14 Insights into Semantic Search and SEO

by Sharon Hurley Hall

Last updated on November 17th, 2017

What if your favorite search engine weren’t a search engine?

Actually, there’s no need to ask ‘what if’ because the transformation is already happening. Semantic search is taking over from the search algorithms that used to be the backbone of the web.

But what is semantic search and why should we care about it? And what’s the future of the search engine? By the end of this roundup, you should know a little bit more.

Humming Bird

First, some definitions. The term semantic comes from linguistics and is all about finding meaning in language. Apply this to search and you get semantic search, which seeks to provide more accurate results by understanding what users mean when they search.

Semantic Search – The History

First, here’s a look at some of the history of semantic search:

1. This 2003 paper by IBM’s R Guha was a summary of how semantic search would bring together different types of data to improve what people found when they searched.

Key insight: The paper predicted what Google is doing now with its recent Hummingbird update.

2. This article from Techulator on how semantic search works with Google search demonstrates the integration of semantic search with trends, locations, word variations, concepts, context and intent to improve search results.

Key insight: Semantic search is about identifying intent and contextual meaning.

3. Information Week has a great roundup of 11 approaches to semantic search, including related searches, reference results, similarity search and natural language search. Though the technology wasn’t widespread then, users will recognize many of the terms as part of the new Google search paradigm.

Key insight: The inclusion of natural language processing leads to “meaningful computing.”

Digging Deeper

So what’s inside this new search? Here are a few ideas.

4. Justin Briggs talks about moving search results away from pages to entities. He defines an entity as “anything, including real world objects, facts, and concepts, that has a number of documents associated with it.” That could be a well-known person, place or event, which could generate a lot of separate web pages. His example of how a query for a backwards movie where the hero has memory loss returns the result “Memento” shows how this works.

Key insight: SEO will move towards creating citations that show up when people search (or to put it another way, structured data).

5. In The Great Shift in Search, Charles Silver says that semantic search delivers “that Star Trek computer where all the data in the world is linked on graphs and can be queried as one large database.” Pretty exciting, isn’t it? The article explains the importance of the knowledge graph in linking the data which semantic search finds.

Key insight: In the future the web will be driven by users not by content.

6. In How the Semantic Web Changes Everything for Search on Search Engine Watch, Simon Penson explains how the semantic web calls on multiple data sources to deliver results relevant to individual users. He also urges website owners to start integrating semantic associations into content.

Key insight: While you can’t ignore the Knowledge Graph, don’t put your eggs in one basket. Since social media is a significant part of the semantic web, think about Facebook Graph Search too.

Structured Data

You’ve probably heard a lot about structured data, in particular in relation to how your content appears in search results after claiming authorship, but that’s not all there is to the concept.

Semantic search structured data

7. On Valet Interactive, Lauretta Shokler explains Why You Need to Know About Schema.org. The article shows the importance of taking the unstructured information available on the web and arranging and categorizing it. She says: “For websites, structured data can serve as a bridge between what information visitors see and what data robots scan.”

The article outlines three types of structured data (RDF, microformats and microdata) and explains how Schema.org can help with the latter. There’s also a detailed discussion of current examples and potential uses of structured data.

Key insight: Including structured markup in your web content will become an essential part of search engine optimization (SEO).


Speaking of SEO, many marketers wonder about the implications of semantic search. Here are some additional insights.

8. In 5 Questions about Semantic SEO on the Moz Blog, Matthew Brown looks at a series of topics, including new SEO terminology, entity-based results, the future of keywords, the use of structured data in search engine rankings and whether Schema.org markup could harm SERPs. He makes some excellent points about the growing importance of this markup in determining relevancy.

Key insight: “SEO heavy-lifting is behind many of the better search results you’ll find. Going forward, the same guideline will apply to structured data.”

9. In Most Common Questions On Semantic Search Answered, David Amerland does exactly what he promises. He explains the relationship between search and the web and identifies some of the implications for SEO. According to David Amerland, SEO is now integrated with both search and marketing, and there are no longer any shortcuts.

Key insight: Social signals are an important part of semantic search, so businesses must have a strong social presence to be trusted and show up in results.

10. In 5 Ways To Unlock The Benefits Of Semantic Search, Barbara Starr examines the importance of user intent, evidenced in one of Google’s recent patent applications. She discusses the importance of aligning SEO with social media and highlights the need to optimize for Google+.

Key insight: A lot of formerly separate areas now need to work together so cross pollination is the only sensible solution to reap the benefits of semantic search.


So are keywords dead now that semantic search is here? Check out these insights:

Semantic search keywords

11. Search Engine Journal’s Sujan Patel gives 5 Tips for Conducting Semantic Keyword Research. He suggests generating three levels of keywords and then writing articles touching on all levels that answer users’ questions first.

Key insight: Your copy will be more valuable if you use semantic keywords, but don’t let that affect the quality of the content your visitors will read.

12. Copyblogger’s Demian Farnworth asks Are You Still Playing Russian Roulette with Google? He reiterates the importance of building authority instead of focusing on keywords and includes a checklist to help you do it.

Key insight: “Who you are matters as much as what you create.”

The Future of Search

What does all this mean for how search will happen in the future? Jakob Nielsen predicted nine years ago that search engines would become answer engines. He’s not the only one to see it that way.

13. Barbara Starr agrees. In an article on Search Engine Land titled 10 Reasons Why Search Is In Vogue: Hot Trends In Semantic Search, she says “Evolving into answer engines is the natural, long-term goal of search engines.” That’s because it improves the user experience and make it easier to display information on smaller screens. Her article rounds up many of the developments discussed here.

Key insight: Understanding user intent is crucial to the new SEO and there will be more contextual cues added as time goes on.

14. And finally, don’t assume that Google holds a monopoly on semantic search. Bing is doing the same thing and there’s an illuminating post on FastCompany Labs about a graduate student who used Google’s code to create a search engine that ranks items based on vector distances. It’s called ThisPlusThat.me—check it out!

Key insight: This new search engine can help you find things about which you have limited information.

Your turn. Have you noticed the effects of semantic search on your search results? And if you’re a marketer, what are you doing to make sure your content is ready?

Photo credit: mikebaird/ blprnt_van/ FindYourSearch



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Sharon Hurley Hall

Sharon Hurley Hall is a professional writer and blogger. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, including stints as a journalist, academic writer, university lecturer and ghost writer. Connect with Sharon on her website.


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  1. sara says:
    December 22, 2014 at 3:18 am

    wow realy interesting
    Learned something new on SEO. Thanks for this useful post.

  2. Oyun Uzayi says:
    October 14, 2014 at 1:23 am

    Sharon Hurley Hall thanks for this nice article

  3. Name says:
    August 4, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    Learned something new on SEO. Thanks for this useful post.

  4. Spook says:
    January 4, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    SEO is the great way of marketing on digital platform (internet) and a lot of business and brands are using this source to promote their services worldwide. Google is playing a very positive role on both sides of business support but also for users to provide quick access to the desired resource.

  5. Tamar says:
    December 16, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    Great post, so much important information!
    Thank you

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