An SEO guide to understanding user intent


User intent is the foundational piece of strategic SEO efforts. It’s the tool that can help your brands move beyond chasing consumers to delighting them with your content. 

This article what exactly user intent is, why it plays such a pivotal role in search, and how you can incorporate it into your SEO strategy. 

Understanding user intent 

In the context of SEO, user intent refers to the goal or objective a user has when they type a query into a search engine. In simpler terms, it’s the “why” behind the “what.”

This is the pain, need, want or desire driving the user to take that first key action, entering a query into the search bar, no matter the platform.

There are distinct ways to approach user intent.

Leverage a user’s journey stage position

Understanding the user’s search journey stage is vital for effective SEO. 

Aligning your content to meet their expectations creates positive experiences and meaningful audience engagement.

Spotting journey stages isn’t easy, but users provide signals through their search behavior. As a content strategist or SEO, identifying these signals is crucial. 

Here’s an example use case to help spot funnel position signals.

Pain conscious

A user is likely conducting a wide search that is quite short-tail and very top-level. 

The user is aware of their pain, need, want or desire but isn’t necessarily aware of what or who will get them to a solution, and they search accordingly.

Gain conscious

A user has now moved on to having a general understanding or awareness of the solution they seek or need in order to ease their pain.

Their searches begin to narrow down, although they are still relatively open and remain top-level. 

They are now aware of what is required but remain unconvinced or unaware of who can get them toward the desired solution. 

Product conscious

As a user continues to explore, looking to ease their identified “pain.” 

A user will become aware of product gains/solutions. 

These represent a shift in search behavior as the user moves toward solving their initial issue, researching the product solution they believe can assist them in easing their pain. 

Typically, searches become narrow, represented by the specificity and long-tail nature of the query that facilitates their search. 

Dollar conscious

Dollar consciousness applies when a longer tail query is accompanied by considerations around the cost, price or financial implications of their “product conscious” query. 

This stage indicates that a user is continuing to explore the options available as they search to discover a solution that correlates with their available budget for investment.  

This is the first step in understanding the potential impact of leveraging user intent when developing your content strategies. 

Tailoring content to user journey stages fosters connections and builds relationships, converting potential customers into loyal ones.

Dig deeper: How to create and execute a buyer journey-based content strategy

Get better at spotting user signals that could drive your strategy forward

So how do we confirm where users are in their search journey? 

Users send clear signals through:

  • The way they conduct searches.
  • The language choices they make when they search. 

Recognizing and acting on these signals within your SEO strategies is crucial. Simply acknowledging journey stages isn’t enough.

We must understand users’ content expectations in how they want to receive information. Leveraging these signals is vital for creating valuable content at each stage.

When a search includes phrases such as “who,” “what,” “learn,” and ideas,” users are telling us they want to learn more.

Therefore, your content should focus on sharing knowledge and educating your audience about their problems. 

These signals are typical of pain-conscious users looking to learn about an issue they are experiencing.

Users commonly adapt their searches as they move toward being gain or product-conscious.

“Who”, “what,” and “why” are replaced by “best,” “compare,” and “for” queries. 

Users are looking for brands to display their expertise as they seek help with the pain they now acknowledge they have.

As the journey progresses, users’ product-conscious searches begin to feature specific products and categories.

Brand terms and product names will emerge within queries at this stage, so this needs to be reflected in your content. 

When users search for specific products, brands and categories, highlight them in your content. This helps users at this stage, especially as searches become more focused and specific.

And finally, as users reach the end of the search journey and look to spend their money on a solution to their pain, expect searches to become focused on that purchase. 

At this stage, key drivers are “buy,” “discount,” and “price.” Content should focus on these signals, guiding users to product, comparison, and other “money” pages.


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User intent and keyword research: An inextricable bond

Keyword research has typically informed strategic SEO decisions.

But it should no longer be seen as a standalone solution. SEOs can’t depend on keywords alone to rank on a SERP, never mind ranking effectively. 

Keywords need to be used in the context of user intent to be truly effective.

Historically, it seems that SEOs focused on terms with significant search volume or favorable seasonality. However, we must dig deeper into the “why,” as discussed above.

When conducting keyword research, prioritize delivering value to your audience and addressing brand needs in the search journey.

Focus on pain-conscious and dollar-conscious content. 

Go after intent-based strategies rather than a random collection of terms with favorable search volume.

This will enable you to deliver a more focused content strategy and develop a more effective web of knowledge for a brand. 

Some brands may opt to focus the entirety of a strategy on an identified weakness in product-conscious content. 

A different brand may notice a need for more pain-conscious content.

Another brand may notice gaps across the entire journey. 

By adopting this user intent focus as a foundational piece of the puzzle, strategists will be able to see a wider landscape for their brands to inform strategy.

An example: Canva’s ‘color palette’ ranking strategy

Canva, the design tool, leveraged user intent to improve their image rankings on Google.

Instead of solely focusing on keywords and search volume, they recognized that users searching for “color palette” sought inspiration and ideas. 

By creating inspirational content aligned with this intent, their page now ranks favorably at the top of Google’s search results. 

This shows that understanding and matching user intent can lead to higher SERP rankings.

How to unearth user intent: Top tips

Identify your audience

Knowing your target audience will give you an idea of what they might be searching for. 

Demographics is the basic start, but dive much deeper here and get into the nitty gritty of psychographics for the best results. 

