Search Intent: Choosing the Right Keywords for SEO

Optimizing web content is more than finding the biggest, juiciest, and most winnable keywords to massage into your marketing copy. It’s about understanding search intent (also called “user intent”) and speaking to what potential customers and readers are looking for. 

Like most things SEO, choosing the right keywords requires research. You need to know if the keywords you’re targeting are more informational or transactional in intent and if that applies to your goal. 

For example, if you’re a health company looking to sell a special supplement or product that targets a specific ailment, not all keywords around that health condition will apply. You’d want keywords with a search intent that matches your goal — selling your product — and not necessarily keywords where users are looking for lifestyle tips or information on symptoms to watch out for.  

Though we all wish it was an easy process, finding winnable keywords with the right search intent requires persistence, patience, and willingness to explore words you may not have considered. Aligning strong keywords with the right search intent is often challenging, but it’s also a rewarding experience that could open up new audiences, opportunities, and ways to engage users. 

Before we dive into tips and tricks on how to identify and match search intent, it’s helpful to understand the four core types of keyword intent that signal what users are looking for.

Types of Keywords by Search Intent
  • Navigational: The user intent behind these keywords is to “navigate” to a specific page or business, and they are often associated with brand names. Examples of navigational keywords include “youtube diy wood treatments,” “barnes & noble near me,” or “dmv.” 
  • Informational: As the name implies, users are searching for answers to a specific question or knowledge about a topic. For blogs, how-to websites, recipe and craft sites, review channels, and similar platforms where the goal is to provide information, these types of keywords should be the primary focus. 
  • Commercial: These keywords are defined by a user’s interest in exploring a product and potentially making a purchase once enough research or information is gathered. Keywords like “best beef jerky,” “walking shoes,” and “direct flights to berlin” are examples of keywords with commercial intent. 
  • Transactional: Whereas “commercial” keywords can be product-based and lead to sales, transactional keywords typically include action items or modifiers that signify a user’s intent to buy something. Examples like “cheap beef jerky” and “where to buy shoes” could lead to purchases or other conversions. 
A Note on Mixed Intent

Not every search term falls into one bucket or the other. Sometimes keywords can have more than one intent (often referred to as “mixed intent”). 

For example, “jack links jerky” is both a navigational keyword and a transactional keyword. Similarly, “nyc to berlin flight time” is both informational and transactional, as users are searching for the duration of flight times and possibly making a purchase if they see a flight that works with their schedules. 

That’s why it’s important to always check the SERPs and see which type of content ranks the highest. For mixed intent keywords, you may see informational content and products both ranking on page one, though some types may rank higher than others. That should indicate user intent according to the one whose opinion matters most — the search engine’s. 

If all else fails, tools like Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool can help identify search intent, though it’s recommended to compare those results against what you see in the SERPs. 

Check the SERPs for Relevancy

Let’s say you’re in the business of selling frozen entrees, and your goal is to increase the visibility (and sales) of your core entree: chicken cordon bleu. Google Keyword Planner tells us that “chicken cordon bleu” has a volume of 110,000 searches per month. However, a quick look at the SERPs tells us that this is primarily an informational keyword and that most users are searching for recipes. 

Adding the keyword “frozen” to target “frozen chicken cordon bleu” reduces the volume to 2,400 searches per month, but most of the pages showing up in the SERPs are product pages by frozen food manufacturers. That’s the commercial or transactional intent you’re targeting. As a hypothetical fellow manufacturer looking to offload frozen chicken cordon bleu entrees, this is where you’ll be able to compete and be more likely to rank. 

Study the Competition

Choosing keywords for SEO purposes isn’t often as simple as adding “frozen” to “chicken cordon bleu.” The page you’re optimizing could be misaligned, and there could be other keywords that more closely match search intent that you’re not using. One of the best ways to find these keywords is to research your competition.

As the adage goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” For search intent, peeking under the hood of your competition with competitive research tools like Semrush or Moz can turn up a laundry list of potential keywords, each with intent labeled. It’s also worth looking at their title tags and meta descriptions to see what they’ve targeted. 

These tactics are a great start, and they can help you drill down and find even more relevant keywords for your website. Even more valuable, when you check the SERPs and look at the competition ranking in the top three spots for these newfound keywords, you’ll see exactly what type of content and pages are adhering the closest to Google’s helpful content and E-E-A-T guidelines. Study the format of these pages, notice each one’s structure, whether it has images and video or not, and what type of information each relays. 

These top-ranking pages set the bar that you have to not just meet but exceed. They also offer a window into what users are most interested in seeing more of. 

Don’t Skip Long-Tail Keywords

When looking at keyword metrics, it’s easy to get wrapped up in high volumes, especially when the user intent closely matches your page or product. However, the higher the volume, the harder those top few spots will be to rank for. 

Long-tail keywords, while typically much smaller in volume, can be much more relevant and easier to win. As technology changes and the way people browse evolves, these long-tail keywords may also rise in prominence. 

As you choose relevant keywords that match your target audience, it’s worth noting that search intent is constantly growing and changing. Optimizing a page isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it strategy, as new keywords are constantly emerging, monthly volumes change, and the needs of users transform over time.

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