In 2010, optimizing for search engines meant snapping up as many backlinks as possible and including more keywords than side dishes at a Thanksgiving dinner.
Back then, SEO meant understanding how search engines generated results so that we could reverse-engineer content that ranks higher.
Today, search engine understanding has evolved, and we’ve changed how we optimize for it as a result.
Identifying keywords is no longer enough.
Now, you need to understand what those keywords mean, provide rich information that contextualizes those keywords, and firmly understand user intent.
All of these things are vital for SEO in an age of semantic search.
This article will discuss what exactly semantic search is, why it’s important for SEO, and how to optimize your content for semantic search.
What Is Semantic Search?
Semantic search describes a search engine’s attempt to generate the most accurate results possible by understanding:
- Searcher intent.
- Query context.
- The relationships between words.
In layman’s terms, semantic search seeks to understand natural language the way a human would.
For example, if you asked your friend “What is the largest mammal?” and then followed that question up with “How big is it?” your friend would understand that “it” refers to the largest mammal: a blue whale.
Before 2013, however, search engines wouldn’t understand the context of the second question.
Instead of answering “How big is a blue whale,” Google would seek to match the specific keywords from the phrase “How big is it” and return webpages with those exact keywords.
Semantic search also allows Google to distinguish between different entities (people, places, and things) and interpret searcher intent based on a variety of factors including:
- User search history.
- User location.
- Global search history.
- Spelling variations.
For example, if you search for “diamondback” after performing 15 searches on snakes, Google will assume that you probably want to learn about rattlesnakes as opposed to the bicycle brand or the villain from Luke Cage.
Semantic Search: A Brief History
The Knowledge Graph
Introduced in 2012, the Knowledge Graph was Google’s first step in developing the importance of entities and context over strings of keywords – or, as Google phrased it, “things, not strings.”
The Knowledge Graph set the stage for the large-scale algorithmic changes to come.
As a massive database of public information, the Knowledge Graph collected information considered public domain (e.g., distance to the moon, Abraham Lincoln’s presidential term, the cast of “Star Wars”, etc.) and the properties of each entity (people have birthdays, siblings, parents, occupations, etc.).
Google’s Hummingbird update, rolled out in 2013, is arguably the beginning of the semantic search era as we know it today.
Hummingbird ensures that “pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words” – meaning that pages that better match searcher context and intent will rank better than pages that repeat context-less keywords ad nauseam.
In 2015, Google launched RankBrain, a machine learning system that’s both a ranking factor and a smart query analysis AI.
RankBrain, like Hummingbird, seeks to understand user intent behind queries. The key difference between them is RankBrain’s machine-learning component.
RankBrain is always learning, analyzing the best-performing search results, and looking for similarities between the pages that users find valuable.
As a result, RankBrain may deem a page to be “good response” to a query even if it doesn’t contain exact words from the query.
How Does Semantic Search Impact SEO?
Users Turn to Voice Search
Semantic search has evolved in large part due to the rise of voice search.
Mobile voice commands are now commonplace and using voice commands on devices other than is already “frequent” or “very frequent” among 33 percent of high-income households, according to research from Stone Temple Consulting.
Optimizing for voice search is very different from traditional SEO because you need to immediately get to the point (for intent-based searches) and keep your content much more conversational.
What You Can Do
Create content that clearly and concisely answers a common query at the top of the page before delving into more specific details.
Make sure to use structured data to help search engines understand your content and context.
For example, a sporting goods retailer might a checklist of what to take on a day hike, followed by information about local wildlife, fishing and hunting regulations, and contact information for emergency services.
Focus Shifts from Keywords to Topics
It’s time to stop creating content around keywords.
Instead, you should be thinking about broad topics in your niche that you can cover in-depth.
The goal here is to create comprehensive, original, and high-quality resources.
What You Can Do
Instead of creating dozens of short, disparate pages each with its own topic, consider creating “ultimate guides” and more comprehensive resources that your users will find valuable.
Searcher Intent Becomes a Priority
One of the best approached to keyword targeting isn’t actually keyword targeting so much as it is intent-targeting.
By examining the queries that lead people to your website, you’ll be able to come up with a group of topics ideal for building content around.
What You Can Do
Make a list of keywords and separate them by user intent.
For example, the queries “iPhones vs Android battery life” or “compare Apple and Samsung phones” both clearly fall under the umbrella intent of “compare smartphones.”
By contrast “where to buy iPhone X” and “best deals for Samsung Galaxy” both communicate an intent to purchase.
Once you understand searcher intent, start creating content that directly addresses their intent instead of creating content around individual keywords or broad topics.
Technical SEO Matters Just as Much as Content
Even with Google’s transition from “string to things,” the algorithm isn’t yet smart enough to derive meaning or understanding on its own.
You still need to optimize your site and help Google understand your content.
- Keywords: Yes, keywords still matter. Use a content analysis tool to mine for common questions and related long-tail keywords that you can incorporate into your content. Include keywords in your title tags, URL, body, header tags, and meta tags, as long as it fits naturally.
- Link building: Authoritative backlinks remain one of the most important ranking signals. Prioritize content that naturally attracts links. Also, don’t forget to use proper internal linking structures to develop deep links to other valuable content you’ve created.
- Structured data: Use Schema markup to help customers find your business and search engines index your site. You can add more detail using review markup and organization markup too.
- Errors: Try to eliminate redirects whenever possible, only relying on 301 redirects for missing pages. You should have no more than one redirect per page. Also, use rel=canonical tags for different versions of your website.
- Site speed: Minify resources, compress images, leverage browser caching, and follow Google’s checklist for optimizing your website’s speed.
- Optimize site structure: Maintaining a logical site structure will help search engines index your website and understand the connection between your content. Logical site structures also improve UX by providing users with a logical journey through your website.
Focus Shifts to User Experience
User satisfaction should be guiding all of our SEO efforts in an age of semantic search.
Google cares about user satisfaction and they are continuously fine-tuning their algorithm to better understand and satisfy searchers. SEO professionals should be focusing on UX, too.
What You Can Do
Improve page speed as much as possible, make sure your mobile site is optimized (especially now that Google prioritizes mobile sites for indexing), and keep an eye on metrics like bounce rate and session duration.
Whenever you think you can find something that can be improved, run A/B experiments to see if you can boost engagement.
Understanding how Google processes data is essential to SEO.
Mediocre content offerings and old-school SEO tricks simply won’t cut it anymore, especially as search engines get better at understanding context, the relationships between concepts, and user intent.
Bottom line: the content you create should be built with both people and search engines in mind (notice that people are first, though!).
Content should be relevant and high-quality, but it should also zero-in on searcher intent and be technically optimized for indexing and ranking.
If you manage to strike that balance, then you’re on the right track.
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