Semantic search and creating content for it

Content today needs to be optimized for topics and not keywords

Online search is getting better…and cleverer. It’s because of the combination of many things, but primarily because search engines have started to “see” search queries in context. Or at least, they try to.

In the last 7 years, especially after Google’s first attempt at semantic (meaningful), search called, “Knowledge Graph” was launched, there’s been a forward movement on this kind of search.

Semantic search tries to understand a searcher’s motive through contextual meaning. Intent - determination, desire - is a human emotion. A computer was unable to understand it because machines were not programmed to comprehend human emotions; the tech for that was not mainstream. Till a few years ago when a conscious attempt was initiated to try understanding search words in the context they were being made.

Semantic search got impetus because of the advent of digital voice assistants which sparked off voice search. Now, as most of you would know, spoken and written language are never the same so the words used by a voice “searcher” can differ from those used by his “text” counterpart, even though they may be looking for the same thing.

Here’s an example: If an online searcher keys in: I need to change the oil, the person could be referring to: (1) car engine oil (2) cooking oil (3) two-wheeler oil (4) snow plow, etc. Earlier, a search engine would use the exact search terms to throw up the results. Today, however, it will try and understand the searcher’s intent before throwing up the “relevant” content around the query. That starts from establishing who the “I” is? Is it just an ordinary person or someone qualified like a mechanic? Is it someone located in Canada or India (the chances of the query being related to a snow plow is more if it is a Canadian rather than an Indian is raising the issue)? If intent is not accurately captured it means a blow to all three parties involved - the searcher, the content provider as well as the search engine. The searcher, for he did not get the relevant answer, the content provider, for his content was thrown up against the wrong query, and the search engine, for failing to help the searcher.

What semantic search factors in is:

  • Searcher’s intent

  • The context of the search words

  • The relationship between them

  • Synonyms

Then there are additional factors such as the search user’s history, location and the language used.

This week’s newsletter is not about how algorithm models are changing to try and understand the intent of a searcher, nor about advances in computing like artificial intelligence and natural language processing that make the understanding of human language by a computer easier, and thus his intent, possible.

In fact, in an earlier edition, we had questioned whether intent-based search was indeed headed in the right direction.

But it is now being said that because of semantic search, content needs to be “configured” or optimized for semantic and voice search. All of which means SEO, too, is slowly being impacted. So, this week’s newsletter looks at the impact of intent search on content.

It’s no longer a keyword but a topic that defines a piece of content - that in a nutshell is the philosophy behind intent search.

Your content now needs to be:

(a) optimized for intent

(b) optimized for voice search, i.e. in your content you need to get to the point straightaway

(c) much more conversational

There are no shortcuts to optimizing your content for semantic search. You have to optimize it not for a keyword but for a subject matter, so you can’t merely cram synonyms and hope that search web spiders will get the content’s context.

As a first step, search engines have provided content developers a general guideline to help with the intent-in-search process. The former has classified user intent into 4 broad categories: (a) Informational: How far away is Mars from Earth? (b) Navigational: Facebook login (c) Commercial: Cost of Nike shoes (d) Transactional: Life insurance quotes

Here are some tips for content developers:

  • Before going ahead, try and understand in which of the above 4 categories your new content will fall

  • Create content that concisely answers a common query getting into the specifics

  • Use lot of sub-headings

  • Write logically so that search engines can “identify” the most appropriate elements in the text in order to grasp the topic of the article under discussion

  • For each category, there’s a number of additional intent SEO things to do

Eg: for commercial category, you could add more videos.

It’s not yet clear if this kind of compartmentalization is the way ahead for online search. When search was born, it was followed up by SEO experts and agencies who work in tandem with the content providers to optimize it for the search engines. With intent being added to the equation, there are now experts and agencies that help you optimize your content for intent so that it gets picked up and matched by the search engines. A simple online search will fetch you their names.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay