How to Optimize for Semantic Search Instead of Keywords
Keywords are no longer relevant for SEO. Okay, that isn’t 100 percent true, but if your strategy still centers on identifying a handful of target keywords and stuffing those keywords into as many places as you can, chances are you’re never going to see the results you want. That’s because keyword-centric optimization has been on the decline ever since the Hummingbird update of 2013 changed the game and made semantic search the reigning feature in Google (which other search engines promptly copied for themselves).
To be successful in SEO today, you need to optimize for semantic search patterns, rather than keyword-centric processes. It sounds great in theory, but how exactly can you do that?
What Is Semantic Search?
First, let me explain exactly what semantic search is. Like I mentioned, Hummingbird introduced semantic search to Google’s algorithm. Before that, all queries were handled on a basis of keyword analysis, which made keyword-focused SEO such a big and long-lasting trend. In this old search process, Google would break a query down to its root components, isolating certain words and phrases that it would then look for online—so if you searched for something like “best dentist in Bristol,” it would search for sites featuring the words “best,” “dentist,” and “Bristol” (and links with similar anchor text).
Semantic search instead attempts to analyze the intent behind a user’s query, so in our example above, rather than mapping out the keywords included in the query, it would examine the entire phrase and determine that this user is trying to find the highest rated dentist in the city of Bristol. It would then use contextual clues from sites and offsite indicators to evaluate which dentists operate in Bristol, and of them, which are the best.
Knowing this, you can start making the meaningful changes necessary to ensure your site is evaluated and listed properly.
Adjusting Your Page Titles
Your first step is to adjust your page titles (and meta descriptions, while you’re at it). It’s still a good idea to use words that are relevant to your business, and words that people might include in their searches, but there are a few more considering factors.
First, make sure your phrasing is natural, and not clunky. Keyword-centric optimization might have you writing titles like “Dentist oral surgeon in Bristol TN,” which doesn’t sound like a sentence a normal person might write. Write in full, concise phrases, and be as accurately descriptive of your pages as possible. As long as there’s a strong indication of who you are and what you do, you’ll be in good shape.
Second, be careful of repetition. Keyword-centric optimization would have you repeating a specific phrase on multiple titles and descriptions throughout your site. In semantic search, this can actually work against you. Feel free to target a few phrases that might give you a competitive edge, but keep your pages as diverse as possible.
Choosing the Right Topics
Ongoing content is your best chance to optimize for semantic search. Oftentimes, people will type full questions or long-tail quires into Google, and it then becomes Google’s job to find, not the content with the most keywords in common to the query, but the content that sufficiently answers the user’s question. Accordingly, your content should be focused on succinctly and descriptively answering as many potential user queries as possible.
“How-to,” “why,” and “what” articles are amazing tools for this. Get to know your existing customer base, and figure out what common questions they had when they were first searching for a business like yours. Write posts that directly answer those questions (with descriptive, pointed titles), and you should have little trouble ranking for those queries when they arise. The more specific your niche here, the better.
Writing in the Correct Voice
When it comes to writing onsite content and ongoing articles, there isn’t much you’ll have to change in your approach. However, there are two considerations you should incorporate. First, remind yourself that it’s not necessary to stuff keywords into your articles. Focus your efforts on being concise and descriptive, and the rest should come naturally. Second, know that most semantic queries are long and conversational, so try to make your content a little more conversational accordingly. Conversational, casual tones are more approachable for readers, so in addition to maximizing your potential visibility, you’ll also increase your retention.
The RankBrain Factor
Finally, I want to mention RankBrain. RankBrain is Google’s new AI add-on to Hummingbird, designed to update Google’s algorithm automatically and regularly to improve its semantic understanding of queries. Simply put, its job is to figure out complex, ambiguous types of queries and map them to simpler, more natural versions. Accordingly, your content strategy should be focused on the simpler, more natural versions of queries. Instead of shooting for a rare, niche audience with complexly worded phrases, try to keep your voice as natural and concise as possible.
It’s Easier Than You Think!
Okay, this was a bit of a long article, but if you boil all the information and advice featured here down to one idea, it’s this: stuffing your pages and content with keywords is no longer relevant. Instead, forget about keywords. Choose your posts and write your material to align with your users’ intentions and expectations, and maintain a natural voice throughout the process. The less you overthink this concept, the better off you’ll be.
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