What is semantic search and why is it important?

By James Swede

Most businesses have now realised that visibility in search engines and especially Google is important for their business.

Many retailers recognised the potential of the internet early, especially the likes of Amazon. The more savvy among the traditional bricks and mortar retailers have also found that a strong online presence can be the difference between success and failure. One example is John Lewis which has very recently achieved stellar Christmas trading figures and this was partially attributable to a successful online presence.

For service providers, the internet is now almost as important. At my firm, Darlingtons, we have invested and resourced our online presence for nearly 5 years now and are reaping the benefits, with over 20% conservatively of our instructions emanating from Google traffic.

So, being highly visible in Google for multiple search terms is the holy grail of online marketing and there is big competition to be on the all important page 1 for as many search terms as possible.

The Google algo

Google does not and never has disclosed how it’s machine algorithm determines which online pages will be returned for any given search term. In fact, it would be virtually impossible to get close to how it really operates because:

    • Different weighting factors seem to apply to different sectors and types of business or information;

    • Google has a huge team of extremely technical people working on the algorithm and it is constantly changing. Last year saw more publicized Google updates than any year before that and many of the algorithm tweaks take place without anyone outside Google knowing.

Having said this, a consensus tends to exist with seasoned online marketers as to the main components of the algorithm and historically, the 2 most important factors for ranking well have been:

    • Quality and depth of content on a site

    • Number, relevance and quality of other sites linking to a site

There are other technical factors to the algorithm and social media signals have become far more significant in the last year. Fundamentally, links have been a huge factor to enable Google’s machine algorithm to differentiate between trusted sites or otherwise.

The limitations on the above system are predominantly that the algorithm has not been able to understand the context of searches. In other words, if someone searches for “cheap holidays in Spain” Google may be able to quite easily understand what is a fairly narrow and defined search. However, with more technical, information or advice based queries such as perhaps “business law”, there are so many potential nuances in what the searcher may be looking for, the results may not be what the searcher wants. In fact, when using that search term, Google currently returns mostly academic results.

Whilst speculating, I have to say I doubt that many searchers using this term are looking for University courses or resources.

In a world where most of us now demand and expect to find exactly what we want within a few minutes at most (most visitors to a website will spend less than 3 minutes on a page) these sorts of results would be bad news for Google going forward. Additionally and importantly, the system of links enables manipulation.

What’s semantic search?

In essence, semantic search is contextual search, the quest to understand that certain phrases and words are likely to be inherently connected to other words, concepts or topics.

Clearly, this is technical stuff and it has taken Google a number of years, with the brightest computer engineers and developers, to get close to having a workable semantic capability.

The potential advantage of semantic search is that it may well produce more rounded and personalised results and will enable Google to reduce significantly the system of using links.

Whilst other search providers such as Bing may well also start adopting more semantic search usage in their search results, Google has a distinct advantage in that it has a far larger data set to create a semantic system to understand the relationship between words, meanings and intentions based on connectives and searcher activity based on which results are clicked and what happens after that.

There is a lot of speculation that semantic search will start to become a big factor in success with Google very soon, as explained in this excellent recent post on the topic. As yet, Google has not confirmed to what extent it is already applying semantic capability but it certainly appears already to be a factor. This is evident simply by starting to type in a search term in Google. All will be familiar with the way Google suggests alternatives or connected narrow phrases when searching and that for many search terms, there are related terms in the footer of the results page. This is a form of basic semantics indicating the likely future of search.

How to prepare now?

In preparing content for our website, we have recently started considering, along with other factors, the semantic nature of content we produce. In coming up with a topic or idea for an article on our website, we search around that topic on Google, look at the suggestions it comes up with for alternative or connected concepts or content, consider which other pages may already be ranking for that topic or term and what are the commonalities or connectives between the content which Google is ranking in the first 10-20 search results. This is time consuming but may well produce dividends in the future. It is also a useful exercise for putting yourself in the mindset of a searcher – what may they be looking for? Is the topic very narrow or might the searcher be looking for some general guidance?

In summary, semantic search is fascinating and likely very important thing to be aware of going forwards. It emphasizes the need to create great content and to think always of the context in which that content may appear in Google search results. If a searcher gets to a page and doesn’t get the information or product they want, they will go away, very quickly, and disappointed.

About the author

James Swede is Senior Partner at Darlingtons Solicitors, a dynamic law firm based in London.



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