It is no secret that the search industry has been dominated by keyword research for some time. But as the user grows more digitally savvy and information adept, Google is working hard to keep up. The more Google evolves to adapt for user behavior, the more we as search marketers need to adapt for Google’s implementations.
Better yet – we should remove the middleman and start optimizing for user intent and post-digital behavior on our own. Google is transparently – and aggressively – trying to evolve from an “information search engine” to a “knowledge search engine”. They want to focus on giving the user actual answers to their query, instead of just a list of links.
In order to better account for user behavior and intention, Google has implemented the Knowledge Graph, the featured snippet, the mobile-first algorithm, and semantic search. These are the big four of Google’s most recent user-focused implementations. For this post, I’ll be focusing primarily on how to optimize your keyword research for semantic search and natural language.
Google is naturalizing its ability to recognize, decypher, and directly answer user queries. It’s time you do the same.
What You’ll Learn
- Current user search intent – Google’s replacement of keyword ranking with semantic search means that amassing the longest list of keywords no longer guarantees your SEO success. Instead, you need to identify how people are using those keywords when they type something into the search bar. Users don’t search in terms of generic keywords and industry jargon.
- Adapting to semantic search – they search in terms of questions for which they want answers. And, as with everything else online, the more direct you are in solving their problem, the more success you’ll have. With natural language detection coming down the pipeline, and voice search becoming more and more popular among mobile users, semantic search is the pivot point of SEM research. Users are now more naturally able to interact with search engines. Which means you need to ditch the old unnatural keywords and get to conversing with your digital user base.
- Optimizing for semantic search – start optimizing your titles, content, keyword research, and anchor text around more semantic variations of your keyword phrases. Naturalizing and streamlining your content development will improve your ranking for the rest of Google’s newest implementations as well.
Google’s New Priorities
As I mentioned earlier, Google is in the processing of transitioning from an “information search engine” to a “knowledge search engine”. Instead of focusing on “what I said”, they are prioritizing providing me with “what I want”. This is why direct answer features like the featured snippet are so important. And why adapting for their new implementations is the only way to survive.
Out With The Old
Here’s a big change that most search marketers have to be losing sleep over. Keyword oriented anchor text is now something you have to worry about more than ever. While Google penalties aren’t anything new to the search marketing world, the Penguin and Hummingbird updates have really thrown industry experts for a loop. This is because exact-match anchor text is now not only risky, but it’s also ineffective.
Exact-match anchor text used to be the quickest way to improve your rankings. Jamming your sub folders and links with exact-match anchor text could shoot your page up in the SERPs by tricking the spiders with keyword heavy content. Nowadays, overloading – or what in the industry we call “over-optimizing” – your pages with anchor text can get you hit with a Google penalty. Which will freeze traffic to your site and hurt your rankings.
On top of that, because of semantic search, exact-match anchor text doesn’t even improve your rankings as much as it used to. So the risk of over-optimization isn’t even worth it anymore. Instead, content marketers looking to optimize for semantic and mobile search are varying their anchor text to target more natural search queries. If your link profile contains actual search queries – or what Google would consider a direct answer – you have a higher chance of improving your ranking.
As well as avoiding tedious penalties.
In With The New
Make sure that you are still organizing your subfolders around your would-be keywords. But instead of using single keywords or primary keywords, build your site architecture around semantic phrasings and long tail modifications. For example, if you are a PPC company advertising your AdWords management skills, having a sub page within your domain with the anchor text “is AdWords worth it?” may be worth looking into.
You want to make your site easily navigated by natural means. That means you are going to be relying on user-centric landing page design. It also means that you are going to need a lot of new data about your users.
The Long(er) Tail
Any search marketer worth his salt knows that to really succeed in digital marketing you need to target the long tail version of your primary keywords. Focusing too much on the generic, primary keywords will leave you in an oversaturated market constantly struggling for your share of the traffic. Instead, working towards the long-tail modifications of those keywords gives you access to more niche markets.
These niche markets are also more conversion-prone. Users who type in more specific searches are often looking to purchase. As opposed to the wandering, variable intentional traffic that comes with keywords as vague as “search marketing”. With semantic search, you now need to target even longer tailed keyword modifications. Or, to be more accurate, you need to optimize your long tail research.
Make sure you are using the optimal variations of your keywords. For this, sites like Moz’s Keyword Explorer can be very helpful. You can type in different variations of the same keyword phrase into the Moz keyword bar to see the search volume, difficulty level, and opportunity of that given entry. Use this to fine tune your long tails.
Also, if you want to get into Google’s head, try using the Wildcard to see what Google is showing users when they type something into the search bar.
Lastly, if you really want to make the most out of your keyword, you’ll identify what questions are actually being asked when those terms are used. AnswerThePublic is a really great tool for this. Typing in any search term will give you a list of the interrogative forms of that search query organized by volume. If you want to know what questions the users are asking in regards to your keywords, there’s no better way than this.
These are the answers that you need to be answering as directly as possible in your content. If you can provide a strong enough and simple enough answer or definition, you may land yourself a featured snippet link. With the majority of search being performed via mobile devices, quick question-answer based searches performed via voice search are becoming more prevalent. These search queries are looking for specific definitions or locations most of the time. So, the featured snippet is the go to top ranking link. Land that and you are golden.
The featured snippet is also a great way to become a thought leader. In terms of establishing authority, associating your brand name with a singular Google-approved definition is a strong move.
