If you spent any time in marketing circles this year, you probably heard the phrase “semantic search” tossed around in conversation quite a bit.
But what in the world is semantic search, and how does it impact SEO?
If this is a question you’ve asked, you’re in the right place.
Semantic search was a big trend in 2016, but it isn’t new. It did, however, rise as a content marketing trend throughout this year. And guess what? In 2017, it’s going to continue to have a major impact on the way content marketers achieve success in the SERPs.
Today, I’m here to take it apart, tell you how to best use it in content creation, and how it will impact content development in the New Year.
Ready? Grab a latte and let’s dig in!
What is Semantic Search?
In order to fully understand semantic search, let’s back up a bit to the basics of algorithms and how they work, and then explore semantics as it relates to Google searches.
First, Understanding the Different Shades (Algorithms) of Google
Since the inception of our search friend known as Google, the internet know-it-all has attempted to move search results into a more natural-sounding realm. Part of that strategy falls under the idea of semantic search and machine learning algorithms like RankBrain.
In machine learning, a computer basically teaches itself how to do something, and RankBrain is just one component of Google’s search algorithm program.
When we use Google to search for something, there are potentially millions of webpages that can provide a solution. Algorithms are the computer formulas that take our questions and turn them into the answers we are looking for.
Past algorithms that Google has used include:
- Panda (Source): In 2011, Google updated search filters to stop sites with poor quality content from showing up in top search results.
- Penguin (Source): Penguin was launched in 2012 to catch sites that appeared to be spamming its search results in order to boost Google rankings.
- Hummingbird (Source): Launched in 2013, Hummingbird was designed to sort through information and deliver the best results–the name came from the speed of the algorithm.
After the launch of Hummingbird, users may have noticed that Google was offering more precise answers to search queries. The update was one of the biggest overhauls to its search engine and it allowed Google to provide faster answers to questions and rank them according to the index.
Semantics: Did You Really Say What You Meant to Say?
Now, let’s move onto semantics.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “semantics” as the study of meanings.
In the field of linguistics, semantics is all about the logic behind the meaning of natural and artificial words, signs, and sentence structure, whether it’s a spoken language or that of computer programming.
A famous author penned the following, and I feel that it quite adequately sums up semantics:
“Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not, or that you feel good this morning, or that it is a morning to be good on?” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
In other words, what are you really trying to say?
Check out how this works when you type a question in Google. I love how Google is smart enough to correct bad spelling (Semantics FTW!):
Semantics: Going Behind the Search
For online content and its goals, semantic search involves the use of quality resources (and not just keywords) to perform a search and provide the best results.
Here’s just how (creepily?) knowledgable Semantics is in its inner workings.
- It knows your history and uses it: semantic search takes the details of a user’s history and offers back the most relevant results.
- It knows logic and deciphers meanings: Semantic search looks for the logic, or intent, behind what a searcher is looking for in their quest for information. It is about going beyond the traditional definition and moving towards the motivation behind a searcher’s request.
Rather than searching for what someone literally types in (as in, misspelled words), Google semantics uses a complex system of algorithms and prediction to make a guess as to what we actually mean, and then looks for the most relevant content.
Ever feel like the search box is reading your mind? Thank semantics.
Examples of Semantic Search
Whether we know it or not, semantics plays a part in every search we perform. In his post over at Crazy Egg, Neil Patel gives us some good examples of common semantic search, something we can all relate to in our everyday lives.
1. Conversational queries
We ask, Google answers. In this case, rather than provide us with every website that answers the question, “how do I bake?” or the words, “Christmas cookies,” semantic search works to first give us the directions, then relevant recipes.
2. Auto-corrected misspellings
As we showed in the example above, it corrects misspellings. (I think that’s pretty cool.)
Here’s another example.
It’s safe to assume we all have enough Christmas “cookys”. After correcting for the misspelling, we have ideas for a Christmas cookie swap and the Best Christmas Cookie Recipes for 2016.
