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Is There a Way to Optimize for [Blank] in a Search Query?

Google’s ability to semantically understand context helps users get their queries answered. But how can you optimize for [blank]?

Today’s Ask an SEO question comes from Christian in the UK. Christian asks:

Is there a contextual way to address the search so that it looks for the blank [in this case, “what”] in a question (e.g., vegan is to meat as what is to garlic)?

Words mean things.

My journalism school professor constantly repeated this phrase to me and my classmates when our writing wasn’t clear, or we used the wrong word to describe a situation.

The same is true for Google, Bing, and all the other major search engines.

But what words mean to a robot changes by the day, in many cases.

Context Means Things

Google increasingly understands the context of the content it crawls.

We no longer live in a world where an exact phrase needs to appear on a page to appear as a result in the SERPs for that particular query.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the exact phrase appear in the content.

I define long-tail keyword phrases as those that may not see a large volume of searches singularly, but in aggregate can generate significant traffic.

Long-tail keyword phrases also typically have high buyer intent.

After all, if you are searching for something very specific, and then you find it – chances are you are going to buy it – or fill out a form in the case of service.

But again, these days you can rank for long-tail keyword phrases by creating quality content that addresses the overall topic that will answer the query.

Google Gets You – Mostly

There are plenty of places you can read about Google’s increasing ability to semantically understand the context of a site.

SEO experts will debate about how Google does it ad nauseum.

The flavor of the month is called Multitask Unified Model, or MUM.

According to Google, MUM is 1000 times more powerful than the last SEO obsession, bidirectional encoder representations from transformers, or BERT.

BERT was part of what is known as RankBrain, which is a bit of a black box and I’m really not sure if we are still using the term RankBrain anymore.

It’s complicated.

But if you are so inclined, there are literally hundreds of blog posts and articles speculating how these technologies work to rank the millions of completely unique queries that are asked every single day.

And it’s important to understand how Google looks at the content you create.

But even if you are God’s gift to algorithm understanding, don’t expect to completely reverse engineer exactly how these technologies work.

I’ve worked with some of the smartest people on the planet, and even with advanced mathematical analysis, we’ve never been completely confident that our assumptions are correct.

Write the Best Information & You’ll Probably Be Covered

Your best bet is to understand the topics that appeal to your audience and write the best answer to their questions.

With a little effort, the best answers typically do rise to the top – despite the fact that many people whose answers may or may not be the best – complain that Google’s results are crap.

There are definitely anomalies and bad results.

For the most part, Google gets it right.

So, to answer the question, if you are looking to show up as the definitive answer for “vegan is to meat as what is to garlic,” you should write a page answering what the “what” is.

It wouldn’t hurt to have that phrase in the content itself either – but don’t overdo it.

If I were writing this copy, I would find several examples and put the keyword phrase as a headline, inserting several items for the “what.”

There is no schema or code that will tell Google about the relationships.

But don’t worry, Google is pretty good at figuring out those relationships on its own.

More Resources:

Editor’s note: Ask an SEO is a weekly SEO advice column written by some of the industry’s top SEO experts, who have been hand-picked by Search Engine Journal. Got a question about SEO? Fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!

Category Ask an SEO

I am a 19-year veteran of the digital marketing world with previous experience in journalism, public relations and advertising. I’ve ...

Is There a Way to Optimize for [Blank] in a Search Query?

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