent
  • Navigational intent
  • Transactional intent

And, something that we’re using internally and that we call “Job to be done”. 

Let’s see what each of these five types is all about. 

Type #1: Informational Search Intent

The first type of search intent that we have is informational search intent. As you can imagine, these are queries that indicate the need for information. An example of a query with informational search intent is the term “how to write a blog post”.

Informational queries are ideal for driving top of the funnel traffic. Even though — in most cases — they have a relatively high search volume, they also have many pieces, or search results in general, competing for the same term, which means that it’s not easy to be competitive for them. 

Another example of a query with informational search intent is “what is digital marketing”. As you can see below, this is a term with an estimated global volume of 73K searches per month that is really competitive. 

If you take a look at the SERPs for that term, you’ll notice some of the most popular marketing sites and software, e.g. HubSpot, Neil Patel, Marketo, and Digital Marketer, all competing with each other. 

Those pages have hundreds — in some cases thousands — of backlinks and extremely high domain ratings (DR), a metric which, according to a recent correlation study, can have a positive effect on rankings. 

This is something that we notice very often in information queries. The way to identify whether a query has informational search intent is by taking a look at the modifiers used by the searcher. Some modifiers indicating the need for information are:

  • What 
  • Who
  • When
  • How to
  • Examples

Author’s Note: Moving forward, we’re going to share with you a full list of modifiers you can use to sort search queries and keywords by intent. 

Let’s move on to the next category.

Type #2: Commercial Search Intent

As you can imagine, queries with commercial search intent are the ones that indicate that the searcher is conducting commercial investigation on something they’re interested in. For example, the term “online course software” indicates that the user is looking for course creation solutions.

The term has a decent global search volume of 700 searches per month according to Ahrefs. At the same time, it has an average cost per click (CPC) of $10, which means that course creation software and advertisers are actively bidding on that term. As an extension, this tells us that there is commercial value behind the term. 

Usually, queries with commercial intent have a lower search volume than the ones with informational search intent, but have a higher conversion rate as searchers using them are comparing, evaluating, or just looking for solutions based on their needs. 

Some modifiers indicating commercial investigation are:

  • Comparison
  • Alternatives
  • Review
  • Best
  • Software
  • Plugin
  • App

Let’s move on to the next search intent type. 

Type #3: Navigational Search Intent

Navigational search intent indicates the need of finding specific information about a specific business online. For example, the term “amazon contact number” indicates the need for contacting Amazon via their phone number. 

Image Source: Google

You have to keep in mind that queries with navigational search intent are mostly useful for bigger businesses. It makes sense for Amazon to have their contact information online and even spend resources to make sure that they have dedicated pages for every navigational search query their customers may use to reach them. The same may not apply for smaller businesses with a limited customer base.

Some modifiers indicating navigational search intent are:

  • Login (for SaaS)
  • Sign In (for SaaS)
  • Contact
  • Hours
  • Customer service

Let’s move on to the next type of search intent. 

Type #4: Transactional Search Intent

Queries with transactional search intent are the ones that indicate that the searcher is ready to conduct some sort of monetization behavior. In other words, they’ve passed the stage of commercial investigation and are ready to make a purchase regardless if we’re talking about buying a physical product, software, subscription, or an online service.

An example of a query with transactional intent is “buy iphone 11”. It’s only natural that the SERP for a query like this is full of ads and product pages trying to sell an iPhone 11.

Image Source: Google

At this point, the searcher has most likely compared solutions and decided that the best solution would be iPhone 11. This is why transactional queries convert better than other queries, but at the same time are way more difficult and expensive, both from a paid and organic standpoint, to compete with. 

Some modifiers indicating transactional search intent are:

  • Buy
  • Sale
  • To rent
  • Quote
  • Book
  • Price

Let’s move on to the next type. 

Type #5: Job to be Done

As I mentioned previously, this is a type that we’ve developed internally at MINUTTIA. This means that you won’t find it in most guides discussing search intent. What’s this type all about? 

Very often, people are looking for tools that could help them get a job done online. For example, someone looking for a “mortgage calculator” is obviously looking for a tool, in the form of a calculator, to help them calculate the monthly installments for a loan they’re considering taking.

Image Source: Google

The intent here isn’t get information, conduct some sort of monetization behavior, locate and visit a specific page on a website, or buy goods. The intent is to get the very specific job of calculating the monthly cost for a loan done. 

This is why we’ve separated this search intent type from the rest and we believe that it’s a category on its own. Even though, in some cases, queries that fall into that category may fall in one or more other categories, we believe that the intent is different. 

