What is Search Intent Optimization?

By Madison Taylor
June 23, 2019
magnifying glass in front of a yellow speech bubble

Google processes over 70,000 searches per second — you can visualize that ridiculous number here — for a total of more than 2.2 trillion search queries every year across the globe. You rely on those searches to drive users to your website. The whole idea behind inbound marketing is that you’re providing useful content and letting users come to you rather than throwing your branding in their face.

The problem is, the vast majority of Google search queries aren’t full sentences — they’re 2-4 words long. The user has an idea in mind of what they’re looking for, but it’s up to Google to infer that intent from just a few words and direct them to the right page. If someone searches for “foam mattress,” are they looking for reviews? Prices? Safety information? How can you tell from such a short search?

What we’re talking about is called “search intent,” and it refers to the underlying reason that a user performed a given web search. If you make foam mattresses, you’ll want to serve a different result to someone who wants to know how they’re made versus someone who wants to make a purchase.

The Three Types of Search Intent

There are three main types of search intent: informational, navigational, and transactional — also known as “know,” “go,” and “do.” More than 80 percent of searches are informational, with navigational and transactional searches taking about 10 percent each.

Informational Search Intent

Informational searches are searches conducted with the intent of finding out new information. These queries are often phrased as questions, like “how do I find the word count of a document” or “what’s the best digital camera for beginners.”

Navigational Search Intent

Navigational searches are simply searches designed to get users to a certain web page. If a user types “google images” into the search box or address bar of their browser, chances are they don’t want to know anything about Google Images, they just want to access the site. Since modern browsers’ address bars double as search bars, the line between a navigational search like “facebook” and simply typing “facebook.com” has been blurred.

Transactional Search Intent

Transactional searches are searches intended to let the user do something. This doesn’t necessarily mean spending money, though financial transactions are certainly included. Transactional searches could also refer to users who want to download software, sign up for a newsletter, or sell something on eBay.

Let’s take the example of a restaurant you’ve just heard of. First, you’ll conduct an informational search to find out where the restaurant is, whether they serve brunch, when they’re open, whether they take reservations, and so on. You talk to your friends and say you’d like to go this weekend. You then conduct a navigational search to find the restaurant’s website so you can take a look at the menu and photos of the interior. Finally, you might make a transactional search a few days before your date to make reservations.

It’s possible that these search intents will blur together — you might read reviews, read the menu, and make reservations all on the same visit. You might even conduct a navigational search to find the restaurant’s website with the express purpose of making reservations.

Optimizing Your Content for Search Intent

Google has gotten very good at inferring what its users want when they search based on their history, their phrasing, and what other users click on when they search for the same things. Now it’s up to you to craft your content so that it shows up in search results.

Optimizing for Informational Search

As we mentioned, informational searches often take the form of a question. If your content is designed to be informative, phrasing the headline as a question (like the one you’re reading now) is a good way to capture that search traffic.

Within the content, make sure you answer the question early on. Sites that are genuinely useful will receive increased traffic and benefit in search rankings as a result. Don’t answer the question in your page’s meta-description though — if the description in the search result answers the user’s question, they won’t click on the article. Instead, use the description as an opportunity to set the stage for what the article covers.

Optimizing for Navigational Search

Navigational search is all about making sure that your pages rank highest for your particular brand and product names. Sometimes, this comes down to having unique names — it’s unlikely that anyone searching for “Mailchimp” means anything other than the email service — but there’s more to it than that.

One important step is to make sure that you have landing pages for your brand, products, service, and other offerings in addition to simply your homepage. If each offering has its own page, then the title, subheadings, and meta descriptions can be optimized for that specific offering rather than falling under the umbrella of the homepage. Take Patagonia. You can simply search for “patagonia,” which will direct you to their home page. You can search for “patagonia fleece jackets,” which produces landing pages for women’s fleece jackets, men’s fleece jackets, and fleece outerwear in general. Or you can search for “men’s patagonia r2 jacket,” which will give you the unique page for that particular product at the top of the list.

Optimizing for Transactional Search

The key to transactional search is keeping your landing page simple — if someone is already there to make a transaction, your job is to facilitate that, not to confuse them or slow them down with extraneous content.

Take Dropbox, for example. If you search for “dropbox download,” the first result takes you to the Dropbox Install page. There’s virtually no information on this page, just a big blue button that says “download Dropbox.” Information isn’t needed — if you’re on this page, you already know what you want, so any extra info about Dropbox would be redundant at best.

The same is true for most ecommerce pages. If you click through to the first result for “patagonia men’s r2 jacket,” you’re taken to the listing page for that jacket. You see a picture of the jacket, a size and color dropdown, and an “Add to Cart” button. If you need more information, you can scroll down and see technical specifications, a description, and even a video, but none of it comes between you and easily making a purchase.

Why Are Your Users Clicking?

What search intent optimization boils down to is being mindful of why your users clicked on that particular link — what are they hoping to get out of viewing this page? If your visitors want to learn more about what you do, make your informational content clear and easy to find. If they want to make a purchase, guide them through the process as painlessly as possible. And if they simply want to find your page, your titles, headings, and metadata should put your pages front and center.