Semantic SEO – A Beginner’s Guide (with Examples)

This article gives you seven Semantic SEO strategies for getting higher rankings and boosting your visibility in organic search.

Semantic SEO is about writing content around topics, rather than individual keywords.

Semantic SEO - A Beginner's Guide (with Examples)

But to fully understand what semantic SEO is, first we need to understand semantic search.

What Is Semantic Search?

Semantic search is an approach to understanding search queries and delivering results for those queries, used by Google and other semantic search engines.

When Google started out, in the late 1990s, it relied 100% on keywords. It matched keywords in search queries to keywords in web pages. That meant that if you typed in “why should I get 8 hours sleep”, the search results would only show pages with that exact keyword phrase.

But search engine algorithms have evolved since then. In particular, the algorithms have gotten much better at understanding the intent behind a search query.

If you type that search query in today, none of the results display that exact keyword:

example of semantic search

That’s because Google is no longer matching keywords in queries to keywords in results. Instead, it is going behind the query to understand what the searcher actually wants.

In the first result, Google even gives you the answer: “sleep helps your body and brain function properly”. 

In the second and third results, Google interprets the query to mean “how much sleep do I actually need?”. In other words, the algorithm knows that’s what the searcher really wants to know.

In short, Google has become a semantic search engine.

This process began in 2013, with the Google Hummingbird Update. That’s when Google started analyzing entire phrases, and not just individual keywords. 

Then came Google's RankBrain algorithm in 2015, which used natural language processing (NLP) to understand the context and intent behind search queries. 

The process continued in 2019 with Google’s BERT Update. BERT is an algorithm for processing natural language by examining how one word is related to the other words in a search query. The BERT algorithm considers the context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it.

As the name implies, semantic search is based on semantics or the study of the meaning of words and phrases and how those meanings change depending on context.

Semantic search aims to understand the intent behind a search query. When someone types a search query into Google, it's often not the only question they have. They usually have a number of related questions. In other words, they are interested in the whole topic, not just the keyword they typed into Google.

And that's why search engines are focusing on topics, rather than keywords.

Through various topic modeling techniques, search engines are getting better at understanding topics. By looking at the co-occurrence of words in large sets of documents, algorithms are able to establish that certain clusters of words correspond to certain topics:

topic modeling

This allows search engines to match a search query with a result that covers that topic in depth. 

Instead of the searcher having to find their answer in half-a-dozen different search results, they can find a single piece of content that answers all their questions.

Entities and Google’s Knowledge Graph

One of the problems facing semantic search engines is that words change their meaning depending on context. Here are some examples:

  • Is she your peer or is someone trying to peer inside your bag?
  • Were you right about that or are you telling me to make a right turn?
  • Did the game end in a tie or are you looking for a tie to wear with that suit?
  • Do you need to train for your new job or are you looking for a train from Paris to London?
  • Did the wind mess up your hair or are you trying to wind up a clock?
  • Is it a minute model car or is it just going to take a minute?

One solution to this is to focus on entities rather than words. 

Whereas words can change their meaning, an entity is always one thing. As Google explained in a 2016 patent: “an entity is a thing or concept that is singular, unique, well-defined and distinguishable”.

To organize entities and place them in relationship to each other, Google uses a vast database called the Knowledge Graph. Within the knowledge graph, each entity occupies a ‘node’. Each node is connected to other nodes that define some attribute of the entity. The relationship between connected nodes is called an ‘edge’.

For example ‘Anthony Hopkins’ would be a node and it would be connected with nodes for ‘male’, ‘Silence of the Lambs’, ‘Thor’, and ‘Welsh’:

how the knowledge graph works

What Is Semantic SEO?

As we have seen, semantic search is about better understanding searcher intent and providing in-depth search results that reflect not just a keyword but the entire topic associated with that keyword.

Semantic SEO is the flip side of semantic search: it is the practice of writing content that addresses the entire topic rather than a single keyword. Semantic SEO is about creating authoritative content that better satisfies the search intent of the user. It's about creating an organized user experience that covers an entire topic, as opposed to creating random, unconnected, pieces of content that focus on individual keywords.