For example, someone looking for an “employee onboarding process” is obviously looking for information, but wouldn’t it be better if that information was in the form of a checklist? That’s not definitive, of course, but we’ve seen it happening very often and thus consider those queries to be a separate category that we treat differently in terms of the type of content we create to satisfy their search intent. 

Some modifiers that belong to this category are:

  • Builder
  • Calculator
  • Generator
  • Framework
  • Planner
  • Template

Now that you know the five types of search intent, let’s move on to the next section, where we’ll break down the process of classifying search intent for each of the five types we just saw. 

How to Classify Search Intent

Disclaimer: Credits for the process we’re going to describe go to Bernard Huang, one of Clearscope’s co-founders, who shared this process with us during the onboarding session for Clearscope back in September 2019. 

Search intent classification is the process of identifying search intent for a given term by counting the number of occurrences based on the different results ranking at the top of the SERPs.

This may sound overwhelming, but search intent classification is actually easy to do. Let’s take the term “CTR” as an example.

Image Source: Google

Even though results vary based on your browsing history and preferences, as well as your location for many terms, counting the number of occurrences for this term will give us an idea of what Google considers to be relevant for pieces of content that target the term CTR, which stands for click-through rate. Let’s count the number of occurrences at the top of the Google search for our example term.

  • Definition → 5
  • What is → 4

Keep in mind that there is obviously some overlap between the two categories identified. Results with the definition of the term obviously answer the question, “what is CTR ?”. For example, Wikipedia’s article may not have a “what is” modifier in the title tag, but it obviously explains what CTR is. 

Thus, it is evident that if we were to create a piece of content targeting the term “CTR” we’d have to create a page that explains what CTR is. How do we know? Google has told us that by showing us the top results for our target term. 

Keep in mind that when a new page is crawled by Google and is added to it’s index, Google will give this page a chance to see whether it satisfies what searchers had in mind when conducting the search. 

If the page satisfies user intent and gives relevant information based on the searcher’s query, Google is going to rank this page even higher.

Author’s Note: That’a a simplification for the sake of example, however. In reality, Google takes many factors into consideration when determining the value of a page. 

On the other hand, if a newly discovered page has high bounce rates and doesn’t offer a good overall experience, Google will derank this page until it matches search intent and provides relevant answers to Google users. 

In the example we just saw, most results at the top of the Google search have links from many different referring domains. The only exception is Hotjar’s page which has only 5 referring domains pointing back to it. 

The argument here could be that Hotjar is a website with an incredibly high DR and a high topical relevance to the target term. This explanation is partially correct. A prominent reason that explains why Hotjar ranks among the other results at the top of Google search for that term is exactly because it satisfies search intent. 

Image Source: Hotjar

Hotjar gives an answer to searchers’ questions right away. Users don’t have a reason leaving the page since they get exactly what they have in mind. In this example — for the most part — Hotjar is managing to be competitive by satisfying search intent. Let’s see one more example of search intent classification. 

This time, we’re going to go a bit off-topic. Let’s see what Google returns for the term “crepes”. 

Image Source: Google

Let’s count the number of occurrences at the top of Google search for our example term.

  • Recipe → 8

Author’s Note: The remaining results on the SERP are filled with SERP features like videos and a “People also ask” box. 

It’s more than clear that, when someone’s searching for the term “crepes”, what they’re actually looking for is a recipe for crepes. This means that, if we’re interested in ranking for this term, we’d have to create a nice and easy recipe for crepes.

This is another example of how Google’s telling us what content users expect to see for a term they’re using when conducting a search. For these two examples that we’ve seen, the intent is clear, meaning that our search intent classification process has a clear outcome. 

 

Let’s see a final example of search intent classification, this time for a term with mixed SERP intent. This time we’re looking for the term “remote working”. 

Image Source: Google

Let’s count the number of occurrences on the top of Google search for our example term.

  • Jobs → 1
  • Future→ 2
  • Guide → 2
  • Opinion → 2
  • State of Remote Work (by Buffer) → 1

The SERP in our example also has several SERP features such as “Top stories”, a “People also ask” box as well as a “People also search for” box. 

All these indicate that the intent for our target is mixed. In other words, we’re not sure as to what content we need to create to make sure that we’re contextually relevant based on what Google wants to see for that term. This happens because Google users using this term when searching are choosing between different results and don’t have a specific thing in mind, such as “what is remote working?”.

When creating content for terms that have a mixed intent, try to find a unique angle that’s not included in the existing results and create a high-quality piece of content. This may help your result perform well and get the visibility that you want and deserve. 

