What is meant by “search intent” and what are the different types?

What do you want right now?

Maybe it’s an afternoon nap, some mushroom pizza, more time in your day; something like that.

Let’s say you’re craving a fresh thin-crust mushroom pizza loaded with cheese. 

Sounds perfect. But those leftovers in the fridge might have to suffice. Or there’s that freezer-burned microwavable pepperoni one in the garage. If you had a recipe, it would be great to make it from scratch with mushrooms from the farmer’s market. But right now, your best bet is to head to a local pizzeria for a hot, cheesy pie smothered in fresh shiitake mushrooms with olive oil and a little minced garlic. (How’s that for content marketing?)

What is search intent?

All of this is to say that when you’re doing a search on the Web or on a particular website, you have a particular type of intent, or you could switch between several related types of intent. And marketers want to know what that is, or what those are, so that their search engine can give you the right search results.

When people search on the Web, they could have any number of types of search intent in their search queries. So with these musings about mushrooms, the intent you indicate in a search bar to pull up results on a search engine results page (SERP) in order to navigate to the right web page could be something like:

Mushroom pizza near me

Delivery number Pizza My Heart

Recipe mushroom pizza

Best local mushroom pizza

Why is pizza addictive?

Difference between shiitake and porcini

So search queries can contain a variety of types of search intent. What are those types of intent?

Understanding user intent

What you type words or a phrase in a search box — the keywords you enter — typically do a good job of indicating your intent. For example, a search engine can tell if you:

  • Are looking for a brand-name product 
  • Are browsing in order to compare information ahead of making a buying decision
  • Are at the point when you’re more than ready to buy something and just need to find the right product page 
  • Are curious and have a specific question you want answered
  • Want to find a recipe
  • Are traveling and looking for a popular place to eat

Why is search intent important?

When people’s intent is clear, marketing departments can correctly set up their search engine optimization (SEO) to include the right keywords to entice you to visit their website landing page. 

User search intent — the motivation behind the searcher’s doing a search — has become the number one consideration for business people who manage SEO. Intent is now considered an even more valid indicator than what worked before, which was making inferences based on the keywords being entered.

In marketers’ zeal to figure out the whole search-intent thing, they’ve identified four types of intent. The first three are consistently named by the experts, while the fourth is named slightly differently but covers essentially the same concept.

Type 1: informational intent

Informational search intent is pretty straightforward: with this type of query, the searcher is interested in digging up some piece of content, wondering about something they’ve seen or some idea that’s occurred to them; they’re curious. 

In their search query, they ask a who, what, when, where, why, or how question (and don’t necessarily phrase it as a question).

Sample informational queries:

Who is the number one artist on Spotify?

What is virga

Labor Day 2023

Where is the train station in Amsterdam?

Why bats hang upside down

How to get a job with no experience

The one thing that an informational search query can’t be is related to buying something — that is considered transactional intent.

One way to tell whether a Google search, for instance, is informational is by the details the search engine responds with. The first results are typically high-quality content elements such as a definition, a map, a visual such as a chart or graph, a recipe, featured snippets (short blurbs), or “People also ask” content. 

Type 2: navigational intent

This type of content query sounds like it would indicate that the searcher wants to know how to go to a physical place, doesn’t it? However, navigational queries are actually related to wanting to find a shortcut to a specific website, such as that of a particular brand (think Apple or Facebook). The searcher doesn’t know the URL or exact spelling of the name, or they’re too lazy to type it, .com and all, so they simply throw in the company name. With navigational search queries, people aren’t looking for a particular product to buy (yet, anyway). Navigational search intent is all about arriving on the homepage of the searcher’s site of choice in the fastest way possible.

Type 3: transactional intent

You guessed it: this type of query likely indicates someone’s desire and readiness to buy something — a specific product or service. Transactional queries with product names as the target keywords would be expected if you have an ecommerce website. The search terms are likely to be, but not always, brand names, as the user is ready to abandon the revolving product carousels and other elements on a company site or online marketplace and fork over their cash. These searchers use a transactional-sounding word like “buy,” “cost,” or “register.” (“Cost” might also not indicate transactional search intent; it could simply be a word in a research-oriented query, as mentioned below.) The transactional searcher could also be looking to make a donation. 

Here are some examples of transactional searches:

Keto shopping at trader joe’s 

Buy best shampoo for hair loss

Discount coupons for Amazon

Where to donate old iPhone

Directions to Target

Type 4: commercial intent (a.k.a. commercial investigation, consideration, preferential)

With a “commercial” or alternatively named search, someone is doing their research (especially applicable in B2B transactions), maybe comparing products and options before they decide to visit a product page to buy something, sign up for a service, or do business with an organization. For example:

Reviews hiking boots men

TechStyle vs Stitch Fix

Best dog treats

Compare Celebrity cruise prices

That sums up the types of search intent. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Not quite. While many searches are easily classified as embodying one of these types of user intent, others are still not going to accurately reveal the searcher’s intent. That’s because the searcher may not know quite what they want at that moment, or they may be phrasing their query in an ambiguous way that could be interpreted by a search engine in multiple ways.

Which means it’s critical for companies to be able to accurately identify their users’ intent

How to ace deciphering of keyword intent

Because of the possibility of your users conducting ambiguous searches, it pays to consider how search intent is set up (e.g., in terms of search ranking factors), and how effectively it works in your search engine software.

Algolia uses machine learning to detect intent and employs a tie-breaking algorithm, to determine the precedence of all rules that apply to any given query. If needed for clarification, graphs are created.

When you’ve determined the intended effect of specific query terms and phrases, you can dynamically change users’ specific search results when their searches match those terms.

You configure this using Rules. Here’s an example of how intent matching rules work for a retailer.

Intent is also important with searching vs. browsing. Going beyond standard search functionality by providing a richer UI increases search box usage and ensures that you meet your searchers’ needs. Why? People don’t always have the tech-savviness to know how to search effectively, or how to adapt a search if their original one doesn’t work. A better search UI can help people search — and continue to search if they come up empty-handed — without giving up.

Are you a developer who wants to improve your site’s click-through rates? You can start building a promising new search solution (and for free). This video goes into intent detection with rules.

Are you a business lead or marketer who wants to improve your digital marketing strategy to facilitate getting higher conversion rates and reduce your bounce rate?

Either way, we’re ready to help. To learn how you can enhance detection of search intent on your site or in your app to improve your user experience, get in touch with the Algolia team.

About the authorCatherine Dee

Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer

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