Semantic SEO does not aim to answer a single question but to answer all the questions that a searcher is likely to have on that topic.

semantic seo addresses all the questions a searcher may have

For example, if someone types in “what is domain authority?”, it is likely that they also have the following questions:

  • does domain authority help you rank higher?
  • is domain authority a ranking factor?
  • how do you increase domain authority?
  • what is a good domain authority?
  • how long does it take to build high domain authority?

Semantic SEO understands the search intent behind the keyword and creates content that comprehensively addresses the searcher’s questions around that topic. 

To put it another way, the more your content reflects the semantic relationships behind the search query, the higher your content will rank in the search results.

Benefits of Semantic SEO

Here are some of the benefits of using semantic SEO in your content creation.

Your content ranks higher

The main benefit of semantic SEO is that your content will rank higher in the search results because it will better reflect the topic model that the search engine has built for that keyword.

You rank for more keywords

Another major benefit of semantic SEO is that you end up ranking for more keywords. When you write content around an entire topic, you tend to use more of the semantically-related keywords associated with that topic. And that means that your content piece is going to show up in many more searches than if you focus on a single keyword.

You send quality signals to Google

Also, writing topic-focused content will send quality signals to Google: your website will be seen as having topical authority for the topics that you write about. That means that when you write new content on a related topic, you’ll find it easier to rank in the search results.

Your visitors stay on your website longer

Content that covers every aspect of a topic keeps visitors on your page for longer. That’s a user experience signal that will help your content rank higher.

More internal linking

Another benefit of semantic SEO comes in the form of opportunities for internal linking. If you create clusters of content on a particular topic, that creates internal linking opportunities. Internal linking can dramatically improve how your website ranks in the search results. This is because internal links show search engines that your site has authority on that topic. 

Your content shows up in PAA

People Also Ask’ is another benefit of using semantic SEO. 

When you cover every aspect of a topic, your content is more likely to be chosen as a source for answering ‘People Also Ask’ features. According to Ahrefs 43% of all searches now show a ‘People Also Ask’ box. So this is a strategy that can dramatically increase your traffic.
benefits of semantic seo

The relationships between entities are what help semantic search engines understand what is actually meant when someone uses a particular word in a search query.

Search engines understand your content better

When your content includes semantically-related words and contextually relevant keywords it helps the search engine understand the entities that your content is talking about.

The practice of using context in your content to help the search engines understand your topic is called entity-based SEO.

7 Semantic SEO Strategies for Better Ranking

When you write a piece of content with the aim of covering the topic comprehensively, you’ll be optimizing for semantic SEO by default.

But there are also some specific strategies for implementing semantic SEO.

#1. Understand user intent

The most important thing you must do to optimize your content for semantic SEO is to understand the intent behind the search query.

Semantic search engines like Google want to offer a user-journey experience that completely addresses the intent behind the query. They don't want to offer randomly generated fragments of content.

This means that you need to map out what it is that the searcher ultimately wants to do. 

For example, take someone who types ‘how to build a list’ into Google. We can see from that search query that they want to build an email list. But we can also anticipate some other information they will need:

  • How to choose an email marketing service provider?
  • How to create a lead magnet?
  • How to create an effective opt-in form?
  • Should I collect names or just email addresses?
  • What is GDPR and how do I comply?

If you can provide all of that information in your content, that provides a better user experience for the searcher. Instead of hopping around from one article to another, they can get all the information they need in one place.

That piece of content is going to rank higher in the search engines because it offers a better user experience than articles that just address one aspect of the topic.

#2. Use an outline

Another key strategy in semantic SEO is to create an outline for your article. 

Your content piece needs to be carefully structured around the subtopics within your main topic. Having a well-structured outline is how you ensure that you are covering the topic comprehensively.

Your outline should be divided into main sections (H2 headings) and subsections (H3 headings). Depending on how detailed the material is, you may also need sections within your subsections (H4 headings).

