Semantic SEO Principles that Dominate the Search Engine Results Page
Understanding Meaning and Context in SEO
Level up from basic keyword optimization and use this introduction to Semantic SEO to take your website to the top of the SERPs! Download the bonus Semantic SEO Content Checklist at the end of the guide to jumpstart your Semantic SEO Content Creation!
What is Semantic SEO?
Semantics is the focus of language that involves meaning. Semantics is concerned not only with the inherent meaning of a word but also the relationship with other words, which provides context and affects the overall meaning of a piece of content.
Semantic SEO, then, is the practice of focusing on understanding with your content–making sure search engines:
- understand the meaning and context of your content to serve your site to customers with matching inquiries.
- can understand and navigate the structure of your site while crawling/indexing/analyzing your web pages.
- can see that your offerings (information, products, or services) match the search intent of its users.
Context Example: If we start with the word “cup,” you might picture something like this: a basic cup holding some liquid.
But if we add the word “coffee,” we’re adding context, which helps give meaning to our overall message. Now, we might imagine something completely different–something more like this: a cup of coffee.
By building on that, and suggesting the coffee is steaming, we add even more context and give our content important meaning. Now, we have a steaming hot cup of coffee!
Like in the coffee example above, implementing Semantic SEO practices adds context to your content; this helps search engines better understand the overall topic of your content and improves your rankings for related searches. NLP (Natural Language Processing) helps computers understand words, sentences, and even emotions in our language. Search algorithms use NLP to understand the context of search inquiries and get a better idea of what someone is looking for with their search queries.
[NLP Disambiguation: NLP has had mainstream use referring to the psychology/pseudo-psychology term “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” to describe a method of therapy or interaction with people working at the intersection of neurobiology, linguistics, and behavioral programming, with the goal of influencing another’s behavior.]
In this article, we will discuss fundamental Semantic SEO strategies for ranking higher in search results and tools to help you master them. While the focus of this article is primarily on the meaning of content, we will also take brief looks at keyword strategies, and technical strategies as they relate to Semantic SEO.
A Brief History of Semantic SEO
While some aspects of Semantic SEO have existed and changed forms since the beginning of search, we can identify a few major milestones in the development and practical application of Semantic SEO–these milestones signify major leaps in Semantic SEO.
2013: Google releases an algorithm update called Hummingbird.
Hummingbird shifted Google's focus from simply identifying matching keywords to understanding the meaning behind search queries, including longer text search queries, in order to display results that were more relevant to users’ intents. Voice search was becoming increasingly popular with the adoption of voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant; Hummingbird improved Google's ability to understand and process natural language queries that were more conversational or question-based.
2015: Google adds RankBrain to the mix.
Did you know you’ve been using AI since 2015? RankBrain was a major implementation of machine learning, or AI. RankBrain helps process and understand search queries, particularly those that are unique or haven't been seen by Google before. It uses artificial intelligence to better understand the context and intent behind queries and provides more relevant search results when it doesn’t already have a tried-and-true answer ready to go.
2020: Google introduces BERT.
Google adds BERT technology to its search algorithm to help Google further understand the meaning of a search query by analyzing the relationship between words and considering both the preceding and following text. Google is no longer limited to guessing what comes next when “reading” left to right, but can now analyze the meaning of text by looking at the relationships of the words regardless of word placement.
Google’s trend of utilizing NLP and AI to perfect its search algorithm’s understanding of natural language shows that Semantic SEO has been an important factor in search engine results page rankings for quite some time, and continues to grow in importance.
[BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. It is a complex system used to convert text into codes to use bidirectional processing of text. To dig deeper into BERT’s functionality, see BERT Explained]
Semantic SEO Principles
Search engines are mastering language and communication to determine what content to show their customers; content creators need to employ best practices to keep up, and stay relevant! They say content is King, but using Semantic SEO, context is King!
The concept of Semantic SEO revolves around the idea of understanding, so instead of just stuffing keywords into our content, or focusing on a couple of major keywords placed here and there, we need to create content that communicates effectively and demonstrates an understanding of a topic.
