What does search query intent mean?

In the early days of SEO, the process of choosing keywords to target was quite literal. It really mattered whether you optimized for the singular vs plural version of a keyword or which specific synonym you included in a piece of content. In the same vein, ideas such as keyword density (using a keyword multiple times), keyword order and even emphasizing a keyword with bold or italics were considered best practices.

With the advancement of Google’s artificial intelligence based search algorithm, Google can go far beyond just matching strings. With years of engagement history – meaning they know what users actually click- they know what people want even if the user can’t really articulate what they are looking for! 

Here I have searched for “finals time” and I don’t need to specify that its for the NBA, and Google shows me the time for the NBA finals.


Or when I search “drinks” Google gives me a maps result of places to go have drinks.

This is called intent matching. On a simplistic level, it means that Google can skip over whether a search query is spelled correctly, contains a plural or singular, or even the language of the query. On the content side, they are also “reading” the content and determining how it might match the intent of a user.

Again, they ignore word tense, spelling and raw keyword density. Relying on AI to make the match between user and website is a closer approximation of Utopian matchmaking then just using easily gamed metrics like string and pattern matching.

To understand this in practice, here are some example queries

Say a user was looking for “Legally Blonde” but couldn’t remember the name of the actual movie. They might search something like “Blonde lawyer movie” or “Blonde harvard lawyer”. In each case, the results will show pages related to the movie: “Legally Blonde”.

Granted, the page does use those keywords; however, they are certainly not the focus of the page. To really drive the point home, this movie will appear in the results even for terms that are not on the page, but clearly exhibit the same intent! In the movie, Reese Witherspoon’s character attended Harvard Law school. Queries that use the word, “Stanford” and “Yale” are considered to have the same intent as “Harvard” and the results are therefore similar.

It should go without saying that if a user’s query were to contain “attorney” instead of “lawyer” , Google would consider the query to be lawyer regardless and would even bold the word “law” in the search snippet.

Even more interesting, for the query “Blonde Yale attorney”, the same movie still appears in the results because as before even without a keyword match the intent is the same.

One final example of how search intent works is to use an example query that describes something a user is seeking rather than keywords at all. If I were to describe a snakefly in words, I might search something like “bug long neck and wings”. In this case, the first result tells me that it is a snakefly, but that might not be so surprising since the webpage has all the words from my query in the page.

However, if instead of long I searched “bug with stretched neck and wings”, the 3rd result will be one for Snakefly and the content does not even use the words “stretched neck”.

This is intent matching at its best and is a foreshadow of the future where keywords become less and less part of how SEO works.