Looking to rank in Google in 2019? You need to create content that aligns with search intent.
It’s difficult to stress just how important the concept of search intent is to SEO. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if you want to rank in 2019, understanding and creating content with search intent in mind is critical.
In this guide:
- What search intent is
- Why search intent matters for SEO
- The four types of search intent
- How to infer keyword intent
- How to optimize for search intent
- How we increased traffic by 677% by optimizing for search intent
What is search intent?Search intent is the why behind a search query.
In other words, why did the person make this search? Do they want to learn something? Are they looking to make a purchase? Or, are they looking for a particular website?
Why search intent matters
Google’s aim is to provide users with the most relevant result for their query.
How do we know? For starters, the success of Google as a business relies on them successfully doing this. You only have to look at Bing to understand what happens when a search engine’s results are low-quality and irrelevant. Almost nobody uses it, which means less revenue from ads.
Google also states its mission is to “Organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” So yeah, that’s a bit of a giveaway.
But why does any of this matter?
If you want to rank in Google in 2019, you need to be the most relevant result for the query. First and foremost, that means creating content that aligns with search intent.
Relevance is the foundation of SEO success.
The four types of search intent
Here are the four primary ‘types’ of search intent:
The searcher is looking for information. This might be an answer to a simple question like “who is the president of the United States?”. Or something that requires a longer and more in-depth answer like “how does the blockchain work?” However, not all informational searches are formulated as questions.
Examples of informational searches:
- “who is Julian Assange?”
- “Manchester airport directions”
- “Donald Trump”
- “football scores”
- “HTML 5”
The searcher is looking for a specific website. They already know where they want to go. It’s probably just quicker and easier for them to Google it than to type the entire URL into the address bar. They may also be unsure of the exact URL.
Examples of navigational searches:
- “beginners guide to SEO moz”
- “Twitter login”
The searcher is looking to make a purchase. They’re in buying mode. Most likely, they already know what they want to buy. They’re looking for a place to buy it from.
Examples of transactional searches:
- “buy macbook pro”
- “nordvpn coupon”
- “samsung galaxy s10 cheap”
- “lastpass premium price”
The searcher is in the market for a specific product or service but has yet to make a final decision on which solution is right for them. They’re most likely looking for reviews and comparisons. They’re still weighing up their options.
Examples of commercial investigation searches:
- “best protein powder”
- “mailchimp vs convertkit”
- “top restaurant in London”
That last example is of particular note. It demonstrates the fact that many local searches have commercial investigation intent. Other examples include: “plumber near me,” “cheapest hotel in Singapore,” etc.
How to infer search intent
Search intent is often obvious from the wording of the query itself.
For example, take the keyword “buy bitcoin.” It’s clear that the searcher is in the market to buy some cryptocurrency (transactional). On the other hand, someone searching for “how to tie a tie” is looking for an answer (informational).
Here are some keyword “modifiers” that typically indicate a certain type of search intent:
How to optimize for search intent (3 steps)
Search intent should dictate the type of content you create.
If the keyword has informational intent, write a blog post. If it has transactional intent, create a product page. You get the gist.
But are things really this simple? Well, yes and no.
While it evidently makes sense to align your content with search intent, here’s the issue:
The four search intent groups are way too broad to be actionable.
For example, we know that “HTML 5” is an informational query. But knowing that doesn’t tell us what type of content the searcher really want to see. Or what they want to know. Or what format we should use to present that information.
In order to truly optimize for search intent, we need to delve deeper and analyze the SERPs in more detail.
Here’s how to do that, step by step:
Step 1. Check ‘SERP reliability’
Google rankings aren’t static. They fluctuate and change over time.
Given that you’re relying on the nature of the current top-ranking pages to infer search intent, that can be a problem. Reason being, what you’re actually doing is judging search intent based on a single snapshot in time.
If you were to analyze the top-ranking pages next month, or the month after, your understanding of search intent may be different.
For that reason, it pays to also check the ranking history of your target keyword.
To do that, paste your keyword into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, then scroll down to the SERP position history graph.
Let’s look at how to read this graph.
Little or no fluctuation in rankings over time
This indicates that the current top-ranking pages are a good proxy for search intent.
For example, take a look at the graph for “how to write a resume”:
There’s been almost no change in rankings for the current top-ranking pages over the past six months.
Verdict: These are good keywords to target because search intent is clear.
Lots of fluctuation in rankings
This indicates one of two things:
- Search intent is constantly changing.
- Google is struggling to understand the true intent behind the search.
It may even be both.
For example, take a look at the query, “mercury.”
Google appears to have no idea whether people are looking for information about the planet Mercury, or the element mercury.
Verdict: These aren’t great keywords to target because search intent is unclear.
Step 2. Make sure your content aligns with the “3 C’s of search intent”
Now that you know your chosen keyword is sound (i.e., has clear search intent), your next task is to analyze the search results for “the 3 C’s of search intent.”
