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Google made a splash in May of 2012 when they announced the Knowledge Graph. The Knowledge Graph is a key component of Semantic Search. Semantic Search aims to get at the real intent of the query, rather than simply matching a page to a search string.
A good analogy is that of a headhunter or free agent recruiter. Have you ever received an email about an “exciting opportunity” for which you were completely unqualified? Did they say your resume suggested you’re a fit? This is a case of blind matching of keywords with no qualitative overlay. Talk about inexact science!
Simple logic suggests that semantic search will be superior to traditional, index-based approaches. Let’s look at some of the ways that Google has implemented Semantic Search.
Basic Semantics: Synonyms
At the most basic level, the leading search engines have developed an ability to match user intent based on synonyms. See the example of a SERP for “auto shipping” below.
This is important for keyword research. When building a target list of keywords, it no longer makes sense to build a slew of pages to hyper-optimize for every synonym and permutation of those terms.
Pursue high volume / low competition terms, of course, but freely use synonyms within the page content. It will not hurt you, while opening up the possibility of ranking for terms that are not overtly targeted on the page.
Answers to Real Questions
Search engines have also improved how they parse and analyze real questions. Anything you need to answer is fair game. Although you will find the occasional bad match, Google mostly does a good job of serving up related content.
Some of this is based on analyzing typical phrases found in questions, e.g. “How to”, “How do I”, “Where is”, and “Who Is”. When combined with semantic keyword matching, the whole system becomes much more powerful.
Below is a sample of the SERP for “How Can I Learn to Sing”. First, notice that the right type of content serves up. Second, note that none of these are exact match to the string of characters. They are best match to the intent.
Try searches for questions you need answered. More often than not, you will be pleased to find the information you need.
Rich Snippets: Overlooked By Too Many of Us
Rich snippets are well understood among SEOs, but precious few of the rest of us understand them. According to a BuiltWith Study cited by Website Magazine, only 2.5% of the top 10,000 websites in the world use microdata of any type.
Rich snippets provide structure to the search engines. Structure indicates the type of content being viewed – such as a video, work by a particular author, a customer testimonial, or an event. SERP listings then show up with a thumbnail, author image, or more structured listing (e.g. a list of events) rather than just a link.
Video Markup: Highlight Videos and Increase CTR in SERPs
Video markup is nothing new to experienced search marketers. YouTube has been showing up in SERPs with rich snippets for some time now. Video markup positions your content to appear with an image thumbnail of the video in SERPs.
Unfortunately, aside from publishers, media companies, and SEOs, video markup still lacks adoption. As you can see below, the search for “pizza video” brings up two YouTube listings and one about.com listing, all with thumbnails.
Given the slow rate of adoption with video markup, it can be a quick win for online visibility. Do some cursory searches of terms related to your industry. No videos? There’s an opportunity to show up, possibly on page one.
If you don’t want to deal with code on your own website, post videos to YouTube with keyword rich titles and descriptions. That way, your video can show up for the right searches as seen above.
Author Markup Blended with Fresh Content
Author authority has been a hot topic over the past year. Google even admitted that Google+ is more about author identity authentication than social networking.
Once you establish yourself on Google+, your content will show up with your G+ profile picture. Below is an example of how this looks.
The example below was on page one for the query “social media bloggers”. The first listing under “News” includes the author photo. Take note of how content “freshness” boosts it to the top of the news section, too.
It was surprising to see only one author photo on the page. I would expect social media content creators to be all over Author Markup.
Weaving in the Knowledge Graph: Famous People
For well-known personalities such as actors, musicians, politicians, and sports figures, Google does a great job of pulling together general profile information to match with search intent.
Below is the SERP for the query “Chris Webber’s Birthday”. As you can see, it pulls in his birthday and age. It also includes a basic profile from in the sidebar, a sampling of images, and a list of other well-known NBA sports figures who played around the same time as Webber.
Now that’s above and beyond the intent! Is it overkill? I don’t think so. Someone looking for Chris Webber’s birthday may be interested in those topics. If Google wants to evolve from a search engine to a “prediction engine”, they are making progress along that path.
Below you can see an example for the query “Denzel Washington Movies”. Here, you get screenshots of the movie artwork, a Denzel “Movies” avatar, and an actor-focused profile in the sidebar.
There are many more examples of these sorts of SERPs. Try it for yourself – look for birthdays, major events, and visible activities for any public figure. You may be surprised to see how good Google is getting in this area.
Semantic Match: Separate from Location!
One of the most discussed SEO topics over the past two years is Local SEO. This influences the 7-pack of top local vendors on the SERPs, the sidebar map showing their locations, and links to related reviews.
While collecting information for this article, I found an interesting scenario that provided rich snippets akin to local SEO, but not for a local business. Clearly, Google has decided that Hoboken Pizza & Beer Joint in San Diego, CA has some strategic importance to the search query “pizza beer joint”.
This is the only example I found where the intent was completely misconstrued. Sure, I could be looking for a place that is hyper-optimized for “pizza beer joint”. In reality, if I search for that from Austin, TX, I’d expect to see local options. But somehow I found a whole SERP about a pizza joint located 1300 miles away.
Like I said previously, the search engines are still working out the kinks. We still see some errant SERPs, but in the end, the overall search experience stands to improve significantly over the long haul.
How to Take Advantage of Semantic Search
Semantic search is a powerful offering from Google, and one that we all should be thinking about. How can you take advantage of it? Here are three ways to adjust your content generation and SEO efforts for semantic search.
Map Page to User Intent
When you are building out your website architecture, creating blog posts, or generating new content across your site, take time to think about who needs it and why. Personas should play a key role in this exercise. Decide what target segment to target with the content. Think about what they might want, and what you want their reaction to the content to be. Then choose verbiage and keywords accordingly.
With search engines now able to parse real world questions properly, focus on answering logical questions to which your content relates. Especially when creating blog and video content, consider using words like “How to…” or “How I fixed…” in the title of the post or video. This will even better position you to rank semantically for question-based searches.
SERP Competitive Analysis
SEO is heavily impacted by competition, but not all listing types are created equally. Once you pick your target keywords, perform a few quick searches for those queries, synonyms, and questions that might suit the answer. See who is ranking, and whether there are any rich snippets present.
With that knowledge in hand, you can determine whether you can jump onto page one faster than with text-only content. Everyone is blogging, but not everyone is analyzing how to rank for semantic search.
Semantic search is steadily improving the results that search engines serve up. Forget about black hat tactics; there are ample ways to make a difference while still following Google’s guidelines without opening up your website to risk of penalty. With a new way to rank for intent rather than just keywords, you have abundant opportunities to grow your web visibility.