PERSONAS, SEMANTIC SEARCH, AND A BIT OF RELEVANCE
I've been reading a lot lately on what semantic search is really all about and how search engines utilize semantic techniques to organize and pull data. I'd be lying if I said this has been an easy shift in my thinking and approach to marketing and specifically SEO, but the fact is, it just hasn't been. From what I've read, I'm certainly not alone, and most of the others I trust in the SEO field aren't claiming to have all the answers or know exactly what hummingbird is/was all about either. Instead, we're all attempting to muddle through these shifts together.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that search (since hummingbird, knowledge graph introduction, etc.) isn't DRASTICALLY different. Now, there's certainly a case to be made for how different some of the results are (please note I'm not saying all of these are because of semantic updates...), but truth be told...search results still largely look the same, and are largely producing the same results. It feels like everything changed, but nothing did at the same time.
Clearly things are more distinct than this...but you get the idea of how it feels at times. Thanks to http://english-class-ideas.blogspot.com/2012/10/spot-differences.html for the fun picture :).
So, what does it really mean for businesses and marketers alike for Google to have made/be making the changes they are in the world of semantics (from my humble point of view of course...)?
Key Understanding 1: Semantic search is about answering, not letting you pick the answer.
If you understand what something means (semantics), and not simply that the characters making up the word, sentence, paragraph, etc. are the same, then you (or a machine) can do far more with input information...go far beyond a set of links to resources. You can understand when a question is being asked, and what the answer is that needs to be returned. You understand more intention behind a query, and how to provide helpful information related to the thought that is input, not just match characters from the thought against characters in documents in your database.
If we are in an age of question answering, not just answer suggesting, then we need to:
- Understand the questions our target audience is asking
- Understand how to best answer those questions
Key Understanding 2: We must focus on structuring and crafting our content to very carefully align with user intent.
I got hungup for a long time on the concept of answering questions. My brain kept picturing all the content on the web as simply Q&A-style information that Google would return. That's mostly because my understanding of "questions" was too limited. Queries, no matter what they are, are really just questions...duh...query..duh...yeah.
Even this key understanding point seems like a "duh", and it is, but for many (especially if you're coming from the SEO world) it's for reasons that aren't entirely logical anymore. Understanding what searchers were after used to be important because it helped SEO's pick the right words to put on a page so that Google would be able to match words on a page with words in the query (extremely simplified, I know). But now (in theory), you don't actually need those words to appear on the page. Instead, you simply need some words (and who knows what else might work in the future) that convey the same meaning. This is where the idea of synonyms comes in...but even that can be a bit limiting I think.
To loop this back to the user, lets say you have someone who's ressearchiing the history of Basketball. In the old system, you'd likely want that phrase in your page title (It would probably still be good now, but stick with me), and you'd want it on your site, and you'd want it in your anchor text so that Google can line up the queries and have relevance signals incorporated that are all string dependent. Now (again, in theory), you could write a page about Basketball, never include the word "history", but have other data points connected to the history of basketball such as James Naismith, 1981, YMCA, etc., and your result could be returned for a query like "history of basketball".
Or, if you're into conspiracies, Google could understand this data, jack it from your site, and just return a result
Just a crazy conspiracy..right
In order to optimize a site now, you must be thinking about where the customer is in their customer journey, and what information they are looking for more than ever. For each stage of their journey, think about the queries they are using mostly so that you can build the most helpful content for that person at that time. Understand intent, and you'll do well. Google wants to better understand intent because it can make them more money by allowing them to better target everyone with ads. Simple enough.
Key Understanding 3: If you don't need strings, you don't need anchor text, or possibly even links to determine relevance or authority.
The old system, again from my understanding/beliefs, utilized anchor text as a relevance signal and relied heavily upon it because Google was simply matching strings. Authority was passed through links as well using the PageRank algo that is in play today. However, if you understand the meanings behind things, you don't really need links to help you determine authority and match it with relevance. Instead, authority could be determined by who (think site, person, etc.) talks about you and where they do it. Or maybe by how many people talk about you (or your content, your brand, your site, etc.), and where they do it. Relevance is simply measured by understanding the subject matter of the discussion, the site, the surrounding content, and identifying whether it matches with your site, brand, etc.
This is why I believe anchor text stopped "working" a few years ago. We already knew this...but understanding why is as important as identifying the result and reacting to it.
Now, I think links are still important. I think they are one of the signs of authority, but they simply don't have to be used the same way. Relevance to a query, I believe, can be trusted much more from an on-site perspective when you (Google) understand the intent and meaning behind what the query explicitly means, and the intent and meaning behind the content on a possible result. Good, well-rounded, entity-rich content that fully satisifies a query is very powerful now. You need more behind it of course, but strong content on its own means more than it ever has. Links are just part of the fuel, much less the fuel and the shell of the car that help you understand what kind of car it is.
Key Understanding 4: Implicit aspects of a query help with intent.
I'm going to steal an image from the post I linked to above - was just perfect for this point.
Where we are, what we're doing, and other information relating to the context of a query can drastically help Google understand intent, and adjust results dramatically if it makes sense. Pay attention to queries that could indicate very different things depending on where, when, etc. the searcher is performing the query. This will help you build your content to meet intent, and thus better satisify the query, especially if you can marry analytics data in.
Example: If I search for "Nike N1 Elite" while I'm at home, that might mean something very different to Google than if I search while I'm standing in my local mall near three physical locations that sell that product. In fact, I'm willing to bet if you were a business owner, you'd pay a little extra to show up prominently with your ad or coupon for that search when they are within walking distance of your store. The context modifies the query and potentially indicates the person is further down the funnel then if they were just sitting at home. Now certainly this is an item you might purchase at home, but if you're standing outside the store and researching it, it could be seen as yet another level of assurance that you're ready to buy.
This post doesn't have any "new" revelations, but rather attempts to bring some more insight and application to what we know/believe is happening and why it's important. If you think I'm crazy, I'd love to hear about it and your take on where we're headed in the semantic world. If you're a business owner or busy marketer trying to understand these changes and how you need to prepare, I can't encourage you enough to spend the time to do some level of persona development and began to build marketing systems that are designed to help you meet and better understand your target audiences in individual channels.
Remember, relevance isn't words on a page, it's what your business is doing and how it's sharing that with the world around it. Your business should be an answer to a problem or question of some kind - answer it the best you can.