Semantic Search: What is it and Why You Care
Keywords, keywords, keywords. If you have ever worked to improve your company’s SEO, then chances are you’ve been bombarded by keywords. How can you find the best ones? What makes one better than the other? Are 50 repetitions in a 500-word blog enough?
News Flash: Keywords are out. Semantic search is in. Here’s what you need to know.
The Way We Were
A long time ago, in a land far away, a Google search was done using the literal keywords a user typed into the search bar. Google (and other engines like Yahoo or Bing) would scour their records and retrieve pages that contained many uses of those keywords, along with a few other indicators that the pages being retrieved were of decent quality.
When search engines first launched, getting good results meant that you had to have some pretty good skills when it came to phrasing and rephrasing your query. You’d have to think of different ways to say what you were trying to find, or think of associated terms and ideas if your first queries were fruitless.
However, much like any other technology on the planet, search engines have grown and evolved over the years to improve their performance and be even more user-friendly than ever before. Of course, the huge body of thought that accompanies people’s behavior is always much slower to change and many of us are still stuck in this initial user mode.
What is Semantic Search?
One really important thing that Google and other search engines wanted to eliminate was the need for users to have searching skills. Instead, they wanted to work toward anticipating what you’re trying to find based on what you typed into the search bar. That way, people could get better search results the first time around and move on with their tasks.
Semantic search is how Google is working to achieve that goal. What they’re trying to decipher is your intent, the context of your search, and the relationship between different words so you don’t have to do that work yourself. Google does this by using your own search history, location data, and by analyzing the search behavior of the billions of searches performed on its search engine.
Some examples you’ve probably seen are a list of search results when you’ve spelled a word incorrectly. If you really meant to find pictures of “cuppakes” you can click that link, but chances are, you’re pretty happy that you didn’t have to go back and retype “cupcakes” and instead got your answer the first time around.
This educated guess made by Google works with all sorts of misspellings, as well as words with different geographic spellings (looking at you, U.K., and all your extra Os and Us) and homonyms/homophones (i.e., bear/bare; sea/see; weak/week).
What Does This Mean in the Context of SEO?
We can all probably agree that having a tool that works to think about what we’re trying to do rather than what we’ve done is enormously helpful. It’s the kind of tool that will become ubiquitous and our children will marvel at the days that you had to get your search terms exactly right to get results.
But what about all that SEO work? Back in the day, we’d include misspellings on purpose, just in case someone made a mistake! Content creation has traditionally been hyper-focused on the granular application of specific and individual words.
What semantic search means for all of us--business owners, marketers, writers, and consumers--is that we can take a step back from worrying about checking all the boxes to satisfy the Google bots, and instead focus on the direct needs of our audiences and our customers.
Semantic search has an impact on your content marketing strategy in that searcher intent becomes your priority. And, in my opinion, this is great news. We are free to serve our customers which is what we’re all after anyway. Tools like Google were meant to be tools, not jobs in themselves. I’ll be digging deeper into semantic searches and modern SEO strategies over the next several weeks so we can all be free from the constraints of keywords and move on to covering topics and meeting needs instead.