Search engines are developing faster than ever.
The changes we’ve seen over the last few years, in particular, have been astounding.
Search today is mobile, local and focused on satisfying intent rich moments.
Behind most of these changes are semantic search and Google’s ever-increasing focus on AI and machine learning.
Playing into the hands of small businesses, semantic search helps them figure highly in search results without having to compete with big players.
What is semantic search?
“Semantic” is a Greek word that means ‘meaning’.
It marks the transition from a ‘dumb’ search engine that relied on keywords to intelligent search results that deliver real answers aligned with what we intended to find.
“Semantic search seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding the searcher’s intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace, whether on the Web or within a closed system, to generate more relevant results.”
Simply put, semantic search seeks to understand language the way a human would. It then delivers outright answers and pages that are directly associated with the questions we ask.
The pre-semantic web delivered links on search because of keywords contained in the pages they represented.
The semantic web delivers answers and pages that are related to the questions we have typed in search.
How does semantic search affect me?
Sometimes when you’re doing a search it’s almost as if search engines can read your mind. Your suggested searches are scarily close to what you were thinking.
Search engines have got surprisingly good at assessing your intent (the reason you are searching for something in the first place).
How Google or Bing assess your intentions is complicated, personal and ever-changing.
- Your location
- Your search and personal history
- Your friends and contacts, their history
- The device you are searching on
- Trending subjects
- The queries themselves
- Even the contents of your Gmail
All play a part in search engines trying to find the perfect answer.
This understanding of intent is central to search engines’ machine learning and AI algorithms.
It is also central to semantic search.
As far back as March 2016, Google’s Andrey Lipattsev revealed that links, content and RankBrain (part of Google’s machine learning system) are the top three ranking signals in Google’s search algorithm.
Since that time Google’s AI signals have only increased in importance.
What does semantic search mean for small business owners?
Imagine entering your local coffee shop to order the “usual”. They know you and know your “usual” is a latte.
But if you go into a coffee shop for the first time and say “usual” it might take the server at least a dozen attempts until you’re handed a latte.
“So it’s like if we’re really good friends and you say a half sentence, then I know what you mean,” says David Amerland, international speaker, author and expert internet analyst.
“But if it’s the first time I’ve actually met you, you have to be very detailed in what you say. This is what semantic search actually does now: we don’t have to explain things in detail so much.”
This can be a huge advantage for local businesses.
Search engines’ abilities to understand people’s intentions, relative to their location, means that smaller businesses now have more of a chance of ranking (especially locally) when compared to bigger brands.
Semantic search is creating parity between small and big businesses. It’s levelling the digital playing field.
How can small businesses take advantage of this new semantically themed world?
A fast loading, mobile-focused website, good UX, schema markup, strong local signals etc… Technical reasons aside, the most important thing to do is to help people and lead search engines to understand what you do and why you do it.
You need to provide meaning to who you are and what you do. This meaning needs to be backed up by consistency, trust and reputation.
Taking advantage of semantic search involves a return to basic values. It comes back to people.
This level of personalisation and understanding is key in the internet today.
People relate to people.
- Show your passion about why you are in your business. The web is about people. Don’t be afraid to be human.
- Identify the unique selling points (USPs) of your business. What is it that sets you apart from your competitors? How do you define it exactly?
- Answer the question as to why someone arriving at your website should trust you, what do you have that’s special? Make your website a window into you and your passion.
- One of the most visited pages on any website is the About Us page. Tell your story.
- Think of your target audience. Use their language, address their questions, write for them.
- Put up photos of yourself and your team. Explain who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s not just about the product or service now. It’s also about whoever is providing it.
- Use video – video works. There’s no better way to transmit a message. Professionally filmed and edited video doesn’t need to be expensive. User-generated and live videos work especially well on social media.
- Are you being as helpful as possible? Are you offering something unique? Does your website give value? Are people happy they’ve landed on it? Do you leave readers feeling enriched?
- Optimise for voice search – get to the point (for intent-based searches) and keep your content conversational. Answer questions at the beginning.
Reputation on the semantic web – E.A.T
This is very topical at the moment. And will be increasingly important in the future.
Most of the recent Google updates seem to have all been focused on one thing – establishing trust.
Or E.A.T in Google-speak. Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trust.
How does a machine establish how trustworthy someone is?
That’s a good question and once again comes back to personalisation and transparency. It comes back to understanding.
Google’s emphasis on establishing trust will only get bigger.
From strings to things
Things have changed from individual keywords to concepts. This means that search engines are attempting to assess intent by relating queries to concepts.
We’ve moved to a web of entities and context over strings of keywords. So, as Google phrased it back in 2012, a web of “things, not strings.”
If you search for “a book about the man who is 400 years old” Google will know you mean Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time.
Search engines read the keywords on your pages in order to work out what those pages are about as an idea. So it’s vital today to focus your website’s content on concepts rather than keywords. Aim for long-form topic pillar pages that act as hubs within your site.
Relying on keyword research tools alone won’t bring your website to its full ranking potential. It needs content that totally covers all of your businesses ideas, subjects and associations.
We are now evolving from a “things” Web to “people’s” Web. Users and search engines need to understand who is behind websites.
- Are they authorities on their subject matter?
- Can they be trusted?
- Do they offer E-A-T?
The time when you could have a website without showing your face and expect to create trust between you and your site’s visitors are over.
The use of real people to front a company has begun to humanise corporations and brands. People like interacting with people as opposed to faceless corporations.
As the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee says:
“The Web does not just connect machines, it connects people.”