Although semantic search is nothing new (it’s been talked about since at least 2014), it’s the impact on search results which has become more noticeable of late.
OK, so what is semantic search?
Semantic search aims to improve search results by focusing on understanding the user intent and contextual relevance behind a search query. However, optimizing for semantic search is NOT as simple as using a thesaurus to cram synonyms or related words into your content in order to rank.
Semantic search optimization instead aims at developing content that goes beyond a target keyword to address the heart of the query’s intent. Semantic search is about establishing the context for the query itself by offering more pertinent information to users and search engines.
Gone are the days of investigating the string of keywords your audience used in search queries and crafting content “optimized” to match those words. In the age of semantic search, SEO has more to do with digesting what keywords mean and providing context for search engines to better understand what people are looking for when they use search engines.
Semantic search is what today’s search engines use to return the most relevant results based on a few factors:
- The context of the query
- The (assumed) intent of the searcher
- The relationship between words, entities, ideas, etc.
Thus, the value of keywords, at least as SEOs used to conceive of them, is diminishing.
Semantic search tries to understand natural language as humans do.
Intimately tied to semantic SEO are three major updates to Google’s algorithm:
- The Knowledge Graph: Introduced in 2012, the Knowledge Graph was the initial Google project designed to go beyond strings of keywords to understand and amass pages across the web in order to learn how they relate to one another. In Google’s words – “things, not strings.”
- Hummingbird: The first big shake-up related to semantic search occurred with Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013. With this update, the search algorithm began parsing out phrases to construct complex entities, rather than focusing solely on individual keywords. Hummingbird represents Google’s official switch from a keyword to a topic focus.
- RankBrain: The next major step toward reliance on topics occurred with Google’s RankBrain update. Launched in 2015, RankBrain is a true AI algorithm that uses machine learning to process queries. Originally developed to handle the 15% of unique queries Google sees per month, RankBrain maps search intent to context vectors via natural language understanding. (It associates past searches with similar topics to find the best results for never-before-seen queries!).
“So how do I rank in the age of Semantic Search?”
- Answer questions consumers actually ask within your content
- Connect who you are and what you do to industry authorities
- Your content needs to be the authority: unique, high-quality, and comprehensive
Rather than creating content that revolves around a particular keyword, aim towards providing the greatest value for users.
“Instead of fearing the zero-result SERPs, SEO professionals need to think about optimising for a query and not just optimising a web page for that query.”
Optimizing for semantic search, then, can allow you to better discern how far along a consumer is in the buying process, and how likely they may be to convert.
Your goal should be to capture those people at the upper end of the conversion funnel who are not searching for particular products but are seeking information.
“What is a Roomba?”
“When was Abraham Lincoln born?”
“How do I change my oil?”
What these queries are looking for is a recommendation. The goal of content creation, then, is to find the balance between marketing-focused promotional language to target commercial-intent keywords on the one hand, and problem-solving content that meets informational-intent queries on the other.
This happy medium is known as transactional intent, which attempts to cement your brand as the trusted authority in your niche.
Strategies to Succeed in the Age of Semantic Search
The “People Also Ask” (PAA) section in Google’s SERPs is a clear indication that you should be optimizing for things other than keywords.
One of those things is questions:
- PAA is an ideal place to get ideas for the content you should be crafting
- Questions typically have higher engagement when it comes to web pages or social media posts
- Questions offer a window into your particular market—what questions do your potential customers have?
- Questions let you speak to problems using natural language, which is key to optimizing for voice search
Crafting your content around providing the answers to related questions not only creates a positive user experience, but also boosts your chances of showing up as a featured snippet or in the PAA box.
Don’t Try to Go it Alone
One handy tool when it comes to breaking down search results (and how to get your website ranking) is Text Optimizer. This mimics to a degree Google’s own emphasis on finding user intent via semantic analysis to come up with questions you should consider adding (and answering) in your content:
Text Optimizer also helps you better optimize for intent because it uses Google intent tables to give you correlated concepts and ideas which you can incorporate to better meet consumers’ expectations:
Other relevant semantic SEO tools include:
Serpstat Clustering Tool—organizes your keyword lists by grouping them according to the URLs a Google SERP result brings up, thus connecting seemingly disparate keywords that may not even share any words with each other.
Spyfu’s Related Keywords Tool—finds related keywords based on competitiveness, even excluding phrases containing your core term.
Google Correlate—returns trending and matching patterns for a data series or keywords which you can put into a list of related terms. It also gives you the option to exclude terms containing your initial search term so you can examine related phrases.
In sum, SEOs have no choice but to stay up to date on how exactly Google processes data, at least insofar as Google makes such information public. With search engines growing their understanding of user intent, context and semantically related phrases, many SEO practices are becoming outdated, and sites with less-than-stellar content are starting to fall by the wayside.