“If you post it, they will come.” It seems like a corny line from a bad move about digital marketing. But the truth is, this seems to be the ongoing advice in the SEO and inbound community today. There is a belief that content will solve all of your organic visibility problems. Sadly, this argument has never been validated by research and won’t produce results on its own.
Don’t get me wrong, content plays a very important and vital role when it comes to search. But it’s far from a magic bullet. While search engines have changed quite a bit over the years, they are still machines and need input to gain understanding. With the popularity of terms like machine learning and artificial intelligence, there is even more misunderstanding around how search works.
My goal in this post is simple. I want to give you an overview of search as we know it today, how it works, why structure data and technical SEO are still very (if not even more) relevant and the basics even site owner should cover when it comes to SEO.
When you type a query into Google what happens?
How does it know what links, knowledge graph or location will satisfy you? Google’s mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Ok great but how?
Behind every query and answer is a very large database. Since their launch in 2008, Google has been indexing (storing and organizing) the world’s information. Everything from newspaper articles and books, to blog content and social media posts.
Google now processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average, which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide. The Indexed Web contains at least 4.49 billion pages as of Monday, 19 February 2018. You can think of the web as an ever-growing library of content and Google, along with other search engines, are trying to make sense of it all.
All of this content is stored and organized, ready to be called upon if needed. But even more importantly, the content doesn’t just sit there. Google put it to use.
The thing about machine learning and AI is that it takes data, lots of data, to work. On their own, computers don’t learn. Just like you and me, they need to be taught. Unlike you and me, they are not naturally curious or able to use senses to derive meaning. So, in order for the search engine to understand our questions and return intelligent answers, it must first understand what we are asking.
Google is on a mission to translate “stings” into “things.” If you have no background in software or IT you probably have no idea what that means. A string is a sequence of characters. It doesn’t have to mean, it just is. Google is moving from “strings” to “entities or things.” In data science, an entity is a person, place or thing. So, in short, Google is trying to attach meaning to the content they have indexed.
Without getting too technical, Google leverages all of the content it has indexed to teach the algorithm. By analyzing the terms used in the query and looking for web pages that match that query, Google is able to deliver highly contextualized results. The full process is a lot more complicated, but in a nutshell that is how it works.
The Age of Semantic Search
What we just described above is knows as semantic search. The goal of semantic search to understand the users intent and deliver the most accurate and contextual results. Instead of matching keywords, Google knows to look to the meaning and intent of the keywords when delivering results. This doesn’t mean that keywords are no longer important, it just means they are used differently.
Webmasters and site owners tend to be a little behind the curve and then drastically overreact when they learn that what they’ve been doing isn’t working. Currently, I am seeing many in the SEO world claim that keywords no longer matter and the focus should be on good content.
The problem with that position is what is “good content”? The term “good” is subjective and it little to no help at all. Instead, site owners and SEO’s need to understand “who” they are targeting and “why” that person should visit their site.
This means taking the time to actually research the people we want to connect with. Uncovering things like, Where they hang out online and offline? What terms and phrases do they use? What problem (external and internal) are they looking to solve? These types of questions will help us understand the intent, which in return will help us create content that matches their needs. So in short, be a human being!
What Role do Keywords Play?
As I mentioned earlier, the role of keywords has changed, but that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant. In fact, they may even be more relevant. In a post, I recently wrote on my site called, “ Keyword Research in the Age of RankBrain” I share in detail the role of keywords in today’s SEO strategy.
While Google is using AI, Machine Learning and NLP (Natural Language Processing) to understand the intent of a user’s query, keywords help give them context. For example, if you wrote a post about “the big game,” without keywords would have to ask a few questions to understand which game you are talking about.
Was it a sport?
If so, which sport?
Was it a championship or just a big game for that team?
As you can see, without keywords, the content is ambiguous. But, if I wrote a post about the “Super Bowl” you would know exactly what I was talking about. Keywords help search crawlers as well as users, understand context.
Technical SEO to the Rescue
One of the most overlooked aspects of SEO is technical search. This covers meta information, on-page optimization, and structured data. While these aspects may not be as sexy as link building and content creation, they are essential for any site that wishes to rank.
One thing that is different for on-page and technical optimization today, is that you should optimize by topic instead of a specific keyword. Here is what I mean.
Let’s say you want to rank your dental office. In the past, you’d create pages for each of your targeted terms and then proceed to optimize the page elements using those long-tailed terms. You would have separate pages for Teeth Whiting, Teeth Cleaning, Dental Clinic, etc. While this isn’t a bad thing, it’s not really worth the effort anymore.
Google is looking for topic experts. Optimization of topics is a great way to show your expertise. Look back to our dental example, instead of having many small pages with a narrow focus, we would create a detail page about dental services that outlines all of the services we provide. Each page section would be optimized around a service we provide.
This gives more context to your page and help Google understand what you do, the services you provide and how they are connected. This also helps you user see the same material, which can help them make a purchase decision.
Structured data is a system of pairing a name with a value that helps search engines categorize and index your content. In short, its data about your data. We have to remember that search engines are large databases. Databases use structured data (called meta information) to better describe the data that are holding. Leveraging structure data will help search engines better understand your content and will enhance your SERP results.
Schema.org (a collaboration between Google, Microsoft, Yandex, and Yahoo!) is a semantic vocabulary of tags that you can add to your HTML to improve the way search engines read and represent your page in SERPs. Because of the technical knowledge required, many shy away from implementing schema.
While there are a number of ways to implement schemas, like WordPress Plugins or Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper, I am a fan of using JSON-LD. The benefit of using JSON-LD is that you can insert that schema anywhere on the page and it has no impact on the style because the code is strictly for the crawlers.
A quick way to get started is using this free JSON-LD Markup Tool. Fill in all the data, otherwise, you’ll get warnings in Search Console, and then copy and paste it into the correct page.
While search has changed quite a bit over the past few years, the fundamentals remain strong. We must remember that search engines are machines. Machines that use data to learn about our site, products, and services. By utilizing technical SEO, and optimizing around topics rather than just single keywords, we can educate and inform search engines and their users about our site.
I hope that you found a few takeaways from this post. I want to encourage you to take a look at your site, how you are optimizing your pages and where you can leverage technical SEO for your benefits in the age of semantic search.