March 13, 2018

Semantic search: what it means for your blog's SEO?

What is Semantic search?


This expression ‘semantic’ is often heard when people discuss SEO. It is said that modern search engines are capable of semantic search.

To de-jargonize 'semantic', let's see the simple dictionary meaning of this word. This word means ‘relating to meanings of words and phrases’. So, big search engines like Google and Bing do not look at a word or phrase blindly but try to find what it is referring to, what it's true meaning could be. That's it.

Though semantic web was conceived around 2003, it was not until 2013 that the concept was used effectively by search engines. In that year, Google came with its Hummingbird algorithm update and changed the way web search was carried out by the search biggies. Till then, search engines depended heavily on keywords that the searcher typed on his browser, and matched them with pages that had those keywords. This led to SEO guys stuffing keywords into webpages and getting on top of search pages. Search engines now try to find the true intent of the searcher and serve him relevant results, not depending on exact matching of keywords.

That leads us to two places where the real intent of search expressions need to be derived by search engines:
1. Search queries made by people on their browsers, and
2. Indexes of webpages, maintained by search engines.

Search engines must understand query, find best answers.

1. 

Search Queries


To deliver the most relevant results to the searcher, the search engine must first understand what he is looking for. For this, the search engine uses many signals, including
  • Recent search history of the searcher,
  • Possible meaning of the search phrase going by the main keyword and qualifying or additional expressions,
  • What others have been searching for, using the same or similar search queries,
  • Location of the searcher, 
  • Etc. etc.

Search engines use machine learning to better guess the search intention. Machine learning means, the software learning and improving its own capabilities based on its 'experience' while doing that job.

To visualize how a modern search engine works to find the intent of the searcher, let us take a simple example:

If I write ‘net’ on the Google search bar and press 'enter', Google will try to find what type of ‘net’ I am looking for.  

I actually typed ‘net’ on Google and found that it threw results relating to NET [the National Eligibility Test (NET) in which many people in my locality right now are interested and must have searched for]; then came websites of some prominent bands offering net banking; then the Wikipedia page on Net; then .Net, Netflix, etc.

If I type 'How can I crack net?', it gives results only relating to NET.

Did you notice that it did not give any result on different types of nets such as fishnet or mosquito net. Then I typed ‘net catch’ and, as expected, got all results on fishing nets. Google's machines know that when someone types 'catch' and 'net' together in the search box, he is wanting to know about nets used for catching fish etc. while when he types 'crack', he is looking for ways to pass the NET exam.  

If I keep going to the fish net websites, in a few days my top search results for 'net' are likely to relate to fish net sites. And yet, because globally and in my location, people would search for NET or internet related websites, it is also likely that websites on fishing net might show up only later.

2.

Search Indexes


The second place in the search process where 'real' meaning is important is the indexes maintained by search engines.

Search engines do not run from your browser to the entire w.w.w. to locate the thing you are searching. Rather, they have huge indexes in which webpages are tagged according to likely search queries.

So, when I searched for 'net' on Google, it thought that I was perhaps looking for NET (which thousand others have been searching in my locality) or net banking or .NET or NetFlix, and then served to me the best possible results from its indexes for NET, net banking, etc., especially those suiting to my location.

When I looked at the results that Google sent me, I found that while some had 'net' included in title or description, some results did not have 'net' anywhere, even in the body of the webpage. Even more was this case with 'net catch', whose many results did not have either the word 'catch' or 'net' in the title and description.

How did Google think that a particular page without even one occurrence of the search keyword was in fact related to that keyword?

The key considerations in including webpages in search indexes again need semantics or reading the true meanings of the search expressions. 

When the search engine bots crawl the web, they tag the pages with keywords, but not in a simplistic way. They look for associations between different expressions, information and links to make a sense of what the webpage is talking about.

The modern search engines have invested a lot not only in machine learning and artificial intelligence, they have been researching how different associations between different expressions and realities work. 

For example, if I heavily optimized a webpage on Idi Amin, the notorious Ugandan ruler, for 'president' ten years back, that page would have come as one of the top search results for this word when searched by someone sitting in New York, but no longer. Today's search engines would perhaps not tag that webpage with 'president'; even if they index it for the keyword 'president', they won't serve it in search pages except when someone in Uganda searches for that word with search terms such as 'the worst president' or 'all presidents of Uganda'.

SEO takeaways for bloggers


Semantic search has made life tough as well as easier for bloggers. Tough, because you cannot just stuff keywords to get on top of search engines and cannot apply unethical tricks. Easier, because if you post good content on the blog (and apply a bit of ethical and commonsense SEO), the blog is likely to appear high on search pages. Of course, other factors are also very important, e.g. the niche, your location etc.

Some good practices to search-optimize the blog from semantic perspective are:
  • Use different expressions, phrases and synonyms to talk about the thing for which you want the blog to be optimized.
  • Try to give answers  to questions that people ask about your subject.
  • Explain concepts.
  • Write detailed articles, at least once in a while, on main topics relating to your subject.
  • Don't optimize the blog just for very broad keywords such as 'Indian food' or 'Chinese customs', and also for very narrow ones. Think of a range of broad, narrow and medium sized expressions that people would use in natural language while talking about that subject.

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