SEO: Keyword-Based Search versus Semantic Search
You’ve probably learned through your SEO research that search engines use keywords to match results to queries. However, that’s not entirely true. Search engines were first developed to use a ranking system that rewards pages by how closely the words in the query match the words on a page. The more exactly the query phrase matches a phrase repeatedly used on your web page the more likely your web page is to be delivered to a searcher as a relevant result.
There are problems with a strict keyword-based ranking system, though. First, it’s easy to manipulate this kind of system with keyword spam. And perhaps more important, searchers are moving away from stilted keyword phrase-type queries like [classic car parts Poughkeepsie] and toward natural language queries like [who sells classic car parts in Poughkeepsie?]. A major driver in this shift is the prevalence of mobile Internet use and queries spoken into smartphones via the voice assistants.
In order to deliver the best results for queries in a natural language format, search engines developed technology that understands the connection between words, or semantic search.
By understanding the connections between words, search engines build entities. An entity is a person, place, or thing, as a search engine understands it, and entities are understood in connection to other entities.
For instance, the entity Abraham Lincoln is connected to the entity of the White House and the entity of the American Civil War — a person, place, and thing, respectively, each with a history and multitude of facts that are much more than keywords strung together. In fact, Google often describes semantic search and the entities behind it as a move to a system of “things, not strings” (of keywords).
You can still optimize with keywords in light of semantic search.
How does semantic search affect what you do to help your website rank? It makes it especially important that full sentences are used and that keywords are included in a natural way that doesn’t feel forced or overdone. Focus on covering a topic in a thorough and complete way rather than hitting a keyword quota. If the web page is indeed about the keyword, that keyword will necessarily be included in the text, along with other words and phrases associated with the topic.
Seek to develop your website into an authoritative resource for the topic you cover. Provide useful and helpful resources that cover a topic in depth. Search engines rank subject matter experts highly, rewarding sites on qualifications it refers to as E-A-T (expertise, authority, and trust).
In practical terms, optimizing your web pages with targeted keywords is a process that helps content writers and website owners make sure that their website is on target, supporting the overall website theme and purpose. Keywords are helpful for guiding web page content and making it clear what the page is about.
Choosing keywords and optimizing pages for them requires a certain amount of guesswork, science, finesse, and practice. The process has few hard and fast rules — for each item, you must weigh the pros and cons and make a lot of decisions. Over time, you develop a feel for search engine optimization and it becomes easier.
However, it’s extremely important to both track and test your keywords as you develop your website. This process is ongoing, so be patient and let yourself go through the learning curve. And remember that SEO tools and analytics are an SEO’s best friend.