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What Is Semantic Search and How Does It Affect My SEO?

“How do I get to Main Street?” For those of us who are directionally challenged, it’s a question we used to ask real people, but now we just type into Google… or more likely speak into our phone (“Hello Siri!”). Even 5 years ago we would have gotten back search results about businesses with ‘Main Street’ in the name and random Yahoo answers. Today, you get a bus or train schedule and driving directions on a map.

Pretty awesome, right? You can thank semantic search.

The importance of semantic search

If you’ve been paying attention to any of the SEO updates as of late, you’ve probably noticed that they often include the phrase “semantic search”. It may sound scarily technical, but it’s really just a fancy name for a simple concept: rather than deliver results based on exact matches to your search query keywords or phrase, search engines are digging into your context, location and word choice in order to deliver results based on your intent.

Computers can’t read our minds (this isn’t Terminator). They can only read what we type. However, what we type isn’t always what’s in our minds. Semantic search is therefore what search engines are doing to infer what we’re thinking, rather than take our queries word for word. And because everyone uses different words when they speak or type, Google and Bing analyze data from millions of people, queries, results and clicks to get a better idea of what you mean.

Which ‘Main Street’ are we referring to? The one in the town you’re currently in. How do you get there? Well if bus and train aren’t available, then driving directions will do. These are all inferences that the search engine is making, even if you don’t spell it out.

How semantic search affects your website’s SEO

Google made semantic search a priority earlier this year when it launched the Hummingbird update. Unlike the usual Penguin and Panda updates, Hummingbird was all about making sure Google takes into account the entire meaning of the search engine query, rather than individual words.

When the Hummingbird update was launched, it affected 90% of queries worldwide. Compare that to a Panda or Penguin update that affects on average 3%-5%, and you’ll realize the significance of this update. That’s 90% of ALL queries – or 12x the impact of Penguin 4.0 which had people panicking over, upways, sideways and down! Needless to say, the Hummingbird impact was huge and you should be paying attention.

What all this means is that your website’s SEO was probably affected and will continue to be affected as the months and years go on. Exact match keyword was once the foundation of many websites, but now Google is throwing more weight behind relevant keywords, synonyms, and answering questions. Your content matters more than ever.

What you need to consider

Listen, if you’ve been facilitating organic content development on your business’ website over the past few years, you really don’t have much to worry about. No need to hit the panic button or even change course. You just have to be cognizant of semantic search so you can optimize your content moving forward.

  1. Think from your customer’s perspective – What are your customers typing into search engines? Are you answering their queries? If you can be your customers’ source of information, then you’ll win Google’s semantic heart and be at the top of SERPs.
  2. Optimize your site for local SEO – Because location affects semantic search and is a really important factor in search results, you need to make sure you’ve optimized your website for local SEO. Use a marketing tool like Yext to establish truly accurate information (like address, hours and phone number) and think about location-based keywords in your content.
  3. Don’t take semantic search too literally. If you want to capture visitors who are looking for “a family restaurant near Central Park”, you don’t have to use the exact phrase “a family restaurant near Central Park” in all your content. As long as you have optimized your website for the usual restaurant keywords and location-based SEO, your website will rank high in the Google and Bing SERPs. The point of semantic search is that you don’t have to think up all the ridiculous phrase combinations – you just have to do the next task:
  4. Continue creating content like a ‘natural’ – Keep doing what you’re doing and create content without thinking about keywords or linking (you can always add those in later). Just think about your customer and make sure to give them what they want.

Semantic search is the future of search, whether it’s via a laptop, your mobile phone or on a social media site. You can’t erase it; you just have to embrace it. So make sure your business is thinking customer first, not keyword first and you’ll be all set!