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Semantic Search – Still needs Keywords

Semantic search has certainly been getting a lot of buzz lately.  However, I wonder if an accurate picture of semantic search is being painted.  If you just read the headlines one might get the impression that keywords and the old way of doing SEO are no longer relevant.

Case in point, in a recent panel about the future of SEO, Barbara Star, who identifies herself a semantic strategist, said that keywords are an artifact of an earlier age and no longer suitable as search engines evolve into questions and answer engines.  She went on to say that this is probably disturbing news to many in the SEO set.

Also in the same panel, Mike Arnesen an SEO team manager, said that it was always a somewhat unnatural process to have to advise clients to craft content so that it can match to specific keywords to get traction. “Now we can tell them to just write good content, put what you need to put on the web and it will be easier find because of semantic markup and semantic search.”

But I’m not so sure this is true.  At least my research indicates otherwise. In fact, it’s my premise that keywords are just as important as ever and to ignore them could be a huge mistake.

I think the misunderstandings about semantic search might start with Google itself.  Matt Cutt’s has said that Google wants to move away from a reliance on keywords in search to a semantic world, where Google tries to look beyond the keywords to the searchers intent.

In the past Google would parse through each word in a search string looking for relevant keywords in the vast warehouse of content across the Internet. Often, this returns useful search results as most of us have experienced over the last several years. However, it’s not always perfect. If Google looks at each word in a conversational search string and then tries to match up the keywords in the string to keywords in the content, the content may not answer the searchers query.

It became Google’s goal to shift from looking at each word in the search string as a keyword and instead look at the entire search string as a composite and analyze what it was the searcher was actually asking.  However, this new semantic analysis of the searchers query still results in specific words, keywords, that should be reflected in the content. When a person enters a semantic conversational query into Google search, Google analyzes that search string and condenses it into specific words, (words are all it has to work with) and still looks for content relevant to these keywords.  If the content contains those keywords all the better.  So for the content creator, traditional on page SEO is still very relevant.

All we have to do to see what is really happening with semantic search is do a few searches.

We’ve been told that semantic search is now an answer engine, so I thought I would ask Google a few off the wall questions.

I asked Google, “Is there proof of worm holes”

This question has two important words, wormholes and proof.  Below are the search results.

wormholes proof

The first search result is from Wikipedia.  It comes from a Wikipedia page with the title Wormholes.  Keywords really at work there.

We also see the semantic characteristics of Google at work.  Google knows that I’m not talking about fishing worms and Google knows that my question for “proof”, another keyword, can also mean “evidence”.  

Google, in this semantic search snippet does us the favor of digging into the Wikipedia article and finding the exact excerpt that answers our question and contains our keywords. Google even shows the keywords in bold print.

The second search result from Yahoo answers is even more keyword connected with my exact search query highlighted in the rich snippet of Yahoo answers.

Neither of these search results would have appeared in the search results if they weren’t relevant to the keywords of the query.  These search results appeared because the had the keywords in the content.

Now I’m sure many people are thinking of possible searches which do not contain the primary keyword.  I tried one of those as well.

I know there is a museum in a neighboring community that has a fantastic collection of antique cars and also has a Christmas show with stupendous pipe organ music. My wife wanted to get tickets to the Christmas show but I couldn’t remember the name of the museum.  So I conducted a search, “What’s the place in Sylmar that has a car collection and Christmas show.”

Below are the search results.

Semantic Search results for Nethercutt Museum

My answer is the Nethercutt Museum.  Google was able to retrieve this information because of the keywords in my query.  My query included the keywords, Sylmar, car collection, and Christmas.

The search results included the content Sylmar, place, classic cars and vintage cars.  Google may have made the association of classic and vintage to the word museum.  Again, this content would not be in the search results if it wasn’t for the match of keywords.

No matter what convoluted search string we enter into search, Google will translate this to a search string that it thinks is the answer to our question and that search string has keywords that should be reflected in our content if we want it to appear in the search results.

And you are going to still see this connection of keywords in the search and in the content for almost any semantic search that you do.

I know, simple and obvious.  But yet we have a whole host of people telling us that keywords are no longer as important.  The truth is they are.  An SEO type may tell their client not to worry about keywords and to just write good content. And that’s cool if they just want to write something.  But if they want that content to appear in the search results, they better be thinking about the potential queries that people will be searching and make sure that their content has the keywords or synonyms that answer those questions.

One suggest is that people should create content that just answers questions.  That will work and will in fact work well.  If a common question is your page or blog title and the content reflects the title you have excellent chances of ranking high in the search results. But that’s always been the case in SEO.

However, you don’t have to confine yourself to just this question and answer approach. You can write content and optimize it just as you always have.  But make sure that your content is rich with as much relevant information as possible.

For example, someday a person is going to speak into their Smartphone, I’m looking for a house for sale in Victorville with a pool and a detached garage. Try this or similar search.  If your content has this combination of keywords anywhere on the page,
house for sale
detached garage
and if your content has strong reliability signals, there is a good chance you will see your content in the search results.  Many semantic searches are very similar to long tail keyword searches presented in a conversational question.

So when it comes to semantic search you may not be able to gain an advantage by black hat keyword stuffing, but you still need the keywords that are represented in the searcher’s query if you want your content to appear in the search results.

I have also noticed that since there is less demand for keyword density (it’s a factor even if Google says it isn’t a ranking signal) there seems to be a heavier demand on reliability signals.  Most of the results that I am now seeing for semantic searches are on very authoritative pages with high page rank.