The more you understand your target audience’s behaviors, habits, interests, and lifestyle, the more effective your SEO strategy can be.

Analyze the keywords

Once you grasp your audience’s psychographics and tendencies, you can use this knowledge to assess whether a keyword is relevant to them. 

Compile a list of keywords and analyze them in relation to your target consumers and the stages we’ve discussed (i.e., pain, gain, product and dollar conscious). 

This will help you understand how your audience searches specifically.

Understand the search journey

Next, you can understand the user’s search journey, potential deviations, and the different stages they might be in. 

This helps you identify the most critical stages to focus on for your brand.

Study the SERPs

Analyze the SERPs for your target keywords. Well-ranking content can provide insights into the platform’s understanding of the current user intent. 

Monitor the SERPs if rankings change, as intent might evolve over time. Studying the SERPs helps you grasp the broader landscape, which is always beneficial.

Learn from your competitors

Look at your competitors’ well-ranking content. How do they address user intent?

Consider how you can improve upon it. 

SEO is a race to the top, where brands strive to create better results and compete for SERP ranking supremacy. 

Learn from creators

For many brands, content creators are closer to your audience than you. Leverage this! 

Explore if a creator has created content that could assist your brand and develop relationships with them to benefit your SEO content. 

Often, content creators have valuable insights and expertise in speaking to your target audience, making it a perfect match.

Use the right tools

Here are essential tool recommendations that I rely on, with user intent as the foundation of my strategies:

Google Trends

This tool gauges term/topic popularity over time, offers related queries and reveals user intent and community trends. 

It helps you identify emerging trends before changes in search volume occur, allowing for more effective content iteration. I call this “proactive reactivity.” 

Google Analytics

Use Google Analytics to analyze your site’s traffic, identify driving keywords, and pinpoint areas of struggle. 

By mapping this data to user intent, you can prioritize your efforts and allocate resources effectively.

Answer the Public

This tool generates keyword-related questions, revealing user queries. Many tools now do this. 

Even SERP’s People also ask feature offers quick insights into users’ questions.

Semrush and Ahrefs

Ah! The OGs. 

These SEO tools offer detailed keyword analysis, showing top-ranking pages for specific keywords and providing insights into user intent.

Optimizing content based on user intent

Now that you’ve learned how to get into the minds of your users, it’s time to use this knowledge to optimize your content. Here are some techniques to consider:

Craft content to match intent

If the intent is pain or gain-conscious, provide comprehensive and valuable information. 

If it’s product or dollar-conscious, ensure that your product descriptions, images, and CTA are persuasive and clear.

Prioritize user experience

Content experiences are crucial in your SEO strategies. 

Use internal links to relevant content, not just product pages, to move people through the journey. 

Focus on guiding users through your available web of knowledge on a topic and strategically link to product or dollar-conscious pages when appropriate. (This is an art form in itself!)

Use intent-specific keywords

Include long-tail keywords that match the user’s intent. 

For example, if the intent is dollar-conscious, phrases like “buy online” or “free shipping” could be useful to include, but they wouldn’t be effective uses at the pain-conscious stage. 

Update and leverage old content

To improve underperforming content, identify user intent and update the content accordingly.

Stay updated on recurring trends to optimize older content that becomes a key point of discussion for your audience.

User intent pitfalls to avoid

Don’t make these common mistakes that brands and marketers make when incorporating user intent into their SEO strategies.

Not recognizing the variability of user intent

It’s not enough to assume that all users have the same intent when they use similar search terms. 

User intent can be incredibly varied and context-specific, with the same query sometimes implying different intent based on subtle variations in phrasing or the context in which it’s used.

How? 

  • Make a habit of conducting deep, ongoing keyword research and trend analysis to fully understand the nuances of search behavior and user intent. 

Ignoring the user’s journey

Sometimes, brands focus too much on attracting users to their sites and fail to consider the different stages of the user’s journey. 

This tunnel vision approach can lead to a mismatch between the user’s intent and the content they find on your site. 

As a result, you could get lots of traffic but no conversions, for example. 

How? 

  • Always consider the user’s journey when creating and optimizing content. Tailor your content to meet users’ needs at each stage of their journey.

Assuming high traffic equals high intent

Just because a keyword brings in a lot of traffic doesn’t necessarily mean it aligns well with the intent of your target audience. 

High-traffic keywords can sometimes be too broad or vague, leading to lower conversion rates because they’re not attracting the right audience.

How? 

  • Focus on identifying and using high-intent keywords that are more likely to attract users who are interested in your specific product or service. Although these might bring in less traffic, they can often lead to higher conversion rates because they’re more targeted.

Overlooking long-tail keywords

There’s a tendency to aim for those short, popular keywords that seem to bring in the most traffic. 

But these often overlook the value of long-tail keywords, which are typically more specific and often more aligned with a user’s specific intent and journey stage.

How? 

  • Incorporate long-tail keywords into your content strategy. These keywords might bring in less traffic, but they’re often more targeted and can bring in an audience that’s more likely to convert. This should always be a key consideration when developing a strategy.

SEO is a marathon, not a sprint

Incorporating user intent into your SEO strategy isn’t just about getting more users to your site.

You want to attract the right ones – people who will engage with your content, buy your products or use your services. 

The focus is on developing an engaged community of ideal customers from your target audience. Intent is a fantastic way to ensure this. 

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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