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Semantic Search: Why SEOs Need to Think Differently

Pat Marcello

With everyone at Comic Con last weekend, thinking about things like Doctor Who, DC & Marvel, TV shows and movies based on comics, and what new video games are in the can, it’s a new world. The rise in the popularity of all things graphic art has changed rapidly over the past decade. What was thought to be shallow and time-wasting is now mainstream, and even the most serious of us can become engaged in this genre in one of its forms or another. So, what? Believe it or not, this over-arching engagement factor is kind of how semantic search works, too.

Semantic search takes all kinds of information into account. It doesn’t depend solely on the keywords you use on a page; it depends on who you are, what you have produced over time in your niche, and how well people relate to what you have published on the Web. Semantic search takes the whole gamut of what we do online into consideration when ranking us for search positions.

That’s not to say that coming up with the right keywords is dead – yet, but I foresee a day when keywords could be a thing of the past. People argue this with me all the time: “Spiders are robots. They don’t understand what you’re saying unless you make it clear to them. That will never change, blah, blah, blah.”Well, I’m here to tell you that unless you change that thinking, you may as well take down your SEO sign now. The party’s over for you.

What Does THAT mean?

First, let’s define semantic search for the unaware. Wikipedia (though not a real, honest-to-goodness source) defines the term well, in my mind:

“Semantic search seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding searcher intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace, whether on the Web or within a closed system, to generate more relevant results.”

Note the reference to “more relevant results.” That’s what search engines are all about and what Google has been working toward with the introduction of the dread Panda and its pal Penguin. Cleaning up the Web is one way to produce more relevant results, and another is to “understand searcher intent.”

As most of us know, Google has a human quality evaluation team in place to this day. Human evaluators are put through rigorous testing panels to see whether they even qualify to understand, review, and evaluate whether websites presented in the SERPs (search engine results pages) fit the query.

The biggest issues are relevance and yes, searcher intent – What was going through that guy’s or girl’s mind when he/she typed in that particular query? Today, it still takes a guess. Humans can’t even be 100% sure, and robots are stepping up and getting better all the time. Will they replace flesh & blood people? I’m thinking, Yes, they will.

What Can We Do to Keep Up?

The important thing for you to “get” is that the old SEO tenets are slipping away, one by one. We now know that having too many keywords in a page is bad, that having pages “over optimized” is bad, that gathering links in ways we used to can be bad, depending on how it’s done, etc. SO many things that used to be standard practice for SEO have just gone by the wayside over the last few years.

Want to be relevant? When planning your SEO strategy, you have to think “entity” rather than keywords these days.Branding is crucially important in this new world of search.This article is a prime example.

When I write for SEMRush or for Technorati or any other well-respected sites online about SEO, it’s boosting my SEO cred.Eventually, Google will know who I am and what my company does. I’m NOT worrying about how many keywords I have in an article or on the home page of my site. I’m worrying about my influence and the engagement factor surrounding what I write:

  • How many people will share this on Facebook?(Please do.)
  • How many on Twitter? (Tweet away!)
  • Will people comment on what I’ve written?

Hope R Us. In other words, am I accepted socially and have I engaged my audience?All of these elements are important.

The Knowledge Graph Provides Clues

Though most everyone who lives online knows what the Knowledge Graph from Google is these days.It pulls in results that the search engine holds in high esteem and gives them to you, even though you haven’t specifically asked for them to be presented in any particular way.

Watch what happens when I type in a generic term like “pizza”:

Google Knowledge Graph for "pizza" in Bradenton FL

The highly- popular topic triggered Knowledge Graph results:

  •  It gives me every pizza place in Bradenton, FL because Google already knows I live there.
  • I get every pizza listing in Google Places in my area
  • There are links to every site and images of the restaurants.
  • I even get a map to show me where these places are.

All I did was type in “pizza.” Google decided I’m hungry and am looking for a place to have a good meal.

I could be looking for the history of pizza, though. I’m a writer and often research terms with a completely different intent. I could be looking for the “history of pizza,” so semantic search and the Knowledge Graph aren’t 100% accurate, and may never be. Yet, I'll bet on Google.

