What is Semantic Search?
Some search optimizers like to complain that “Google is always changing things.” In reality, that’s only a half-truth; Google is always coming out with new updates to improve its search results, but the fundamentals of SEO have remained the same for more than 15 years. Only some of those updates have truly “changed the game,” and for the most part, those updates are positive (even though they cause some major short-term headaches for optimizers).
Today, I’ll turn my attention to semantic search, a search engine improvement that came along in 2013 in the form of the Hummingbird update. At the time, it sent the SERPs into a somewhat chaotic frenzy of changes, but introduced semantic search, which transformed SEO for the better—both for users and for marketers.
I’ll start with a briefer on what semantic search actually is, in case you aren’t familiar. The so-called Hummingbird update came out back in 2013, and introduced a new way for Google to consider user-submitted queries. Up until that point, the search engine was built heavily on keyword interpretation; Google would look at specific sequences of words in a user’s query, then find matches for those keyword sequences in pages on the internet.
Search optimizers built their strategies around this tendency by targeting specific keyword sequences, and using them, verbatim, on as many pages as possible (while trying to seem relevant in accordance with Panda’s content requirements).
Hummingbird changed this. Now, instead of finding exact matches for keywords, Google looks at the language used by a searcher and analyzes the searcher’s intent. It then uses that intent to find the most relevant search results for that user’s intent. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that demanded a new approach to SEO; rather than focusing on specific, exact-match keywords, you had to start creating content that addressed a user’s needs, using more semantic phrases and synonyms for your primary targets.
Voice Search and Ongoing Improvements
Of course, since then, there’s been an explosion in voice search—driven by Google’s improved ability to recognize spoken words, its improved search results, and the increased need for voice searches with mobile devices. That, in turn, has fueled even more advances in semantic search sophistication.
One of the biggest advancements, an update called RankBrain, utilizes an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to better understand the complex queries that everyday searchers use, and provide more helpful search results.