So, I’ve talked about some of the different features that Google has implemented to improve their search ranking algorithms. They want to approach search in a more naturally semantic way. So let’s take a look at how semantic search works, exactly.
As you can see in the example above, semantic search works by breaking down your search query into various different data points. Using the Knowledge Graph, Google can then identify those different data points. It can then reference different information sources with those data points to cross-match the results to give you the actual answer.
So, in this case, semantic search first identifies the concept of “the world series”. Then, it will search who the Angels are and what information they have that correlates with the term “world series”. Doing so will give it the year 2002. Then, it goes through a similar process for “U.S. President” and crosses over the data with the year 2002. Which will give you the answer “George W. Bush”.
The Knowledge Graph and semantic search are a truly remarkable pair because they represent Google taking the innumerable number of indexed content pages at its disposal and making connections between them on its own! Google is trying to provide the user answers without even relying on our links. They are cutting us out of the picture – what are we going to do?
Optimizing For Semantic Results
So how can we guarantee that Google doesn’t just go and steal all the traffic away from our sites and keep it for its own featured snippet and Knowledge Graph panels? Well…you can’t really. What you can do, however, is optimizing your content for semantic search so that if users are still curious for more information, your links are available on the first page of the SERP.
There are three major tactics to check off your list when you are optimizing for mobile and semantic search algorithms:
- Vary your anchor text and use semantic variations of your long tail keywords.
- Make sure you are answering user queries as directly and simply as possible.
We’ve discussed the first two already, but the third is a biggy.
- Making sure that your individual content pages are well connected for the KG.
The Knowledge Graph relies on connections between different data points to rank answers. So making sure that your pieces are well connected through a content and keyword network is important. This is more than just having a strong internal linking strategy. Although that is obviously a must, assuring that you have a content and keyword network through your sites is even more vital in “the new search order”.
This means that if you have a piece on Different Attribution Models, that you should also have a piece focused on View Through Conversions and how they affect your ad campaigns. You should probably have a piece that connects your PPC blog posts to your SEO content. The Knowledge Graph means that we need to streamline our content connections with actual subject matter, not just links and anchor text.
Incoming: Voice Search
Now, just for a moment, imagine you are looking for a local coffee shop in your area. If you were to type that into the search bar, it might look something like this: “Local coffee shops Orange County”. But what would that search sound like?
Let’s face it. These days you are more likely to talk to Siri like an unproductive personal assistant with selective hearing than a streamlined search function. If we all treated Siri more like a vocal search bar, she might be able to do her job correctly. But, then it would lose the magic of voice search.
This is just one more way in which Google is changing the game we search marketers play for a living. Instead of unnatural searches like “local coffee shops Orange County”, voice search allows queries like “where is the closest coffee shop near me?” to be thrown into the mix.
This means localized SEO and paid advertisements are going to be a huge factor of mobile search as voice search becomes more advanced. The local SERP is becoming the battlefield of SEO. Make sure you are eating up as much of the market share as you can.
It finally happened. Mobile search has overtaken ordinary search. Which means that if you are ignoring your mobile campaigns you are ignoring more than half of your market interactions. And with a conversion rate of 80% via social media search interactions, that’s a bad majority to pass on.
This makes it all the more odd that there aren’t explicit mobile marketing strategies being developed by the industry experts. You need to ensure that your pages are mobile friendly and all of your content can be seen on an iPhone or Android’s screen. Research has shown that campaigns have seen a 7% drop in conversions just from a single second delay on mobile load time!
Mobile users today are spoiled by AMP features and mobile-purposed social media content. Make sure your content is not only easily found, but easily read, and easily shared.
Sharing is caring right? Well, actually, the statistics show that over 60% of shares are performed without having actually read the piece at all. So who knows about how much “care” a share actually shows. If you have been in the SEM game for long enough, you know the crucial difference in performance between a text ad and a display ad. What Facebook knows more than any other social platform, is that the display ad is the master of share optimization.
Make your creatives engaging and streamlined with the message of the ad. Once you have their attention a well formatted display image and title is enough to get the share button. If your title is strong enough. “Magnetizing” your title with provocative meta descriptions and a strong but concise title that grabs the reader’s attention is a great way to optimize your titles. If you can link the title to a social issue, even better.
Shares are often performed due to scrolling disruptions. When you are able to successfully disrupt the user from scanning through the SERP or timeline just enough to read your ad, chances are they might feel their friends would also be disrupted. Make sure your share button is clear and visible to get your users sharing. Or, in an ideal dream world, actually reading your content.
Google’s constantly adapting and evolving nature makes it necessary to modernize and naturalize your optimization tactics. Optimizing with your user intent and user experience in mind, no matter the tactic, should keep you on track. If you can account for the syntax of natural language searches performed via digital assistants, and make your content share-friendly, you’ve already gotten halfway there.
Re-orienting your long tail keyword research to account for more semantic phrasings is another must. Though you still need to streamline these keywords through a flattened site architecture. If anything, flattening your site architecture further and ensuring that you have a strong internal linking strategy as well as a content-keyword network of subject matter will only improve your performance in the Knowledge Graph’s eyes.
The best content today is well connected, it’s well targeted, it’s mobile friendly, and it answers the users questions as directly as possible. Keep your content easy to find, easy to read, and easy to share, and you should be optimized for any Google update that comes your way.