On a daily basis, we are seeking out content on the web. However, when it comes to finding the right content, there is always that extra ingredient that makes it relevant to both searchers and search engines. While you may have content that is good enough to satisfy a particular audience, you could be missing out if you are not also identifying and applying semantically relevant keywords. By taking your keyword research and optimization one-step further, you move beyond the literal usage of keywords to attract a broader audience.

Reading Between the Lines: A History of Search Updates & Google

In order to understand semantic search and its impact on search results, it is also important to understand some of Google’s major updates.

Back before any of us knew any better, the delivery of search results was simplistic. There were open directories run by moderators who would manually index sites through submissions. It was easy to game the system and people paid off moderators. Eventually, crawlers were created that could follow links and actually crawl the web. In fact, Google originated as Backrub, which analyzed backlinks (links on a different site that link to your site) and assigned value to these.

SEO acronym inside a Google logo

As the web evolved, humans indexing phased out and crawlers began to do the work of following links and cataloging pages based on keywords. Webmasters learned to game the system by throwing keywords everywhere on a page or hiding them in the background to try to influence crawlers to think their site served content about those words and to try to rank their sites higher. Eventually, Google emerged as the powerhouse among the search engines and the powers that be implemented sweeping changes to try and solve the issue of serving the most reputable and relevant content for a user’s query. Here is a synopsis of some of the major updates:

  • 2009: Caffeine was implemented and updated Google’s page crawlability and indexing power.
  • 2011: Panda was released and focused on quality content enforcement by penalizing pages that used shady tactics such as keyword stuffing, having thin content, or hiding keywords.
  • 2012: Penguin was launched, with the goal of monitoring links to cut down on spam and shady tactics. For example, buying domains for the sole purpose of adding a link to your page.
  • 2012: The Knowledge Graph was introduced in Search Results. These were rich snippets of need to know details about a query involving a person or place.
  • 2013: Hummingbird was launched and was an algorithm update responsible for search intent understanding (i.e., semantic search).
  • 2015: We saw the launch of Google’s Rankbrain — a machine-learning algorithm that interprets the meaning behind queries.

So why do these updates matter? Each new change has been essential to changing the search landscape and cutting away at various tactics used to spam or game the system. Google is dedicated to providing rich experiences and cutting down the time it takes each of us to get the most useful answers we seek to solve our immediate query. More important, Google and other search engines want to understand what a user’s intent is when looking for. Keywords are the clues and the content is the narrative that drives an understanding. As Google’s RankBrain gets smarter, it is better able to understand and predict search intent.

An Example of Semantic Search in Practice

Semantic keywords are terms that are closely related to a search and can involve synonyms to your word or phrase. These are also very important in the tactics of SEO because your reader does not want to see the same ‘ole keywords thrown around in content. Neither does Google. When we speak or write, we do not continually use the exact same words repeatedly because that would be…well, annoying. We tend to substitute in similar words to help convey the entire message to ensure the best understanding. The same is true when writing content for your readers.

For example, if I were to search “movies playing in New York,” what results would a search engine expect that I want to see? I could potentially want to see a movie in the state or city of New York. Alternatively, maybe I want to know more about movies playing in the cinema versus free movies in the park. This is why it is important for SEOs to consider the nuances behind searches. Adding in related terms will be natural and organic, which will help the flow of your message within the content and resonate better to your audience.

However, there is another facet to think about when considering semantics for your content.

Latent Semantic Indexing

While semantic search can use variations of a root keyword in different ways, latent semantic indexing (LSI) incorporates related ideas or concepts and it should also be a part of your keyword research and optimization efforts.

LSI, put simply, is a mathematical method that helps determine the relationship between words and concepts. It is about finding topics that are relevant to the keyword you are using. For instance, if one were to search for “awards,” then terms such as “oscar nominations” or “trophy” may be associated with that term.

Screenshot of keyword research using Ahrefs

These terms may not necessarily have the exact keywords or be synonymous, but they are closely related and are another way of trying to convey the same thing or they are involved with some part of the main topic. In particular, Google likes to index and show sites for keywords based on the intent of the content and its relationship with the search term.

The importance of understanding LSI within content can help you reach a variety of other keywords or ideas that someone might be searching for. It is helpful for catching those people, such as myself, who tend to go down the rabbit hole of various topics once beginning research.

So…How Does This Help You?

When producing content, you want to ensure that your efforts are seen. Using a combination of semantic variations of keywords and LSI is a great way to help you to not only write in a more organic way but also capture more of what people are actually searching for, whether you use the searcher’s exact phrase or not.

Keyword research is important, not just because indexing is fueled by keywords but because search engines are becoming more focused on intent. When you plan for your keywords, it is important to know several ways that someone may be interested in stumbling upon your content and semantic search considers all angles.

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