Search engines are evolving, and the temptation to trick them and reverse engineer the algorithms to rank on the first page is still there. SEO specialists are always complaining that as soon as they seem to get it, Google once again changes the rules of the game, bringing them back to square one.
In fact, the only constant is that Google engineers are aiming to transform the performance of machines to be as close to human understanding as possible.
Introduced in 2013 with the Hummingbird update, semantic search is an optimization of keyword-based search and a new paradigm at the same time.
The driving force behind this change is the increase of voice search. This forced Google to adapt to a more natural way of asking the question and including some context in the search, which in turn, increased conversions.
From strings to things
The first noticeable change is that the search algorithms no longer put complete emphasis on finding the exact keywords, namely strings but they try to look at the broader context and search for things.
Synonyms, similar words, words with the same stem, all are deemed relevant and can be included within the first results.
This also means that search engines don’t only look for the right answer in pages, but they look for entities, including images, video, hashtags and more. It has become more of a matter of serving the most relevant things, regardless of the form. It’s about serving the intent, not the exact query.
The three pillars of SEO
Every year we keep hearing the same tune: SEO is dead. Yet, for the last two decades, companies still pay for optimization and experts keep writing about it. Is it a conspiracy?
In fact, SEO is not going anywhere, as people are always asking for high-quality content and search engines are doing their best to provide it. The strategy behind this is based on the three pillars of SEO: authority, relevance, and trust.
Authority is a measure of how knowledgeable and what amount of influence a particular page has, measured in citations (backlinks). Relevance refers to the amount of information related to the given query.
Trust is the most difficult to assess, especially in a world dominated by fake news which spreads faster than verified or corroborated information.
What does it mean for content creators?
First of all, it is a matter of thinking user-centric. SEO stops being a cat and mouse game between man and machine and becomes a pursue of creating the best content possible, complete with images, videos and other bits of information which can be relevant for the subject.
Start by making your topic visible as soon as possible, in the first paragraph. Don’t let your users wait too much before deciding if the piece is relevant or not for them. Organize from general to particular and give them the option to learn more if they wish so by providing additional links or materials for download.
Structure your data using headings and subheadings to let crawl spiders from search engines understand the hierarchy of data and the importance of it.
Don’t forget about the importance of using Google’s schema to mark up a page with relevant information such as the dates of an event, the location and more. This improves ranking in the search by responding to the relevant dimension.
2. Topics rather than keywords
Keywords are still essential but writing only by focusing on these can sound very mechanic and unnatural. Instead, develop content by thinking about the broad idea and don’t be afraid to use synonyms, different forms of the base word or contextual-appropriate words. These will be picked up by the semantic search and will rank your content as relevant and trustworthy.
Think of solving problems for your users and creating comprehensive guides with in-depth explanations rather than repeating the same keyword until it gets old.
3. Serve intentions and add context
Semantic search is all about putting things into perspective and answering more to the purpose rather than the actual question.
For example, in a voice search of a user searching for a hotel, his geographic location is most relevant. Most likely he or she is looking for a hotel which is as close as possible, not all the possible hotels in the world, not even the country.
Some people would have the intuition to search for a hotel near their address or by putting in the street name or city, but for most of them, it would be a pleasant surprise to get precisely what they needed without asking so specifically.
4. Get technical
Even though the content is king if it’s poorly displayed it will not rank. Google looks at the overall experience for the user. So, for example, if similar content is provided by a fast-loading page and a slow one, the latter will be sent further down in results.
Optimize images for the web by making them the right size and resolution to be relevant but not to weigh down your website. Don’t forget to check your page score as provided by Google's page speed insights and correct any of the errors highlighted in that report.
Build links with other websites which are relevant to your activity sector. Try getting backlinks from domains with high authority. Before it was all about the total number of backlinks.
Now it’s more about the quality of these, so stop wasting money on link-building farms and redirect those budgets towards cross-promotion with other websites, even though paid advertorials.
Old SEO techniques including keyword stuffing and link farming simply don’t work anymore as search engines look at the context, the relationships, and user intent.
The only way to remain relevant in the world of these new updates is to create high-quality content designed for helping the users and just pay attention to some formatting rules to help search engines understand the structure of your material.
For example, avoid putting important text as images and always give the pictures you use relevant names, descriptions and alternative text. Stop thinking about tricking the system and focus on being helpful.
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