On the algorithm development side, a lot of research goes into each decision when creating and updating search algorithms–data from studies and experiments in Psychology, AI, Sociology, Linguistics, User Experience, and more–and, those algorithms are being updated constantly! All the content we create is subject to the test of time–we must create content that Google can continue to serve to its customers with confidence, even as its algorithms evolve.
How are content creators supposed to write compelling content that does all that? Let’s consult a source from the language expert and thought leader, Herbert Paul Grice. Grice is a linguist and philosopher well known for his work surrounding effective communication and meaning. One of his books, “Studies in the Way of Words,” published in 1989, contains a set of maxims he identified as keys to effective communication: Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner. We are going to start with his four maxims and apply them to writing Semantic SEO-optimized content that withstands the test of time.
Before digging into the four maxims, there is one fundamental truth to consider regarding search engines and the algorithms they use to serve appropriate results: The main goal of search engines is to provide their customers with a good experience while they find what they are looking for. The four guidelines below that I adapted from Grice’s original maxims will help you create content to reach that goal.
Your content needs to be just long enough. What does that mean? Applying this first maxim to Semantic SEO, you need enough content to communicate the information you have to share with the website visitor, satisfy the search query, and indicate to Google that you have the right amount of information to help their customer. The key is to have enough content to achieve that, and no more.
You may find sources that recommend a minimum word count for pages or blog posts, implying that you just need to hit some magic number and you’re all set (a number, that is, that doesn’t happen to change depending on the subject matter, search intention, or website offerings). One source I found says that 400-500 words is the sweet spot for most pages; another recommends no more than 1,000 words for any kind of webpage; yet another indicates that anything over 200 words will be sufficient.
As Search Algorithms continue to learn and understand natural language, it becomes increasingly important not to fall into one-size-fits-all traps. There is no one size that fits all. Use the amount of content that provides enough information, context, and meaning to satisfy a search query without wasting a reader’s time–that is the user experience search engines are after. It’s important not to load your content with unnecessary information, or make a visitor jump around and search through your site for the information they need. It’s also not a good experience for a reader to have to go through duplicate information or ideas that were merely copied and reworded for the sake of longer content. It’s not about the number of words or keywords, but the meaning behind them.
There are many online tools you can use to help ensure you have enough content to communicate your meaning.
In this maxim, quality is determined by the accuracy of your content. Your content must be reliable to satisfy this maxim—search engines want to give their customers high-quality, fact-based, up-to-date, content.
It’s also important to be grammatically correct with your content. Utilizing proper grammar makes your content easier to understand and digest for human readers, but also signals to search algorithms that your site contains high-quality content. All of your web pages' content should be straightforward and not misleading or sensationalized. In order to provide accurate information, your content must also be well-researched, fact-checked, and regularly updated.
Supporting your content with additional media like infographics, illustrations, videos, or sound bites can improve your visitors’ experience on your site, and their understanding of your content. Pro Tip: Be sure to “get credit” for including media by tagging it and using appropriate tagging so search engines can understand what is there! (More on this later.)
Lastly, another effective way to improve the quality of your content is to provide your readers with links to authoritative sources. Referencing other websites that are known that are reputable sources of content, and known for their efforts to provide accurate information helps strengthen the credibility of your content and communicates your intent to provide reputable sources of information.
Using this article as an example again, you can see where I’ve done just that with each of the Google Algorithm updates I mention.
From Grice’s third maxim which focuses on relevance of content, comes our Semantic SEO focus on user intent. Considering user intent means looking beyond the words in the search query, to what the human behind that string of text is actually trying to find. Technically, your content must be relevant to what the search engine identifies as the intention behind the search query.
Thinking back to the coffee cup example, we can see how adding related context helps narrow a broad idea into very specific content. If
It helps to get specific when creating topics to help narrow down to a specific audience. Continuing to use this blog post as an example, I am writing about a very niche topic that will be useful for a very specific group of people. I use very specific language and build context and meaning around keywords which are sometimes used as subtopics.
