Understanding Semantic Search

Image representing related words and phrases of semantic search

Do you know what your customers are looking for? How and when can you give it to them? These are among the simplest – yet conversely most complex – questions marketers have been asking themselves since the advent of commerce. Which is why, in many ways, the growth of semantic search in recent years, months and even weeks is taking online marketing back to basics, eroding spammy quick-fix strategies in the quest to provide the most accurate, helpful results to users. Which is what we’re all here for, right?

Semantic Search: How, When and Why

Is this shift cause for ripping up your existing SEO strategies and tossing them on the nearest bonfire along with effigies of Matt Cutts? Not just yet. But with Google now ‘thinking’ smarter, you need to be following suit. Right now.

Semantic search is the undertaking to understand searcher intent and the context of content so that the best results can be provided. The move towards more intuitive search which answers fully-formed queries and determines intent rather than simply returning results for keywords hasn’t happened overnight. Rather, like many changes in the search world, the shift has been gradual with some key milestones along the way. For the best part of five years, search engines have existed which focus on natural language rather than keywords. However, the huge growth in mobile internet – and in particular the development of smarter speech recognition software such as Siri and Android’s Voice Search – has necessitated some major algorithm changes at Google. As search behaviour moves with the times, so the technology must follow suit – and it’s really to everyone’s benefit in the long run.

The Knowledge Graph and Hummingbird

While the multitude of Panda and Penguin updates have arguably generated far more column inches in their swashbuckling stance against spammy sites, the real line in the sand was actually drawn with the introduction of the Knowledge Graph in 2012. Aiming to derive meaning from search queries and present data from multiple sources in a carousel on the SERPs, it’s geared towards building Google as an impeachable source of personalised information in itself rather than being merely a tool which points users in the right direction of what they’re looking for.

Building on this evolutionary stride, in September 2013, the web giant announced it had quietly rolled out Hummingbird a few months previously. A brand new algorithm built from old and new technology, it’s geared towards understanding the sorts of query based searches that are only going to grow in volume once the wider world adopts speech-based searching and embraces the Orwellian possibilities afforded by technology such as Google Glass.

How Will It Affect Keyword Research…

First and foremost, all business, large and small, as well as SEO strategists can breathe a (partial) sigh of relief – semantic search doesn’t sound the death knell for keyword research and thus their primary work function. As signaled by the major changes to Google’s keyword planner tool earlier this year however, the emphasis is now far more on targeting the correct pages on a site rather than competitive keywords in a certain sphere.

Above all else, SEOs need to be clear on the intent of their user and look for the questions behind the keywords. There are many ways to integrate semantics into your SEO strategy, listed below are 4 key areas to look at.

1. Bounce Rate

Bounce rate is one of the most powerful ways of inferring what type of content is working for a particular set of keywords. Bulb Buddy faced a challenge of understanding what users meant for a number of ambiguous terms in the lighting industry. An example of one of these problematic terms is the term ‘striplight’. Surprisingly most people do not actually mean ‘striplight’ when they search for it. They mean ‘fluorescent tube’! So how did Bulb Buddy figure this out? Simple – They realized the bounce rate was surprisingly high when users landed on these pages & tested a few landing page alternatives.

The example below shows the bounce rate for the term ‘strip light’ landing users on various strip light & fluorescent tube landing pages.

Example of bounce rate and its effects on SEO

The data clearly shows that the fluorescent tube page is preferred by around 10%. This might not seem like a massive amount but imagine if you could make your landing pages 10% more relevant for every keyword!

2. Average Time on Page

Is the user actually reading the content? Do the maths! If you have a 1000 word article and people are only staying on the page for 30 seconds it means they probably aren’t reading the whole article (unless everyone coming to your site are speed readers!)

3. Which Pages are Best at Capturing Long Tail?

Look at the landing pages that are the most effective at scooping up long tail traffic. This is important because once you have an idea of this you can expand the reach of the page by adding/modifying content.

4. In-Page Analytics and Behaviour Flow

This can give a very powerful insight into how the content is being received by the user. For example if users are being led away to another part of the site that seems more appealing/relevant this could help give new content ideas or lead you to re think how the information is displayed on the page.

 …And Content Creation?

Bored of being bludgeoned with the message that ‘Content is King’? Well, it isn’t going away – With semantic search, writing content that is lightweight and provides marginal value to the user isn’t now just inadvisable – it may just get you stung by another hummingbird-like update. Ensuring every single lexical choice on your page – along with grammar and even your syntax – working towards answering your customers’ query or queries is more essential than ever.

Writing Content with Semantics in Mind

Consider five or six sites competing to sell secondary tickets to an upcoming Lady Gaga tour. In order to best optimise your content, publishing full event details and buying information is the base minimum.

In this case:

  • How do customers purchase and receive their tickets?
  • Have you gone to the trouble of finding and publishing venue seating plans?
  • What facilities are available in and around the concerts?
  • Have you included all the pertinent words and phrases around the subject matter Lady Gaga (correct song titles, album names, questionable meat-based fashion choices), without turning your content into an endless stream of over written drivel?

Leave users and search engines alike in no doubt as to the topic and tone of your pages, structuring your copy in a logical, helpful way. It’s a fine balance and it requires proper research and precision execution. Consider creating additional pages which answer their queries more accurately while encouraging the same end conversion.

Optimizing for Semantic Search

In the past, optimizing websites for the broadest keywords has been at the forefront of many SEO campaigns. Terms such as ‘credit cards’ and ‘compare credit cards’ would have been the focal point rather than a term such as ‘how to compare credit cards’. As mentioned above, when conducting keyword research the emphasis should be on answering the question behind the keyword, i.e., what is the user’s intent. If you’re a credit card provider who doesn’t offer this information, the theory is that you should find it more difficult to rank than a site that does.

Quite simply, there’s no getting around it: optimizing for semantic search takes more time, more effort and serious ingenuity. Google’s thrown down the gauntlet: Can you rise to the challenge – and up the SERPS – by finding out exactly what your customers are looking for and giving it to them?

Guest Post Author: Dan Kelley is an SEO consultant for Go Up, an SEO agency in London.

By Wanda Anglin

Wanda Anglin has a passion to help businesses and non-profits reach their goals by attracting more of the right website visitors. Her empathy and understanding for small business challenges comes from a background in project management, sales support, accounting, and business ownership. When not helping clients, Wanda is traveling, fixing her home, or tending to her 900 trees (really).

1 comment

  1. Excellent article. Creating content with semantics in mind is the most challenging part, but once I applied it an did it a few times, it actually made content creation easier. Creating the headers what people would be searching for then writing content works better than creating content with no structure!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.