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Semantic Search and What It Means for SEO

A spectre is haunting SEO – the spectre of semantic search. But what is this technology and what are its implications for the field?

• It’s All in the Meaning

Simply put, semantic search aims to enhance the accuracy of search through a better understanding of the contextual meaning of a query and the intent of the searcher.

OK, perhaps that wasn’t simple enough.

Let’s break it down. Semantics is the study of meaning, applied in this case, to the meaning of a word, phrase, query or sentence.

• Semantics and Search

Traditionally, if you put a phrase or query to a search engine, it would take away the various sections, run them through an occult algorithm and return associated results.

However, a truly semantic search engine would work more like a human brain – recognising natural language, noticing contextual relationships between the elements of the query and proffering results from a wealth of relevant and related sources.

Anphicle offers an excellent example on this in the form of Obama’s Dog. But wait, don’t the likes of Google et al already do this? Well yes, that’s because…

• It’s Already Here

As search engines and sites refine themselves to enhance their operation, semantic elements have been creeping into the field for years now.

Former Googlewhack Adventurer Dave Gorman

Image was used by permission under the Creative Commons Licence courtesy of officerdibble on Flickr

These days, it’s rare for any search query to go entirely unanswered and Googlewhacks are largely a thing of the past (sorry Dave).

We now take features like auto-complete and the offer of related results for granted. These have also become a desirable feature for ecommerce sites seeking to avoid dead-end searches.

Google has been a forerunner in refining search, with updates like Panda and Venice emphasising relevant content and localised results, respectively. It’s also been a pioneer in tying social features to search in an effort to enhance relevancy.

• Doing the Knowledge

However, Google’s premier offering in this area has been the introduction of the Knowledge Graph. This feature is the backbone of Google’s semantic offering and aims to provide a plethora of contextually relevant information to address as many of the potential aspects of a query as possible.

It does this by polling information from a wide variety of sources, including an array of databases and data from the search requests of others.

“We’ve always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want. And we can now sometimes help answer your next question before you’ve asked it,” said Amit Singhal, Senior Vice President of Engineering at the search giant.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft has also been pushing semantic search. Earlier in the year, Bing paired up with Encyclopedia Britannica to offer semantic suggestions alongside its organic results.

• SEO is Dead, Long Live SEO

So how do these changes impact SEO? Writing for Mashable, Erin Everhart, director of web and social media marketing at 325 Media Group, summed up one of the key difficulties the field faces. She explained that despite major changes to best practice over the years, SEO has remained consistently driven by keywords.

When it comes to semantic search however, optimisers face a whole new ball game.  

“Keywords are easy to manipulate; intent, not so much. In order to rank well in semantic search, you don’t just have to put your keywords in the right places, you have to figure out the actual meaning behind those keywords and create content around that,” Ms Everhart said.

While the jury is still out on just exactly what the fallout will be, it’s clear that marketers will need to strive for relevancy. Building authoritative and relevant content around a topic is likely to become a key concern, while scraping sites and other black hat techniques could go the way of the dodo.

• The Future

Only time will reveal the shape of things to come, but it seems semantic search is here to stay. And offerings like Apple’s Siri and Google’s advanced voice search application may hint at the Star Trek-type relationship we’ll have with our computers in years to come.

We’re also moving to a smarter, more connected world. Figures show rampant growth in tablets and smartphones, as well as a move away from the traditional desktop-PC setup.

More and more of our personal information is being analysed, which could have profound implications for when, where and how marketing efforts are deployed.

Similarly, as it becomes cheaper to put a chip in objects, the so-called ‘internet of things‘ is only likely to add to the amount of accessible data we spew out.

• Big Brother is Watching You

These trends raise some valid concerns over privacy and misuse. Big Data has the potential to provide companies with previously-unseen correlations, whose applications can range from the epically cool to the scarily invasive.

By feeding all this data to the internet (and if you believe in intelligence as an emergent property in systems of sufficient complexity) there’s the slight danger we might inadvertently kick off the singularity. But I, for one, will welcome our new machine overlords.


While semantic search is steadily making its way into the mainstream, a number of questions remain around how it will impact search and our interactions with the web in general.

Whatever the future holds, semantics is an exciting field that is bound to have dramatic applications, both within search and beyond.


Images used by permission under the Creative Commons Licence courtesy of Custard Media.



  • very informative ,but i wonder will any model of search engine ever be as multi-polyfactorial as the human thought processes. with ever changing vocabulary culural variations etcetera, will it ever keep up?

    • Hi Patrick, thanks for the comment, great point.

      I’m of the school of thought that suggests language evolves over time through usage, and vocabulary and cultural variations certainly play a role in this process.

      However, as search engines tend to get better with usage (as demonstrated by features that utilise information from prior searches like auto-complete), I don’t think they’ll struggle to keep up.

      In fact, as technology gets a better handle on natural language (check out this real-time translator from Microsoft for example), we could even see semantic search cross the language barrier, which is certainly an exciting prospect.

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