How semantic search is killing the keyword

Keyword-driven results have dominated search engine results pages (SERPs) for years, and keyword-specific phrases have long been the standard used by marketers and SEO professionals alike to tailor their campaigns. However, Google's major new algorithm update, affectionately known as Hummingbird because it is "precise and fast," is quietly triggering a wholesale shift towards "semantic search," which focuses on user intent (the purpose of a query) instead of individual search terms (the keywords in a query).

Attempts have been made (in the relatively short history of search engines) to explore the value of semantic results, which address the meaning of a query, rather than traditional results, which rely on strict keyword adherence. Most of these efforts have ended in failure. However, Google's recent steps have had quite an impact in the internet marketing world. Google began emphasizing the importance of semantic search by showcasing its Knowledge Graph, a clear sign that search engines today (especially Google) care a lot more about displaying predictive, relevant, and more meaningful sites and web pages than ever before. This "graph" is a massive mapping system that connects real-world people, places, and things that are related to each other and that bring richer, more relevant results to users. The Knowledge Graph, like Hummingbird, is an example of how Google is increasingly focused on answering questions directly and producing results that match the meaning of the query, rather than matching just a few words.

"Hummingbird" takes flight

Google's search chief, Amit Singhal, says that the Hummingbird update is "the first time since 2001 that a Google algorithm has been so dramatically rewritten." This is how Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land explains it: "Hummingbird pays more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query -- the whole sentence or conversation or meaning -- is taken into account, rather than particular words."

The point of this new approach is to filter out less-relevant, less-desirable results, making for a more satisfying, more accurate answer that includes rich supporting information and easier navigation. Google's Knowledge Graph, with its "connect the dots" type of approach, is important because users stick around longer as they discover more about related people, events, and topics. The results of a simple search for Hillary Clinton, for instance, include her birthday, her hometown, her family members, the books she's written, a wide variety of images, and links to "similar" people, like Barack Obama, John McCain, and Joe Biden.

Are keywords really dead?

So, does the shift from traditional keyword search to semantic search mean that keywords are a thing of the past? Yes and no. It is true that Google is now placing less importance on keywords alone. This is evident in Google Analytics, specifically the Keyword Tool function. It's no longer possible for webmasters to know which keyword someone searched for before visiting a website (Google is now sharing search terms only with its paid advertisers), and relying solely on individual keyword performance and tracking them have become obsolete. Google will begin to encrypt all keyword searches for webmasters who are signed in, as well as eventually users who are not signed in, making it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to know which keyword terms users frequently type in.

But what about website and business owners looking for a special edge that will increase their share of the market? How will they know which keywords to target? Do they even need to worry about keywords?

Targeting relevant content and meta data

Centering content on specific keywords is a thing of the past. Websites need to have high-quality, descriptive content and define that content in a machine-readable way. The double payoff: Not only will search engines like Google recognize the content, but because of its relevance and quality, users will also want to frequent those sites and stay on them longer. Getting connected to the Knowledge Graph is one way of doing this.

Current trends in search engine marketing and optimization have been underscored by Google's Knowledge Graph and its Hummingbird update. Both emphasize the importance of not only having high-quality content but also adding semantic markup (often known as structured markup or markup, the semantic system Google uses) to your content, which makes it possible for machines to detect meaning or intent. Marking up your site's content is crucial to its success in search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. It not only improves the display of search results, but it makes it much easier for users to find desired web pages.

Semantic markup

Google and other search engines rely on semantic markup to identify the connected "things" on web pages so that they can deliver highly relevant results, instead of depending mainly on "keyword strings." Traditional search engine results are often visually boring and consist of text only. However, when content has semantic markup, search engines understand the information on web pages better and provide enhanced search results, including rich snippets, which highlight information that makes it easier for users to find exactly what they're looking for. This also adds "personality" to a search result: Instead of plain text, users see images, colors, ratings, reviews, etc., which are more likely to illicit a user response. Google knows and values this because it becomes more human in the process.

The images below show two kinds of rich snippets. In the first example, the snippet includes the chair's price. In the second, the snippet includes descriptive breadcrumb navigation that enhances the listing.  

How semantic search is killing the keyword

How semantic search is killing the keyword

Adding semantic markups is great from a business standpoint as well, as it helps users find precisely the information they're looking for and narrows their search to specific products or services. So applying semantic markup to your content and/or your site's products benefits you and your customers.

Together, Google's Hummingbird update and its Knowledge Graph are a powerful force driving the shift to semantic search. Going forward, it's going to be crucial to implement this type of markup on your website to compete successfully. The faster you do, the greater that competitive edge you're looking for is likely to be.

Rich Benci is COO of Algebraix Data Corp.

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