By Irwin Hau
Google’s progress over the last 20 years is mind-blowing when you think about it. Not long ago, users were impartial to the likes of Yahoo, Bing or even Ask Jeeves. Those names have since faded into the periphery while Google has gotten better at serving up relevant answers in record time – even if we’ve entered incoherent phrases littered with typos. Basically, Google gets us. And it keeps getting better at it.
The ever-evolving game of SEO has been largely dependent on the smarts of the Google Algorithm, and it’s changed a lot over the years. The latest development? Semantic SEO. But what is it? And how do you optimize your content in a way that keeps the Google robots happy? Let’s take a closer look.
Where did semantic SEO come from?
To understand how to optimize for Google, it helps to understand a bit of its history.
Initially, SEO relied on singular keyword-focused algorithms. Then came some pretty catalytic jumps, namely with ‘Knowledge Graph,’ ‘Hummingbird,’ ‘RankBrain,’ and ‘BERT’ between 2012 – 2021.
Knowledge Graph was revolutionary in creating a mindmap for Google to see the links between words. And Hummingbird made it possible for Google to understand a search queries’ full meaning rather than just as a string of individual keywords. It was also able to interpret a webpage’s overall topic, rather than just scan for certain words – a big reason that nefarious black-hat SEO technique keyword-stuffing fell out of favour.
With a priority in understanding users’ search intent better, the context of these search terms is also judged against existing search histories, considering their relevance within local and global parameters. Or in other words, it added context.
So say, for example, you typed ‘corona’ into your search bar. Currently, Google will predict that you’re more likely interested in the COVID-19 situation affecting your city, rather than the beer. So the first results you see will be related to just that. Semantic SEO is a step forward in the world of Google contextualizing.
What is semantic SEO?
To get to grips with semantic SEO, it’s helpful to unpack the word semantic.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, semantics is “the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. The two main areas are logical semantics, concerned with matters such as sense and reference and presupposition and implication, and lexical semantics, concerned with the analysis of word meanings and relations between them.”
Semantic SEO is based on lexical semantics – so how the words relate to one another.
1. How to optimize your content for semantic SEO
Google aims to respond to users’ questions with articles containing the most valuable information and predictively answer follow-up questions. It knows humans are curious creatures, after all. So we will teach you how to optimize your content for quality AND be picked up favourably by Google’s radar.
First, you need to understand the intent of your article. Or in other words, which of the reader’s needs are you answering? Intent falls into 3 categories – and it’s crucial to know which of these your piece falls into if you’re going to keep readers happy. Users are browsing on the internet to either –
- Learn something;
- Buy something; or
- Find something specific (e.g., a shop their friend has just mentioned).
The breakdown of this intent falls roughly into 80%, 10% and 10%, respectively. Most users are on the internet with specific questions that they want answers to. So it’s important to understand the questions your article is trying to answer — otherwise, your website won’t convert, your bounce rate will be sky-high, and Google will penalize you for not being what your readers want.
2. Create quality content (not pieces jammed with keywords)
Most users don’t jump on Google to open a digital encyclopaedia and sift through information. Remember that. They want the specifics, and the worst thing you can try to do is provide a short, surface-level general overview of the subject. Google Knowledge Panels and Wikipedia already exist for this exact reason.
Knowledge panels are snippets of ‘general info’ pinned to the top of search results. So really, your general info article is getting into the ring with Google, and you can guess who we’d place our bets on.
Once you have the question your article is trying to answer, really unpack the value in that. Ensure your piece is thorough. You can even go as far as answering other questions related to that route of curiosity.
Top tip: According to recent web design statistics, content you wrote years ago can still work to boost your SEO and organic Google traffic. Google bots actively crawl every page of your website to find relevant matches to users’ search queries. Maintaining an active blog increases your chance of multiple pages being picked up and shown on the first page of Google.
At the end of the day, your piece should be chock-full of long-tail keywords connected to the topic of interest. Google will pick up on the quantity and quality of the semantically connected phrases peppered through your article and increase the relevance score of your article.
