Why Do Users Search? Search Intent Explained

By understanding a user's search intent, you will know where to focus your SEO efforts. Learn about the different types of search intent, as well as best practices for optimizing content to match intent.

by Catie Leary


Reading Time | 5 min

When it comes to your SEO, one of the most important questions you need to keep in mind is: “Why are people searching?” Understanding the search intent of people visiting your site via search engine provides you with insight on where to focus your efforts.

In this article, we’ll explain why search intent is critical, discuss the four types of search intent, and share some basic best practices for optimizing for search intent.

What are users searching for?

Why is search intent important?

Google is, first and foremost, trying to provide the most relevant and quality search engine results to its users. They achieve this with not only their algorithm but with artificial intelligence known as Google RankBrain.

What is Google RankBrain? In a nutshell, Google RankBrain’s job is to help Google’s keyword-based algorithm yield the most relevant results possible by identifying the search user’s intent. Whenever someone types a query into Google, that query goes through Google RankBrain first, which attempts to interpret the search intent based on the user’s location, past searches, and other modes of personalization.

Google’s algorithm takes Google RankBrain’s search intent analysis into account when determining the relevancy and quality of search engine results it yields.

Since these two pieces of technology determine what users see, you need to make sure you’re not only optimizing for keywords but also anticipating the intent of users.

The Four Search Intent Types

Search intent falls within one of these four categories — informational, navigational, transactional, and commercial investigation. Let’s break down each one:

1. Informational intent

African elephant with baby elephant.
“Google, how long does an elephant gestate?”

Search queries with an informational intent are pretty much all of those what, how, why, when, and who questions that you turn to Google for answers.

Examples of search queries with an informational intent might be “NYC weather” to find out the forecast for New York City, or “avocado calories” to find out nutritional information.

Queries with an informational intent may also be completely formed questions:

  • “What is the gestation period for an elephant?”
  • “When is the next lunar eclipse in North America?”
  • “How many cups are in a gallon?”

2. Navigational intent

Man at computer.
“Google, take me to Amazon.com.”

This intent refers to searchers who have a very clear idea of what website they’re trying to visit and they’re just using a search engine as a vehicle to get there.

For example, someone trying to get to the Amazon.com website might simply type “amazon” rather than typing out the actual URL into the address bar — knowing that their browser’s search will reliably provide the website as the first result. This is especially common for mobile users.

Here’s another example of a query with navigational intent: Imagine that you read an article the other day and you’re trying to find it again. If you can recall the article’s title, you can put that in the search bar word-for-word and there’s a good chance it’ll pop up immediately. Or if your memory is a little fuzzy, you can try putting in some very specific keywords or phrases pertaining to the article (or even the author’s name if you remember it), and there’s still a pretty good chance you’ll find it. These are both examples of search queries with intents to navigate to a specific page on the internet.

3. Transactional intent

Movie popcorn
“Google, I want to buy tickets to the upcoming Star Wars movie.”

Transactional search intent is exactly what you would think it would be. Anyone who uses a search engine with the express purpose of purchasing a particular product or service has a transactional search intent.

One example of transactional search intent is buying movie tickets for a movie you want to see on Friday night. You might compare ticket prices and showtimes, but you have a pretty clear idea of what you want to purchase and how.

4. Commercial investigation intent

Vacuum cleaner
“Google, what’s the best vacuum cleaner?”

Commercial investigation refers to a search intent that is very much related to informational and transactional intents, but it’s a bit more specialized and distinct enough that it gets its own category as an intent.

Let’s revisit our movie theatre example. Sometimes you might not have a movie in mind yet. Before buying tickets, you might first investigate what movies are currently playing in theatres, which movies are playing at a convenient time for you at your local theatre, and read reviews for a movie to make sure it’s your cup of tea.

There’s no transaction involved, but you’re doing your research should you choose to go through with a transaction in the future. That’s a commercial investigation.

Understandably, this type of intent is often targeted by websites that specialize in reviews or consumer research content, such as Wirecutter for in-depth evaluations of products like sunscreen and vacuums (or as previously mentioned, film review sites).

How Do I Optimize Content for Search Intent?

Now that you have a good grasp of the different types of search intent, it’s time to put that knowledge to work.

How do you make sure you’re optimizing content for search intent?

The first thing to consider is ROI. After all, whether you’re writing a blog or producing a video, quality content takes time and resources. Sometimes content is worth that time and resources, but sometimes it is not. Our goal for any SEO strategy is to make sure any content we propose creating is worth the investment. But how do you know if a piece of content will provide ROI?

It’s sometimes hard to know if a piece of content is worth pursuing, but with keyword research, we help you identify and monitor topic areas that offer the greatest opportunity for generating traffics, leads, and revenue. 

With our clients, we specifically focus our keyword research on transactional and commercial investigation intent keywords — also known as “buyer intent” keywords. Since these search queries indicate that someone is actively looking to make a purchase or research a purchase, they are more likely to result in conversions than broader, informational keywords.

Along with keyword research, we use keyword benchmarking to track the progress of our efforts so you can clearly tie the impact of our work to your other sales and marketing efforts.

Here are four guidelines that can serve as a great “checklist” for your internal content creation efforts:

  1. Be anchored by a buyer intent keyword that is benchmarked and tracked
  2. Attempt to solve a problem, especially if part of that solution is to choose your product/service.
  3. Have an identified target audience, whether it is broad (all of your customers) or more focused (one of several industries you focus).
  4. Include very clear calls to action for entering the sales funnel.

By incorporating these principles in your SEO strategy, you can help ensure that both your existing legacy content and any future content that is created is high-quality and actionable. Get in touch with SiteCare to discuss our seo optimization services

Catie Leary | Contributor

Catie has spent the last 12+ years honing her digital storytelling skills as both a journalist and a content strategist. In her spare time, she enjoys powerlifting, karaoke nights with friends, reading science fiction, and hanging out with her three cats.