The Importance of Semantics in Search; What is Semantic Search?
This is the first in a two part series on, “The importance of Semantics in search”. In this blog, we’ll focus mainly on what Semantic Search is and why it’s so important to be aware of today.
How is search changing?
We’ve become increasingly reliant on search engines and we certainly demand a lot of them. We’re searching from multiple devices, we’re using speech recognition apps, we search from different locations and we expect accurate results that answer our query. We’re not just keyword searching anymore, we’re essentially asking questions. We expect search engines to understand our searches and come back with accurate results that answer our question.
SERPs have seen a definitive move by users away from keyword focused searches to more contextual searches based around entities and concepts, not just a string of words.
So which came first? The chicken or the egg?
Google in particular, has had user experience and user understanding at the forefront of its mission since the beginning. They have invested heavily in providing a more accurate context-aware search, especially notable within the last 2 or 3 years with algorithm updates like Penguin and Hummingbird. Google recognised how its users were conducting searches and how their usage had changed and they adapted accordingly.
First came penguin, an algorithm update that aimed at cutting out “black hat SEO tactics” like keyword stuffing and poor value or spammy backlinks. Penguin meant that it was no longer OK to concentrate solely on keyword focused marketing strategies and volume link building.
Penguin meant SEOs and marketers had to conduct more context based keyword research focusing on long tail searches or phrases and they needed to write content that answered questions, building sites for humans, not robots. This was one of the first indicators that Google was moving towards a more context based search experience.
Different to Penguin in that it was essentially an algorithm rewrite, Hummingbird was Google’s way of telling the search world that, they are now focusing their efforts on better understanding their users and their users searches and moving further away from the presence of keywords in results towards concepts with this semantics focused update.
How do they understand searches? Semantic search
Semantic Search is a data searching technique in which a search engine aims not only to find keywords but to determine the intent and contextual meaning of the words a person is using for search. (Techopedia)
Put simply, Semantic Search seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding the intent and context of the searcher in order to provide more relevant results. The intent being what the user is looking for and context being everything else that surrounds the search like location and device for example.
Semantics is now at the heart of Google’s search technology. They rely heavily on semantic understanding by searching for Entities and Concepts for example and use Natural language Processing techniques like Word Sense Disambiguation in order to truly understand a user’s search.
We’ll look at a simple example to illustrate our point.
Let’s say I search “jaguar” in Google. I’ll get the following results displayed below.
My search, in this case, was pretty minimal, with very little context to it, but Google worked hard to take a stab at what I meant and displayed results about Jaguar cars including details of my nearest dealer, without displaying any results about the big cat. Most likely based off my location and previous search history.
If however, I add further context to my search it means Google can understand it better, with say a search term like “jaguar cubs”.
The more information I provided meant Google could easily understand my intent and even disambiguate my use of jaguar to mean the animal and not the car.
So while the value of keywords is decreasing and the job of an SEO is becoming more difficult Semantic Search is most definitely improving user experience and search engine performance. It’s also rewarding those SEOs and marketers who create good quality content that answers search queries or questions.
Understanding how Semantic Search works is pivotal in leveraging it for better search performance. Our next edition will focus on how you can use NLP and Text Analysis to improve your chances of playing nice with Google and staying high in your rankings.