When researching your content, treat each main section (i.e. each H2 heading) as its own article. 

What do I mean by that?

If the topic of your article is ‘hamster care’, your main sections might be ‘hamster cages’, ‘hamster diet’, ‘hamster exercise’, ‘hamster diseases’, and ‘hamster breeding’.

Research each of those topics as if it were an article on its own. When you take that approach it ensures that your piece of content will have topical authority and will be more authoritative than other articles on the same topic.

#3. Write longer articles

The number of words in your content is not, in itself, an indication of how thorough your article is. But it's hard to cover a topic comprehensively in an article of 400 words. 

In general, you need at least 2000 - 3000 words for an article that will be regarded by Google as having topical authority. 

#4. Target middle keywords

For years people have been telling us to target long-tail keywords. And that makes sense because long-tail keywords have lower competition and are therefore easier to rank for.

But that approach won’t work with semantic SEO. When you write an article focused around a long-tail keyword, your content is only going to address a very small part of a topic.

For example, ‘handheld cordless leaf blowers’ is a longtail keyword that would have lower competition than ‘leaf blowers’. But when you write an article around that one keyword, your content will be missing all the semantically-related keywords (such as ‘backpack leaf blowers’, ‘walk behind leaf blowers’, ‘gas leaf blowers’, etc).

To put it another way, articles that focus on long-tail keywords will never have the topical authority that you need to meet the requirements of a semantic search engine.

#5. Optimize for multiple keywords

This follows from the last point: when your content piece focuses on a middle keyword rather than a long-tail keyword, your article needs to target multiple keywords. 

Use a topic modeling tool, such as MarketMuse or Article Insights, to uncover the semantically-related keywords. These are the keywords associated with your subtopics. 

When you include these related keywords in your content, you signal to the search engines that your content has been built around the topic and not just a keyword.

#6. Use ‘People Also Ask’

‘People Also Ask’ (PPA) is a rich snippet feature that Google shows in the top half of the SERPs. It provides users with additional information they may be looking for from their initial query:

example of 'people also ask'

If you want to want to optimize your content for semantic SEO, ‘People Also Ask’ is an absolute bonanza. Google is telling you exactly what the subtopics are for the keyword you just typed into the search bar. 

And PPA has this amazing feature: it expands endlessly. Click on one PPA item and you’ll see a new set of questions that weren't there before. This means you can really drill down into the topic and see all the related subtopics:

People also ask expands

#7. Use Google Autocomplete

Google Autocomplete is a great way to quickly see keywords and topics related to your main keyword:

Google autocomplete

Google’s Related Searches is another tool for finding semantically related keywords:

Google related searches gives you contextually relevant keywords

A powerful technique with Google Autocomplete is to run through the alphabet, placing a letter after you main keyword:

use the alphabet technique with Google Autosuggest

Topic Clusters and Semantic SEO

Another key strategy that will help optimize your content for semantic SEO is he topic cluster model.

A topic cluster is a group of pages that revolves around a central topic. It uses a pillar page as the main hub with the cluster pages all linking to and from the pillar page.

An example of a topic cluster would be ‘email marketing’. The pillar post would explain in broad terms what email marketing is, why it is so important for online businesses, and how it compares to other forms of online marketing.

The pillar post would briefly mention the subtopics within email marketing, such as:

  • building an email list
  • segmenting an email list
  • email sequences
  • email automations
  • email open rates
  • GDPR compliance
  • email subject lines
  • email frequency

Your article on ‘email marketing’ would link out to separate pages that cover these individual topics in more detail.

Topic clusters are great for semantic SEO because they show search engines that your site has topical authority on that topic. In addition, the internal linking that results from a topic cluster sends an important topical relevance signal to search engines.

Conclusion

Semantic SEO is a way of writing content that focuses on the topic rather than a keyword. 

By creating content with contextually relevant keywords you signal to the search engines your content covers the topic in breadth and depth. And that's going to result in your content ranking higher in the search results.

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Rob Powell
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