What is semantic SEO and why is it so important?

The Web is semantic, therefore you must approach your pages as things, not strings. If you become the entity within your niche then you’ll win big in the SERPs

Before I give you my thoughts on optimising content I feel I need to point out that in the ever-evolving world of SEO it’s very easy to consume a mass of information in no time at all on any given topic and come out the other end even more confused and unsure than before you started researching that topic. This is commonplace throughout the industry, and I have to admit that I too have been guilty of staring at the latest shiny piece of misguided information that glints wistfully at me. We all do it!

Most recently I’ve noticed a number of articles that question the importance of keywords to SEO and the importance they actually hold with regards to ranking a Web page in the SERPS with some articles implying that keywords and phrases don’t really matter.

Now obviously this to me is incredibly interesting as it takes us down a rabbit hole that leads us to one the most important signals for search engines.

What is the content on this page all about and who should it be shown to?

Okay, so on to the issue at hand. Over the last few years it’s become increasingly apparent that Google has made really good inroads into fine-tuning it’s algorithms with regards to understanding Web pages, what they’re all about and where they fit into the search environment. So let’s take a step back and look at how they’re doing it so we can better plan our content and meet the requirements of users.

Now for me, to think that keywords don’t matter for SEO makes me very uneasy because a Web page should be built around entities, as entities themselves are keywords, and these words identify and promote understanding of the keywords that started the search in the first place.

And as long as people rely on words to describe the things we search for on the internet, keywords and phrases will continue to play a major role in users understanding our pages and must always be part of your on-page SEO strategy. However, what will change over time is the ability of the artificial intelligence that search engines use to understand a page and match it with user intent.

Semantic Topical Modelling

To carry out semantic topic modelling correctly you need to study co-occurring semantically related words and phrases that appear after a search query is performed. By doing this you’re modelling your pages around topics, and your topics must cover the search phrase you’re trying to rank for.

Remember, two users with the same question will phrase it differently when searching Google, so by clustering highly related semantic topics together there’s a much higher probability that they’ll both end up on the same page.

Now assuming you’ve nailed down the primary keyword phrase you want to optimise your content for, one of my go-to tactics is to then look for frequently co-occurring keywords/phrases on other Websites that are ranking highly for that primary keyword/phrase and use them on the page I’m creating.

And as already explained, by doing this you’re creating topical relevance around your content so not only do you stand a better chance of showing up in many related searches, you also create content that satisfies user intent, which I’ll talk about out further down.

A quick and simple tip to gather other related topical phrases used by competitors is to use the ctrl + F command on your competitors’ page and enter and the keywords in your phrase into the small search box that will appear at the top of the page.

When you enter the keywords into the box, all matching words will be highlighted on the page. This will allow you to study any other phrases that are being used directly around the ‘target’ phrase and unearth hidden gems that you might have overlooked.

Don’t forget, the purpose of this section of my article is about topic modelling so you also need to study the results pages for semantically related co-occurring phrases that Google deems important to the search query. This can be time-consuming but I have a self-made Google Sheets tool and process that will help you with this.

Remember, search engines such as Google have been evaluating words on pages for a very long time and are getting better at understanding them with every passing update, so write for humans and cover the topic without waffling on in an effort to fill the page and massage your ego, so stay on topic, make it readable and relatable.

Entities & relationships

Next in line are entities and this is where things get really interesting because understanding entities and how they might affect your Web page will give you an advantage over your competitors. In the eyes of Google entities are things (not strings of words) that closely relate to the search phrase, and when correctly optimising your pages using closely related entities you take a big step forwards with regards to Google understanding what your content/page is about, where it sits within the search ecosphere and who the page should be shown to. Both search engines and visitors will benefit from entities being used correctly with the results being more traffic that’s engaged directly with that page.

However, whilst the above sounds all well and good, what exactly is an entity? An entity can be classified into distinct thing such as a person, a place, a colour, an idea, a document, a theory etc. In fact, a keyword search or search term in itself is an entity.