A quick example…
Say you’re writing an analytical piece about Harry Potter. Your semantically connected phrases could include ‘seventh Harry Potter book,’ ‘The Boy Who Lived Next Door,’ ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Neville Longbottom’, and ‘understanding the prophecy.’
Google would crawl this article and understand it is suited for readers who want to understand the relationship between Potter and Longbottom. In contrast, semantically connected phrases for an entertainment piece about the cast could include ‘child actors,’ ‘cast of Harry Potter,’ and ‘film journey.’
Ten years ago, the SEO strategy for both articles would have been to stuff the keyword “Harry Potter” in as many times as sanely possible. Thankfully, Google’s comprehension skills have improved, so we can focus more on writing richer pieces of content, without repeating ourselves unnecessarily.
3. Long-form content is better than short
It is difficult to cover a topic well in less than 300 words. So don’t waste the precious chance with a case of cat-got-your-tongue when people arrive at your show.
Google doesn’t want its users to have to hop through various pages to get the answers – that would be a bit like phoning up a customer service helpline that kept redirecting you to a different department member for every question you had (oh wait…been there). Frustrating!
No one’s limiting your time on stage, so go long. Instead, write pieces of 2,000-2,500 words that cover more ground and cast a wider safety net in answering a multitude of questions.
These longer articles can really help boost your lead conversion and drive organic traffic to your site. They also provide you with more opportunities to add semantically linked phrases – and when it comes to optimizing your site for semantic SEO, that’s definitely a good thing.
4. Increase the relevance of your article by reverse-fitting it to Google
Look at what comes up in the Google dropdown search bar. This will give you ideas for semantically related phrases you can tie into your article. It’ll also give you a better understanding of your user’s interests.
Google’s dropdown list will help you understand your user’s interests.
Additionally, you can scroll down to the end of the search results page, and record the small list of ‘Related Keywords’ displayed here.
Collectively these can guide what you cover in your piece, give you a mind map of LSI keywords (aka long-tail keywords) and the kinds of medium-tail keywords you can use. Incorporating more of both of these is preferable. It means you’ll cast a wider net for your article because Google will automatically include you for the longer-tail keywords.
5. Rank well for informational queries to earn a ‘Featured Snippet’
Everyone used to covet the Position 1 spot on a Google search results page. But now, people are aiming for Position 0. Why? Because you’re not only first, but Google additionally shows an open sliver of your content. It’s really like getting a foot into the door of attention, increasing traffic to your page from the users who’d like to read more.
You can aim to be chosen for these ‘featured snippets’ through structuring your content with question headlines, followed by bullet point answers or scannable content. Incorporating various headlines with popular questions and relevant answers will improve your chance to rank better for the overall topic. Instead of just reeling in people based on one keyword, you can catch people who asked various kinds of questions to do with your topic.
If you don’t get the Position 0 spot, don’t fret: aim for another highly-placed spot instead. You will recognize Google shows an accordion-style FAQ of follow-up questions underneath the ‘featured snippet.’ When clicked on, a snippet of the answer opens up, so it’s a very respectable runner-up prize.
6. Use structured mark-up and semantic tags in your code
Not seen by users, this backend advanced SEO technique helps the Google machinery understand the organization of your article. Using semantic HTML elements enhances the accessibility and searchability of your article. It also improves your chances of achieving the coveted Google 0 position.
Using semantic tags tells the browser a little more about the meaning and the hierarchy of the content. Instead of seeing <div> and <span> for differing blocks of content — use semantic tags like <header> <nav> <article> <footer> to organize your content. And within content blocks, use element heading tags (h1, h2, h3, h4, h5 and paragraph). These break up the text and order your copy according to importance.
There’s an opportunity to delve deeper into topics to rank well as a specialist article covering a niche topic. You can also feature it as an informational snippet in Position 0. Now Google has caught up in leaps and bounds; you can worry less about gaming the system with keyword-stuffing — and instead, challenge yourself to write even more meaningful content.
Feature Image Credit: freeboilergrants; pexels
By Irwin Hau
Irwin Hau is a private business consultant and Founder of Chromatix, a multi-award-winning web design and conversion agency based in Melbourne, Australia. Since opening shop in 2009, he’s gone on to amass over 70 awards and mentions for work in web design and digital solutions.