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Semantics ~ The meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text
I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what I could best offer the world of copywriting from the “technical” SEO perspective. At the end of the day? It all comes down to words and the associations they convey. So let’s deal with the singularly most important concept that comes to mind: semantics.
Going down this road is important because far too often you will run into clients that express their need to have a given group of keywords to be hammered on ad nauseam. This not only leads to some poorly constructed content, but often doesn’t leverage how search engines actually look at it.
You need some ammunition to combat this short-sighted approach, so that’s what we’re going to look at today!
No, We’re Not Talking Code
First things first, when we talk about “semantics” in this context, it’s not about the code that also bears the same name. (You know, the mark-up that is part of the world of web development and surfacing content.)
We are, in fact, talking about information retrieval and how search engines perform semantic analysis on content as they crawl and index it.
There are myriad flavours, including some you may or may not have heard of such as:
- Latent Semantic Analysis
- Probabilistic Latent Semantic Analysis
- Hidden Topic Markov Model
- Latent Dirichlet Allocation
- Phrase Based Information Retrieval
Yes, a whole bunch of fancy names to be certain. Feel free to research those, but we’ll avoid the uber-geeky definitions for now. They’re all just variants of natural language processing that search engines may or may not be using. It’s not related to the code-based approaches known as the “semantic web”. This is about words.
Keywords are Short Sighted
Now that we’re past that, let’s get back to the problem we looked at off the top: clients that are addicted to keywords. Sadly, the SEO world has yet to fully move past this. In the modern search world we want to target “phrases” more so than singular keywords. One- and two-word searches are rare in comparison with more complex search tasks performed by the end user. This is enough for us to consider using (“long-tail”) keyphrases over keywords.
The next issue that arises is that clients will want to stuff multiple instances of said keywords in the copy and, in an attempt to feed the perceived semantic engine, synonyms. Again, this is short-sighted and doesn’t really embrace the concepts related to today’s semantic search capabilities.
You will need to educate clients to break that habit.
Identifying the Concepts
The good news is that most writers will naturally create content that satisfies the food a search engine wants to dine upon. It is often the client of the copywriter that attempts to drag them into the wrong direction.
Let’s look at this in simplistic terms with my favorite example from over the years…
Consider the search query [jaguar]:
- A big cat
- A car
- A football team
- An operating system
While crafting the content on our page we want to flesh out the concept being expressed with related words, phrases and concepts to build upon the topicality.
Singular terms and/or phrases might include:
But these are mere synonyms, so we’d expand on that with other relations which might include:
- Spark plug
- High Performance
Any guesses which [jaguar] this page is about? Once more, these are singular terms — we’d also build out the core concepts with various phrases, as well as related entities.
In a very simplistic understanding, phrase-based approaches look at top ranking/performing pages for variants of related terms and phrases for scoring purposes. I would recommend reading this post on phrase-based IR (information retrieval) to get a better grip on that stuff.
This ain’t yer daddy’s keyword density myopic approach.
Another area worth mention in combination with these concepts is “query classification” (more here). This looks at user intent (when searching), and it’s something we should be cognizant of when constructing concepts and terms to be included in any piece of content.
They generally break down into:
- Informational (seeking information)
- Transactional (performing an action)
- Navigational (finding a known entity)
While a given piece of content may offer multiple classification states, it is always important to understand the target, from an SEO perspective, when constructing the “semantic baskets” to be used for said piece of content. (Refer to the link above to learn more about that.)
Putting it All Together
Ok… so we want to consider phrases and terms that buff out the core targets of a given piece of content. Consider optimal occurrences of related phrases when crafting your semantic baskets for a given piece of content. What words, phrases, entities and concepts would a search engine expect to see on that page? (Don’t ever again think in terms of keyword density!)
Some things to consider, as a content manager/editor and/or as an SEO copywriter:
- While doing the keyword research, use various tools to also create a list of “related phrases”
- Layout content program and structural hierarchy
- Map out terms to pages
- Give your writers not only core/secondary target terms, but related phrases as well
- Review and tweak pages prior to launch
- Vary link texts when possible and remember themes/concepts as well as keyword phrases
- Understand the relations of concepts
I like to think in terms of semantic baskets when researching and preparing any important piece of content that will be used for targeting. As stated off the top, in most cases a good copywriter will do most of this naturally.
One Final Thought…
Search engines love words. It’s what users type into it. Words are used to convey concepts and are constructed into phrases, entities and intent. This is what you want to look at when building out your pages. But we’re moving into a world where it goes beyond…. into voice search.
Back in 2013 Google announced what they called “Hummingbird”. And one of the elements within that was called “conversational search” which will treat a search task as an ongoing journey through a given search task. This consideration also drags us away from the truly limited concepts around keyword density and simple synonyms. (For more on that, have a read here.)
The point being, copywriters need to stay on top of the ever-evolving world of search. If you’re clients haven’t? You need to educate them. They’ll thank you for it.
Oh and hey, if you’re feeling real adventurous, you can watch this session on it:
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. ” – Mark Twain