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How To Determine Keyword Search Intent

February 18, 2016

Keyword research isn’t just about finding popular keywords to target. It’s also broader than identifying low competition words and phrases that you actually have a chance of ranking for.

Without factoring in search intent, your keyword research could be far less effective than you hope.

Here’s an example: When someone goes to Google and types in “house painting”, what are they most likely to be looking for?

There are a number of possibilities:

  • A company to come paint their house
  • Instructions for painting a house
  • A painting of a house
  • A painting for their house

Without knowing exactly what most people mean when they use this query, you may very well be targeting the wrong keyword, or providing the wrong type of information.

While there is no tool that will tell you exactly what searchers are looking for when they use a particular keyword, there is a process you can use that will give you a pretty good idea.

But before we jump in, let’s look at the three main motivations or intentions behind keywords.

Three main types of search intent

The process of determining keyword search intent will begin with figuring out which category of search query your keyword falls into. There are three primary types of queries: informational, navigational and transactional.

  • Informational: Queries where people are looking to gain knowledge. They often use words like ‘how to’, ‘why’ and other question words.
  • Navigational: Queries where people are looking for a specific website (e.g., or “Walmart”).
  • Transactional: Queries where people are looking to take a specific action using the web (e.g., purchase a product). Most keywords that have high commercial intent will fall into this category. Look for keywords like ‘buy’, ‘shipping’ or ‘online’ (e.g., ‘book travel online’), or specific product names or models (e.g. “air hogs remote control X-34 Landspeeder”).

It’s interesting to note that the majority of web-based content is informational in nature. Some research has even suggested that around 80% of all queries are informational, with the remaining 20% being split evenly between navigational and transactional.

Some experts add another category of intent: commercial investigation. An example would be queries where people are looking for reviews or product comparisons. These searches would typically take place before a transactional query; in other words, when people are still in the research stage but have the intent to buy.

How to determine keyword search intent

Once you have an idea of a keyword you’d like to rank for, you can begin the process of determining search intent for that keyword. Following are three steps you can use to better understand what people are looking for.

Step 1: Examine the SERPs

While you may not immediately know the intent behind a certain word or phrase, Google usually does. This means that studying the SERPs can give you inside information into searcher intent.

Every element in the SERPs gives us a clue as to search intent. Remember to pay attention to:

  • Ads
  • Organic listings
  • Knowledge graph results

Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re thinking of optimizing a product or category page for “toaster oven”.  While you may assume (and rightly so) that anyone searching for this term is looking to buy a toaster oven, there are actually a number of possibilities. They may be looking to:

  • Compare different toaster ovens
  • See images of toaster ovens
  • Find out where to buy a toaster oven locally
  • Find top-selling or highest rated toaster ovens
  • Buy a toaster oven online

As you might imagine, the content of your page will be quite different depending on the actual intent behind the query. Fortunately, Google already has a handle on what people want to see when they search. We just need to plug in our keyword and look at the first page of the SERPs:


Looking at the SERPs for toaster oven, it’s immediately clear that most users will have strong commercial intent when using this query. The ads from big box stores are category pages for toaster ovens, and there are product images (ads) all the way down the right side of the page.

In fact, Google even tells us that they think we are trying to find a product:


Do we see this same intent in the organic results? Let’s take a look:


The top 3 organic listings are product category pages from big box stores (along with some toaster oven images thrown in). In fact, every single listing on page 1 of the SERPs is a product category.

Clearly, there is commercial intent behind this keyword. This is a great indication that most people who search for toaster oven aren’t just looking for information or images, but are looking to browse for and/or buy toaster ovens.

But can we dig any deeper to further analyze commercial intent? Can we find out how close people are to making a purchase when they use this keyword? Let’s take a look.

Step 2: Use AdWords to determine the extent of commercial intent

While we may have no intention of bidding on this keyword, it’s helpful to know what others are willing to pay and how competitive it is.

Generally speaking, the higher the suggested bid and competition, the higher the commercial intent.

Here’s what I found using Google’s Keyword Planner:


As you can see, the suggested bid for toaster oven is $1.75, and the competition is high. The high level of competition suggests high commercial intent.

Looking at the section below, we can compare the levels of commercial intent based on the suggested bids for a variety of related keywords. While this isn’t an exact science, it does give us a pretty good idea of how successful advertisers have been with these particular keywords.

For instance, we can see that best toaster oven has a suggested bid of only $.62, which is less than half the bid for toaster oven. This may indicate that people searching for best toaster oven are at the research/comparison (commercial investigation) stage of the buying cycle, so are less likely to buy.

Here’s another related keyword I found with a suggested bid of $5.10:


Again, while ranking for this keyword isn’t a guarantee that your visitors will actually convert, it does give us a good indication that people using this term are in buying mode.

Step 3: Analyze your analytics

The two steps above can be used regardless of whether you’re creating new content or optimizing old content. Step 3, on the other hand, will help you determine if your existing content is properly optimized for user intent.

Understanding whether your content is meeting the expectations of your visitors is key: instead of having to constantly create new content to drive conversions, you can save time and money by tweaking existing content.

Perhaps the most important metrics to check here are your bounce rates. High bounce rates from search engine referrals may indicate that your content isn’t matching up with searcher intent.

Among the visitors who found your site via the search engines, how high are your bounce rates? If these rates are considerably higher than your other traffic sources (social media referrals, direct traffic, etc.), the issue may be that the keywords your page is ranking for don’t match up with your content.

Here’s how to access this information in Google Analytics: Go to Behavior à Site Content à Landing Pages.

Remember that we want to see how individual pages performed based on their traffic source (in this case, search engine referrals). Under ‘Secondary dimension’, select ‘Acquisition’ and then ‘Source’.


You should now see a list of individual landing pages, their source (Google, Facebook, direct, etc.), and their bounce rates.


(I’ve left out the landing page URLs for anonymity, but they are listed on the left hand side).

According to the report above, we can see that the last page receives the highest bounce rates; considerably higher, in fact, than the other search engine referred pages.

Analyzing this page to see which keyword(s) drive most of the traffic will be key.

While there can obviously be other reasons for high bounce rates (not being mobile-friendly, having a confusing or cluttered design, etc.), a single page with higher-than-average bounce rates is more likely to signal an issue with search intent.

Which type of intent should you optimize for?

While it may seem that transactional queries are preferable – because they’re more likely to lead to conversions – it really depends on your goals. For instance, if you have a content-based site and are mainly interested in increasing pageviews, you’ll likely want to focus more on informational queries. These will tend to be easier to rank for, and cheaper to bid on (if you’re using paid ads).

If, on the other hand, you have an e-commerce site and are looking to sell products, you’ll want to focus largely on transactional (and commercial investigation) queries.

Keep in mind all sites can benefit to some extent from ranking for informational and navigational queries. While these searches may not immediately lead to sales, they may provide the opportunity to gently guide visitors through the sales cycle – from awareness all the way through to purchase.


When you create new content – whether that’s blog posts, product descriptions or category pages – ask yourself what you hope to accomplish with that content.

Are you looking to drive pageviews, or do you want people to buy? Either way, figure out what people are actually looking for when they search, and then write content that best matches that search intent.


Jayson DeMers

Founder at Audience Bloom