Search engine companies play their cards close to the chest when it comes to the nitty-gritty of search algorithms, but one recurring trend has become clear over the last 20 years or so: In Google’s ideal world, our modern concept of “SEO” wouldn’t exist at all.
With each successive update, the search giant has made searching more user-friendly and intuitive while clouding the path for those looking to “hack” successful search.
More and more, search engines are utilizing complex semantic search algorithms to divine both meaning and context from a user’s query. But how does that actually work – and what does it mean for content creators?
Talking to Robots: AI, Semantic Search, and Virtual Assistants
In general terms, when we talk about “semantic search,” we mean one where a query can be made using natural language from which the search engine can intuit meaning and deliver a response. In other words, semantic search is no different than asking a friend for information.
Consider, for example, that you’re looking for a good Chinese take-out place for dinner.
In an old-school Boolean-style search that relied on keywords, you might have to type out something like this: “Chinese take-out restaurant [town].”
A more modern search might be, “Where can I get good Chinese take-out?”
Whether they’re speaking to a virtual assistant or typing into a keyboard, modern searchers are more often asking questions rather than typing keyword strings into the search bar. And thanks to the way virtual assistants work, searchers are more often being matched to a single result rather than scrolling through a page of possible matches. As search becomes more nuanced and personalized, writing content that anticipates the searcher’s needs is of paramount importance.
How Semantic Search Works
In a Boolean search, the search algorithm is comparing the keywords in an query to the content of a website to determine whether the site is a good match. If your search is “Chinese take-out restaurant Albuquerque,” the search engine looks for content that contains those words or that exact phrase.
A semantic search has a more complicated job. It needs to identify the intent behind a search and answer that intent rather than simply match keywords. This requires an understanding of how words are related to one another and what a searcher might mean. For example, semantic search could tell the difference between someone searching “How to make Chinese take-out at home” and “Where to find Chinese take-out near home” even though many of the keywords in the queries are the same.
This kind of search requires very sophisticated software, and search-engine companies are understandably protective of their algorithms. We don’t know exactly how Google and Bing “teach” their software to understand language, but we do know that Google has filed a number of patents related to word association and textual analysis.
In practice, this means that it’s possible to rank for search terms that don’t actually appear in your content at all. For example, a Chinese restaurant with a "to-go" menu might rank on a search for “Chinese take-out” even if the word “take-out” is not used anywhere on the site. This happens because the Google algorithm has been trained to know that “to-go” and “take-out” are synonyms. That’s what we mean when we say that a search engine understands intent.
How to Optimize Your Content for Semantic Search
Semantic search is here to stay, but does that mean that keywords are dead? Not exactly.
Right now, keywords are still relevant in certain places, such as the page title, site URL, subheads, image descriptions, and all of the other meta-data that exists outside the text of the website. Long-tail and short-tail keywords (“Chinese take-out restaurants in Houston” vs. “Chinese take-out”) do still have some impact on search results, but they’re quickly being edged out by the subtler and deeper semantic search factors.
For content creators, this should actually be seen as a blessing rather than a curse. It removes the barriers of keyword research and the artificial constraints that come with it and allows the writer to focus on the actual content.
A few tips to keep in mind to improve your ranking:
- Pay attention to the site’s meta-data and places where keywords still count, like the page title; use your most relevant keywords in those areas.
- Include relevant images in your content. Not only do they break up the information visually, but image searches approach content discovery differently than text searches; including images increases your chances of being discovered online.
- When considering a topic, write questions that you imagine a searcher would have about the topic; use those questions as subheadings and use the text in each section to answer the question.
- Aim to answer questions as succinctly as possible at first, expanding on them in more detail in subsequent paragraphs. Not only does this make the information easier to skim, it boosts your odds of having your content appear in a Google answer box when a relevant search query is made.
- Instead of focusing only on including variations of keywords and their synonyms, think more about writing naturally and accurately. Trust that Google will recognize the meaning of your words.
- Bear in mind that searches made on mobile devices are highly localized, so including regional information for local businesses is still necessary. If your Chinese restaurant is in Houston, you want to be sure to say that clearly in your text.
Although there are still some technical factors involved in search engine ranking – page authority and linking strategies are still relevant – modern SEO looks a lot like quality copywriting. Ranking for a search query these days comes down, first and foremost, to anticipating the needs of a searcher and writing content that answers those questions.