First it was “how can we get Google to understand our site?” which lead to keyword stuffing.
Then it was “how can we get Google to like us?” and we started building a tonne of rubbish links.
Now it’s “how can we get Google to trust us with all it’s heart that we are going to give the people it sends our way the damn best experience possible?” – and this is where semantic SEO comes in.
Gaming Google is long over. Google’s semantic web has changed things forever and for the better, but how has the job of an SEO changed as a result?
To me, ‘Semantic SEO’ means 8 things. Nothing mind-bending or completely out of left field, but things you should know about all the same.
So the next time you are talking to a client and they ask “what the heck is Semantic Search?”, you can fire back these 8 concise themes…
1. User Experience
When you search for something in Google do you want to see the best websites that match your query and are known to provide excellent information, shopping experience or service every time – or sites that have pulled out every trick in the book to game their way to the top? Probably the former.
And Google knows this. In fact, its whole existence relies on being able to distinguish the former from the latter.
Which is why it relies on understanding HOW users interact with a particular query result once they click on it. Good sites tend to be sticky, have absorbing content, can answer a question, are a joy to use and keep people coming back. Manipulative sites don’t.
Google’s algorithms are now much better at detecting and reading engagement and evangelism signals so if you want to win at semantic search the first thing you need to do is ruthlessly assess how good your site is compared to the competition.
“Aim to end the search”
As business owners/marketers/SEOs – whatever your role – we need to become usability experts as well as SEOs (does that make us Search Experience Optimisers?) and this experience starts from the search results and continues beyond the sale/conversion.
2. Knowledge Graph
Some website content/information and assets are ripe for knowledge graph optimisation. For those that don’t know, the knowledge graph is Google’s understanding of the “connectedness” of things on the internet and it’s pretty revolutionary.
While a lot of this “understanding” is behind the scenes that helps to deliver better search results, there are some more visible examples such as brand information boxes (on the right-hand side) and Quick Answers which deliver the answer to ‘what is…’ and ‘how to…’ style queries (although there are a LOT more examples as demonstrated by Moz’s Dr Peter Meyers!).
At this point you may be thinking “Won’t optimising for Quick Answers reduce traffic actually coming to my website?” Well, it depends – it could fully answer the query meaning no one clicks-through to your site. Or, it could mean that you outrank Wikipedia and get a tonne of traffic. Brian Jensen recently shared a post containing a video by Mark Traphagen and Eric Enge that helps clarify this which is worth watching if you’re unsure.
Just how important is Google’s Knowledge Graph? Well, they just recently happened to mention that they have over 1 billion knowledge graph entities that they are serving to Google searchers today. One. Billion.
3. Local & Hyperlocal
Local results have been a big part of Google for a long time and many small businesses such as restaurants, removal services and window installers who have a local customer base owe their success to Google My Business (as it is now known) so continuing to optimise for this is crucial.
Unlike Panda & Penguin updates, Hummingbird was a complete reworking of the Google algorithms, designed to better understand user intent (as well as conversational search queries) so that before you even start typing (or speaking) a query, Google would already have a hell of a lot of contextual information (location cues, time of day, previous search behaviour, etc.) which would impact the results it would show you. I wrote a about this more over at llewjury.com a while back.
With Hummingbird – and later the Pigeon update (which made hyperlocal searches more accurate) – local plays an even bigger part. In fact “near me” searches doubled this year and 80% of these were on mobile which shows how crucial being visible as a local business is.
Brick and mortar stores are getting even more exposure in standard/blended results so if you are a business with a physical store and not optimizing for Google’s semantic components (schema, social, Google My Business, user experience etc.) you could be seriously missing out to competitors who are.
4. Social Signals
For the longest time the debate has raged on about whether social signals impact SEO and for the purpose of this article, it doesn’t matter if getting site users to +1 or “Like” your page directly affects rankings or not.
The thing to keep in mind is that social signals are a by-product of people talking about your brand, products and content.
Google is looking for signals that your brand matters, and that the sentiment surrounding it is largely positive. If people talk about you, there will be footprints all over the web such as mentions in forums, citations in press stories and endorsements of all kinds.
