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What is Semantic Search?


What is Semantic Search?

Semantic search (also known as implicit search) has been integrated into the Google search engine algorithms over the past few years. It is essentially an intelligent search process that seeks to generate more accurate results by focusing on intent and the “contextual” meaning of keywords being searched for rather than simply looking for web pages that have been optimized for the keywords used in a search query. This means Google is more concerned about user intent rather than searching for the best keyword-optimized webpages. Google’s Hummingbird algorithm is powered by semantic search technology.

In the past, prior to semantic search, SEO revolved around the express manipulation of keywords and links. SEO techniques mainly involved creating low quality, keyword-rich articles and generating thousands of artificial links to the target website using exact match anchor text. Semantic search has shifted the focus from simply reading the keywords typed into the search query box to understanding the mindset of the searcher by analyzing the keywords used by the searcher.

With semantic search, Google’s main objective was to bring a full stop to the manipulation of its search algorithms. The idea was to stop pages ranking simply because certain keywords appeared so many times on a particular web page. That system was easily manipulated and often led to inaccurate and unreliable results.

Focus on Searcher Intent

With semantic search, rather than attempting to match the individual keywords used in a search query with a particular web page, the search engine looks at the entire query as a whole and delivers search results that are most effective based on the “searcher’s intent”, effectively moving from keyword-based searches to context-oriented searches. It considers the sentence in its entirety, understands the searcher’s intent and then looks for the most “contextually relevant” results for the search query.

Semantic search has done away with the inherent ambiguity of conventional search.

The Role of Semantic Search

Prior to semantic search, if you wanted to target a particular keyword or phrase such as “health benefits of spinach”, you would add that exact phrase to the page title and meta tags, URL, image tags, heading tags, web copy and exact match anchor text of inbound links.

With semantic search, Google now looks at the topic or theme of a webpage to establish relevance, rather than the number of keywords in the search query that appear on the page. For example, if a user performs the search “who is the president of Nigeria” Google doesn’t search for webpages that are optimized for the keyword: who is the president of Nigeria. Instead, it understands the question and delivers the answer right in the search results:

google answer box

Semantic search considers the entire sentence as a whole and tries to understand the searcher’s actual intent, rather than simply parsing through each of the keywords used in the search query.

Rather than looking for web pages optimized for the keywords typed into the search query box, the semantic search engine presents personalized search results based on location, device, browsing history, behavior, posts by your social connections and questions it anticipates you might ask next. This means that optimizing a particular webpage for specific keyword phrases has become less effective if the “theme” of the webpage does not match the intent of the searcher.

As a brand, you can take advantage of semantic search by having a deep understanding of the keywords or queries your prospective customers use to search for your products or services, and creating quality content that is more likely to appeal to specific users at different stages of the buyer cycle.

Create personas and use historical data to build customer journeys, identify touchpoints and use those insights to optimize your webpages accordingly. If you offer particular services, rather than creating generalized pages, you will need to create dedicated webpages that are optimized around more specific long tail keywords based around user intent. Your content will be more relevant to more specific searches, which will increase your chances of ranking high on Google for your target keywords.

Latent Semantic Indexing

Thanks to Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI), for an increasing number of search queries, most of the top 10 search results on Google are not even optimized for the keywords used in the search query.  This means Google’s algorithm is better able to find and return the “most relevant” web pages to a particular search query, even if a particular web page does not contain keywords used in the search query. Consequently, optimizing a web page for specific keywords are no longer effective in driving traffic if Google’s bot deems that those keywords do not match the searcher’s intent.

However, it is important to bear in mind that keywords and keyword optimization are still extremely important for SEO, and continue to play a central role in search. The fact is, Google’s Semantic Search Index is still a work in progress, and far from complete. As a result, if semantic search is unable to adequately establish relevance to a search query, Google will revert back to a more conventional approach through the use of some of the ranking signals associated with “old SEO” practices.

So, it is still essential to reinforce the content you produce with relevant keywords, and keyword optimize the on-page elements of your web page accordingly. However, the focus is now on returning pages that are deemed relevant based on the intent of the searcher rather than those that are best optimized for the keywords used in a search query.

Universal (Blended) Search

With universal (blended) search, the search engines integrates all of the different verticals directly into the search results page. Depending on the keywords you use to search, a typical page of personal or branded search results for a given query tends to include local results, travel information, maps, directions, video, images, a news feed from a leading news site, relevant Tweets, a Google+ page or Facebook comment.

For example, a search for Larry Page returns his Wikipedia page, images, his Knowledge Graph listing, his latest video, the latest news about Page, a link to his Google+ page, his contemporaries (also known as serependity discovery) and other links relating to Page.

Screenshot of Larry Page results
As a brand, you can dominate the first page of Google results for branded searches. For example, a branded search for “new york hilton” returns a dedicated page featuring the following web assets:
  • the hotel’s paid ad
  • indented page result links (the site’s most requested pages)
  • Google+ reviews
  • Google+ local listing
  • the hotel’s Knowledge Graph listing; and
  • other search results related to the hotel.

Consequently, SEO has become less about getting a single site ranking at the top of the first page of Google, and more about acquiring multiple listings on a search results page to increase visibility and brand awareness.

Prior to semantic search, if your website was the best result for a search query, Google typically gave you real estate on the front page in the top two positions. That has now changed. Today, if you own several web properties, you may be able to dominate the entire front page with the following web assets:

  • a Wiki page,
  • Customer reviews
  • Local results
  • Knowledge Graph box,
  • Latest news
  • YouTube videos
  • Google Map
  • Google My Business page
  • LinkedIn Company Page
  • Social media profiles
  • Yahoo answers
  • Tweets
  • Press releases
  • Articles
  • Whitepapers
  • Podcasts, etc.

SEO today is about applying SEO techniques to all of the digital assets and web properties you own so that you can really dominate the front page of Google for your chosen keywords.