What is search intent?
This week, Jessie explains what search intent is, Shelby explains why it matters for news organizations, and we explain why Google cares so much about matching reader interest.
Hello, and welcome back. This week, it’s me, Jessie, back from a day trip to Hamilton. Highlights include taking a cat on a hike, getting vegan banh mi, and falling on slippery trails about 15 times (three decades in Ontario and, still, I insist on wearing running shoes in February).
This week, we’re unpacking the concept of search intent, or the why behind a reader’s query on a search engine. We look at how search intent can help news SEOs better understand their audiences and more closely align their stories with reader interest.
In this issue:
What types of search intent exist?
Why intent matters and how to identify the four types
How to create content that responds to search intent
Let’s get into it.
What is search intent?
Search intent is the why behind a query. It is used to describe the purpose of the search. Search intent (sometimes referred to as user intent) shapes the kind of results Google returns to a reader in search engine results pages (SERPs).
There are four types of search intent: navigational, commercial, transactional and informational.
Informational: Readers are actively trying to know something. They want to know new information on a given topic or have a question answered (e.g., “Where will the 2026 Winter Olympics be held?”).
Navigational: Readers are trying to go somewhere on the internet. They are looking for a specific website or landing page (e.g., “ezra klein nyt,” “messenger,” or “Twitter login”).
Commercial: Readers are weighing the value of their potential purchase, or are shopping for a product (e.g., “Is a dyson vacuum worth it?” or “Which are the best stocks to buy now?” or “What’s the best humidifier for a baby?”).
Transactional: Readers who are ready to make a purchase now (e.g., “buy dyson vacuum,” “nyt subscription,” or “order humidifier”) and are turning to Google to make that happen.
News SEOs are mostly concerned with informational intent – because, well, news. A lot of reader queries that publishers can optimize for fall in this bucket.
You will also need to consider and optimize for navigational search terms. These are terms readers use to navigate to your site, your login page (if you have a paywall or membership model) or a specific section page.
For example, if your top-referring key terms are “LA Times entertainment,” “NYT crossword” or “the Cut horoscope” – that’s a signal of navigational reader search intent. (You can find top-referring keywords using Google Search Console, Ahrefs, SEMRush or another SEO tool.)
Note: If a term includes your publication’s name, that’s considered a branded search term.
Confirm in SERPs the appropriate landing pages are in the top results. If not, how can you amend those pages to rank higher?
Similarly, news sites with an e-commerce vertical will need to consider commercial intent as well. For example, Wirecutter and the Strategist are housed within a broader news outlet (The New York Times and New York Magazine, respectively), and both provide product reviews and recommendations to their readers.
As such, terms with specific product groups (“best baby humidifier” or “vitamix review“) can signal reader interest. Group these keywords together as a potential starting point for an evergreen SEO project or topic pillar page to house all of your content on that subject.
Look for trends or opportunities: Can you group all your small kitchen appliance reviews into a larger post detailing the “best kitchen tools”? Or, if you notice readers are looking for gear at a certain price point, join your best-reviewed products under $100 into one guide?
Important to note: Search intent is not mutually exclusive. Intent for a term is not always one type. Many terms can be both commercial and transactional, informational and navigational, or informational and commercial. Often, SERPs will have mixed intent.
Why search intent matters
Search intent is widely considered a ranking factor. Informational searches are readers trying to fill a knowledge gap. Google’s purpose is to find readers the best, most useful content in response to their query. The closer you can align your stories to the search intent, the more likely you’ll rank in SERPs or snag a featured snippet placement (and higher click-through rates) for that keyword.
Pro tip: Fulfilling search intent can also decrease bounce rate (how quickly a reader leaves your site), and increase your recirculation figures (how many pages they click on per visit).
Search intent is also a direct insight into social behaviour. Every day, people use search engines to actively look for information relevant to their lives. They look for advice on how to save money, the best recipes for meals with their families and the burning questions they are too afraid to ask their closest confidants.
The reader’s journey on search is just like the reader’s journey in life. By understanding search intent, we can better help our audience live their lives in the best way possible.
