Beyond Keywords: Understanding Semantic Analysis

Semantics ~ The meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text

semantics-hummingbirdI 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
  • …etc…






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:

  • Automobiles
  • Cars
  • Autos
  • Vehicle
  • Auto
  • Car

But these are mere synonyms, so we’d expand on that with other relations which might include:

  • Engine
  • Garage
  • Tires
  • Hood
  • Spark plug
  • Keys
  • 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.

Query Classifications

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

Connect with David on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+


The Semantic Web & Knowledge Graph with Bill Slawski

knowledge-graph-by-the-seaAs the go-to expert for all things Google patents for some ten years now, Bill Slawski of SEO by the Sea and Go Fish Digital has made an art and science of predicting and explaining the deep water currents driving search engine results.

Lately, Bill has focused on the changes to search results brought on by Google’s “Knowledge Graph” and the Semantic Web.

You’ve likely come across these terms in your work as an SEO copywriter, but what do they mean, exactly? And why should you care?

In this interview, Bill offers a straightforward explanation of these latest forces impacting search results, and why you should have a handle on them.

What should an SEO copywriter understand about the Semantic Web (vs. Traditional SEO/Search)?

Google appears to have gone into a different mode when answering search queries, which illustrates one of the big differences between the worlds of SEO and the Semantic Web.

Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) have traditionally been a list of links to resources found on the Web that respond to a specific query typed into its search box. Google finds these resources by crawling Web pages, indexing their contents, and then returning links to the user.

In doing so, Google creates snippets representing those pages, and provides these snippets as well as their corresponding URLs and page titles, in its SERPs.

A Semantic Web approach has Google crawling web pages on a search for entities (specific people, places and things), collecting information about those entities, and adding that data to a fact repository — now known as Google’s “Knowledge Graph.”

So how does the Knowledge Graph work in the Search Landscape?

The Knowledge Graph, or “knowledge panels,” is part of the search results interface that Google uses to share information about entities – again, these entities may be specific people, places and/or things.

As for “things” — it’s important to note that they may include ideas, brands, and products.

For example, when someone performs a search that includes an entity (as many searches do), a knowledge panel about that entity appears at the top of the search engine results page. This panel provides more information about that specific entity, and often includes other related topics that people usually search for when entering their initial query.

So, search results are no longer just lists of snippets pointing to pages that are ordered by information retrieval scores and PageRank. With its knowledge panels and the Semantic Web, Google has added a number of other ways to decide what it might show on its SERPs.

Given the significant changes in search results brought on by the Semantic Web and Google’s Knowledge Graph, what would you advise an SEO copywriter do? Should s/he cite entities for better SERP rankings?

If entities appear in your content — as they often do — see if you can make the mentions of them richer by fleshing them out. Remember that a named entity includes ideas, brands, and products.

Including more information about the entities within your content can help make it more interesting, more likely to be noted by others, and shared socially.

This can mean including information about related entities, as I previously referred to. Adding this relevant, related content could make your own rank well for a wider range of search queries.

What resources would you recommend for a deeper dive into the brave new world of the Semantic Web and Knowledge Graph?

I’ve been fortunate to have teamed up with Barbara Starr, who is a founder and co-organizer of the San Diego Semantic Web Meetup Group (she added me as a co-organizer.) Barbara has strong roots in the Semantic Web Technology community, and also likes to research Google’s patents.

On June 23rd, Barbara and I collaborated on a presentation for the San Diego Semantic Web group, titled Ranking in Google Since The Advent of The Knowledge Graph

I also highly recommend this recent (May 2015) Search Engine Land article from Barbara on changes to how Google handles search results via the Knowledge Graph: Structured Data and the SERPS: What Google’s Patents Tell us about Ranking in Universal Search.

In this post, Barbara describes how a Google patent titled Ranking search results based on entity metrics ( might feature different knowledge panel content based upon metrics involving notability, relatedness (as in related to other entities mentioned), contribution, fame and prize.

So if you are creating content for pages and mentioning entities within that content, understanding more about these metrics can give you a sense of what might appear for entity-based content in search results, and perhaps give you some ideas of what to write about.

Going forward, what do you see happening with the Semantic web? Will it eclipse “traditional SEO”?

Many commercial businesses have been relying upon SEO on the Web to bring them traffic to their pages, and through their doors.  But searchers often want answers as quickly as they can get them, and Semantic Web approaches are geared towards sharing data as quickly as possible.

The search engines see searchers as their primary customers, but also rely upon business owners to advertise on their pages. This may mean that traditional SEO may have some life left in it.

Connect with Bill on Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn

Photo thanks: ©William Murphy |




Should You Change Your Copy? These 3 Tools Will Help You Decide

There are some times when we’re a little too in love with our own copy.

As a consultant, I’ve had to gently tell clients why their baby (their site copy) is ugly. Some nod and tell me that they already know. Others are amazed I’d feel that way. Their website could have the most boring B2B content in the world and I’d still hear, “It can’t be that bad. Can’t you just fix it up?”

No. No I can’t.

Whether you work in-house or freelance, you’ve probably faced the same situation. The challenge is, sometimes clients don’t listen to your recommendations. They need proof that their content may not be the best.

These three tools will help provide the proof you need.

Read more

Talking International SEO with Gabriella Sannino

For international SEO, think globally but write locally!

