Introduction to search intent

What is this thing? How is it I (maybe) didn’t even know that it existed, yet it’s a major topic in SEO? How do SEOs use intent to improve their customers business?

What is user intent in SEO?

When the internet first turned up, Google wasn’t very good at matching questions to the sites which would help, so people would type something like “London jobs” and hope for the best.

Search engines worked very differently to today and would just give you the sites which had “London jobs” on the most.

Interpreting search queries

But today Google realise that, if you type “London jobs” you probably want a job in London. But not necessarily. This search contains a number of possible interpretations:

  • I want a job in London
  • I want to know where I can find a job in London
  • I want to consider a new job in London
  • I need a job right now in London

… and then all of the elements they don’t say, such as “I need a part time admin job in London”.

Why care about search intent?

Your content won’t appear in Google

Well, first off, if you don’t look like you’re matching the intent of the search, you’re less likely to be ranked. If Google doesn’t think you’ll answer the search query well, your content will simply not appear.

Lower click through rate

However, if you intent doesn’t appear to match what users want, you’ll almost certainly get a lower Click Through Rate (CTR) from Googles visitors.

And, yes, that’s bad. You’ll get less visitors.

“Dog walking”: did you want a national dog walking company, a local company, to learn how to create a business, or a video?

What are the most common types of search intent?

Depending on who you speak to, there are 3 key classifications of search intent:

  • Informational intent; I need to know something
  • Transactional intent; I need to buy something
  • Navigational intent; I need to get to a specific site (eg. youtube)

However, there are dozens of more subtle ones.

Determining searcher intent

When doing keyword research, SEOs will often categorise the intent of the user in their spreadsheets into these 3 key types, and then possibly some further subcategories.

If it’s not immediately obvious what the intent is (but we should never be too confident!), they can search in Google and look at the results to see what types of intents are ranking best.

Polling users

It’s very easy to assume you know what people want and getting search intent wrong can be a real killer. It can be incredibly useful to ask users on a site what they thought they were getting when they first clicked on the link. 

If your site and their reason for clicking your site are different you’ll always struggle with ranking.

Googles history with search quality & intent

I’ve been involved in SEO for 20 years. It used to be that Google clearly didn’t understand intent. They just looked for keywords on a page and hoped for the best.

But they realised that users were having to do a lot of work still to find the results they wanted.

They’ve invested heavily in understanding user intent, and part of that is understanding the query. There was a machine learning algorithm update last year called BERT which aimed to understand complex queries in more detail – and match them to the right content.

Can we go further with search intent?

Certainly!! It’s a huge subject. Here’s a few more aspects to consider.

Ambiguous search intent

SEOs will often just classify search intent using the key classifications above, but in fact search intent is significantly more nuanced, as the image above shows.

Consider whether a search intent really contains a large amount of options for what the user really wanted. If so, you can choose to write on any aspects.

If no one has written on a particular aspect of a search intent, it can be a real opportunity to plug a gap and rank much higher than you would usually expect, for competitive terms

Local search intent

In the last 5 years there has been a move towards providing people with local results. In the example image above, “dog walking”, one of the results was a local site. 

Google knows that for some searches you’re likely to want a site close to your home – often for professional services. Examples might be “professional oven cleaner” and “recruitment agency”.

Positivity, neutrality or negativity?

There’s some suggest that Google may know whether people prefer positivity, neutrality or negativity for particularly searches.

If a search requires positivity and you provide negativity, your content may not be ranked. An example might be luxury holidays; if the user wants light and positive text and you talk about the negative aspects, your content may not show. 

Expertise level?

Google also matches the intent of query with the likely expertise level of the searches. 

So, for example, if you search for a highly complex latin name for a condition, you’ll get a medical expert site likely with research papers. If you search for the common name for the condition, you’re more likely to get results aimed at home medical care.

Psychological intent

I highlighted that SEOs often consider only the key types of intent, but Google is all about giving users results which really match what they want, and these days it’s not enough to just to just match the major category of search intent

You have to go deeply into peoples minds and match the psychological intent they had before they searched.

How can we do this? I have an article that covers psychological search intent in much greater depth, but I’ll summarise it here.

Why did they search today?

Looking back in time to the reason someone did a search can tell us a huge amount about their true intent.

Someone doesn’t want to paint their fence

… they want to finish their garden and have a party

Someone doesn’t want a holiday in Barbados

… they need to relax and forget about life for a while

Someone doesn’t need a new computer

… they need to become more productive

If you can match their likely intents with the copy and imagery on your page, you will satisfy their real need. 

But how do you know what they want?

Persona research

You may have come across personas before. They are often used to describe ideal client avatars. 

The idea is that you are very specific about someone and it helps you to get into their heads, so you can answer questions as if you’re them. Humans are surprisingly good at putting ourselves in others shoes.

Let’s say that we’re writing about copywriters, we might discover 6 or 7 key personas. Here are a few examples:

The next step is often to identify commonalities with those personas. This will give you some general ideas of how you might approach the content you’re writing.

In this case:

  1. 20-30 years old – young sounding text, use emojis
  2. Outside interests – build relationship by saying I have these
  3. Freedom / free spirit – write somewhat bohemian style and use their curiosity about the world
  4. 66% male, 33% female – fairly neutral text

Now obviously, this is just an example, so you should do some more effective research.

Once you know more about this person, you can start to consider what they really wanted.

A real world example of using persons: dog walking again!

People love their dogs!

If you remember at the start of this article, there was a dog walking search. Well, if you have a look at the results, they all push one specific intent:  

People love their dogs and want them to be safe.

Meet that need! 

So, most of the sites ranking well would have some kind of answer for this.  Either they would advertise criminal background checks on their dog walkers, or you could follow the dog walker on an app, or their walkers were also pet owners.  Wow! This isn’t any more about satisfying Google with the keywords on a page .. it’s satisfying users! And that is the overall goal for Google. To satisfy their visitors with great options for them.  


Search intent has been one of the most important topics in SEO for the last few years. 

Businesses are rushing to satisfy a deeper desire in the people they are getting to sites, and in some cases accepting that some of the audiences didn’t want a site like theirs and they lost some traffic because of it.

However, business isn’t about rankings. Business is about money in the bank, and fewer visitors – but more of the right visitors – should always be a goal with modern SEO.