Now that you know how to classify search intent, let’s see how to optimize for search intent, based on five different use cases. 

How to Optimize for Search Intent

Nowadays, there seems to be a discussion about how businesses can optimize their content to match search intent. The truth is that, to be sure that you’ve satisfied the searcher’s intent through a piece of content or with a page in general, you need more data than just search data from Google Search Console (GSC) or Google Analytics. 

Do visitors click your on-page CTAs (call-to-actions)? Do they share your content on social media? Do they take actions that are meaningful to them and important to you from a business standpoint? All of these questions should be answered to be in the position to understand whether you can, or have to, optimize a certain page to match search intent. 

Below, you’ll find some prominent examples of optimizing for search intent — some of them may be familiar with what you’re experiencing and dealing with for your own website and business.  

Update existing content to match search intent

The first way you can optimize for search intent is by updating your existing content when you feel, or have identified, differences in what visitors expect to see and what they end up seeing when landing on your page. This piece of content on our blog was published a few months ago,

It’s a guide explaining the process of keyword mapping in a very simple and straightforward way. If we take a look at the search data that GSC is giving us, we’ll notice something very interesting.

The top term for this guide isn’t “keyword mapping” as we’d originally intended, but “keyword mapping template”. 

This shows us that — in most cases — people looking for the term “keyword mapping” may actually be looking for a template to help them map the right keywords for pages on their website in a semi-automated way. 

Even though our guide includes screenshots of our template – the one we use internally to do keyword mapping for our clients – we don’t have a download link that allows visitors to download and start using it for their own needs.  

This may indicate that we’ve failed to match search intent since users landing on that page are obviously looking for something they can use right away. 

Thus, if we were to optimize that page to match search intent, we should add the option for users to download our template and also provide some guidelines on how to use it properly. 

To identify such opportunities, you have to identify pages that initially targeted another term, but started getting visibility for a variation of that term, or even a completely different term.

Let’s move on to the next way to optimize for search intent. 

Optimize pages with commercial value

A while back, one of our clients published a list of the best online learning platforms

Here’s how the page performs according to Ahrefs:

If you divide the estimated traffic value with the number of keywords this page is ranking for, you’ll see that this page has an average value per keyword of $16.90. For software companies that don’t compete at an enterprise level, where CPCs are usually higher, this is a decent average CPC.

What this shows us is that the page has some obvious commercial value, meaning that people who are searching for the target term “online learning platforms” — and other terms that the page is ranking for — are obviously close to conducting commercial investigation for an online learning platform. After all, the target term itself is very close to the average keyword CPC for that page. 

Having a page that ranks for terms with commercial value, ie. terms brands and advertisers are bidding on, means that we can prompt users to try our solution. This is why LearnWorlds has beautiful in-post CTAs that prompt users to build their own online school with LearnWorlds.

This isn’t sales-y and in fact — considering the intent behind the target keyword — we’d say that it’s necessary to do so. 

Having said all this, you have to be in the position to understand what pages rank for terms with commercial value and add relevant CTAs or even completely restructure the page to meet search intent and provide logical paths to users who may be looking for a solution that’s relevant to yours.

Create missing pages to match navigational queries

This applies mostly to bigger businesses that have a wide set of customers. As you can imagine, as a business grows, the interest for navigational queries for a growing business grows as well. People are searching for more ways to reach specific departments of the business or even locate specific sections of the website. 

Let’s assume that you’re using one of our clients, LearnWords, as your online course platform. For the sake of example, let’s further assume that you’re looking for a specific function on LearnWorlds’ reporting feature. Thus, you go looking for it online using the term “learnworlds customer support”.

Image Source: Google

As you can see from the screenshot above, the first result on Google search for our term comes from LearnWorlds and is exactly what someone who’s looking for help with one of the product’s features would want to see. 

Onceagain, this isn’t necessary in smaller businesses, but as a business grows, it has to make sure of two things. 

  1. The information is displayed on the top of search results for every prominent query with navigational intent. 
  2. It gives users exactly what they’re looking for so they don’t look elsewhere for company information. 

To find such opportunities, you have to take a look at your search data from a data provider like Google Search Console, which is usually the most accurate provider for this kind of information. 

Let’s move on to the next one. 

Create on-site “paths” based on customer lifecycle stages

One very important thing when it comes to search intent and optimizing for it, is to create paths on a website based on the lifecycle stage the user, who came to the website as a searcher, is at. Let’s put some perspective on it using a simple example. 

