Semantic search has been around for a while and many SEOs know it very well.
They understand its importance and that Google is sending more and more signals that it will influence rankings now and even more so in the future.
I wanted to talk about semantic search because of where this part of search is heading and the opportunities it represents at the present and in the future.
What is semantic search?
Semantic search is the technology the search engines employ to better understand the context of a search.
In other words engines such as Google want to better understand more than just the explicit meaning of a keyword typed into the search engine, they want to know in which context it is being used right now, so they can serve up the most useful results at that very moment in time they are needed.
An example of this is could be if one searched for a broad term, without giving the search engine enough to understand the user intent. Let’s say ‘ice-cream’.
Google will use an array of variables to determine the context here, potentially things like:
- Location IP
- Time of the day
- Day of the week
- Location weather forecast
In addition, it will give the user some choices to help give it more context in its Related Searches area:
The idea is, depending on the device, location and other variables mentioned above, Google may decide to rearrange or return a different set of results.
Google’s Hummingbird update was all about bringing more context to the search queries by adding an extra layer to better understand these queries.
As Google put it, this update was about ‘things and not strings’.
So, in a nutshell, Google uses any other information it has to hand to make connections with the keyword(s) used in a particular search, to create the context around it, so it can serve the most relevant results at that particular time and place.
But, to do this, it relies, to a great extent, on the information we give Google through our website and each of these semantic elements.
Semantic mark up
In order to understand these elements Google has given incentives to people to mark up their websites with vocabularies such as Schema.org and it displays rich snippets on some of these tags, as seen in the case of the seller review ratings below:
Schema.org is a universally supported vocabulary extension by Google & Microsoft for mark-up languages such as Microdata, RDFa and JSON-LD.
In other words semantic mark up is the correct tagging of the elements of a page that allows the engine to better define each of these elements, which enables them to make better use of them on the search result pages to enrich the user experience.
An example of the code of a tagged page elements.
Schema.org and different types of schemas
Schema.org is the result of the collaboration between Google, Bing, Yandex, and Yahoo.
The website contains all the vocabulary that the engines need to better understand content on a page.
Some of the more common types of schema we usually see people optimising for are:
- Review Ratings
- Product Information
However, there are more sets of schemas and the entire list is available here.
Google has developed two tools to help us implement semantic mark up.
The Structured Data Markup Helper shows you how to tag elements and generate HMTL code for your website.
The great thing about this tool that is that it is very user friendly (unlike a lot of other Google products!) so anyone can use it.
You simply highlight the elements and structure them by the options given for that type of schema, as shown on the screenshot below:
And after that you simply export the HTML and place it on your website:
And the Structured Data Testing Tool has been developed to test the code has been implemented correctly.
Both of these tools are available under the newly renamed Search Console (Google Webmaster Tools)
Although a majority of websites today are built in WordPress it’s worth knowing there are plugins out there that can generate these tags within the CMS. One of these is the Schema Creator which allows you to pick from a range of schemas to insert on a page.
There are many more WP plugins out there that help out with Schema, so have a look at them all here.
Google Knowledge Graph
The Knowledge Graph is a knowledge base used by Google to enhance its search engine’s search results with semantic-search information gathered from a wide variety of sources.
So, all this semantic search data we talked about gets gathered by the Knowledge Graph and used to enhance the user experience.
Take the example shown below when a user searches ‘mozart’:
Google uses it’s Knowledge Graph to display all the data about named entities like Mozart.
One of the previous sources that fed information into Google’s Knowledge Graph was Freebase. However Freebase has announced it will shut down and all its information now will be imported and reside within Wikidata.
Google is making more connections between its entities to better understand them and it uses ontologies, which are vocabularies that expand the meaning of a keyword.
Google’s Direct Answers
Google’s Direct Answers were included on last year’s financial statement.
They are now an everyday component of search results. They represent a great opportunity for businesses to show on the Google’s Answer Box.
Google puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that the information must come from authoritative sources. Again, this highlights the importance of content quality and about having a domain that has a healthy backlink profile from other authoritative sources.
Answer pages are usually found by using intent templates such as:
- How do I ….
- What is a ….
- How to make a ….
Some examples of this in action below:
Formatting the answers on page is important. So you’ll have to make sure that the page content answers the question well.
A while back I would have said, make sure it fits within the space allocated on the snippet that other results are showing. Although, this is not absolutely necessary, as the answer may be truncated, it will provide a more enticing reason for a click through to the page.
Semantic search is here to stay and it’s definitely where search is heading.
There are many ways to take advantage of this. And, as mentioned above, some of these optimisation opportunities are:
- Correctly marking up through available schema
- Placing a lot of attention on the quality of the content, especially when it is factual based
- Making sure on-page content answers commonly asked questions about your industry and products
- Be mobile friendly
- And although being mobile friendly is not part of the semantic factors, it was a core change in Google’s recent updates and may impede search success.