Semantic SEO and Google, the (not so) Blind Man

In some of my previous posts, and when discussing SEO with my clients, I’ve often alluded to Google being like a blind man in a department store. I used this analogy as, without some help, both the man and Google could easily get lost and not be sure that they were in the right place.

In the case of the blind man, this would result in him leaving the store without making a purchase (perhaps never to return); in Google’s case it could mean that they will not understand what the site is really all about. This could be catastrophic as far as getting rankings for just about anything is concerned.

Leaving signposts on your web pages

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Of course, in a store you have Braille signs, but what is the equivalent on a website? The answer is of course the Meta Title, Description and Header tags of the pages. Using these to inform Google about the content of the pages is a great first step; even though it’s very much part of the ‘Old SEO’ it’s still vital today.

Google ‘the not so blind man’ and old and new SEO

Even with all of its power and the new SEO practices that it’s forcing us all to follow, Google is still like a blind man in that it needs help to ensure that it gets the right end of the proverbial stick. There is however a huge difference between Google of old and the one that is evolving before our eyes.

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the TV series Kung Fu. In it, David Carradine stared as a Shaolin monk (Kwai Chang Caine) who, through the training he received, became a martial arts expert. However, it’s not David that’s interesting here, but his mentor, Master Po. Po was totally blind, yet he could ‘see’ everything, pointing out the grasshopper at the feet of the young Kwai Chang – something the latter, even with his perfect vision, had missed.

Today, Google is like Master Po: it can’t see everything, but it can see a lot and all that it does see is taken into account when considering what site to rank for what. But it’s vitally important to understand how it is planning (and to some degree already is) to use this enormous amount of data. That’s because this is the big difference between old and new SEO.

Old SEO equals keyword matching

To be fair, old SEO was more than simply matching a keyword phrase to the ‘best’ sites for that term; even the old systems had 200 or so ‘factors’ that were taken into account. But in the end, it was mostly to do with how well the ‘signposts’ you placed on a site (be they in the Titles, Headers or copy, not to mention all those links) matched the keyword phrase; that’s what really counted.

This of course led to gaming of the system. SEO companies would alter the pages of a site to SHOUT the target keywords to Google. And to reinforce the message they’d create thousands of links to reinforce the message. Pages without any real merit reached the top of the listings and Google came out with more and more rules to try to combat the situation. It was a time of new trick after new trick, with each one being found out and the gains it had brought removed. But it worked, and to some degree still does.

The days of Old SEO are numbered

Google, it seems, concluded that it wasn’t going to continue with this ‘arms race’. Instead, it would change the game entirely. In my view, it didn’t do this out of spite; I believe Google just wanted to ensure that it would always be able to pick the best sites for any phrase and never be tricked again.

This was no mean task, but Google has a plan based on the fact that, instead of just matching keywords to sites, they will (try to) look beyond the words to the meaning of the search phrase – in other words, what you or I, as searchers, are really looking for.

This was one of the reasons for the introduction of the Hummingbird update (technically this was more like changing the engine than replacing a part of it, but let’s call it an update for simplicity). In doing so, Google wanted to be better able to understand what people wanted when they used the new Voice Search feature on smartphones. (By the way, according to the experts, the reason for this is that people express things differently when speaking, compared to when they write them down.)

The reason it’s called Semantic SEO

This leads nicely to the reason this whole process is called Semantic SEO. Semantic is a Greek word that means ‘meaning’. As Google is trying to work out what the intent (and what it really means) behind a search phrase is, this has led to the whole process being called Semantic SEO.

Google does more than just try to work out what the real user intent behind a search phrase is. In order to come up with matches in its database of sites, it must also understand the real meaning of any page. To do this, it must work out what the content is trying to say; that is, how it can help, inform and entertain.

It is thus vital to understand what message you are trying to put across with any content. You can read more advice on this in the next post.

But how does Semantic SEO work?

This is the big question for anyone who wants the best rankings possible for any relevant search phrases. But it’s here that we hit the first real change. You see, even though keywords still have their importance, they’re not the be-all and end-all that they used to be. That’s because Google no longer relies on simple keyword matching.

So, if Google isn’t using the words on pages to decide what it should list, what is it using? This is where it gets tricky to explain; basically, Google will look at the information, the real meaning of a page and the site it is part of, and the purpose behind its creation. It will also look at what others say about it (and on it in the case of comments) before deciding if this matches the meaning behind the search phrase.

Being found when you’re not even being searched for

This is what Serendipitous Search is all about. It’s another another huge change to the old SEO because Google is now more of an ‘answer engine’ that provides suggestions for sites it thinks might be useful – even though they don’t include the keywords being searched for.

The more you make your site answer the questions and needs of your potential customers, the more Google traffic you will give you.