If you’re at all familiar with international SEO, then you’re most likely familiar with Gabriella Sannino.

Gabriella is the owner of Level 343, an international marketing and SEO agency based in San Francisco. She has worked in marketing and multi media for over 20 years, starting out as a Web developer in 1994 when she founded Level 343.

In the ensuing years Gabriella donned many hats, including research and development specialist, brand strategist, and creative director before deciding to specialize in international marketing and SEO in 2005.

We were fortunate to grab some time with Gabriella to ask her about her experience with international SEO, and to share her insights into this somewhat rarified field.

Read more

Creating Blockbuster Content: 7 Essential Tips for SEOs

you-are-what-you-createMore content no longer means more success in SEO. It just means too much content.

When it comes to content creation, we’re seeing a shift in quantity to real quality. The launch of Google’s original Panda algorithm, which targeted thin content, started this big focus shift, which continues to this day.

At SMX Advanced, Brent Csutoras, Social Media Strategist & Owner at Kairay Media, shared seven essential tips on how to create blockbuster content today. Here’s a recap.

1. Goals Define Your Definition of Quality

Quality is in the eye of the beholder (the reader or customer). That means quality varies from person to person.

Ultimately, quality is defined by your goals. The content you create needs to be beneficial to you as a company.

What sells? What’s profitable? The content you create should have a business benefit.

If you sell 50 products, but only 10 are real movers and shakers, start there. Explore related topics to those products and prioritize creating content around those items. Don’t start with the whole company or every product.

Don’t be too commercial or create content that is totally unrelated to your business. Find balance.

2. Winning Types of Content

The best sites are those that are resourceful, helpful and interesting. People link to and share this type of content. You also want to be viewed as forward thinking.

Some examples of content that, when executed well, are popular include:

  • How-to guides
  • Long-form content
  • Lists (Greatest/Best/Top 10/15/20, etc.)
  • Infographics
  • Visual guides (especially on Pinterest).

Content should exist for a reason, such as to solve a problem or answer a question. Visit a support forum and see what questions people are asking. Wherever there are lapses or content gaps, there is a content opportunity!

When your content is really resourceful, it will be shared and referenced. And it can help brand you as an authority on a topic.

3. More Minds = More Great Ideas

You’ve done your keyword research using your tools of choice. You’ve explored popular hashtags on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. And you’ve looked at sites like Reddit to see what is being written about in your niche.

Don’t stop there.

Once a week, gather everyone on your team together in front of a whiteboard and start coming up with ideas. Most people get ideas from other people’s ideas.

By pulling in all the minds you can, you’ll get a lot better variety of ideas. Come up with 100 ideas in one session.

Once you’re done, have everyone involved in the process score the ideas from 1-10. Put it all together in Excel and you’ll get a good sense of what ideas have the most potential to be popular and help you successfully hit all your goals.

4. Look at Your Competitors’ Content

What is getting the most social shares and comments on your competitor’s site? What are they showcasing?

Certain content succeeds, some doesn’t. Look at what content works, and compare it to what content doesn’t work. See what is getting the most traction for your competitor and figure out what similar types of content might also work for you.

5. Push Your Content Further

Your content can always be better. Your goal is to be at least a little better than the competition.

Ask yourself these questions when you’re writing:

  • Is there more to the story?
  • Has it happened before?
  • Does it relate to current events?
  • Are there unanswered questions?
  • How are you adding perspective?

Also, make sure to do a quick search and social lookup to make sure your article is complete, add quotes and references, and link out to related information that adds value.

People are going to share the best source, the one with all the information. Make sure your content isn’t just one of 50 stories about a topic.

6. Formatting Your Content

  • Provide quotable, shareable, linkable text excerpts. Providing people with excerpts will help them share on Facebook, Twitter and other social sites, which will then drive more people to your site.
  • Break paragraphs for easy skimming. Try to limit yourself to one idea per paragraph. The majority of folks have lost interest in deep-form reading, so make it easy for people to skim.
  • Use bulleted lists. These help break up content, are easier to read and let you highlight key words and phrases.
  • Images. Use pictures to summarize concepts, break up content and provide something socially shareable.
  • Optimize for mobile. Make sure people can read and share your content on mobile devices, and make sure your content loads fast with a tool like Google PageSpeed Insights.
  • Avoid commercial elements (e.g., shopping cart buttons) or pop-ups (e.g., ads, signups). These end the user experience. Users are turned off, close your page and leave the site (and may never return). Also try to avoid ads within content.
  • Get rid of old junk: Ditch those calendars, tag clouds, counters, and any old social buttons.

7. Don’t Forget the Power of Social

If you see a bunch of people waiting outside a restaurant to get in, you presume it’s good. The online equivalent of this is social engagement.

If you see that a piece of content has many likes, retweets or comments, this sets up a subconscious expectation in a reader’s mind that the content they’re about to experience is of a certain level of quality. Don’t forget to promote your content socially and engage when people comment (or start the discussion in a positive way).

Creating blockbuster content is only half the battle. You must plan for social promotion.

You can check out Csutoras’ presentation here.

About the Author
Danny Goodwin is the Executive Editor of Search Engine Journal. You can find him on Twitter.

Creative Commons licensed photo thanks to wiredforlego.