One of our clients, Respona, has an in-depth guide on how to write a press release on their website.

What is interesting is that, when taking a look at the top results on the SERPs for our target term of how to write a press release, we notice that some of the results are offering examples and templates visitors can use right away. 

If you think about it, it makes sense that someone who’s willing to learn how to write a press release wouldn’t mind having a template to use to write straight away. Not surprisingly, the parent topic for the term “how to write a press release” is “press release example”.

This means that there is a connection between writing a press release and finding a ready-to-use press release template or example, at least from an organic search standpoint. 

This also indicates an opportunity for a business that has a guide on how to write a press release to include a link that’ll lead users to a library of downloadable press release templates. 

This logical path will lead users from trying to learn something, to get an even better version of what they initially had in mind or even shorten the cycle between learning how to write a press release and eventually downloading a template to help them get the job done faster. 

These opportunities can be easily identified if you have an existing content inventory that performs well and want to build a mechanism for moving visitors “down to the funnel” so that you can connect with them, e.g. by having them subscribe to your email list, and turn them into your customers. 

Let’s move to the last way to use search intent to optimize your performance.

Group keywords based on their intent

An important activity when it comes to search engine marketing (SEM) — meaning every activity from Pay-per-click (PPC) to SEO, and even digital PR — is keyword research. Now that you know how users search and that, even without knowing it, they’re using different modifiers to describe their needs, it’s important to use this as part of your keyword research process. 

To do that, you first need to define what modifiers are appropriate for each of the search intent types that we saw earlier. In the following section, you’ll get a list of search intent modifiers divided into the five categories that we analyzed earlier, so that you can use them when conducting keyword research.

You can use those modifiers to categorize keywords based on search intent and thus have an overall well-structured approach when it comes to your content and SEO strategy. Let’s see how you can use them using the term “eCommerce” as an example. 

First, insert your term into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer and click enter.

Then, click on “Phrase match”.

Copy the modifiers that you want to use first. Usually, you’d want to start with modifiers that describe informational search intent.

Insert the modifiers into the “Include” filter. 

When you click “Apply”, you’ll get a list of keywords that include at least one of the modifiers that you used to phrase match your list of initial keywords that include the term “eCommerce”. 

From the initial list of 107,266 keywords, we now have 24,594 we can choose from. This means that almost 23% of the keywords including our target term “eCommerce” include one of the modifiers with informational search intent that we’ve used to get more specific keyword opportunities. 

From there, you have to choose the keywords that seem relevant to your business and you feel confident that you can compete with other businesses that also target them. 

Keep in mind that some of the modifiers in our list, for all the given categories, may fall into more than one search intent category. Identifying opportunities that fall into more categories means that you have to further investigate the term and see whether this is something you want to go after. 

In addition to that, you have to keep in mind that, for some modifiers, adding a head term like “eCommerce” — even if you’re indeed into eCommerce — won’t make sense. For example, modifiers with commercial search intent, e.g. alternatives, would work with different terms on a phrase match level.

Assuming that you run an eCommerce SaaS relevant to BigCommerce or Shopify and want to find terms with the commercial intent you want to cover, you have to include those branded terms as a base for the process we just described. 

Here’s what results for {eCommerce platform} + {“alternatives” modifier} look like:

Author’s Note: In this example, we’re using 10 eCommerce platforms as a base for our research and the modifier “alternatives” to get keyword opportunities with commercial value. 

Optimizing for search intent is an ever-evolving process. It doesn’t end because there’ll always be opportunities for further optimization. Having the tactics we’ve shared with you in mind will help you identify opportunities and attack them to get the most out of your efforts. 

Keyword Modifiers List

Click below to make a copy of the Google Sheet with our search intent modifiers that we used in the previous section to conduct keyword research based on search intent:

Make a Copy of the Google Sheet

Author’s Note: If you have any modifiers that we’ve missed and think we need to include, please feel free to share them with us.

Wrapping Up

This guide is dedicated to helping you understand what search is, why it’s so important when it comes to content and SEO, and how you can use it to optimize your website’s content. 

We hope that now you’re equipped with the knowledge and techniques used to classify search intent when creating new content or updating existing content, and even categorize your existing content inventory to target different queries for searches in different lifecycle stages. 

Search intent classification should be a part of your process — similar to keyword research or content creation. Make sure to develop a process based on what you’ve learned and always try to keep search intent optimization on the top of your list  of priorities. 

Disclaimer: Throughout the post, you may find differences between the search results we present as examples and the results you see on your own device for the same queries. This is due to differences between our browser preferences, location, and overall search activity.