- Content type
- Content format
- Content angle
Let’s run through this process in more detail.
1. Content type
This refers to the overall “type” of content in the search results, and is usually one of the following:
- Blog post
- Product page
- Category page
- Landing page
Your task is to look for the most dominant content type in the search results, then make sure your content aligns with that.
2. Content format
This refers to the “format” of the top-ranking pages. Some common formats include:
- “How-to” guides
- Step-by-step tutorials
- List posts
- Opinion pieces
There are a lot of different formats, but these should give you an idea of what to look out for.
When creating your content, it makes most sense to follow the crowd.
If most of the top pages are how-to guides, create a how-to guide. If they’re list posts, create a list post. You get the idea.
3. Content angle
This refers to the unique selling point of the top-ranking posts and pages and provides insight into what searchers value when making this particular search.
For example, if we look at the search results for “how to make pancakes,” we can see a few different but similar angles in the results.
To highlight just a few:
- “Perfect pancakes”
- “Good old-fashioned pancakes”
- “Fluffy pancakes”
If we search for a transactional query like “buy glasses online,” we see that a lot of retailers are pitching their low prices and discounts right in the search results (70% off, 15% off 1st order, etc.).
This is a sign that price is a big sticking point for those looking to buy glasses online.
Many retailers also mention the word “prescription,” which indicates that searchers are looking for prescription glasses as opposed to sunglasses, or solar eclipse glasses, or any other types of glasses.
The trick to optimizing for content angle is, once again, to follow the crowd.
That doesn’t mean you have to copy them, but if they’re all pitching price in their content, title tags, and meta descriptions, and you’re pitching quality, then that may not work to your advantage.
Step 3. Take cues from the search results and top-ranking pages
Everything discussed so far works great for getting a rough sense of search intent and deciding what type of content you need to create. But if you’re really serious about targeting a keyword, you need to analyze both the SERPs and top-ranking pages in more detail.
That’s the only way to truly understand what people want to see, and what your content should talk about.
Below are three ways to do that:
1) Look at the “People also ask” box in the SERPs
Google’s “People also ask” box tells you what questions searchers also tend to ask.
For example, take a look at the results for “best protein powder”:
These are questions that you may want to provide answers to in your content.
Tip: To see more questions from the “People also ask” box, click on the caret for one of the related questions. As you do, Google will reveal more.
Not all SERPs have a “People also ask” box. This is more useful for informational queries.
2. Visit the top-ranking pages
Nothing gives you more insight into search intent than actually visiting the top-ranking pages.
In fact, there’s no other way to truly understand what searchers want to see.
Case in point: If we do this for the top results for “best protein powder,” we notice that some of the pages talk about the best types of protein powders (whey, casein, egg protein, hemp, etc.) while others talk about the best protein powder products to buy.
So it looks like there are two different interpretations of “best protein powder.”
(Nothing in the search results tells us that.)
If you were to create a piece of content about this topic, you would have to make a decision as to which angle is best for your content. There’s also the possibility of covering both angles to an extent.
Here are some other things about search intent based on the top-ranking pages:
- Images and visuals are important: Searchers want to actually see which protein powders are best.
- Links to buy are helpful: Most of the current top-ranking pages have quick links to buy protein powders from Amazon or elsewhere. That makes sense, and is actually important, as this is a commercial investigation keyword.
- Segmentation by diet is important: People don’t want a generic list of the best protein powders. They want to know which is the best for their particular diet. So including some vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free information is a must.
Bottom line: Always review the top-ranking pages before creating content.
Case study: +3,100% more traffic by optimizing for search intent
In 2016, ahrefs studied on-page SEO ranking factors across 2 million keywords and wrote a post about it.
Here’s what that post looked like:
The post itself was good, but it never really ranked for anything or got much traffic.
So, they looked at the top-ranking pages to try to figure out why this was and soon realized that search intent was the issue.
Basically, searchers didn’t want to see a study; they wanted an actionable guide .
So that was exactly what they created. They changed the article from “analysis” type to a “guide” type: On-Page SEO: An Actionable Guide.
Now the post ranks in the top 5, and traffic has increased by 3,100%!
Search intent is perhaps the most important “ranking factor” in 2019.
Fail to give searchers what they want, and your chances of ranking are slim to none.
Even if you do manage to “trick” Google for a short while and rank with a low-quality or ill-fitting page, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll figure things out eventually. It might be tomorrow, or next month, or next year, but when they do, your rankings will drop like a stone.
If you want to rank long-term, make it your mission to give searchers what they want. Google will almost certainly reward you for doing so.
PS. If you have limited resources for content marketing, focus only on transactional search intent queries. These tend to be very competitive so start going after the long tail (very specific, narrow queries) and expand from there.