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08/19/2017

Semantic Search and Keywords

Semantic search and keywordsI think there may be some confusion about semantic search and the use of keywords in our content.  Lately, Google’s spokesperson, Matt Cutts, has been frequently talking about Google’s desire to move away from keywords, (without knowing what those words really mean) toward understanding things in the real-world and how they relate to each other. Many SEO pundits have immediately jumped on this writing articles that infer keywords are no longer important and go on to proclaim a whole new criteria to get your content to rank at the top of the search results.  However, I think this deserves some “Semantic thinking” to examine Matt Cutts’ statement and uncover what he really means.

There are two elements of search.  There is the query, the words that people enter into the search engine and there are the search results.  As in the video below, when Matt Cutts’ often talks about becoming less dependent on keywords he is talking about the search side of the equation, the words we either enter or speak into the search box.

In the past Google did a pretty good job of matching keywords in a search query to those same keywords in content.  However, as we evolve into conversational search, either spoken or written, this doesn’t work as well.  People are expecting Google to provide answers and often the keyword isn’t even in the query.

So with the new semantic search Google wants to take an abstract search string which may not include keywords and still provide the best content, the best answers for the search query.  Google wants to circumvent it’s reliance on keywords in the search box.

But does that mean keywords are no longer needed in content?

My answer is No.  Keywords in content are still as important as ever for a couple of different reasons.

Primarily, although a person searching may not concisely use keywords and ask something abstract instead, the answer is still, in a sense, a keyword.  The answer to a person’s search question still has to be in your content.

For example, I know there is a hiking area just outside of town called the Devil’s Punch Bowl.  But let’s imagine I forgot the name but still wanted to get more information about the area.  I could ask Google Now, “What is the name of the Camping and Hiking area south east of Palmdale”.

My keyword, although not used in my search string is “Devil’s Punch Bowl”.  If this keyword isn’t in the content, the content is useless to me.

Below, is a snippet from the search results of my query.

semantic search and keywords

The snippet tells us a lot.  First it gives me the answer, the Devil’s Punch Bowl. But also look at how it still uses keywords from my query.  Palmdale is in the title of the search snippet and the keywords “camping area” and “south east” are highlighted in bold.

As content creators it is still in most cases very important to have the keywords, the answers to a person’s query in our content.  Google still needs this information to determine if your content is relevant to the search query even if that query is abstract.

The guidelines to get top rankings in the search results haven’t changed that much. Continue to optimize content for one or two keywords like you always have and include as much peripheral information as feasible.  Notice that in my search results above, the content that appeared at the top of the search results for my query had my geographical qualifiers in the content. If that information wasn’t in the content, this content would not have appeared in the search results.

The other reason you should use traditional search engine optimization techniques is to still have your content appear at the top of the search results for traditional searches. Although semantic conversational search is growing, there are still many people who know exactly what they are search for and you want your content available to them as well.

Also, after Google has determined your content is relevant to the regular search or the semantic search it is likely to measure the reliability of the content as it always have.  How often do the keywords appear in the content, what is the page rank, social signals, and author authority.