Links have always been seen as the most important ranking factor but as Cyrus Shepard says in his ”Winning the Future of Search” Mozinar, they are simply a proxy, the most visible and tangible endorsement that we associate with.
The fact is Google is taking into account all kinds of endorsements and is getting really clever at identifying them. Social chatter and shares are just one version of endorsement that we can encourage by being active on social media and building a solid community of fans who essentially do your marketing for you. So rather than focusing on how many Tweets your article or product has, start conversations, generate buzz and give people something to talk about.
5. Schema Mark-up
You’ve seen it before; those search results that stand out from the rest – either with gold stars, pricing and product details, event listings, video thumbnails and the like.
The thing is, while the rewards are obvious (more tantalizing and intriguing search results for one), by marking up your content with schema microdata, you are also helping Google better understand the finer elements of your site which in turn helps them deliver more appropriate search results to users.
Now I won’t lie to you, implementing microdata tags isn’t for the faint hearted. You’ll want a trusted developer to help you if you’re not a strong coder but Brian Jensen highlighted the Structured Data Testing Tool as one of his top 5 Free Google Tools Every SEO Should Use which can help you identify any issues preventing the search engine understanding and parsing the mark-up.
6. Content That Serves A Real Purpose
“Creating content is cheap, which makes attention expensive” – David Amerland, Google+ Hangouts for Business
The web has been suffering from infobesity for a long time. Business owners and marketers have taken the “content is king” mantra too literally and now the internet is drowning in poorly thought-out, researched and constructed content that serves no other purpose than to get the business/websites on the map for a given keyword.
But, we’re starting to see a real shift in what content Google surfaces in the results. With Google increasingly using behavioural signals and as Jason Acidre puts it: User Satisfaction is the most important ranking factor in Google’s search algorithm, Google can quickly determine whether the content deserves to exist in its results. If you are not creating content that has a unique value or goes that step further to solve the user’s query, you simply won’t get the exposure you’re after.
“Be data rich in all you do. Put as much information as possible about everything” – David Amerland. Good words to take on-board when brainstorming content ideas.
7. Google 2.0 – The Learning Engine
Perhaps one of the most mind-blowing characteristics of Google’s semantic web is that it is ever-learning. It learns something new with every query entered into the search bar (and when you think there’s 3 billion searches a day, thats a lot of learning!) because it can see how people react to the results and alter them for next time if necessary.
In the example below, you can see where Google understood what I meant by my search query based on previous behaviour. It knows that I am a digital marketer, it knows I read content around the subject and my search history contains searches for the Mailchimp product itself as well as tips on how to use it. It therefore chose to ignore the string I entered and guessed at my intent.
8. No Shortcuts
“Optimising for Google” and “Gaming Google” have been fairly synonymous since people discovered that getting their business to #1 was a gold mine. For most of the last decade most of what we know as “SEO” has been gaming Google in one form or another:
Link building. Keyword positioning. Guest blogging. SERP crafting.
Every time a ranking factor or technique went mainstream the brands most switched on to SEO shifted their focus to win. But this is changing.
Instead of dishing out penalty after penalty which is resource-consuming, Google is creating an online universe where opportunities to manipulate it are becoming almost non-existent.
Now that the Knowledge Graph, blended search, understanding of implicit intent and personalisation are prevalent in how Google solves queries, rankings matter less. The only way to optimise for KG, intent etc. is to craft a web presence both on and off site that delivers a superior user experience.
From this point onwards, the effort:returns of gaming are now outweighed (finally) by “doing the right thing”. Those that continue to look for shortcuts will simply watch their competitors pass them by.
Since Google’s move towards building an intelligent engine that understands objects, people, things and the inter-connectedness of them, they’ve really upped the search engine game to the point where they really are “answer engines” and we’re going to see more and more innovative ways Google intelligently delivers the information we, as searchers, need in the near future.
The problem we have as businesses and marketers is that with Google increasingly owning more of the 1st page, when do we start having to optimise for page 2?
By Rick Eliason (www.rickeliason.com)