THE HOW TO
How to determine search intent
Many SEO platforms will indicate the intent within their keyword research tools (🎉 we love it when work is done for us! 🎉).
When doing keyword research, filter out non-informational terms or show only keywords that rank for news SERP features (Top Stories, featured snippets, etc). You can also filter to find only keywords containing a question – those are primarily informational intent, as well.
Without a tool, you can also look at the SERPs as the results should indicate the intent. What is the top ranking link and what purpose does that page fulfil? Does it describe something? Send you to a specific site? Compare two products? Provide a purchase form?
It’s clear from SERPs that search terms like “Doug Ford news” have an informational intent. The results page for this term include a Top Stories carousel, Twitter widget, Video features and organic links.
Readers are looking for the latest updates from the government of Ontario and Google is fulfilling that request by providing timely news updates and access to the premier’s official Twitter account.
🔗 Read more: SEMRush outlines how to identify intent in search
How to create new stories using search intent
Start with keyword research with an eye to the modifiers used for a given topic. A keyword modifier is a word that’s added to a base keyword when readers are looking for more relevant results from a query.
Modifier words in a keyword can also signal the type of intent. From Ahrefs, some examples:
Informational: how, what, where, why, guide, tutorial, ideas, example;
Navigational: brands, product or service names;
Commercial: best, top, reviews, or a description for a product;
Transactional: coupon code, buy, order, price.
Modifiers can be a signal of the kind of content readers want (the intent) and the format (a how-to or tutorial, a guide, a list or comparison, reviews, or standard reporting) they are interested in consuming.
Use a keyword research tool – SEMRush and Ahrefs are both great paid options, while Answer The Public, Google Trends or Google’s People Also Ask feature are solid free choices – to understand what people are looking for.
Modifiers like “for beginners” indicate readers want practical, introductory information on a topic.
For example: If “for beginners'' is modifying a query about mortgages, this could include a robust guide that outlines everything you need to know about getting a home loan.
Your stories should have clear subheads that can help guide readers through a longer piece, or help when users are skimming a piece for specific information.
When creating your stories, also consider the following:
The phrases “best,” “reviews,” “legit,” “worth it” and searches that include comparison (“or” “vs.”), are clear signals readers want the pros and cons of a product.
Check Google Images for clues – often, commercial SERPs will be rich with infographics or charts breaking down pros and cons. Include graphics when creating your content and execute image SEO.
Queries including “how to …” are likely seeking structured, step-by-step guides or tutorials (be sure to include the How To schema).
Questions (“what is,” “why are,”' “where is,” “can I,” or “when will”) should be articulated in a headline and answered clearly in the body content (be sure to include the FAQ schema).
“Near me” is one of the most common modifiers for readers to find relevant local places (museum, hikes, restaurants) or things.
Terms like “watch,” “live” or “photos” indicate readers are looking for the visual element to the story. Provide a gallery, video, livestream or other visual elements for the event. In the headline or meta description, signal to the reader that the article includes visuals (use “See” or “watch” in the copy).
These longer tail keywords are often more specific, lower volume and less competitive terms, meaning you might rank for them more easily than the main-focus or head keywords.
The bottom line: Search intent matters. You can rank higher in SERPs by more closely responding to what exactly a reader is looking for when they search something. Understanding intent and keyword modifiers can help align your articles more closely with reader interest.
THE JOBS LIST
These are roles across the globe we see that are audience positions in journalism. Want to include a position for promotion? Email us.
NewzDash is looking for a Success/Sales Manager.
There are several SEO writing jobs available at ReedPop, Eurogamer.net, VG247.com and Rockpapershotgun.com. Connect with Will on the SEO for Journalism Slack.
Southerly Mag is hiring a Digital Engagement Editor (Remote, U.S. South)
According to Google, 15 per cent of all search queries are still new.
Why Future waved goodbye to Google’s AMP and hasn’t looked back.
Sharing a thread from our #general channel in Slack. How do you get buy-in from your newsroom for SEO?
The Ahrefs guide to keyword research is an excellent resource. If you’re struggling with too many options for strong keywords to target, review the section on how to prioritize keywords.