Dig into your topic, but keep your content relevant to the overarching topic. Feel free to write naturally, but don’t wander from elements closely related to your main topic. If you find yourself in a groove, continue writing naturally for as long as you can. You can always go back to adjust wording for targeted keywords, find related media to add, or research helpful links to include later.
Link to other pages that you determine are relevant; these can be internal links to your own related content, or external links to others’ valuable, relevant content. This helps search engines understand the relevance of your content even more. Here’s an example from this article where I link to a very well-written article that explains, in great detail, how BERT works.
Using Grice's fourth maxim, “manner,” brings us to discussing clarity of communication. This maxim focuses on organizing your content so it is succinct, easy to follow, and clear.
The key to this maxim is to use very specific language in your content and avoid ambiguity. For example, if I were selling a t-shirt, I would include the exact sizing available, accurate and descriptive color listings, pricing, materials, care instructions specific to that shirt, shipping considerations specific to the weight and volume requirements of the shirt, etc.
Referencing this blog again, you can see an example of my effort to avoid ambiguity with abbreviations by explaining the difference between different uses of NLP. I even created a separate statement to call out the note on NLP:
Do not misrepresent your offerings by being vague, leaving out specifics or implying something that is not representative of your offerings. This leads to customers dropping from your site, and Google learning that you aren’t delivering on your promises.
Effective keyword research is still very much a part of Semantic SEO–adding meaning surrounding those keywords is the key to Semantic SEO. Using tools like Surfer’s Keyword Research Tool can help you explore many different keywords to get inspiration, and see important data about each term, like search volume and ranking difficulty scores.
I got some inspiration during my keyword research while looking for keywords to use as a title for my subtopic about foundational elements of SEO. In the example below, I took five related search terms from my research and entered them into Google Trends. Google Trends is a great tool that visualizes the popularity of search terms. I use it to look for keywords that are trending upward and keywords that consistently dominate in popularity. You can look for seasonal trends, or see which words have the higher spikes in search usage, or you can consult the bar graph in the bottom left to see the average popularity of the terms for the duration of the time period selected.
With this particular set of keywords, I’ve targeted “SEO Principles” as the term to use in my article:
…and you can see my implementation here:
Keyword research should be used in conjunction with Semantic SEO strategies to create compelling content that search engines and their users can find and understand with ease. As with all SEO, there is not one single thing to optimize, but a whole set of different strategies that, when employed together, make a huge difference. The magic of combining different SEO strategies for a website that lands at the top of the SERPs is like the synergistic effect of one plus one equaling three.
Technical Semantic SEO
Semantic SEO is a content-focused practice, but a key piece to SEO is Technical SEO. Technical SEO is the practice of making sure your website is performing well with no errors in the code, no missing links, proper tagging, using structured data, etc. Technical Semantic SEO would cover the site structure and technical elements search engines use to understand a website and process its content. If Semantic SEO deals with meaning, I would call the part of Technical SEO that deals with structure, format, organization, and code “Syntax for Semantic SEO.”
Below are some key areas to address to ensure your Syntax for Semantic SEO helps search engines make sense of your website:
- Using meta titles and descriptions that include target keywords and encourage users to click through from SERPs.
- Creating clear URLs that include relevant keywords and reflect the content on the page.
- Using descriptive Names and alt tags for images: These should also incorporate relevant keywords to improve the context for users who cannot see them.
- Implementing XML sitemaps, and addressing issues like broken links, helps search engines navigate and crawl your site effectively.
Using another example from this article, below is a screenshot of setting up my alt tags for an image above. I gave it a title and description that use the keyword “SEO Content” in the text.
Semantic SEO is a crucial aspect of optimizing your website and using your content to rank higher in search results. By focusing on understanding the meaning and context behind search queries, you can achieve better rankings and attract more organic traffic. As a content creator, mastering Semantic SEO strategies and staying up-to-date with algorithm changes will ensure your content remains relevant, valuable, and easily understood by both search engines and users alike.
By: Kevin Dinneen