Make Ready the Way

Have you built a brand in your local area? If you’re an online or offline garden supplies company, have you used the proper Meta data behind your page? If you’re a restaurateur, a music site, or an e-commerce store, have you hit on rich snippets yet?Have you listed your business in Google Places? If not…

You’re already falling behind.

Meta data info is still critically important, and may never go away.The title and description you give to your site is all-important to spiders, still, and I have a concrete example.

My biggest client has a really great site that serves its niche well. It is respected by the people in that niche for quality information and gets plenty of natural traffic, linking, etc. What we’re doing for them is enhancing their search positions and boosting their traffic by thousands of new visitors every week.

One week, I was analyzing the effects of working our plan and saw a drop of 2,000 organic visitors! I freaked! The first thing through my mind was the Curse of the Double P (Panda and/or Penguin).I couldn’t figure why because everything we do is 100% white hat. And yet, I’ve known sites that were hit with no rhyme or reason.

Thank heaven, that was not so.

On closer inspection, I found that the Meta data I had given the site owner was missing. They had moved their pages to a new server, changed their look & feel, and did it all without alerting the SEO, who would have made sure that everything was up to snuff as it was done.

Know what I found?

The site was missing its behind the page title and Meta description. That was it!

Everything else we do is off-site, and that one little detail caused a big problem. Once we remedied the issue by adding the proper information, the visitors came back pretty quickly, but we’re still working on getting back more than one hundred keyword rankings we had before this all happened. The tags had only been missing for about a week! Imagine what could have happened, if no one was monitoring things.

In other words, this back of page information is STILL uber-important, and you have to make sure you have unique tags on every page in your site! This may always be true. Who knows? But Google, in particular, is leaning toward furthering its semantic understanding.

Google has recently hired people, well-known for their expertise in Wikis and semantic search. Think they’re working towards using more semantic search elements in their algorithm?Um... yeah. For sure.

Facebook Graph Search works in much the same way, people. Semantic search isn’t coming. It’s here!We’re not in 2007, when LSI (latent semantic indexing) was a buzzword for a new type ofsearch. This is six years later, and you know the Internet moves at the speed of sound. Right?Why are you surprised?

If you are one of those business owners who is, this is the perfect time to catch up, not when it becomes highly important, NOW, while it’s still important but not the be all and end all. Why wait until then?

What to Do? What to Do?

Work on branding your business in a big way. Get a Google page, publish expert information on respected sites, and BE everywhere you can be online that counts. And be social. Add killer content that people naturally want to link to and join in on important conversations. Comment on blogs, in social media groups, and join the big three – Google Plus, Facebook, and Twitter. I’d throw LinkedIn into the mix, as well. And if you have a retail business with products that are good eye candy, don’t omit Pinterest. Last year, it drove more e-commerce business online than anything else.

If you do these things, you’ll have a much better place in semantic search.

Can’t hurt, right? I mean, make 100% certain that your page Meta data and your rich snippets are in place, but make your business an important part of the Web, too.

If you don’t have time, hire competent people to do this for you. You’ll fare much better when semantic search is the norm rather than the exception -- at least better than the uninformed, the lazy, and the cheap.

Trust me. It’s gonna happen! Prepare ye now the way.

Pat Marcello is President and SEO Manager of MagnaSites.com. Read more information about her and her company, which does the things business owners don't have time to do, at http://www.MagnaSites.com.

Pat Marcello

Asks great questions and provides brilliant answers.

Pat Marcello is President and SEO Manager at MagnaSites.com, a full-service digital marketing company that serves small- to medium-sized businesses. Follow her on FacebookTwitter or Google+. Pat’s last article for SEMrush was "Google's Fetch and Render: Why It's Important."
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Either just recently joined or is too shy to say something.

Great article Pat. I'm just surprised SEMrush didn't warrant it good enough to give you a link (aside from G Plus, which benefits them as well due to a higher CTR in the SERPs with author images).

So now I'm going to copy and paste your link to visit your site.

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