Understanding the Factors in Semantic Search

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In the early days on the internet, getting contextually relevant results in search was nearly impossible. As more keyword search data has been collected on individual keywords, including content, user behavior and natural language processing, search engines today are beginning to grasp the importance of context. In essence, this is what is at the heart of semantic search machine learning. It is the attempt of search engines to understand “search intent” and deliver the most relevant results. Semantic search engines are guided by two principles: 1) the intent of the user and 2) the semantic meaning of search terms. (source)

What is semantic search? Essentially, it is a way for Google to better understand the meaning of queries, and to match them with the most relevant results. This has been a major shift in how search works, and it has had a big impact on SEO and online marketing.

Semantic search is the attempt of search engines to understand “search intent” and deliver the most relevant results.  Semantic search is guided by two principles:

  1. The intent of the user.
  2. The semantic meaning of search terms.

(Source: https://blog.alexa.com/semantic-search/)

If you want to stay ahead of the curve in the world of search, it’s important to understand semantic search and how it works. Keep reading to learn more about semantic search and how it’s changing the landscape of SEO and online marketing.


Image from Semantic Search and SEO: Everything You Need to Know – Eric Enge (Read this post)

Video Transcript:

Let’s talk a little bit about semantic search. Semantic search is the customization of the search results, and how Google is trying to deliver the most contextual information to the end user as fast as possible.

A lot of times when we think about SEO and content and things that we can do to influence the search rankings or help improve the organic visibility of our site, we think about the things that we can control as the website owner or the webmaster.

The reality is there are a lot of other factors at play when it comes to search rankings. We know some of the top factors like content and having a strong internal link profile are important. But then we have this thing called RankBrain, which we don’t fully understand and a lot of people dissect it and dig a little bit deeper, but RankBrain is driving semantic search. It’s driving Google’s understanding of queries, contextual meaning, how those connect with different elements, and how those connect with a user at the other end of the screen.

One thing I talk to my marketing team about all the time that I want to make clear here is that we have to understand that at the end of a search query, at the end of the search, there’s always another human being. We need to market to humans, we need to market to people and to solve people’s problems. If we want to rank, solve somebody’s problems. Over time if your content is good and you have a good link profile, you’re going to rank for that content.

How Does Semantic Search Influence Search Results?

We have three different things working together here. We have;

  1. The searcher, the person that’s typing in the query
  2. The publisher, the person who owns the website
  3. Other factors are the factors that we don’t control. These all play a role in what people see and when they see them

The Searcher

This is not everything involved, but these are some relatively substantial things. The conversational content that the searchers have. Maybe it’s been on a chat platform or something that’s been tracked by Google Analytics, maybe it’s been on a third-party social site. That stuff plays a role in what that searcher sees. So do their personal preferences.

What did they set up in their Chrome installation, with Safari, Mozilla, or whatever they’re using as a browser? What do their personal preferences say? What are their previous searches? What’s their search purchase history? What websites have they gone to? What websites did they make a transaction on?

Most of the websites that we’re going to online understand that. They know what’s going on. They’re tracking that. And if they have  Google Analytics or another analytics platform attached to them, they’re being tracked, and this stuff is understood.

Let’s talk a little bit about the device. Are they browsing on a mobile device or tablet, or are they on a computer? Those are going to play roles in what is being seen and search. Their Google Doc history plays a role as well. What are the things they’re searching for? You may notice that if you’re logged in to Google Drive and you search for something, inside the search results Google will sometimes show you one of your own Google Docs.

This is saying, “Hey, you have some information about this in your knowledge base, or in your documents. Is that what you’re looking for?” They’re trying to help solve your problems quickly. And also the social connections, what are you doing on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or these other things that you have connected with your search browser? All of those can play a factor in what you’re going to see.

The Publisher

This is the person who’s running the website. Things that influence is mostly pricing. If somebody’s looking at something cheap and you have an expensive product you’re not going to show up. Let’s say somebody’s looking for something expensive and you have a cheap product. It works vice versa.

You also need to understand links. Do you have good-quality authoritative links your site? If you don’t, that’s going to play a role in a semantic search. Structured data and I’m going to pair this with a Knowledge Graph. These play a role. This is why I’ve done a ton of videos on schema markup and adding structured data markups to your site because this is helping the search engine understand the user intent, but also understanding how understanding how your content is connected to what they call an entity.

You can think of an entity as a person, place, or thing, and then structured data helps associate what you do in the entity. And Google My Business plays a role as well, especially if you’re a local company. You need to have a local Google My Business portfolio built out and structure properly; this will help make sure that you can have some influence.

The Other Factors

These are the things that neither the searcher or the publisher have control over, time and day. Day of the week, the time of search plays a role, so do social signals from alternative sources. You don’t have control over all of those things. Entity recognition. This is slightly connected to the Knowledge Graph and structured data, but if Google’s algorithm doesn’t understand what you’re connected to and they don’t have that entity relationship with your content, you’re not going to show.

And then concept mapping. It’s asking if you have an understanding of the full concept. Have they been able to align your content with the entire idea or topic of what you’re promoting or selling? Each one of these different bubbles plays a role in semantic search.

Again, the goal behind semantic search is user satisfaction. It is a more personalized experience for the end user so they can get the content that they need at the right time.

If you notice this little box over here. These are things that play a role in all different areas. It’s a language terminology and location. The searcher can type in a location modifier. They can use English, Dutch, Spanish, or their language. They can be somewhere and search for something.

All of those are going to play a role and how they use it. Like maybe they say a word in this context versus that. They have control over that. We also have control over our websites. We can put locations, adjust our terminology, change the language that was showing, and other factors can also play a role there.

Search and ranking aren’t as simple as creating good content and getting links and you’re going to automatically rank. Today’s search changes a lot. We have a lot of other factors in place and this is why I have to tell our clients sometimes to stop Googling yourself from your office because you’re not going to see a true view of where you rank.

Where you rank is more of an aggregated value, an average value today rather than being in a certain position on this keyword all the time. There are a lot of things going on. Search is continuing to change and adapt. And we as publishers and site owners need to understand that we need to focus on the things that we have control over and put most emphasis on them in order to make sure that our content has that visibility.

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and has been updated.

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