If you’re not getting the search results you want based on optimizing content for specific keywords, maybe it’s time to look at the world of semantic search. Google’s Hummingbird update two years ago has set the stage for a search environment where audience intent is as significant as the keywords they use. Creating strategies that capture audience intent will help marketers break through the noise to reach target audiences.

Keyword Data and Semantic Search

Until recently, marketing and SEO departments have focused on individual keywords – specific terms people use when looking for information on the web. Because of the way search engines have worked, those who were in charge of optimizing content would consider the questions their audience might be asking and distill them down to a few specific words. The real value of keywords for findablity is realized when general topics, such as “shoes” are narrowed to focus on a specific terms like “running shoes” or “best shoes for tennis.”
Semantic search is the natural language people use when they’re searching on the web. Instead of distilling a question down into a few keywords, semantic search takes into account the entire sentence to understand more of the intent of the searcher and puts it into context. Keywords can be broken down into three categories:

  1. Head keywords: These are the keywords that contain the largest percentage of search volume (18-20% of total search) and represent searches in the millions or hundreds of thousands range.
  2. Middle keywords: These keywords receive 11-12% of keyword search volume with an average monthly search in the hundreds or thousands. 
  3. Long-tail keywords: The remaining 70% of search volume. These keywords have an average monthly search volume in the hundreds. Although these keywords do not get the volume of search traffic, they tend to be highly specific and identify audiences who are further down the road toward conversion.

For marketers, selecting which keywords to track can be a combination of search volume, relevance, and resources. However the decision is made, the outcome should be increased website traffic and, hopefully, more conversions.
“It’s common for folks what a  small marketing or search department to have a list of 5,000 keywords and then struggle to maintain it from a marketing standpoint. The solution might be to prioritize keywords that are specific to your niche markets and leverage those to start with to build traction,” suggests Erin O’Brien, COO. “I would rather be able to show good traction across 100 keywords than try tracking 100,000 keywords that I’m not able to create content to rank for based on my resources.”

Moving From Keyword to Topic Mentality

The challenge of constantly brainstorming and creating new and engaging content has moved marketers naturally toward semantic search. It’s a lot easier to come up with interesting ideas for content that engage your audiences when you’re targeting topics versus keywords.
topics and keywords for social media
“We’ve been talking about this idea of moving away from a keyword-based mentality into more topic-based thinking. Although you can get very specific estimates around how much search volume you’ll get with a specific keyword, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get the search results you expect because of the way Google’s semantic-based algorithm decides what is the best overall contextual match,” states Ray Grieselhuber, Founder & CEO. “In many cases, marketers can reach their goals by targeting general topics that have an aggregated search volume across a broad number of keywords.”
Understanding your audience’s intention will help you to reach them through the new semantic search algorithms. As semantic search continues to evolve and search engines get smarter about the relationships between certain types of queries and the context of the question, they begin to infer the intention of the searcher and are able to differentiate between someone who is wanting to find a nearby restaurant, versus someone who is looking to research the restaurant business, versus someone who is looking to share an idea about restaurant management. The search engines are getting smarter at figuring out what the searcher is really trying to accomplish.
“I suggest taking keywords and applying them to different areas of the traditional marketing funnel,” states Erin. “I think semantic search is a really good example of using keywords based on the buyer journey because it takes into account intention and context. Semantic search naturally differentiates audiences based on where they are in the funnel and their intention towards this brand or product, and contextually determines the type of content they get based on that intent.”

Optimizing for the long-tail

We’re currently in a transition phase between keyword-based search and semantic search. Keyword-based search is still viable. Targeting and optimizing for it is still very effective and it probably will be for a while. Although the semantic behavior of search engines is continuing to improve, core organic search optimization principles still apply and marketers will continue to target content for specific keywords for now. However, there are some things we can start doing now to ease the transition into semantic search and to boost ranking results.
“One way to boost your ranking, in addition to the metadata that you’re already including in your webpages for your title tag and your meta description tag, is to use semantic market.” notes Ray. “There are a number of different formats out there, but the most popular is probably Schema.org. I recommend creating content and including Schema.org metadata directly into your content. ”
The move toward semantic search is not an all or nothing proposition. The idea here is to start thinking about how semantic search affects your ranking results and them optimizing your content, where possible, to include schema metadata. It’s not really a different concept from optimizing for keywords, but now it’s more about optimizing for topics. If you’re already creating really good content that is targeted towards what people are looking for, you may not need to change your tactics right now.
However, if you start to see a dip in your ranking results, you might consider creating content for long-tail keywords to narrow your focus around specific queries and terms. Long-tail kewords will be less competitive, but also come with a lower search volume, so there might be a trade-off between quantity and quality when it come to who is consuming your content.
Eventually, if you start creating content based on topics instead of keywords, you may see a difference in your overall site rank. It’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen today. The future of search is semantic, but we all have some time to adjust how we optimize for these algorithms.

Creating Context Through Social

competitor audience insights social signalsAs semantic search takes hold and search engines improve their ability to combine the intent and the context of queries, social media begins to take on another role of influencer. Brands who do social well can build context around their messaging and their products to improve overall findability on the web.
“One of the things we’ve talked about before is if you’re going to do social, don’t “dive bomb” – come in, make one comment, and then peace out,” suggests Erin. “That’s not going to help you unless you already have a huge, established following. In the future, it’s going to be more like establishing domain authority, there will be social authority where brands can build up a following context around content and topics that they are relatively known for.”
The challenge for marketers is going to be the ability to stay relevant in the midst of all that’s going on. Social media will have it’s role to play, as marketers search for those authentic conversations and the topics that are resonating with their target audiences. Being part of the conversation will add context for the search engines and keeping content current and optimized will still be the best way to improve findability. In the end, the search engines will have more information about our audience than you will as marketers including their location, device, activity and previous search activity.
According the Ray and Erin, in order to stay relevant and to get the most out of your search results, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Keep paying attention and learning about semantic search
  • Get a good mix of keywords to target
  • Take your team size into account when deciding on the volume of keywords to track
  • Group keywords into themes or topic groups
  • Create content groups to track

“Think of optimizing content for semantic search like writing a really good report. Make sure the title reflects what is covered in the content. If you’re going to cite your sources, you have to make sure that if you click underlined resources, you reference them in the end.  A lot of this is the same way that the internet is working from a search perspective when it’s looking at links to and from your content – much the same as citing sources in a research paper,” notes Erin. “Think of creating content for the web as writing a really strong research paper with titles, subsections, and citations to other sources and from other sources to you.”
If you’d like to get more information about keyword tracking and improving brand findability, contact us.