For example ‘Big Ben’ is an entity so if you were to optimise a page about it you would mention the related entities that search engines would expect to see on the page. Take a look at the image below from the returned search.

See the red arrows pointing to the parts of the knowledge panel? Those are the relationships (and also entities in themselves) that surround the entity ‘Big Ben’. It’s important to understand that when you’re creating content for a Web page, you include other related entities to the search term you’re optimising for. By doing so you’re creating a clear message of what a page is about.

So in this instance, if you removed the search term ‘big ben‘ from the equation and included all of the related entities such as ‘clock‘, ‘Palace of Westminster‘ and ‘London‘, it stands to reason that Google will understand you’re talking about big ben. You see, there’s so much more to optimising a Web page to rank in a search engine simple keywords and phrases, and when they’re combined correctly life becomes so much easier and logical.

Backlinks are also an entity, and although I’m not going to go into links in any detail in this article, I do need to mention their decreasing importance within the SEO sphere.

Google has become increasingly good at understanding entities and the keywords we use to describe our content. Therefore it stands to reason that Google’s reliance on links will continue to diminish as it gets a better understanding of entities and what the pages we create are all about and who they’re aimed at. So plan your content with thorough research and your life becomes so much easier.

Note: I recommend verifying your own company as an entity, and the simplest way to do this is to set up and verify your company’s GMB listing. When this is done read my guide to optimising for local search which includes your GMB listing.

Satisfying user intent

Before you go headlong into creating content for your pages you must first study the SERPs for your chosen topics to see exactly what Google is showing as the most relevant type of content. For example, are they showing blog posts and are they long form or short form? Are videos the main focus? Do you see a large number of guides? Is Google returning a page full of free to use online tools? Do eCommerce pages fill every position?

You absolutely must do your research before embarking on whatever it is you’re about to create because if you’re thinking of putting together a 2000 word guide but the top 10 results are videos then you need to fall in line and make a video that’s better than what’s already ranking. Remember that Google’s results pages are data-driven (as we should all be within SEO) so they’ll return pages that satisfy the user intent for that search query.

So now that the first part of satisfying user intent is understood, when planning a Web page the ultimate aim must be to understand and satisfy the intent of the user, so ask yourself, how relevant will this page be to searchers? Will it solve their problem? You must understand what the keywords and phrases mean to the people using them, but to be honest, if you get everything above in the rest of this article correct, satisfying user intent becomes a lot easier.

Satisfying user intent is utterly pivotal to successful search engine optimisation and is where you need to be completely honest with yourself, because if your content doesn’t solve their problem and isn’t relevant to the search performed and the phrases you’re aiming to rank for, then the content you’re producing is pointless. You must answer the users’ questions which should include keywords/phrases and entities instead of simply having a keyword only focus.

This, in my opinion, is why so many Websites suffer a loss in traffic when core algorithms are updated. They simply aren’t as relevant to the searcher as they thought they were. It’s not so much the content is low quality (although this is sometimes the case), more the intent of the content and the user isn’t aligned. For example, all of the content on a page might in Google’s eyes point it being about a four-word phrase but the Webmaster is optimising for a two-word phrase. This will almost always lead to a decrease in organic traffic.

The issue here is that the Website owner is blind and biased towards what they’ve written and is the real reason so many got devastated by the so-called ‘medic’ update. So align your content to what both the user and Google want to see and you’ll be on the path to success and remember, the answers to what to put on your own page are in plain view in the SERPS.

Conclusion

Contrary to popular opinion algorithms are designed to give users what they want because if they didn’t those users would quickly go elsewhere to get their information. In fact, I would go so far as to say that search engines such as Google are reasonably indifferent to the Websites it shows on page 1 of the SERPS.  What we as Webmasters and SEO’s must do is satisfy that user intent by covering everything I’ve laid out above as best as possible.

By doing this you’re not only giving the users what they want but also the search engines and remember, people link to pages that are useful and not pages that simply have keywords in them.

Still not sure you want to rely on yourself or don’t have the time? All you have to do is shout.

Last updated on 2nd June 2022 at 17:06