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What it is and why it matters to SEO today

What it is and why it matters to SEO today

Many things have changed since 2010, when SEO was more concerned with getting as many backlinks as possible and with as many keywords as possible.

In 2021, the focus has shifted to understanding intentions and behaviors and the context – semantics – behind them.

Today, search engine understanding has evolved and we have changed how we optimize it as a result. The day of reverse engineering content that lies higher is behind us and it is no longer enough to identify keywords.

Now you need to understand what these keywords mean, provide rich information that contextualizes these keywords and understand the user’s intent.

These things are essential for SEO in an age of semantic search, where machine learning and natural language processing help search engines understand context and consumers better.

In this piece, you will learn what semantic search is, why it is important for SEO, and how to optimize your content for it.

What is semantic search?

Semantic search describes a search engine’s attempt to generate the most accurate SERP results possible by understanding based on the searcher’s intent, query context, and word relationship.

This is important as:


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People say things and ask things in different ways, languages ​​and tones. Search queries can be ambiguous in nature. There is a need to understand the connection between words.

The relationship between entities and personal choices and relationships is also very important.

Google spends a lot of money on patents related to this. This works when a user asks something similar [top 10 movies of 2021] and Google returns more options / sites that the user can visit.

Bill Slawski explains more in this post.

With layman’s set, semantic search seeks to understand the natural language that a human would.


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For example, if you asked your friend, “What is the largest mammal?” and then followed up the question with “How big is it?” your friend would understand that “it” refers to the largest mammal: a blue whale.

Before 2013, however, search engines would not understand the context of the second question.

Instead of answering “How big is a blue whale”, Google would seek to match the specific keywords from the phrase “How big is it?” and return web pages with the exact keywords.

Today you will see a different result with a selected excerpt and understanding of the context behind the question with additional information.

Semantic search also allows Google to distinguish between different devices (people, places, and things) and interpret the searcher’s intentions based on a number of factors, including:

User Search History.User Location.Global Search History.Spelling Variations.

All of this helps Google with its goal of providing a better experience for its users by delivering quality and preferring relevant content results.

Semantic search: A short story


Introducing in 2012, the knowledge graph was Google’s first step in developing the importance of units and context in relation to strings of keywords – or, as Google put it, “things, not strings”.

The knowledge graph set the stage for the great algorithmic changes that were to come.

As a massive database of public information, the knowledge graph collected information that is considered public domains (e.g., Distance to the Moon, Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the cast of “Star Wars,” etc.) and the characteristics of each entity (people have birthdays. , siblings, parents, professions, etc.).


Google’s Hummingbird update, rolled out in 2013, is without a doubt the beginning of the semantic search age as we know it today.


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Hummingbird uses NLP to ensure that “pages that match the meaning make it better, rather than pages that match only a few words.” In essence, this means that pages that better match the searcher’s context and intent are ranked better than pages that repeat context-free keywords with nausea.


In 2015, Google launched RankBrain, a machine learning system that is both a ranking factor and an intelligent query analysis AI.

RankBrain, like Hummingbird, seeks to understand the user’s intent behind queries. The critical difference between them is RankBrain’s machine learning component.

RankBrain always learns, analyzes the most effective search results and looks for similarities between the pages that users find valuable.

As a result, RankBrain may consider a page as a “good answer” to a query, even if it does not contain exact words from the query.


Introduced in 2019, BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) was introduced by Google. This focuses on further understanding of intent and context-seeking context.

BERT gives users easier access to valuable and accurate information.


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According to Google, this represented the biggest leap forward in the last five years and one of the biggest in search history. It gave marketers direction to work more with longtail queries and phrases with more than three words and ensure that content addresses users’ questions.

It also meant that SEO professionals had to shift focus on writing to people with clear and concise content that is easy to understand.

How does semantic search affect SEO?

Users turn to voice search

Semantic search has largely evolved due to the increase in voice search.

Mobile voice commands are now common, and the use of voice commands on devices other than what is already “frequent” or “very frequent” among 33% of high-income households.

Voice search optimization is very different from traditional SEO because you need to get to the point immediately (for purpose-based searches) and keep your content much more conversational.

What you can do

Create content that clearly and concisely responds to a common query at the top of the page before going into more specific details.


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Be sure to use structured data to help search engines understand your content and context.

For example, a sports retailer may create a checklist of what to take on a day trip, followed by information on local wildlife, fishing and hunting regulations, and contact information for emergency services.

Focus shifts from keywords to topics

It’s time to stop creating keyword content.

Instead, you should think about broad topics in your niche that you can cover in depth.

The goal here is to create comprehensive, original, high-quality resources.

What you can do

Instead of creating dozens of short, different pages, each with its own topic, you can consider creating “ultimate guides” and more comprehensive resources that your users will find valuable.

The intent of the applicant becomes a priority

In fact, one of the best approaches to keyword targeting is not keyword targeting as much as it is targeted at targeting.

By researching the queries that lead people to your site, you can come up with a group of topics that are ideal for building content around.


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What you can do

Make a list of keywords and separate them according to the user’s intention.

For example, the queries [iPhones vs. Android battery life] or [compare Apple and Samsung phones] both clearly fall under the intention of the umbrella [compare smartphones].

Opposite to, [where to buy iPhone 12] and [best deals for Samsung Galaxy] both communicate an intention to buy.

Once you understand the searcher’s intent, start creating content that directly addresses their intent instead of creating content around individual keywords or broad topics.

Technical SEO means just as much as content

Even with Google’s transition from string to thing, the algorithm is not yet smart enough to derive meaning or understanding alone.

You still need to optimize your site and help Google understand your content.


Yes, keywords still mean something. Use a content analysis tool to extract common questions and related long-tail keywords that you can incorporate into your content. Include keywords in your title tags, URL, body, header tags and meta tags, as long as it fits naturally.


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Link building

Authoritative backlinks remain one of the most important ranking signals. Prioritize content that naturally attracts links. Do not forget to use proper internal link structures to develop deep links to other valuable content you have created.

Structured data

Use schema markup to help customers find your business and search engines index your site. You can also add more details using the walkthrough marker and organization marker.


Try to remove redirects whenever possible and only rely on 301 redirects for missing pages. You should not have more than one redirect per Page. Also use rel = canonical tags for different versions of your site.

Site speed

Compress resources, compress images, take advantage of browser caching, and follow Google’s checklist to optimize your site’s speed.

Optimize site structure

Maintaining a logical site structure helps search engines index your site and understand the connection between your content. Logical site structures also enhance UX by giving users a logical journey through your site.


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Focus shifts to user experience

User satisfaction should guide all our SEO efforts in a time of semantic search.

Google cares about user satisfaction, and they are constantly fine-tuning their algorithm to better understand and satisfy searchers.

SEO professionals should also focus on UX.

Read more on Google and the user experience here.

What you can do

Improve page speed as much as possible, make sure your mobile website is optimized (especially now that Google prioritizes mobile websites for indexing), and keep an eye on metrics like bounce rate and session duration.


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When you think you can find something that can be improved, run A / B experiments to see if you can increase engagement.


Understanding how Google understands intent in intelligent ways is crucial to SEO. Semantic search should be kept in mind when creating content. In doing so, do not forget how this works with Google EAT principles.

Mediocre content offerings and ancient SEO tricks will simply not cut it anymore, especially as search engines become better at understanding context, the relationship between concepts and user intent.

The content must be relevant and of high quality, but it must also reset the applicant’s intent and be technically optimized for indexing and placement.

If you succeed in finding that balance, you are on the right track.

More SEO resources:

Image credits

Picture 4: Ahrefs
All screenshots taken by the author, June 2021


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