For a long time, SEO was all about keywords. But semantic technologies are changing that dependence, and marketers should understand the new rules that govern how people are finding content online.
What is Semantic Search?
Semantics are about meaning and context. A semantic search is a more natural way for users to find what they’re looking for — which is why it’s also called “conversational search.” With semantic searches, instead of using “Empire State Building” and “height” to find the height of the historic NYC skyscraper, a search for “How tall is the Empire State Building?” is more effective.
With their most recent update, the Hummingbird algorithm, Google is fully committed to semantic searching. In fact, a Google search for “How tall is the Empire State Building?” brings up the actual answer as the first result: “1,250' (381 m), 1,454' (443 m) to tip,” in large bold print, accompanied by an image of the building.
This immediate answer is provided by a Google component called Knowledge Graph. The website results that follow are practically superfluous.
Other examples of semantic search being used online now include:
- Bing’s Snapshot, which functions similarly to Google’s Knowledge Graph.
- Schema.org, a collaborative initiative between Google, Bing and Yahoo that define a set of HTML terms used in web page markups to help search engines find semantic matches.
- Natural search engines like Powerset and Hakia, which were built using semantic search algorithms.
In a nutshell, semantic search strives to deliver intuitive search results based on user intent, using contextual clues rather than keywords to deliver the best matches. Here’s how you can optimize your website and content for semantic search.
Change the Way You Research Keywords
Keyword research is still an important strategy for semantic search optimization. The most effective keyword sets will cover multiple variations in user intent, so the natural meaning of your content is clear.
One way to research semantic keywords is a three-tiered approach:
- Core keywords: This list will feature variations that are synonymous or close in meaning to your target set, so your content is considered when these related keywords are searched.
- Thematic keywords: This list should include conceptually related keywords — if one of your primary keywords is “Manhattan restaurant,” a thematic term might be “fine dining in New York City.”
- Stem keywords: These types of keywords anticipate the questions people would search for, and provide answers. In the restaurant example, a stem keyword might be “find affordable restaurants in Manhattan.”
There are several tools out there that can help you research semantic keywords as well.
Integrate Fully with Social Media
Social search has become more critical to semantic results, especially considering that social media is a significant component in Google’s Hummingbird algorithm. The search engine uses personal data from searchers’ social media profiles to further tailor search results based on individual interests.
Optimizing for semantic search should involve social media integration, with content that reflects the social interests of your target audience — which is then shared through your own social profiles.
Design an Intuitive Content Outline
The web pages that rank highest with semantic search are those that provide relevant content. To organize your website for optimal ranking, assign unique sets of targeted keywords to each of your pages, and then build out content that relates directly to those keywords. Your content should address the user questions that your keyword phrases seek to answer.
Keep Doing What You’ve Been Doing
Finally, marketers who have been practicing good SEO and following the old keyword rules can breathe a sigh of relief — because one of the best ways to optimize for semantic search is to continue those best practices. The Hummingbird algorithm not only rewards SEO best practices, but also penalizes content and websites that use “black hat” tactics like keyword stuffing.
So continue to use — but not overuse — well-placed keywords that are organically integrated with your content and you’ll score with semantic search.