3. Information shown as graphics
Relevant images are provided as part of the answer. Now, if only my Christmas cookies turned out like those.
3 Key Ways to Create Content With Semantic Search Standards in Mind
The challenge in our field comes when we sit down to create the content our readers are looking for, and we forget the importance of staying relevant and natural. All in all, it’s simple (but in reality and the work/time/skill involved, not).
1. Stay away from subpar content that isn’t readable: invest in quality.
Here’s the thing…
Writing with Google Semantics in mind doesn’t really mean NEW advice for us content creators.
It’s simple: write more for your reader. Why? Google Semantics will now (very quickly) identify, and then disqualify, keyword-stuffed content and spammy articles. Poor keyword usage won’t rank well.
And, as we showed above, grammar is checked too by the new Nazi in town (Semantics). So, check grammar, link quality, and spelling for mistakes. Consider making sure you have both a copywriter AND a proofreader on your projects. Spend time to create attractive and engaging headlines that invite readers in and makes them want to stay.
Deliver quality content on a consistent basis and increase your chances of return visitors (Kissmetrics). Post more than once a day and up the potential for more unique views and inbound links.
Keep information scannable and concise, not in long paragraphs bogged down by too much information. While you’re at it, absolutely forget link-generating software and article spinners. Semantics will have none of it.
2. Be authoritative in your content.
As we look to the future with Semantics and Google, the talk is all about the use of artificial intelligence. Google has already unveiled its virtual assistant, which the CEO of Google describes as a “conversational assistant” so users can have an “ongoing two-way dialog.”
AI is the next step in our journey toward advanced technology, another reminder that our search queries need an expert on the other end to provide an answer. Those answers come from the quality content that is provided by authorities in the field.
That would be you, content creator.
You have to decide what you want to be known for, which keywords you want to rank, and how to become known as an expert in your own field. It helps to consider questions like:
- How does my audience interact?
- Who are they following?
- What questions are my readers asking, and am I providing the expert advice they need?
Here at Express Writers, we know the future is headed in the direction of expert content more than ever, which is why I created authoritative content and trained a select group of expert team writers on creating it, this year. It’s the best content we’ve ever offered, and it matches every standard Semantics puts out. Check out Authority Content in the Content Shop.
3. Go au natural in your online language.
Focus on being conversational, not stiff. There is a pretty good chance no robot is going to be ingesting your content anytime soon, so use natural SEO writing as your main language.
Remember that it’s people first, so relevance is key. Readers will be drawn to the answers to their questions and interesting content that they can share, tweet, and repost.
Keywords are still important, but if it makes content sound less organic, it won’t work. Overusing keywords only makes content look unappealing and forced. And since it hurts more than helps, it’s a waste of time to begin with (read more about that over at Smart Blogger).
Will Semantic Search Be Important in 2017?
It’s clear to see that Google has more trust issues than a Real Housewife.
Keyword-stuffed content? Low-quality articles? Not happening.
The first real guiding principle of search engine optimization is trust. And if Google doesn’t trust you, there’s no way you will rank on SERPs (search engine results pages).
Now that it’s out in the open, Rule #1 for content development going into 2017 is that writers must be consistent in trying to gain the search engine’s trust. If you are a new business or new website, it might take a while to break into the front-page rankings, and that’s okay.
Give it time. Practice consistency.
Algorithms were built not to discourage us, but to weed out the bad guys and give us a chance. The semantic search is continuing to go through the fine-tuning process, and it will remain an important component of content development in 2017.
4 Things to Remember As We Progress in An Age of Semantic Search
As we are looking to update our game plans in this next year, there are some things that every writer would be wise to remember, especially as we work to develop content in an age of semantic search and SEO.
- Be reader-centric.
- Stay away from keyword stuffing.
- Be patient and consistent.
- Produce quality, not necessarily quantity.
The one question that a semantic search asks during the query process is, “what is the user’s intent?”
In our desire to produce quality content, this is the question worth asking of ourselves as we create content in 2017.