 

Semantic SEO and the feedback loop

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This is another very interesting (and potentially scary) thing about the new Google. Not only does it look at the words on pages, their meaning, links to and from a page, and social media comments (as well as who made them). Google also looks at the data it has gleaned from the billions of searches it makes every day and sees how each one went.

This means that every time a site is listed, Google can tell how popular that site was from the CTR (click-through rate) to the site. It has been using this methodology for years with Pay per click (AdWords); adverts getting the best CTR are charged less than those with low CTR. With organic listings there is of course no payment. But if a site’s Title and Description don’t get people to click on the link, Google will eventually notice and simply stop giving that page a listing for that term. You can imagine that, if this happens too often, a whole site could just disappear from the rankings. So beware and do check the CTR in your Webmaster Tools.

There’s more too. You see, a site could well have a really great Title and wonderful descriptive text causing all who see it to click through. You might think that’s good news, but if the site doesn’t live up to the visitor’s expectations and they click back to Google to try again, Google will notice this – and conclude that, for that term at least, the site doesn’t deliver the goods. As with poor CTR, this could eventually lead to the site not being listed at all.

Google will also use the feedback process to ‘learn’ what people want to see in the first place, which helps it understand what the meaning of the search was really likely to be about. This allows Google to make its best guess about what sites it should list for any term, and then just sit back and wait to see how people react. If they click on a site and don’t bounce, then they’ve got it right. But if they bounce they haven’t, so Google ‘learns’ with every decision searchers make. What’s more, it will never forget and will keep updating its knowledge all the time. Spooky, eh?

There’s more too. You see, a site could well have a really great Title and wonderful descriptive text causing all who see it to click through. You might think that’s good news, but if the site doesn’t live up to the visitor’s expectations and they click back to Google to try again, Google will notice this – and conclude that, for that term at least, the site doesn’t deliver the goods. As with poor CTR, this could eventually lead to the site not being listed at all.

Google will also use the feedback process to ‘learn’ what people want to see in the first place, which helps it understand what the meaning of the search was really likely to be about. This allows Google to make its best guess about what sites it should list for any term, and then just sit back and wait to see how people react. If they click on a site and don’t bounce, then they’ve got it right. But if they bounce they haven’t, so Google ‘learns’ with every decision searchers make. What’s more, it will never forget and will keep updating its knowledge all the time. Spooky, eh?

The above process is made even more powerful by the fact that, just as Google can deduce what a page or a site is about (and therefore what answers and information it gives), when it really does satisfy a user it can then deduce the original intent. This is yet another part of the great feedback loop.

Semantic SEO and gaming the system

As we’ve seen, it’s the copy and how well the message and meaning of a site is put across to Google and any visitor, that really counts in the end. The former to get a listing in the first place; the latter, in effect, to keep it.

There is, of course, more to convincing Google than the copy, though I think this will take the lion’s share. Inbound and outbound linking, the social media signal and the level of interaction (including sharing) are also major factors.

Although it may be possible to game the system by creating a bigger social signal than the site really deserves, the experts’ view is that this will be more and more difficult, with Google looking at each person who comments or Likes, then deciding if they’re real or not. If they are one of the millions of fake profiles set up in the past, they will count for nothing, and may even damage a site.

Thus under the intense scrutiny of Google, it may be as hard and unproductive to create huge amounts of social signal as the process of creating thousands of worthless links…

This doesn’t mean that a small quantity of such links and signal are useless. Both can ‘prime the pump’ a little so the real power of the site is allowed to shine through. If this is the case, a small level of gaming (or old-fashioned SEO work) still looks as if it will be worthwhile.

However, if the page or site in question doesn’t really deserve a high ranking, it will eventually be denied one when people tell Google that it’s no good via low CTR’s and high bounce rates. Therefore, the whole process depends on having a site that answers visitors’ needs. And that means high quality, useful content delivered via words, pictures and video.

The new Semantic SEO

So what will the new SEO process look like? In my view it will still start with the keyword phrase. After all, this is the start of the process and can’t be ignored. The next stage is to try to work out which words are likely to be used by someone who has the intent to react with your site in the way you’d want. This could be to buy something, or simply to understand that you could help them with their problem or needs.

Once you’ve decided on these words, you can reverse engineer the Google results to see what sorts of words it likes to see.

Combine this data with the questions that are being asked, and the problems that your site solves, and you have the recipe for a perfect page that answers people’s needs and uses the words Google expects to see. Interestingly, the latter neatly covers the area of LSI (Latent Sematic Indexing) – without all the effort.

Once this page is created, and you’ve placed all the standard ‘blind man signposts’ on it, you can proceed to getting it noticed via old-fashioned links and social media.

As you can see, the above includes some old SEO practices, this being for the simple reason that they’re still as relevant and required as they were several years ago.

The biggest change and the greatest challenges are to understand what you should write about and post on a site, and how you can generate the necessary signal on Social Media. I’ll cover this in my next post.